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The Spectacle of Skill: New and Selected Writings of Robert Hughes

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“I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work, or a good carpenter chopping dovetails . . . I don’t think stupid or “I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work, or a good carpenter chopping dovetails . . . I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one . . . Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate.” Robert Hughes wrote with brutal honesty about art, architecture, culture, religion, and himself. He translated his passions—of which there were many, both positive and negative—brilliantly, convincingly, and with vitality and immediacy, always holding himself to the same rigorous standards of skill, authenticity, and significance that he did his subjects. There never was, and never will be again, a voice like this. In this volume, that voice rings clear through a gathering of some of his most unforgettable writings, culled from nine of his most widely read and important books. This selection shows his enormous range and gives us a uniquely cohesive view of both the critic and the man. Most revealing, and most thrilling for Hughes’s legions of fans, are the never-before-published pages from his unfinished second volume of memoirs. These last writings show Robert Hughes at the height of his powers and can be read only with pleasure and a tinge of sadness that his extraordinary voice is no longer here to educate us as well as to clarify and define our world.


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“I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work, or a good carpenter chopping dovetails . . . I don’t think stupid or “I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work, or a good carpenter chopping dovetails . . . I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one . . . Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate.” Robert Hughes wrote with brutal honesty about art, architecture, culture, religion, and himself. He translated his passions—of which there were many, both positive and negative—brilliantly, convincingly, and with vitality and immediacy, always holding himself to the same rigorous standards of skill, authenticity, and significance that he did his subjects. There never was, and never will be again, a voice like this. In this volume, that voice rings clear through a gathering of some of his most unforgettable writings, culled from nine of his most widely read and important books. This selection shows his enormous range and gives us a uniquely cohesive view of both the critic and the man. Most revealing, and most thrilling for Hughes’s legions of fans, are the never-before-published pages from his unfinished second volume of memoirs. These last writings show Robert Hughes at the height of his powers and can be read only with pleasure and a tinge of sadness that his extraordinary voice is no longer here to educate us as well as to clarify and define our world.

30 review for The Spectacle of Skill: New and Selected Writings of Robert Hughes

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    I was extraordinarily lucky. I read the collected essays both of James Baldwin and the Spectacle of Skill: New and Selected Writings of Robert Hughes. Both men were brilliant masters of the English language. Robert Hughes was raised in Australia where he was educated in a Jesuit school, and he learned classical English literature and Latin -- he would be fluent in Spanish and Catalan, and perhaps Italian and French. He left Australia to become one of the most prominent art critics in the English I was extraordinarily lucky. I read the collected essays both of James Baldwin and the Spectacle of Skill: New and Selected Writings of Robert Hughes. Both men were brilliant masters of the English language. Robert Hughes was raised in Australia where he was educated in a Jesuit school, and he learned classical English literature and Latin -- he would be fluent in Spanish and Catalan, and perhaps Italian and French. He left Australia to become one of the most prominent art critics in the English language. His series for the BBC, The Shock of the New, about modern art, was later expanded into a book (which I also have). He was noted for a balanced, witty style; and in the stylish world of New York art, being somewhat of an ornery conservative. But he was conservative in the best of ways, with a broad world-view and a profound understanding of history. It was true, as he sadly noted, that the art of his time did away with much of the technical mastery that had been learned in the past, but that--as he refused to note--was part of its purpose. He became the art critic for Time Magazine and mingled with the rich and the famous. Of a meeting with Jerzy Kosinski: "He was quick, arrogant, nervous, with bad teeth and a raptor's nose--like an ill-preserved but dangerous hawk...He told hilarious stories about his visit to Tunisia, as President Bourguiba's guest. The president gave a party for him in Hammamet and, late at night, suggested they go to a bathhouse. 'You will find exquisite creatures there, Mr. Kosinski,' he purred. 'Exquisite. You will never forget it.'" "'All right,' said the somewhat drunken Jerzy, 'let's go. I haven't had a woman since I got to Tunisia,' he confided to the president. "'A Woman, a woman!' Bourguiba cried, flicking him lightly on the shoulder. 'Quel fetichiste!'" One can do no better than to quote Robert Hughes: "For millions upon millions of people, a vast audience, much larger than print can claim, TV has taken over their image banks, their modes of social expression, their dreams, their fears. TV creates the icons to which they look and the forms of homage they pay to them. And yet there are some things TV cannot do; and, because it knows this, because it is not made by fools, TV favors and strives to create a mindset in which those things are not valued. They include, for instance, the ability to sustain and enjoy a nuanced argument, to look behind the screen of immediate 'iconic' events; to keep in mind moderately large amounts of significant information, or to remember today what some joker said last month...Commercial TV teaches its audience to scorn complexity and to feel, not think...More and more, network coverage treats politics as a gladiatorial sport. Having sown this wind, we now reap the whirlwind of an absurdly caricatured polity, under whose stress the traditional American genius for compromise, which is the very soul of a pluralist democracy, shows nasty signs of breaking down." This book includes passages from his books The Shock and the New and The Fatal Shore, about the founding of Australia, Nothing if Not Critical, a collection of essays on art, Barcelona, Rome, Florence, A Jerk on One End (about fishing), and Goya. As Publishers Weekly commented -- it is marked by "his staggering erudition." The essays are often profound, always learned, witty, and full of quotable phrases from a master (and opinionated) stylist. The only essay that rather disappoints is the last, which is about his relationship with his only son who committed suicide. Perhaps, writing a 'successful' essay about such a relationship--or non-relationship, as in Hughes' case--is impossible, but it is also the one essay where he dwells on his own flaws, his selfishness and immaturity, and the wit that always sustains him in the other essays, fails. It is striking to learn he hasn't really the language for intimacy about himself. He is, at his best, a perspicacious and sagacious observer of the world around him. A marvelous collection by an extraordinary writer.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Tole

