Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I’ve met Robert Hughes twice, the first time in the early 80’s. He’d been invited to give one of the semi-annual lectures at the museum on campus. It was only a couple of years after The Shock of the New and he'd achieved marquee status. He put on a good show. Fulminating at the vulgarians in the new administration, he put up a slide of a statue of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, homosexual lovers and by an act of tyrannicide heroes of Athenian democracy, who opposed thereby everything Reagan and his cronies stood for. He came off as both High Church and decent; the lecture was a hit. At the reception he was left somewhat on his own, more out of fear I thought than lack of interest,  and at some point I nervously walked over to ask a question. They'd offered the rest of us the usual cheap wine but Hughes was drinking either gin or vodka; whatever was in his glass it wasn't water. A few minutes later when a museum flack tried to ingratiate herself to him by knocking me away, Hughes tried in a half-assed but well-intentioned way to introduce us. “What’s your name again, mate?” I stammered a response and she dragged him off.

I saw him again years later at a Rubens exhibit, when Larry Gagosian made his brief attempt to go into the market for old masters. The Fatal Shore had been out almost 10 years, and I asked Hughes if he saw a conflict between his interests as a writer, as a lover of writing, and an art critic. He said he didn’t see one. I asked him if the two different tastes, in objects and language didn’t have different relations to the world. Good paintings as objects are one-of-a-kind commodities, and copies of Dante or his own books are comparatively at least, a dime a dozen, with the price having no comparable relation to their value. He thought for a minute but didn’t respond and I didn’t push the question. I said and he agreed that it was a great show and left it at that.

I’ve asked similar questions over the years to people involved in the art world/market in various ways, and never gotten a very good response. I asked Dore Ashton if there were any reason that art should try to be popular. She was horrified at the suggestion. I wasn’t quick enough at the time to ask about Shakespeare.

The art world, the market for discreet objects of pleasure and value, represents the most conservative aspects of society. Before democratic revolutions it was part and parcel of the culture of the old regime, and under democratic regimes it must play to or off the tastes of the elite. The reasons are obvious, but largely ignored, especially by critics who want to think of themselves as independent. Journalists who write about fashion or interior design are much less conflicted, though there’s considerable overlap in the marketplace.

The fine arts are aristocratic. That’s their strength and weakness. But the arts as a whole, high, low and in between, are descriptive. Two things to be aware of when following the various partisans of modernism past and present.

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