at the Guardian
recently become an American ex-patriate and Guardian
reader, I am both thrilled and depressed by its arts coverage.
It is refreshing to see criticism of the avant garde coming from
the left. In the US, the left is nearly monolithic in
regard to art. You either like the new stuff or you keep
quiet. It is really uncool to demur. Anyone hedging
in enthusiasm in any way immediately has his art-card revoked and
is labeled a fascist. So seeing Saatchi and Emin and
Hirst and the Tate Modern attacked by someone who is not at all
the UK equivalent of Helms or Guiliani is like a gust of
Hyperborean wind. All this is due to the influence of
Robert Hughes, of course. All the arts coverage at the
Guardian arcs about the gravity of Hughes, and this is
completely understandable. The problem is that Hughes,
Jones and the rest seem to wait around for Saatchi or Serota to
show them something better, which is like waiting for the next
Jupiter symphony from Madonna. Hughes himself has long been
telling us that Modernism is dead: according to his own calendar,
it has been dead since 1980. Continuing to monitor a
25-year old skeleton for twitches can only appear morbid.
The Venice and Whitney Biennials and all the regular events are
hopeless, as he says, so why continue to mention them?
Why return to the Hungry Heifer?
Both in the Guardian and
at Time, Hughes has taken refuge in the past. He
dredges up early Dali or spends weeks hiding away with R. Crumb.
This is also understandable. The modern world drives us all
under the bed. If you want inspiration you don’t go to a
contemporary museum, you go to a library. But even
contemporary art never dies. Hughes and Jones just aren’t
looking in the right places. Often they don’t seem to be
looking at all. Hughes has all but defined away the
possibility of art except in the past. Hughes judges new
art and old art by completely different standards. For him,
new art must look new. But in his heart of hearts he hates
modernity, and he hates newness for newness sake, as he has
admitted. So that leaves him in a no man’s land, a Sinai
desert with only himself and Lucian Freud huddling under a
Hughes eulogizes MoMA’s
Alfred Barr as a visionary, since he was capable of seeing art
where no one else could. I would suggest that nothing is
different now, except that Hughes has a different shade of
blinders on than Barr’s contemporaries. Hughes is making
a step in the right direction when he promotes the Royal Academy,
but this is only a nod to the future. He recognizes that
craft will have to be reintroduced. Much of Hughes’ draw
to Freud is explained by craft. But the air in England will
not allow Hughes to go any further than this; he is already out
on a limb. He is already saying things that would
completely bomb in the US, and he knows it. As long as he
only promotes the future of craft, he is alright here, maybe,
since no one believes in the future anyway. But how is it
logical to promote the future of craft and ignore the present?
Why doesn’t he just start promoting the mallgalleries shows?
He will say, because there is nothing there worth promoting.
Maybe, but there is nothing worth promoting elsewhere, and
elsewhere is promoted in spades. Hughes and Jones don’t
argue when Serota claims that the craftspeople (Hughes’ “slow
art” people) have their own promotion and awards. Where
is it, exactly? Where are the Tate Galleries and Saatchi
Galleries and Turner Prizes of Slow Art? The realists are
allowed their mall shows and penny prizes and everyone agrees
that parity has been achieved.
Why can Hughes look lovingly
at Chardin and Goya and Rembrandt and the rest of the past, and
look lovingly toward the future, when craft will charm his
grandchildren, and yet not look lovingly or hopefully at the
present? As I said, it is because he has painted himself
into a theoretical corner. Either that or he simply can’t
take the next step, the step beyond throwing a rose to the Royal
Academy. He can’t take that step because he is not
confident that his prestige will carry him through the waves of
protest. He does not want to signal his own death knell by
allying himself to something that is still anathema to the left.
Freud’s age and ugliness have made him acceptable. But
how could a critic, no matter how big, stand next to a
contemporary Whistler or Burne Jones or Chardin or Blake or even
Goya? This sort of work is still politically suspect
to the left even from dead men.
In short, the media and
milieu in the UK appear to allow Hughes to push the argument way
beyond where he can in the US. But it still does not allow
him to take it where it logically must go, or where Hughes
appears to want to take it himself.
As an example of the kind of work Hughes cannot take seriously, I
attach this 5m tall Shelley
exhibiting four separate slow arts—painting, sculpture,
original poetry in calligraphy, and woodworking—as well as
serious subject matter, epic theme, erudition, depth, and so on
(the work concerns Percy Shelley’s first wife and his and her
drownings. For a complete description of the piece, go to
For detail scans go to http://mileswmathis.com/trip2.html.
) The work is by an artist who is not intellectually stunted, as
Jones has said of the Stuckists. For proof of this, see
If this work is not up to the standards of Hirst or Warhol or
Freud, I would like to know why. If it does not answer
Hughes’ call for a return to craft, seriousness and the rest, I
would like to know why.
If this paper was useful to you in any way,
please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE
ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these
"unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying
Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume.
If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth
your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for