    I like Robert Hughes' writing and criticism. Along with Peter Fuller, he has been for me a most influential art critic whose work I first came across with the blockbuster that every young art student came across in The Shock of the New. Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists is a tour de force of art critical writing which anybody seriously interested in painting should have read. The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding was Hughes’ attempt to understand the history of his own country, and I like Robert Hughes' writing and criticism. Along with Peter Fuller, he has been for me a most influential art critic whose work I first came across with the blockbuster that every young art student came across in The Shock of the New. Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists is a tour de force of art critical writing which anybody seriously interested in painting should have read. The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding was Hughes’ attempt to understand the history of his own country, and the books on Barcelona and Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History are deep rooted more-than-travelogues. I’ve read most of his work including the one not excerted here, Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America. I admit I nearly sent The Spectacle of Skill back when I found that I had read most of the excerpts in the main books but I didn’t and am glad to have read Hughes’ brilliant prose again. But it is more than that. Hughes stands for not only a period of reviewing by people steeped in art and painting but also as a firm believer in the CRAFT of art and the joy of skill, a time when art schools believed in teaching rather than the academicism of artsy(arsey?) intellect and arty-bollix as they now appear to do. Art made in the absence of craft is as empty as bullfighting in the absence of a bull. The inflation of the market, the victory of promotion over connoisseurship, the manufacture of art-related glamour, the poverty of art training, the embattled state of museums, these will not vanish as at the touch of a wand now that 1990 is here. For 1990 read 2018 – it all still applies. Hughes can be an iconoclast and a reactionary. His diatribe in ‘The Decline of the City of Mahogany’ from Nothing If Not Critical is like a punch in the face to all those that thought Gilbert and George were something special and relevant rather than self-promoting glamour and shock value. Hughes called it as he saw it never being afraid of being called a fuddy-duddy old-timer steadfast in his views which were built firmly on solid principles of craft, skill and workmanship to make art that was skilled, knowing and had something to say. Nor did the cultural establishment escape his wrath either. 'Cultural Imperium' suggesting the idea of cultural hegemony such that what appears to be ‘avant garde’ and ‘radical’ is in fact intensely conservative and defined by the forces of economy and commodity trading which have absolutely no bearing on intrinsic value. His ability to be charmingly cutting as in his put down of the Whitney Museum of American Art stands out in the less-is-more trope and should be contrasted with Peter Fuller’s full on raging polemic seen within the editorials of ‘Modern Painters’. On Jackson Pollock, Hughes successfully recognises that distance and time were required to separate the actuality of Pollock as a great artist from Pollock as a performer, a showroom dummy for those seeking an American Siegfried as exemplified in the film of his action painting and the many photographs by Newman, Namuth and Burckhardt. Hughes above all else was totally against the perversion he saw in painting, away from skill and the greater beliefs in Art towards fetishism, glamour and celebrity, as well as decrying the fearful land-grab of art-by-commercialism and Art-as-Commodity. This comes across time and time again in the essays in 'Nothing If Not Critical' as well as his reviews and articles for Time magazine. It is no accident that the immense fetishism that sustains the art market should have reached it's present level just at the time when the old purposes of art, the manifestation of myth and the articulation of social meaning have largely been taken away from painting and sculpture by film, television and photography. Only when an object is truly useless it seems, can capitalism see it as truly priceless. But he was also a realist and not a