The man who made the case for discrimination

Farewell Robert Hughes, the brilliant and stinging critic of the cultural left and its descent into non-judgemental, multicultural hogwash.

Jason Walsh

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As a pissed-off young art student in the late 1990s, I was in awe of Robert Hughes, who sadly died on 6 August, aged 74. I remember feeling distinctly alone in this. As resident art critic for Time magazine, not to mention being a TV personality and someone who wrote about art with authority and yet in plain English, Hughes was of little interest to the academy.

Drowning as I was in a sea of turgid and impenetrable postmodernism that seemed to think everything was a game – and a nasty, unpleasant one at that – Hughes was like a beacon to me: there was sense to the world, art was neither pointless nor was it merely an instrument of political and social policy, he argued. Where the postmodernists grew out of a left that abandoned the masses, Hughes stood firm in his belief in the possibility of elevating us all.

Most annoying at the time, perhaps even more than the already ropey-looking theories of postmodernity, was the fashion for Cool Britannia and the so-called Young British Artists (YBAs). Julian Stallabras did a pretty good number on the YBAs in his book, High Art Lite, but it was in Hughes that one could find a line of historical continuity in the ability to make qualitative judgements, a shockingly rare thing in writing about art.

Despite being too easy to understand for the world of art theory, where obfuscation is much preferred to illumination, he did have some pull, even if only to be railed against. Everyone read his behemoth, The Shock of the New. Like John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, it remained as close to a set text as one finds in art schools. Today, Berger reads like a vulgar Marxist or, worse, the antecedent of the ‘culture jammers’ of the 1990s who spawned Occupy Wall Street and a million graphic designers masquerading as artists. Not so Hughes. While he never achieved the revered status of Clement Greenberg, Hughes at least had to be read before he could be dismissed.

Here was a man who could explain modern art as part of the great project of modernity, a man who could assess its triumphs, a man who could acknowledge its failures and blind alleys without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A man who took art and ideas seriously.

But there was more to Hughes than art criticism. There was also politics. I discovered his book The Culture of Complaint in 1998. Based on a series of lectures and published as a book in 1993, its 210 pages bristled with frustration at the political left’s encouragement of the cult of victimhood and launched savage attacks on multiculturalism and therapy culture, while at the same time refusing to join forces with the equally intellectually bankrupt political right.

In it, he rescued – or attempted to rescue, at least – the term discrimination, noting it is human nature to ‘make choices and decisions’, pointing out that, as with sport, art was one area of human endeavour where elitism was not only socially harmless, but actually worth celebrating.

Consider this passage from the lecture, ‘Art and the Therapeutic Fallacy’: ‘Democracy’s task in the world of art is to make the world safe for elitism. Not an elitism based on race or money or social position, but on skill and imagination. The embodiment of high ability and intense vision is the only thing that makes art popular. Basically, it’s why the Rijksmuseum is full of people and the remedial art-basements of Amsterdam are not.’

A finer defence of discrimination over ‘whatever you’re having yourself’ would be hard to imagine.

On multiculturalism, he recognised why objections were frequently only found on the isolationist right; because, on the surface at least, multiculturalism seemed to most people to be an entirely positive thing. In the chapter ‘Multi-Culti and Its Discontents’ from The Culture of Complaint, he writes: ‘[Multiculturalism] proposes – modestly enough – that some of the most interesting things in history and culture happen at the interface between cultures… Its six syllables are awkward, this word ‘”multiculturalism”, but if it had existed 30 years ago when I was getting ready to leave Australia, I would have embraced it at once.’

And yet, unlike so many others, Hughes was not blind to what multiculturalism obscured, or to where its seductions ultimately led. So he continues: ‘The idea that European culture is oppressive, in and of itself, is a fallacy that can only survive among the fanatical and the ignorant. The moral and intellectual conviction that inspired Toussaint L’Ouverture to focus the grievances of the Haitian slaves and lead them to freedom came from his reading of Rousseau and Mirabeau. When thousands of voteless, propertyless workers the length and breadth of England met in the reading groups in the 1820s to discuss republican ideas and discover the significance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, they were seeking to unite themselves by taking back the meanings of a dominant culture from custodians who didn’t live up to them.’

Hughes adds: ‘American ideas of liberal democracy are only to be nourished at their sources, which lie absolutely within the European tradition; and it is far more important that the young should know about them before they go on to acquire whatever acquaintance they may wish to have with the ancient culture of the Dogon or with the political institutions of the Iroquois. First things first. Cultural separatism within this republic is more a fad than serious proposal; it is not likely to hold, but if it did, it would be an educational disaster for those it claims to help, the young, the poor and the black. It would be a gesture not of “empowerment”, but of emasculation. Self-esteem comes from doing things well, from discovering how to tell a truth from a lie, and finding out what unites us as well as what separates us.’

For my money, all Hughes got wrong here was that cultural separatism was a mere fad.

Though he could at times be a curmudgeonly writer, on reflection I am saddened that I didn’t keep up with his recent work. As a young undergraduate, though, in desperate need of an identifiably left-leaning critique of fashionable leftish gibberish, I found much intellectual nourishment in the work of this figure many of my peers dismissed as a ‘conservative’. After all, Alan Sokal was hardly useful for citations in my essays on our pathetic love of the artist as a madman or wretched failure. Political without being instrumental, intelligent but never obtuse, committed without being certifiable, Robert Hughes was a man for all seasons.

I didn’t give up on art because of Hughes. I gave up because I was a poor-to-mediocre artist at best. Hughes, had he glanced at my work for a second, would have had no hesitation in telling me so.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Ireland. Visit his web site at http://jasonwalsh.ie.

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