I was sad to hear of the death of Robert Hughes on Tuesday. With the immense focus on the Olympics it’s easy to lose track of everything else going on around the world, but his earthly departure, as un-showy as his character, was one such event that put things briefly back into perspective. Although, he might have decided that the performance of his native country was not worth sticking around for.
Robert Hughes’s ‘Shock of the New’ was one of the first art history books I read as an impressionable 17 year-old. Taken from his same-titled TV series, it set out eight stories on painting, sculpture and architecture, assessing the emergence and role of modern art between 1880-1980. I remember enjoying it far more than the slog through E.H. Gombrich, which made for a pretty good doorstop.
I don’t think anyone could fail to be won over by Hughes’s dry wit, his Australian brashness and impartiality, but above all his honesty and lack of pretentiousness. A famous critic of the Brit Artists, he referred to Tracy Emin’s My Bed as a “Stale icon of sluttish housekeeping”.
The Shock of the New has become a well used phrase in its own right, but for Hughes the title was largely ironic from both perspectives of ‘shock’ and ‘new’. A great majority of modern art is intended to shock, but Hughes found it, like many of us do now, fairly unshockable. He frequently pointed out the nature of modern art as a self-absorbed, shouty announcement – an exercise in PR and business. “The new job of art”, he said, “is to sit on the wall and get more expensive”.
And there’s the irony of ‘the New’: “Shit man, this is what they used to do in Notting Hill Gate in 1964”, he said of an exhibit in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. “The trouble is if you live long enough and you’re in a cultural revival, nothing is new.”
With the BBC, he released ‘The New Shock of the New’ in 2004, to effectively close the book on the Twentieth Century. A Babel-style period of hope and destruction he saw echoed in the art world, effectively symbolised by the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the destruction of the Twin Towers. The wonders of YouTube allow me to leave you with the full hour.