This article originally appeared in The Age
Robert Hughes had seen death before. In 1999, out in the remote Kimberley of Western Australia, the world’s most famous art critic was driving back to Broome. Hughes had been fishing with his mate Dan O’Sullivan, and in his boot was an icebox and a fresh tuna. Suddenly, out on the dusty, near-desolate road, Hughes ploughed into an oncoming car.
O’Sullivan was the first on the scene. He saw a horrifically mangled car and his famous friend pinned to the steering wheel. Fuel was leaking. Fearing death by incineration, Hughes asked his friend to euthanise him if the fuel caught fire. It’s a powerful image: the grizzled iconoclast making what might be his final, tough-minded analysis.
“At one point I saw Death,” he wrote in his memoirs Things I Didn’t Know. “He was 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: the bocca d’inferno of old Christian art.”
The fallout from the crash was bitter and it would dramatically realign his relationship with Australia. After being charged with dangerous driving, Hughes was acquitted, only to have Western Australia successfully appeal. A vicious slanging match began before our famous expat was hit with a defamation suit from his prosecutors.
Hemingway once wrote that “we destroy our writers in many ways” and Hughes would have enthusiastically agreed in Australia’s case. While many saw a diffident, arrogant and unrepentant snob, Hughes saw a country of cultural mediocrity. “Australia,” he said, “could be towed out to sea and sunk.” Such was Hughes’ weird gravity that a car crash and defamation suit could be transformed into a cultural schism—an angry debate on Australian attitudes about intellectualism, culture and success.
I never met Hughes, but he was always an inspiration. There were plenty of imagined consultations I had with him, like a few years ago in Canberra. I was drinking at a friend’s apartment when his neighbour, a federal senator, stopped by for a few, too. We were appalled by what we saw: a bore and a name dropper. The senator was a person of such dispiriting mediocrity that we left early in a funk, cheered only by the thought that—based on that shabby benchmark—we could all be senators too.
That night as I walked home I thought of Robert Hughes. An avowed aesthete, mediocrity was Hughes’ enemy. His elitism, he once said, was not a social snobbery, but a ”preference for well-made things to badly made things” and ”articulate speech to mumbling”. He would’ve skewered the senator, tearing off the cloak of cant and jargon and cheap self-regard.
There’s a wonderful video of such a skewering in Hughes’ documentary The Mona Lisa Curse. Hughes meets with Alberto Mugrabi, a fabulously wealthy collector, who has amassed enormous amounts of contemporary art. We are left in no doubt about Hughes’ feelings for Mugrabi’s tastes. Before the meeting, the critic stands before Damien Hirst’s bronze statue The Virgin Mother, and says: “Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce?”
Hughes spears this gibbering idiot, for whom wealth hasn’t been able to buy a coherent sentence or an original idea. Mugrabi only confirms Hughes’ suspicion that the art market is simply the buying and selling of hype by the rich and ignorant. It shows Hughes at his cantankerous best, but also his merciless worst. There was a streak of cruelty in Hughes, which he himself admitted, but he confessed also to believing it might make a better critic, “otherwise you turn out to be a sort of Pollyanna who wanders the world thinking every sprig of clover is a rose”. Hughes wanders no more, but this lyrical larrikin has left us a fine body of work and the dazzling trail of a life so ardently given to the strong, the true and the beautiful.