Saturday, February 2, 2013

Robert Hughes... where did you go?

Robert Hughes was a critical genius, which he made evident in his use of plain language to weave elegant and complex relations between things. He was a writer first, a content expert second… or should I say… a content expert by way of being a writer. He was committed to language as the tool by which to condense complex meanings from observation. That is the essence of poetry, and Hughes was surely a poet of critical thought. The content experts of academia don't (as professional practice) condense complexity from observation. Instead, they explode complexity by reworking existing academic formulations. They don't go back to nature, they don't judge the point at which bone grinds on earth, and they do not grasp the nature of things in themselves. That is for men like Hughes. That is why he is great, and that is why he is so often marginalized and parodied by those who want to locate themselves within the privileges of academia or the art world.

What I appreciate most about Hughes, is that despite however negative his assessment of the current scene gets, he is not cynical about the prospects for art. He is simply strong enough to accept that the entire scene may be missing the larger meanings of art, both historically and personally. Perhaps history will judge him to have missed the point of the current postmodern malaise. Time will tell. But Hughes doesn't hedge his bets, he doesn't waffle on his judgements. That takes courage, commitment, belief, judgement. Balls.

The emperor of culture is indeed naked. But knowing that is not enough. If one then follows that observation with endless railings against the cultural hegemony that underwrites the yes-man-ism of the emperors courtesans, then one is falling into a counter-punching relationship with a social power that has no historical or moral authority. Calling out such bankruptcy, and throwing some punches at it is necessary. But to engage in an perpetual analysis of the emperor's nudity is to (unwittingly, and by implication) sanction it and give it relevance. I don't know where to draw that line. It isn't always obvious, and the persistence of said nudity seems to require endless rebuttal arguments, lest our silence be confused with acceptance.

But the talking does need to end at some point. This is difficult for the critic, I suppose, whose very purpose is to carry on discourse. But for artists themselves, the critical engagement can end. The emperor and his cultural context can be called out, critiqued, and rejected. An opening can be clawed out thusly… an opportunity for an alternative. But nature abhors these vacuums, so unless one is ready to fill that space with something else, that big pile of bullshit will just slough back down and burry these efforts.

We fill that space with positive proposals, with new theories, by championing things that make sense, and by making art that makes sense. Hughes is inspirational on this point. At the end of his critical writings, or at the end of his video segments, when he looks into the camera and summarizes so clearly, and draws us into the confidence that rational men share… one can feel very primed to break free from all the troubling errors of the world. Hughes is already there. He passes judgement, turns away from the camera, and is done. We should be as brave.

The significance of Hughes is not simply what he says, but the way he says it, and the quality of the man behind these things. If the medium is the message, then Hughes was truly a message unto himself, the literal embodiment of the courage to draw the conclusion, and to move on. He is bigger than all the wrong ideas he sees so clearly. He is bigger even than his own opinions, great as they are, tied to his character, yet like all living things, they tremble in the cold light of day. His content and his medium are one. But whereas the content of any man's life must end, the lessons of his medium (his character) go on.

The sadness of the critic, so isolated in time, is that his course may be run whence he has so clearly understood these things. The endgame outlasts their prime, rendering them easy targets to the new breed eager to make their reputations by picking the bones of the old. But such derivative musings soon fade, leaving the world hungry for something real... and maybe the spirit of Hughes can reincarnate in the form of someone with intelligence, wit, and honesty. We shall see, I hope.

But the artist only moves forward, and must, else surrender the field to the very thing Hughes revealed. If the artist wants to honor the idealism of Hughes and react against the bullshit of cultural hegemons, then they must act like a man. They must have the courage to construct something, to assert it, and then step back and let it breath. Like Hughes himself… know it, say it, and then be still.

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