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Robert Hughes, the Australian exile who never left

  • 09 August 2012

'Life goes on despite theory, and so does art.' –Robert Hughes

They do seem to be falling like flies — critics and practitioners of history of various persuasion, interest and intensity. Gore Vidal, Alexander Cockburn, John Keegan and now, wrenched from the art world, Robert Hughes, dead in a New York hospital.

He was part of the Push, a group of Australian artists and intellectuals that bristled with talent and verve — Germaine Greer and Clive James among them — and with wanderlust, fled with them to Europe in the 1960s, where their minds were sharpened and nourished.

The usual accolades will pick up the stunners — The Shock of the New that first aired on the BBC in 1980, engendered a broader interest in contemporary art and made Hughes a conspicuous commentator. It could do no other — it lowered the tone on theory while keeping the volume on insight high and mighty. His American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (1997) was expansive and produced a nervous breakdown.

His art criticism always shone with courageous pugnacity, and a good portion of it can be found in the collected volume Nothing if Not Critical, featuring the brightest essays for such publications as Time Magazine, a publication that sought, with foresight, to recruit him in 1970. America-bound, he left his Old World abode of steeped culture and freelance indigence to find New World vitality.

His commentary proved dismissive at times. Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died from a heroine overdose in 1988, was a pop tart, an epiphenomenon — in fact, a 'featherweight'. Celebrity did not demand drawing skills, merely vacuous icons — 'a perch in the pantheon of the '80s does not necessarily depend on merit.'

His cultural criticism was also supreme. Sharp as a tack, he could equally confront a culture in decay (as he did in The Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America) and theorists he found unnecessarily obtuse. Political correctness was always given a good dressing down. Obsessions are targeted — the cult of victimhood, the adoration of television, the aversion to public funding of art.

He issued, memorably, an assured spank to Jean Baudrillard in 1989, the French cultural theorist who famously dismissed the technological deceptions of the 1991 Gulf War as fantasy, as CNN's war, and, in fact, the 'war that did not take place'.

When Baudrillard chose to ponder America in