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
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there