On Robert Hughes

Tom and Chrissie Hughes during Malcolm Turnbull’s speech

Isn’t this priceless? Like emperors at the Coliseum. Following the recent death of the art critic Robert Hughes, his brother Tom and wife listen to the tribute in Federal parliament.

Malcolm Turnbull gave a remarkable speech on Hughes, deeply felt, funny, and in it’s way worthy of Hughes’ own rhetorical style. Crikey.com have posted the speech at http://www.crikey.com.au/2012/08/15/malcolm-turnbull-robert-hughes/

Robert Hughes was the Orson Welles of art criticism, brilliant, charismatic, larger-than-life, but with a fatal edge. He was a great educator, erudite but driven to make art popular and available to a mass audience. I think this is a noble cause, far worthier than the efforts of gloomy theorists in their academic cabals. Of these he said, ” To write direct prose, lucid and open to comprehension, using common language, is to lose face. You do not make your mark unless you add something to the lake of jargon to whose marshy verge the bleating flocks of post-structuralists go each night to drink…”

Hughes didn’t have much to say about photography. In his great surveys of art history, Shock of the New and American Visions, there are only a few passages, and you feel that he was not really convinced of the medium’s validity for making art. His references in American Visions to photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Lewis Hine even contain factual errors. And yet he was still able to sum up a photograph’s impact with vivid phrases.

“Some of the finest photographs of Lewis Hine, the recording angel of American labour in the 1920s and 1930s, were taken to document the construction of the Empire State Building, and one in particular became an icon: the rangy young man in overalls, swinging on the hook of a crane, a thousand feet above Manhattan’s sidewalks, like some Icarus of skill and risk.”

Note the twin imagery of angel and Icarus (both fly with wings) and thus the conjoining of Hine himself with his ascending figure of the worker.


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