romantic understanding that artists too had to live, had to sell, had to earn from their labour and as such he wasn't at all strictly against patronage and money. The idea that patronage and trade automatically corrupt the well of the imagination is a pious fiction believed by some utopian lefties and a few people of genius like Blake but flatly contradicted by history itself. Not for him either the artist-in-his/her-ivory-tower or the tortured-soul-living-on-a-crust-in-a-garret. Romantic he was not. His vision was to see through and describe in print what he saw as the cant and artifice of the commercial gallery scene and name/status/celebrity building for the sake of surplus value in art. He had the tools at hand and the knowledge to call these bodies to task and to counterpoint them against explicit quotes from as diverse sources as William Blake, Samuel Johnson and ancient Greek philosophy. And he saw this not only in relation to particular artists work (the venom and contempt felt about Schnabel and Warhol and Koons and Hirst and vapid conceptualism in general is palpable) but also about the way the gallery scene manipulated a sense of value and mystery that art should and does provide but has become kidnapped and ransomed to the realm of the super rich commodity owners and dealers and the lock-away-investment merchants . He fought quite ceaselessly against the pathetic narcissism of glamour and fame to register in favour of myth and deep seated value and intelligence - not the flippant self-declamation of solipsistic whimsy but for an underlying core of human values and he was not afraid to call individuals out on it. The frame of language around Rothko saved his work from the kind of analysis that might have argued that Rothko, far from being Yahweh's official strenographer (a role not entirely monopolised by Barnett Newman despite his vigorous efforts) was a painter, a maker of visual fictions - better than most, but still prone to repetitions and quite able to succumb to his own formulas and reflexive cliche. What Hughes was good at was social observation with regard to Art and how this has changed through time. The enjoyable self-stroke I feel reading Hughes writing in 1990 is undermined by the fact that if anything it is hyperbolically worse in terms of the narcissism, the blandness, the absence of real thought whilst seemingly being deep-'n'-meaningful in both the current Art milieu AND the institutions of Art Education. If anything the blase has burgeoned and the expectations and interests of millennials has seen all the horrors he documented magnify under their expectations and urgings of vapid art school 'tuition', such that going to Degree and Postgrad shows has become an exercise in window shopping for The Selfish, regurgitated and repackaged in the light of the decline of standards of why and what is taught as they continue to bomb like the maiden voyage of the Titanic to produce the bulimic epidemic which is now Art. Above all their grasp of art history is only twenty years long and their connoisseurship is about a foot deep. Many of them seem to believe quite sincerely that Western Art began with Warhol. The others only behave as though it did. The idea of a present with continuous roots in history, where an artist's every action is judged by the unwearying tribunal of the dead, is utterly alien to them ......... They want to believe that right now they are living in the middle of one of the great creative moments of Western art, something like Paris in the late nineteenth century. And in a sense they are right, because at no time since 1900 has the ground been so crusted with academic art - except that the academicism is not that of Cabanel or Bouguereau or Meissonier: it is the academicism of the spray can and the pat gesture of deep "expressive" involvement that signifies only routine picture making, the academicism not of a depleted ideology but of a trivialised plurality. This book should be seen as a primer to Hughes, in his criticism and his beliefs. You HAVE to go back to the books themselves and read them thoroughly. You may not agree with the stances he takes but everyone of the books engages the reader in a debate which is meaningful, which forces the reader to identify WHAT precisely they believe and to set standards for behaviour and prospect. So The Spectacle of Skill represents a damn good start to a whole raft of reading. Let the backlash against The Age of Narcissism commence!

