Robert Hughes

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Robert Studley Forrest Hughes (28 July 19386 August 2012) was an Australian art critic, writer, and documentary broadcaster.


  • There's no geist like the Zeitgeist.
    • New York Review of Books (27 October 1983)
  • No original Gauguins were to be seen in Australia, for post-impressionism was officially thought to be the vulgar effusion of five-thumbed lunatics. (p. 24)

Companion book to Hughes' TV documentary series of the same name. Thames and Hudson (1991 ed.) ISBN 0-500-27582-3

  • If the making of the series had one repeated phrase that still echoes in my head, it was not heard on the soundtrack; the inexorable voice of Lorna Pegram, the producer, muttering: "It's a clever argument, Bob dear, but what are we supposed to be looking at?" (p. 7)
  • In the real world, mice do exist and they generally go about their business whether we see them or not. (p. 17)
  • With hindsight, one can perhaps see that unachievable projects were the right monuments to an ideal. Because they were not built, they could not be destroyed. (p. 92)
  • The essential difference between a sculpture like Andre's Equivalent VIII, 1978, and any that had existed before in the past is that Andre's array of bricks depends not just partly, but entirely, on the museum for its context. A Rodin in a parking lot is still a misplaced Rodin; Andre's bricks in the same place can only be a pile of bricks. (p. 393)
  • If Australia had not been settled as a prison and built by convict labor, it would have been colonized by other means; that was foreordained from the moment of Cook’s landing at Botany Bay in 1770. But it would have taken half a century longer, for Georgian Britain would have found it exceptionally difficult to find settlers crazy or needy enough to go there of their own free will.

Nothing If Not Critical (1991)


Selected Essays on Art and Artists. Viking/Penguin ISBN 0-394-58026-5

  • In America, nostalgia for things is apt to set in before they go.
    • "Introduction: The Decline of the City of Mahagonny"
  • The desire to be primitive was very much a function of fin-de-siècle imperialism; it appealed to strong egos and domineering minds.
    • "Introduction: The Decline of the City of Mahagonny"
  • Far from affording artists continuous inspiration, mass-media sources for art have become a dead end. They have combined with the abstractness of institutional art teaching to produce a fine-arts culture given over to information and not experience. This faithfully echoes the drain of concreteness from modern existence— the reign of mere unassimilated data instead of events that gain meaning by being absorbed into the fabric of imaginative life.
    • "Introduction: The Decline of the City of Mahagonny"
  • What strip-mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture.
    • "Introduction: The Decline of the City of Mahagonny"
  • Perhaps the rhinos and she-crocodiles whose gyrations between Mortimer's and East Hampton give us our vision of social eminence today are content to entrust their faces to Andy Warhol's mingily cosmetic Polaroidising, but one would bet they would rather go to Sargent.
  • It was van Gogh's madness that prevented him from working; the paintings themselves are ineffably sane, if sanity is to be defined in terms of exact judgment of ends and means and the power of visual analysis.
    • "Vincent van Gogh, Part I" (1984)
  • The sense of not having the whole story that comes from living close up to traumatic events.
  • It is the nature of carnivores to get power and then, having disposed of their enemies, to deploy the emollient powers of Great Art to make themselves look like herbivores.
  • The hallmark of the minor artist is to be obsessed with style as an end in itself.
  • Like most artists who have made an invention of some kind, he tends to overplay the significance of his own and goes on about it as though it were a Rosetta Stone, with whose help all representation can be rescued from one-eyed falsehood.

Barcelona (1992)


Published shortly before the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Vintage ISBN 0-679-74383-9

  • New Song rapidly accumulated a nucleus of talent, and its best-known group was Els Setze Jutges, The Sixteen Judges, whose odd-sounding name came from a phrase used as a password by Catalan patriot troops during the rising against and occupation army in 1640 during the Reapers' War: "Setze jutges d'un jutjat menjen fetge d'un penjat" ("Sixteen judges on a tribunal eat the liver of a hanged man"). No lisping Castilian, it was believed, could pronounce this barrage of fricatives.
    • p. 11
  • Everything that would be said against the Eixample's heirs, from Le Corbusier's 'ville radieuse' to Oscar Niemeyer's Brasilia, was already said, with far less justice, about the Eixample itself. And all its critics concurred that the basic mistake was to have left the planning of a city in the hands of a socialist.
    • p. 284
  • One thing is sure: the Sagrada Familia is the first Catholic temple whose bacon was ever saved by Shinto tourism. Not even Gaudi, who believed in miracles, could have forseen that.
    • p. 526

