ROBERT HUGHES. CHAMPION
Robert Hughes had many, many gifts and one of them was the gift of exquisite timing.
Itâ€™s no surprise then that as his last, magnificent act he should pass away during the Olympic Games.
“The new job of art is to sit on the wall and get more expensive.”Â Robert Hughes, July 28, 1938 â€“ August 6, 2012
Since his near-death in a car accident near Broome in May 1999 Hughes was often branded as just about the worst thing an Australian could be â€“ an elitist.
He knew however that secretly, Australians actually love elitism.
But only in sport.
â€śSportsmen have to be the best of the best. Imagine,â€ť he said to me years ago, â€śif I swam in the Olympics. No-one would turn up. Itâ€™d be a scandal. A joke.â€ť
But if you were an elitist in the world of ideas… things were radically different.
For example, when Bob received a standing ovation at a debate a week before the November 1999 Republic Referendum, one of the “no” speakers, Tony Abbott, couldnâ€™t hide his contempt. â€śThe rest of us wonâ€™t be able to watch things unfold from the safety of New York,â€ť he sneered.
His TV seriesÂ Beyond The Fatal ShoreÂ in 2000 – a six-part examination of Australian society and culture; how it changed and how it steadfastly remained the same after he had left for Europe in 1964 – was more ammunition for all the second-raters who saw him as a pugnacious and acerbic cultural elitist.
â€śI hate TV. I never watch it,” he said. “But I like to try to make TV I can watch without a sense of embarrassment. One of the things that used to bother me slightly in the days before I fully, completely and ecstatically embraced my own filthy elitism, was reconciling the contradiction between my dyspeptic view of broadcast TV and at the same time liking to do TV.
“Well I donâ€™t think thereâ€™s any contradiction at all, much the same as thereâ€™s no contradiction in not liking genuinely stupid and illiterate books and at the same time wanting to write your own book.â€ť
The Robert Hughes â€ścall me Bobâ€ť that I had the rare privilege of knowing was a man of tremendous generosity with a massive appetite for life.
He had an engaging, immediate, up-to-the-elbows involvement with the world.
He never completed his law, arts or architecture degrees at Sydney University. Rather, he swanned around the quadrangle in a black duffle coat, smoking gold-tipped Sobranies cigarettes, chatting up blond private school girls from Vaucluse with earnest talk of Ronald Firbank.
He also carried a copy of Jean-Paul Sartreâ€™s Being and Nothingness, â€śof which I could not read a word, since it was in French. Sometimes I would take out Sartre and lay him on the formica table in the pub, and then place the Sobranies on top, like the cherry on an ice-cream sundae.â€ť
Hughes ditched the foppish, academic world preferring to work as a cartoonist, an artist and an art-critic.
He left Australia for Europe in 1964 and then in 1970, he was appointed art critic for Time Magazine. He moved to Manhattan. In 1979, he wrote and presented the seminal television series on modern art, Shock Of The New, taking up the mantle of internationally renowned cultural commentator from Kenneth Clark, author of the 1969 series, Civilisation.
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