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Art critics only seem to make the news when they die. Yesterday, we lost Robert Hughes (1938-2012), an Australian who was, in my humble opinion, the finest critic of American Art in the last 50 years.

Hughes was the author of the very best history of American Art ever written, and by very best I mean opinionated and frequently sarcastic. American Visions was an outgrowth of the BBC-produced documentary series of the same name that aired on PBS. You can watch the entire 7 hours online here. The book is widely available. I recommend both, even to people with only a passing interest in art. If you can get past the fact the Hughes is kind of a dick, you’ll learn a lot

It was no secret that Hughes held much modern art and many artists and art collectors in complete contempt. I love his work because he put into words many of the things I’d been thinking as I explored the trajectory of American Art history, albeit in a much more entertaining fashion. He wrote and spoke about art because he loved art and held the role of the artist in high esteem. I’ll share the following Hughes quote, borrowed from John Seed’s entry in today’s Huffington Post, to make my point:

“The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning. It’s not something that committees can do. It’s not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It’s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world.”

Seed also shared this video, taken from American Visions, where Hughes discussed contemporary art with a wealthy collector, hardly concealing his contempt for much of the work. He had this, for example, to say about Damien Hirst; “Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce.”

How can you not love that?

In an era when art critics have largely been replaced by “cultural writers” who spend most of their time hyping art rather than discussing it, Hughes will be sorely missed, at least by me.

 

This video

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