Robert Hughes: What democracy is for…

Robert Hughes died recently. I liked reading his work.

This is what he said about democracy and art – from an editorial in the Guardian newspaper:

The late Robert Hughes wrote his own epitaph in his 1993 polemic Culture of Complaint, where he inveighed against the banal politicisation of art and championed instead the importance of quality.

“Some things do strike us as better than others – more articulate, more radiant with consciousness,” Hughes insisted. “We may have difficulty saying why, but the experience remains.”

Democracy’s task, in the field of art, he believed, was to make the world safe for elitism, not to outlaw it. He believed passionately – in Hughes’s case the adverb is redundant – in an elitism that was not based on class, wealth or race, but on skill, imagination, high ability and intense vision.

But he could have been describing his own writing. On modern art, Australia, Barcelona, Rome, Goya, Hughes’s writing mattered because it always embodied those qualities. It, too, was better, more articulate and radiant than the rest. And the experience remains, gloriously so.

His fame was as an art critic – especially on television since his 1980 series The Shock of the New, but I commend to you his book The Fatal Shore about the transportation of convicts to and the colonisation of Australia. It’s a great and exciting historical read.

He was a vivid, precarious, gnarly character who did well to last as long as he did.



Filed under art, history

8 responses to “Robert Hughes: What democracy is for…

  1. Culture of Complaint was the first book of his that I read (although I’d watched The Shock of the New, obv). It staked out an area in the culture wars between the reactionaries and the relativists, and as such attracted shit from both sides – which is doubtless what he wanted. One part I especially recall was his admiration for Captain Cook and with it the whole spirit of the Enlightenment. Similar in his own rambunctious way to C. Hitchens, I guess.

  2. Seems he was attacking a prolecult type of mentality. It should be less about whether all art should have an equal standing and more about whether any art should be suppressed because it does not correspond to certain tastes. Like in sport quality will make its own way through. The sporting artistry of Lionel Messi is infinitely better than that of Robbie Keane. By allowing both to compete we can ses that much rather than being forced to take the word of Messi admirers. Some democrats and relativists would only be satisfied if each gane ended in a draw. Then we would not have sporting art which lies in its licence but its antithesis which lies in control. .

    • blackwatertown

      Sadly yes – we’d love a Messi,but have been very happy to have a Keane.
      Yes – agree – let a thousand flowers bloom – and many of them wilt.

  3. Reminds me of the quote by Virginia Woolf “I’m not a snob, I just like the best of everything.”

    I’ve never read any of his work, but I think he’s quite right that some things strike us as better than others, even if we can’t articulate what that betterness consist of.

  4. I have never read anything by Robert Hughes, but your post makes me feel that I would like his work.
    Blessings – Maxi

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