Art critic-historian-essayist-Aussie badass Robert Hughes once wrote of American painter Thomas Cole that he "became something of a national culture hero...His death, opined a newspaper editorial, was 'a public and national calamity.' Even allowing for the high rhetorical tint required of such exequies 150 years ago, it's hard to think of an American artist whose death, tomorrow, would inspire such sentiments."
It is not, however, hard to imagine the obsequies that will be directed toward Hughes when he finally kicks it. (Although, brilliant and crusty as he is, he may not die; doubtful heaven or hell wants him.) He will be known not only as a remarkably gifted "print asshole"--as a Time-Warner suit once referred to him--for his books, art criticism and essays. He is more than just a historian and documentarian, although his efforts in those fields--including the TV series American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America and Shock of the New--are renowned. He's more than just the interesting footnote pointing out that the names of his books themselves become cultural catchphrases (see Culture of Complaint). No, it will be said, many times over in more elegant ways than this, that Robert Hughes was (therefore is) the sum of all these things and more. He is, arguably, the greatest culture critic of the past 30 years.
Which is why his appearance as part of the Southern Methodist University Tate Lecture Series on Tuesday should be so enlightening. Hughes, Time magazine's art critic since 1970, is a wonderful writer and speaker who makes art and culture criticism not just alive but sexy. To him, cultural appreciation is not just a wholly intellectual game. Hughes responds viscerally to artwork, brilliant people and ideas or cultural phenomena, and through his force of intellect, personality and language, he transmits that emotion to the reader with enviable ease.
Well, easy to read. Not so easy to write. As he told Salon a few years ago, his work drove him to depression--and nearly to an early, premeditated end.
"I was suffering from writer's overload," Hughes said. "I was about to blow my head off, and then I took the gun and threw it in the sea. It was a really rough time. I went to a shrink, and I'd never been to one before. He helped a lot, and I took a lot of Paxil, and that helped a lot, and I smoked a lot of dope and did everything I could do to kick myself out of it.
"I think I am over it now," he went on. "I sometimes look over my shoulder, as I think anybody does. If you have never had anything like this, you are fucking lucky, because you are out of control. You really doubt yourself."
Beyond the seeming absurdity of a man so talented fully doubting himself, Hughes here gives a glimpse at what makes him unique: the wellspring of deep feeling that guides his work. It's a passion not unique to Aussies but quite so to the media elite.
That's not to say he isn't a cranky old bastard. I once interviewed Hughes for a story about how Americans read more magazines than they do books. I was in the middle of a meeting when he called back, and--flustered, searching for my notes--I inadvertently sputtered, "Thank you for calling me back, Robert."
His response, in high-volume Outback brogue: "That's Mister Hughes to you!"
That didn't spoil our interview, in which his insights were as profound as I'd expected. (Basically, he said my thesis was garbage.) Nor did it dim my appreciation of the man and his work. Given that his lecture topic is so sweeping--Hughes, who watched the 9/11 World Trade Center attack from his downtown New York loft, will speak on the "sorrows of fundamentalism"--it will surely be a night of insight delivered with memorable force.