  3. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    Some fascinating sections about artists I admire like Rauschenberg, Gaudi and Wyeth and lots of really eye-opening information about Australia and the dearth of art and art scholarship here in the fifties. I like how Hughes writes, particularly his essays from The Fatal Shore and his knowledge about art and history is prodigious and enlightening.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jack Youngkin

    Lucid and piercing. Hughes' analysis of painted art since the early 2oth century is right on target.

  5. 5 out of 5

    David

    Marred only by an introduction by the seriously unserious Adam Gopnik.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Lara

    Such is the talent of the late Robert Hughes, art critic for "Time" magazine for over thirty years and creator of the BBC TV series about modern art, “The Shock of the New”, that he could write about a telephone book and make it interesting. "The Spectacle of Skill: New and Selected Writings of Robert Hughes", contains a posthumous collection of Hughes' highest literary achievements, with selections from prior works such "The Shock of the New" and "Things I Didn't Know", the memoir of his life a Such is the talent of the late Robert Hughes, art critic for "Time" magazine for over thirty years and creator of the BBC TV series about modern art, “The Shock of the New”, that he could write about a telephone book and make it interesting. "The Spectacle of Skill: New and Selected Writings of Robert Hughes", contains a posthumous collection of Hughes' highest literary achievements, with selections from prior works such "The Shock of the New" and "Things I Didn't Know", the memoir of his life and career prior to his hiring by "Time" magazine. The book concludes with an excerpt from Hughes’ unfinished memoir which would have picked up where “Things I Didn’t Know” left off. In his criticism, Hughes’ pen was sharp and often eviscerating. His withering comments about the numbing quality of Warhol’s soup cans or Jean-Michel Basquiat (on the latter, “The only thing the market liked better than a hot young artist was a dead hot young artist”) are a treat not to be missed. But Hughes doesn’t just snipe or praise. “Spectacle” reminds us of the ever-present clarity and depth of his analyses. He was highly skeptical of artists who, in his view, blatantly pander to the whimsy of the market. He distrusted artists who are motivated by the tastes of the market and not by their own vision. He maintained that great art is a cultural manifestation; therefore, particular styles and movements cannot and should not be viewed as separate from their cultural and historical contexts (i.e. Futurist art must be scrutinized in tandem with Fascism, the political ideology it was fighting against). This past Christmas, I wished for two books that I knew I probably wouldn't get: a last, undiscovered work by Christopher Hitchens and one more book from Robert Hughes. Quite to my ecstatic surprise, I got one from each man. "The Spectacle of Skill" reminds lovers of Mr. Hughes that no one in the 20th century was more eloquent about art and its history than he. His passion for his subject puts paid to the assertion that the true value of art lies merely in the price it brings at auction. The genuine value of art is to be found in the engrossing mixture of its times, the story of its creation and a deeper understanding of its creator. For those unfamiliar with Robert Hughes, this book is an excellent starting place. Also recommended is the DVD set of "The Shock of the New", his TV series on modern art, which is a worthy continuance of Sir Kenneth Clark's BBC series, "Civilisation".

  7. 4 out of 5

    Julie-anna Child

    Stunning writing and ideas. Very funny jaded observation; the inside story to a rather craven art world. Good reading for cynical artists and antipodeans.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Rose

    A very good selection from his published writings as well as his from his previously unpublished continuation of his memoirs. His writing is clear and evocative and I could happily have read a book twice as long.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Heller

  10. 5 out of 5

    Steve

  11. 5 out of 5

    Demetrios

  12. 4 out of 5

    Hotrats

  13. 5 out of 5

    John Mixon

  14. 4 out of 5

    Nigel Hughes

  15. 5 out of 5

    Raye

  16. 5 out of 5

    Chris Taylor

  17. 5 out of 5

    Nick Sachs

  18. 4 out of 5

    Anna

  19. 4 out of 5

    Andy

  20. 5 out of 5

    Darren

  21. 5 out of 5

    Bonnie Beacher

  22. 5 out of 5

    Em

  23. 5 out of 5

    Robert Emmerson

  24. 5 out of 5

    Bwhitson

  25. 5 out of 5

    Alex

  26. 4 out of 5

    Ronald Vlietstra

  27. 4 out of 5

    James Hughes

  28. 5 out of 5

    Danny Jumpertz

  29. 4 out of 5

    Sheikh Tajamul

  30. 4 out of 5

    Davindek

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