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Ink Chorus: Nothing If Not Critical!

By (May 14, 2016) No Comment


Our book today is a pure beauty of critical prose: Nothing If Not Critical by the late, nothing if not criticalgreat Robert Hughes, which I recently found at the Brattle Bookshop in a 1990 UK trade paperback and burrowed into before I’d even made it all the way back home. The book reprints critical essays and reviews Hughes did for a The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and Time magazine during the 1980s, and for every one of the over 80 subjects he deals with here that actually interest me, there are 10 that don’t – and yet, I’ve found the book uniformly spellbinding since I first read it.

The subjects here all deal with art: artists, art shows, art museums. And virtually all of it revolves around contemporary artists in whom I have no interest whatsoever, charlatan figures like Roy Lichtenstein, Mark Rothko, Julian Schnabel, David Hockney, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Francis Bacon (“He is the sort of artist whose work generates admiration rather than fondness”). Hughes was on deadline for almost all of these pieces, and he didn’t always have a lot of time to take in any given exhibit – and his tastes in art were far more mandarin than mine could ever be – objectively, it should stand to reason that most of this book would bore me into a stupor. But Hughes is such a witty, bitingly insightful critic that even when he’s writing about artists I think he should simply dismiss out of hand, I read him eagerly, just for the supple joy of his prose – as when he pierces the mythology surrounding Auguste Rodin:

Perhaps we tend to see him as more isolated than he was. Rodin was never without gifted peers, and there were some formidable talents among his French contemporaries, particularly Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. No great artist appears, as it were, from the desert as a person without a past; that is a messianic fancy peculiar to the popular myths, but not the realities, of early modernism.

One of my main joys in reading Hughes is the ample sense in these pieces that he was willing to go anywhere, to examine anything with his fresh, fierce assessor’s squint. He’s every bit as much at home writing about the rarefied crapola of Willem de lucy gets criticalKooning as he is writing about a despised populist like Norman Rockwell:

His paintings offer Arcadia. In Rockwell’s America, old people were not thrust like palsied, incontinent vegetables into nursing homes by their indifferent offspring; they stayed basking in respect on the porch, apple-cheeked and immortally spry. Kids did not snort angel dust and get one another pregnant; they stole apples and swam in forbidden water holes but said grace before meals. All soldiers were nice boys from next door; all politicians were benevolent or harmlessly bumbling (although Rockwell, faced with the distasteful chore of committing Spiro Agnew’s face to canvas for the cover of TV Guide, once allowed that the disgraced veep was not quite his type).

I snatched up this UK paperback without hesitation even though it’ll certainly blow apart on me in no time at all (my original hardcover is long, long gone, of course), and it gave me a mesmerized hour of pure reading joy.