Sunday, August 26, 2007

THINGS I DIDN'T KNOW by Robert Hughes--a book review

Connections are often a key to the enjoyment of the stories of other's lives and I discovered a fair number of them while reading Robert Hughes' fascinatiing memoir titled Things I Didn't Know. First off Hughes and I share the same birth year--1938, That means our historical memories contain some common guideposts in spite of his youth in Australia and mine in the United States. We share early childhood consciousness of World War II, and being just a bit too young for Korea. We both were married with children before View Nam heated up. We both have lived in and loved London, have had a life threatening medical problem, and spent a career in the arts--though his has clearly and deservedly been far more distinguished.

Aside from our experiential similarities, I also admit to a long time admiration of his work. When I directed Timberlake Wertenbaker's magnificent play Our Country's Good, Hughes' The Fatal Shore was my research bible for the understanding of Australian history and character. A few years later, when teaching a course on the history and development of the arts in America, I used his American Visions for several class assignments. I must also admit to having The Culture of Complaint on my bookshelf and to reading his art columns in TIME regularly over the years.

Early on in the book, Hughes cemented my endearment by revealing that Ken Tynan was one of the critics he admired and wanted to be like. Ooops! another connection of his life to mine. Ken Tynan was a kind of hero to me too. In my judgement Tynan has written the best body of theatrical criticism in English since Bernard Shaw and I tried to make that point in my doctoral dissertation. Like Tynan Hughes felt that you need not be a talented artist to critique the arts, but you do have to have had made some attempts to practice the art you intend to comment on if only to learn how . . . "difficult certain effects that one sees in the work of real masters can be to achieve. It demonstrates that nothing, not even facility itself, is easy. Without knowing about such matters, one cannot write usefully about art."

As a somewhat crusty old curmudgeon myself, I also admire Hughes' unabashed cultural snobbery. He rues the damage done to artifacts and locales by what he calls the "toxic combination" of "mass tourism, local greed, and grossly insensitive restoration" that has literally "ruined the ruins" and turned whole sections of Europe into Disneyfied parodys of themselves. London's Bankside today, with its wine bars and museums of torture nestled up alongside the re-constructed Globe, would seem to be a perfect example of what he was talking about.

A full chapter is devoted to the great flood of the Arno in Florence in 1966. He was able to convince the BBC to send him to cover the story and his descriptions of the destruction and damage to so many classical masterpieces is compelling. The experience of seeing those treasures destroyed and hearing some so called new wave artists claim that their loss was no tragedy at all actually soured Hughes on the "potency of the avant garde." He remains convinced today that although some new works of art may have value, that the majority of so called "cutting edge" or "radical" works have little or no value. Newness is not a value in and of itself. Correlating with that is his pessimisstic view of modern media and journalism. The internet, the networks, and the fourth estate, he claims, have chosen to dumb themselves down to the level of "mushy celebrity-obsessed blithering" and "cretinous impressionism."

All in all Hughes' autobiography makes a lively read. It is acerbic, entertaining, and thought provoking.

1 comment:

David said...

I walked along Bankside last month from the Globe all the way down to Tower Bridge for the first time in a while and wow, has it changed. Up-scale wine bars nestled in with impromptu skate-parks, covered with what appeared to be tolerated graffiti, and an outdoor exhibit of 8 foot tall guitars signed by rock stars. I thought it was kinda groovy, multi-cultural and romantic, however.

Guitars on the South Bank