Culture of Complaint (1993)


The Fraying of America. Harvill Panther ISBN 186-046637-0

  • It's bad to use words like 'genius' unless you are talking about the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, the black Chatterton of the 80s who, during a picturesque career as sexual hustler, addict and juvenile art-star, made a superficial mark on the cultural surface by folding the conventions of street graffiti into those of art brut before killing himself with an overdose at the age of twenty-seven. The first stage of Basquiat's fate, in the mid-80s, was to be effusively welcomed by an art industry so trivialized by fashion and blinded by money that it couldn't tell a scribble from a Leonardo. Its second stage was to be dropped by the same audience, when the novelty of his work wore off. The third was an attempt at apotheosis four years after his death, with a large retrospective at the Whitney Museum designed to sanitise his short, frantic life and position him as a kind of all-purpose, inflatable martyr-figure, thus restoring the dollar value of his oeuvre in a time of collapsing prices for American contemporary art. One contributor to the catalogue proclaimed that "Jean remains wrapped in the silent purple toga of immortality"; another opined that "he is as close to Goya as American painting has ever produced." A third, not to be outdone, extolled Basquiat's "punishing regime of self-abuse" as part of "the disciplines imposed by the principle of inverse ascetism to which he was so resolutely committed." These disciplines of inverse ascetism, one sees, mean shooting smack until you drop dead.
    • p. 195

Things I Didn't Know (2006)

  • I realized that there is nothing whatever outside of the life we have; that the "meaning of life" is nothing other than life itself, obstinately asserting itself against emptiness and nullity.
  • We all come into the world with baggage which, in the end, we have no hope of reclaiming, The main item in mine was my father.
  • ...what has become my frequent prayer since I have had to face death -"Thy holy will, O Lord, not mine be done!"
  • How immeasurably fortunate my father was in his faith!
  • But the Japanese paper was what I loved, and now, so many years later, when I see some exquisitely laid piece of calligraphy by a student of Ogata Korin in a museum, I think first not of the spiritualized handwork of Momoyama Japan, but of those long evenings in the family garage with Dad, smoothing and stretching the refined wing coverings of those planes.
  • The best thing fishing taught me, I think was how to be alone. Without this ability no writer can really survive or work, and there is a strong relationship between the activity of the fisherman, letting his line down into unknown depths in the hope of catching an unseen prey (which may be worth keeping, or may not) and that of a writer trolling his memory and reflections for unexpected jags and jerks of association.
  • Enforced solitude, as in solitary confinement, is a terrible and disorienting punishment, but freely chosen solitude is an immense blessing. To be out of the rattle and clang of quotidian life, to be away from the garbage of other people's amusements and the overflow of their unwanted subjectivities, is the essential escape. Solitude is, beyond question, one of the worlds great gifts and an indispensable aid to creativity, no matter what level that creation may be hatched at.
  • Our culture puts enormous emphasis on "socialization", on the supposedly supreme virtues of establishing close relations with others.
  • So fishing contributed to an important lesson of my life -how to be alone. I still think solitude is one of the world's great gifts. "Se sei solo," wrote Leonardo da Vinci, "sarai tutto tuo"
  • I managed to fail Arts I, a course that a moderately intelligent amoeba could have passed without special coaching.
  • ...A column is not merely a round stick of stone: it is part of an entire symbolic system, which one cannot intuit simply by looking at it in isolation. The basic reason for studying such things is not merely technical or archivally historical but humanistic; it is to seek out the answer to what someone like Vitruvius meant by his (to us) mysterious comment that "a building should have the proportions of a man,"
  • The past is pervasive; it seeps into everything;... And yet because the past is irreplaceable and cannot be done again, it was that very past, not the present or the future, that was so delicate, so vulnerable, so dreadfully easy to erase.
  • The truly radical work of art is the one that offers you something to hold on to in the midst of the flux of possibility.
  • Some new works of art have values of some kind or another. Others, the majority, have little or none. But newness as such, in art, is never a value.

Time magazine (1996)

  • The greater the artist, the greater the doubt; perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.
    • "Modernism's Patriarch (Cezanne)", Time magazine (10 June 1996)
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