A few months ago a copy of The Spectacle of Skill by the late Robert Hughes showed up on my doorstep. It was delivered at the behest of Bookslut, the literary site for which I’d be reviewing it. A month or so later, after finishing the nearly-700-page tome and sending off my review, it occurred to me that I had a bit more to say about it. So I pitched a review to the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row journal. Bookslut doesn’t pay contributors, so I would not be getting paid twice, but even if they did, I had no intention of cannibalizing or copying my own work. Keeping the file of the first review open to make sure not to repeat myself, I wrote a new piece for the Tribune. Both have now been published and I have yet to hear a question from anyone about what I did. Does this mean no one reads both these publications? Or maybe, as I believe, there is no conflict in writing two reviews of one book. You be the judge. Read the original Bookslut piece here. Then continue to the Trib one, which I’ve helpfully included below to save you scaling their paywall:
Robert Hughes (1938-2012) was perhaps the best-known art critic of the second half of the 20th century. He was also the last in a lineage of art historians, beginning with Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) and continuing to Sir Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), who introduced the art and culture of the Old World to the New.
Through some dozen books, two multi-part documentaries, as well as various other televised programs, Hughes’ booming basso championed what he thought to be the pinnacles of human accomplishment, narrated his travels, and sometimes obliterated that which he judged to be worthless. Unlike the vast majority of art writers, Hughes refused to use jargon or obtuse or unintelligible language to describe his subject matter or advance his ideas; that — the clarity of his prose — may be his greatest contribution, rather than any critical judgment he made over his long career.
“The Spectacle of Skill” is a collection of short articles originally published in Time magazine, where he was art critic for some 30 years, excerpts from his books, as well as a 100-plus-page fragment of an unpublished memoir he was working on at the time of his passing. At more than 600 pages the book is a feast rather than an hors-d’oeuvre platter of the man’s writing. Hughes was born in Australia and began his art writing career there in the ’60s. We get a partial portrait of his homeland in an excerpt from “The Fatal Shore” (1986). Later there are travelogues through the Barcelona, Rome, and Long Island of the past and the present. All the places that occupied Hughes throughout his life are described from both a historical and a personal perspective.
He tells how an encounter with a print by Francisco Goya changed what he thought art could be. Growing up far from any of the world’s art centers Hughes had to seek them out. As principal art writer for Time he was given carte blanche to write about whatever he wanted and an expense account to travel as he pleased. These days, that writer’s life would seem a fairy tale, and Hughes was very aware of his fortunate position. Unlike exalted art personages like Clement Greenberg or Henry Geldzahler, he did not believe it to be his place to influence art movements or art prices with his words. The cravenness of the art world appalled him, and he spared no venom in attacking the opportunists and interlopers endemic to it.
He was horrified at the effect the ballooning art auction market was having on taste in the ’80s, saying, “What strip mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture.” In fact, he found little to love in contemporary art from the ’80s on. He did not believe it was the critic’s job to predict the future and found much of what he saw in the present wanting and tenuous. Thus his best, most passionate words are about the art of the past. “Newness as such, in art, is never a value,” he writes.
A couple hundred pages of the book are devoted to Hughes’ memoirs. We get accounts of the horrible 1999 car crash that nearly ended his life, behind-the-scenes glimpses of his TV productions, early rough bohemian life in Soho, as well as a more comfortable later time on Long Island. The last few pages show him coming to grips with his only son’s suicide. The blessing and the curse of an anthology is that it is both too much and not enough. There are no editorial notes in this volume, aside from an index of terms and an introduction — more accurately a tribute or appreciation — by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. It is a book to dip into and out of rather than to be enjoyed as a continuous narrative. In the best-case scenario it will inspire a few readers to track down the books Hughes published during his lifetime. Art writing is rarely readable and hardly ever done well. Few did it better than Robert Hughes.
I don’t do many readings these days, but when my friend, Irvine Welsh, asked me to take part in the Worldwide Reading in support of poet Ashraf Fayadh, who has been condemned to death in Saudi Arabia for renouncing Islam, I couldn’t say no. It’ll be at the Two Hearted Queen coffeeshop in Lakeview on Thursday, January 14th, at 6pm. I’ll be reading something from my new book and Irvine and Bill Hillmann will be reading as well. Hope to see you there.