Linking to individual items in Gerard Henderson’s excellent Media Watch isn’t easy so we’ve reproduced this interesting piece on the coverage of the death of art critic Robert Hughes.
ROBERT HUGHES AO, HON D.FINEARTS, HON D.LIT, RIP
These days most obituarists speak well of the dead. This generally was the case following the death of art critic and author Robert Hughes (1938-2012). However, the occasional truth was heard. In an otherwise supportive comment on Hughes, Malcolm Turnbull (who is married to Hughes’ niece Lucy) told Lateline Steve Cannane that “like a lot of critics” Hughes “didn’t like to be criticised”.
You can say that again. Robert Hughes was long on alienation and hyperbole but short on self-awareness and oh-so-sensitive to criticism.
As it turned out, some obituarists exhibited certain Hughes-like qualities in writing about the New York based expatriate. Step forward:
▪ Barry Humphries AO, CBE, Hon.LLD, Hon D.Univ, AA – who made the following (gratuitous) comment to Fairfax Media’s Damien Murphy which was subsequently reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Canberra Times on Wednesday:
He [Hughes] gave a wonderful and witty speech at my last birthday party in New York and I’m deeply saddened that alcoholism, or whatever name it sometimes goes by, should have claimed yet another distinguished victim.
Turn it up. If Hughes was a hopeless alcoholic as recently as last February, it is unlikely that he could have delivered wonderful and witty speeches.
▪ Geoffrey Barker – who wrote this in the Australian Financial Review last Wednesday:
[Robert Hughes] was self-deprecating, warm and warm-hearted and he described himself as a partly unfulfilled romantic. He was also a hedonist who had experimented with LSD and marijuana, and who claimed he contracted gonorrhoea from his first wife Danne, who he believed had contracted it from Jim Hendrix.
Turn it up. There is no evidence for Robert Hughes’ reported put-down of his first wife – who died in 2003 and is not around to correct Geoffrey Barker’s gossip. In his article Barker condemned Australian “Australian thought and manners” but seems completely unaware of his own deficiency in this regard.
▪ Peter Coster – who made the following comment in last Wednesday’s Herald-Sun :
Robert Hughes took a long time dying. Not in the Calvary Hospital in New York on Monday. That was the end of a road bearing a cross he carried from a near-fatal car crash in Western Australia. It was as he lay broken in the wreckage 13 years ago that the art critic and historian first saw death.
This brilliant son of a transplanted Irish Catholic family that achieved so much in Australia saw Death “sitting at a desk like a banker. He made no gesture, but he opened his mouth and I looked right down his throat, which distended to become a tunnel”. Hughes said it led to the inferno of old Christian art. He was grievously hurt in that car crash on what seemed an empty road in the Outback when his car and another somehow collided. Had they not seen each other? Were the drivers drunk?
Close to death, on life support, Hughes endured many operations. Catholics never escape their Catholicism, and Hughes thought he experienced a descent into hell as he lay in the wreckage of his car, his flesh torn by demons. A handsome, powerful hunk of a human being, he was reduced to a shambling wreck as he staggered on over the next 13 years to die, like Christ at Calvary.
Turn it up. There is no evidence that either driver had been drinking when Hughes collided head-on with another car in remote north-west Western Australia. Hughes’ car was on the wrong side of road and the most plausible explanation of the crash is that he turned on to the wrong side of the road at a T intersection. After all, Hughes was used to driving in North America.
And as to the comparison between Robert Hughes, in New York’s Calvary Hospital and Christ at Calvary, what can be said? [Thankfully nothing – Ed].
▪ Guy Rundle, Marxist Retd; currently based in London
Guy Rundle commenced his “Robert Hughes, an obituary” article in Crikey on Tuesday by mimicking Hughes’ hyperbolic writing style. But, soon, Rundle was back into his very own writing-style and it was even worse. Here’s a sample:
[Robert Hughes’] style was captivating, intoxicating, addictive, at least at the first. Art in Australia is powered by it, as are the essays and reviews from Time collected in Nothing If Not Critical. It reaches its apotheosis in The Fatal Shore at which point it has become as much a barrier to clear thinking as an agent of it; Hughes’ conception of convict-era Australia as an Antipodean gulagchipelago was as much a product of the operatic weltanschauung weltschmerz – God, it’s like eating macadamias this, you do it till you throw up – as it was of the evidence itself. By then he was also adding irascibility to the mix.
God it’s like incomprehension this, what does Guy Rundle mean? The comedian concluded his obit by referring to Hughes’ mental health:
Not coincidentally, Hughes had suffered a breakdown of sorts before the writing of it [American Visions], one of such severity that he felt unable to write. Put on anti-depressants — it was the early ’90s, the acme of the heroic Prozac era — he banged the book out over a period of eight months, and became something of a proselytiser for chemical enhancement, in his habitual harrumphing style. He did not stop to ask whether the failure of art to save him from the depths was not a pretext for jacking into his neurology, but was a sign that art was failing in presumed task, to help us enjoy and endure, be transformed and redeemed.
Yeah, go on Guy. Turn it up. Tell us about the weltanschauung weltschmerz thingo again.