Tom Sutcliffe: The combative critic whose waspish words had more than just shock value

 

As with quite a lot of things these days I first read about the death of Robert Hughes on Twitter. I'd love to know what the old bruiser thought of this new medium and to hear how wittily he might encapsulate its follies. I have a suspicion that he would disapprove. But in one sense it did him proud when it came to instant commemoration.

The hive-mind swarmed, provoked by the news, and in a matter of minutes an anthology of Hughes's best lines were ticking up on the time-line – those arresting, aphoristic phrases that knocked what you thought you knew out of you and left you thinking hard about what he wanted to put in its place. Most good critics would be travestied by a 140-character limit on quotation. But tellingly, Twitter captured the essence of Hughes's clarity, memorability and pugnacity.

The aggression in the prose wasn't too everyone's taste, and his sense of combat very occasionally hampered his criticism. "A Gustave Courbet portrait of a trout has more death in it than Rubens could get in a whole crucifixion" he wrote once, which makes the point about Courbet while unnecessarily suggesting that an odd kind of heavy-weight bout has just taken place. If great art is a kind of combat it's rarely as head-to-head as that. But for any young critic reading Hughes there was something intoxicating in his reassurance that art – and writing about it – need not be an effete affair. It could involve getting into fights and winning them, not by throwing your weight about, but through the accuracy of your punches. And that art was worth fighting about was implicit in the eagerness with which he squared up.

His prose style alone was a continuous combat with the prevailing orthodoxy in art writing. Though an unapologetic elitist ("I don't think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones" he once said) and a frequent scorner of the popular, he never used language that might exclude the uninitiated. Getting as many people as possible into the club was what he was interested in, just as long as they shared his interests. His The Shock of the New did more to open up modern art and its complexities to a general audience than anything broadcast before or since. The writing style was blunt, plain-speaking, briskly impatient with jargon that might conceal vacancy behind impressive polysyllables.

It's a rare ability to be able to write at the highest intellectual level with the plainest words. This paper's former critic Tom Lubbock had the gift. And Hughes did too. And accessibility like that takes nerve, since there are no opacities or obscurities to hide behind if your argument doesn't make sense. It is, unfortunately, vanishingly rare among those who currently administer and mediate contemporary art.

Look at any exhibition catalogue and 99 out of a hundred of the essays will be written not for the general public who attend, but for a priestly convocation of curators and academics. And even they aren't really expected to read them, but only to note that the right rituals have been observed, the correct authorities appeased. Certain things will be unsayable, many orthodoxies taken for granted.

It is often pharisaical, in fact, and Hughes, without getting too grandly scriptural about it, was a scourge of fine art pharisees. He hated the hype of the art market, he wrote, "because it intersects with a fatal propensity for sanctimony. I don't like the idea of art being a religion." By which he meant, I think, not that it couldn't contain the sacred, but that what is sacred can easily get lost when theologians, sectarians and dogmatists have a monopoly over access to it.

Writing directly to what anyone could see when they looked at a painting Hughes did what all really good critics should do. He fought for the priesthood of all believers.

Thin line between love and hate

It's an odd experience sitting in a theatre and thinking, "I would thoroughly recommend this but I hate it." I found it happening at the opening of the National Theatre's production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It does faithful service to a book about which people feel proprietorial.

 But for me it was also a compendium of theatrical pet hates. First: little model trains, tagged in someone's head as "magical". Second: actors pretending to be bits of furniture. Third, and perhaps most grating of all, slow-motion sequences. Go – I can pretty much guarantee you'll love it more than I did.

They need to stay in more

I think we can be confident that Jeanette Winterson didn't see The Trip, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan's series about a gourmet writing expedition around the North-west. Why? Because one of the funniest sequences in the show consisted of the two of them riffing off that hoariest of all costume drama clichés, "We ride at dawn".

Why so early, they asked each other, why not get a bit of breakfast in first? They teased the phrase, tormented it and eventually left it for dead. And yet there it is in The Daylight Gate, Winterson's new novel about the Pendle witches, as if nothing had ever happened. In-joke? Or evidence that her editor doesn't watch a lot of television either?

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor