Cultural Warrior

Robert Hughes’s Best Quotes on Art, Australia, and More

The late art critic was known for passionately baroque pronouncements that moved the immovably overstuffed art world.

David Howells / Corbis

The art critic Robert Hughes had great power with words. He delivered them from a hefty physical frame, in rounded Australian baritone. And when sprung onto the pages of Time magazine (for which he was the chief art critic for more than 30 years), onto the BBC (where he hosted the highly popular modern art show The Shock of the New, from which a wonderful book was derived), he enlightened a broad public and moved the stuffy art world. He shamed the overheated art market of the 1980s and its outsized superstars Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat, though he acknowledged the business side of the art world. He also wrote an epic history of his native country, Australia, titled The Fatal Shore, which reminded the global public that the country was first conceived as a jail. Just last year he finished Rome: A Personal History, a beautiful and passionate book full of personally charged baroque pronouncements that all too rarely exist in today’s writing.

Here are some more of these full-bodied writings and sayings that only this vigorous appreciator could bring us for so many years.

On Art:

I am completely an elitist in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it's an expert gardener at work or a good carpenter chopping dovetails. I don't think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one, unless the latter is a friend or a relative. Consequently, most of the human race doesn't matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today, more (perhaps) than it ever has. I hate populist [shit], no matter how much the demos love it.

—From his memoir, Things I Didn't Know

The museum has very largely supplanted the church as the emblematic focus of the American city.

Landscape is to American painting what sex and psychoanalysis are to the American novel.

I have always tended to take art contextually. If I have any merits as a critic, they have to do with my ability as a storyteller … and above all I wanted to tell a story.

The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning. It's not something that committees can do. It's not a task achieved by groups or by movements.

The Shock of the New

“What has our culture lost in 1980 that the avant-garde had in 1890? Ebullience, idealism, confidence, the belief that there was plenty of territory to explore, and above all the sense that art, in the most disinterested and noble way, could find the necessary metaphors by which a radically changing culture could be explained to its inhabitants.” ―The Shock of the New

On Rome:

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An enormous concretion of human glory and human error.

On Artists:

I am often viewed as a "conservative" critic. On the other hand, what does "conservative" and what does "radical" mean in today's context? As far as I can make up, when an artist says that I am conservative, it means that I haven't praised him recently.

The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.

Confidence is the prize given to the mediocre.

Machines were the ideal metaphor for the central pornographic fantasy of the nineteenth century, rape followed by gratitude.

The Shock of the New

On the Art Market:

One gets tired of the role critics are supposed to have in this culture: It's like being the piano player in a whorehouse; you don't have any control over the action going on upstairs.

The auction room, as anyone knows, is an excellent medium for sustaining fictional price levels, because the public imagines that auction prices are necessarily real prices.

Most of the time they buy what other people buy. They move in great schools, like bluefish, all identical. There is safety in numbers. If one wants Schnabel, they all want Schnabel, if one buys a Keith Haring, two hundred Keith Harings will be sold.

Art prices are determined by the meeting of real or induced scarcity with pure, irrational desire, and nothing is more manipulable than desire.

The idea that money, patronage and trade automatically corrupts the wells of imagination is a pious fiction, believed by some utopian lefties and a few people of genius such as [William] Blake but flatly contradicted by history itself.

On the whole, money does artists much more good than harm. The idea that one benefits from cold water, crusts, and debt collectors is now almost extinct, like belief in the reformatory power of flogging.

On Australia:

Australia is not, to me, a picturesque little country full of cute marsupials at the end of the world.

I think the biggest single difference between Australians and Americans is that you were founded as a religious experiment, and we were founded as a jail.