Howard Jacobson: On that fabulous boat of my imagination came Robert Hughes. How lucky we were

Australians read and looked and listened as no one born in London or Paris felt they had to

Howard Jacobson
Saturday 11 August 2012 00:05 BST

The great god Pan is dead! I was weeping soppily in celebration of another Olympic gold for Team GB when I learnt of the death of that formidable intellectual force, the art critic Robert Hughes, and remembered what tears are really for. I can't claim him as a personal friend, though we met occasionally when he came along to editorial meetings of that once fine journal Modern Painters, breathing fire, heaping scorn, laughing like Jove, and reminding us by his very presence that there are few higher callings than talking well about art. Some men of stature shrink those they come in contact with; Hughes made everyone around him feel like a god. Olympic sport is all very well, but when Robert Hughes addressed you as "Mate", it was as a welcome to Mount Olympus itself.

He came to Europe in the 1960s on that fabulous boat of my invention which also carried Clive James, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, the film director Bruce Beresford, the painter Brett Whiteley and countless more Australians of prodigious gifts. I was on the water at the same time, going the other way. We passed on the equator. That's how I like to tell it anyway.

In fact, they staggered their arrival, as though each was preparing us for the next. What made Australia of the late 1950s such an intellectual hothouse is a subject for another time, as is the reason so many of that generation felt they had to leave it. But, briefly, distance was the cause of both.

In the days before cheap air travel, physical alienation from European culture made Australians determined they would not be alienated from it intellectually, and so they read and looked and listened as no one born in London or Paris felt they had to – if you want to know the location of any art treasure in Italy, you ask an Australian not an Italian, if you want to know who sings the best Rigoletto, similarly – but that same distance created a forlornness (I say nothing of Sir Les Patterson) from which, for many, it was necessary to escape.

Do we yet know how lucky we were to have them on this side of the world? We had our own irreverently clever, establishment-bashing boys at that time, but the Australian contingent brought a combination of wit, rumbustiousness, intellectual scruple and deep seriousness (no matter that it dressed itself as mirth) that the English couldn't match. Their ear for cant and commonplace was sharper than ours, their nose for self-righteousness and hypocrisy keener. They weren't just thinkers – they were pugilists of thought.

Outside the art world, Hughes first became widely known in 1980 with his television series The Shock of the New. Has anyone ever looked out of a television screen with more critical menace? It was a series in which the viewer was made ashamed of being stupid. That's to say it was the opposite of most art programmes now. The words flowed, the passion burnt up the screen. He made it manly to look at art, not Sir Kenneth Clark refined and in-the-know, or John Berger ideological, but manly in the democratic sense, engaging our humanity. He hated theory and the linguistic pallor of those who used jargon to shut the uninitiated out of art.

As a critic who talked so well about "shock", he was expected to love everything the etiolated curatorial class considered "new", but he fumed against its triviality and cynicism. In a period marked by ignominious intellectual capitulation to dross, he performed Pope's function of excoriating the dunces, but at the same time went on reminding us of what true art looked like, sometimes in the voice of the larrikin, sometimes of the connoisseur, but always wittier than any other art critic, better read, and possessed of infinitely more subtle judgement.

Do I heroise him? Yes, I do. I am unable to heroise Usain Bolt however fast he travels and however beautiful he looks in motion. The macho gurning and showboating for the cameras reduce him. Give me the modest triathlete or wordless pommel horseman any time. But I heroise the man who thinks deep, and looks hard, still more.

Not that Hughes placed himself above the physical life. He was a man's man, a fisherman who drank with gusto. You felt his bulk when he entered a room. The last time I saw him was at a restaurant in London. He had suffered terrible injuries in a road accident in feral north Western Australia and was walking on crutches. I was sitting at a table of writers who'd been speaking earlier that week at feral Hay-on-Wye. Norman Mailer was among them. He, too, had entered the restaurant with the help of a stick.

I don't know which of them saw the other first. Maybe it wasn't a question of visual recognition. Maybe they just sniffed each other's presence, like big cats. How well they were acquainted I have no idea. But they were bound to have met and sparred over the years. And whatever the mutual admiration there was bound, too, to have been the rivalry of alpha males who dealt in grand ideas and spoke like oracles. Mailer rose from the table, anyway, and without the use of his stick made his way to Hughes. Hughes discarded his crutches. Like old soldiers refusing to make anything of their wounds, however grave, they crashed into each other's arms.

It's impossible to heroise without being sentimental. Mailer sentimentalised Muhammad Ali just a little. Maybe for being the Mailer Mailer had never been. In his wonderful book about the colonisation of Australia, The Fatal Shore, Hughes, for the same reason, sentimentalised the first wild Irish-Australians who gave the country its character. Thus do high-born aristocrats long to play the low-born rebel. I wouldn't say, though, that he ever sentimentalised Rembrandt or Picasso. You can overdo your admiration for athletes or bushmen, but not for great painters. Or great critics.

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