Unsentimental Education

Unsentimental Education

A new memoir by Robert Hughes reveals the idiosyncratic sensibility of a celebrated art critic.


I may not be the only member of the male sex who wishes that he was built like a brick outhouse and could simultaneously dilate in copper-plate oral and written sentences on subjects such as Francisco Goya and Leonardo da Vinci. To be able to reverse these roles or idioms might also be nice: I once asked Robert Hughes how he was doing and was told that he was busy reworking The Shock of the New in order to take account of recent postmodernism: “It’s only like trying to shift a ton of shit with a shoehorn.”

We have been almost as lucky with our Australian cultural and literary exiles as with our Irish ones, perhaps for the reason that many of them, their forebears originally transported from Ireland to Australia, still wouldn’t stay put. Hughes has written very pungently in the past–as in The Fatal Shore–about the “convict stain” that marred and marked the country of his birth. The effect of this local complex, if I had to summarize it, was almost wholly paradoxical. A young Australian, growing up in a deeply Tory nation after World War II, would feel the urge to depart not in spite of his affection for the classical tradition but because of it. Conservatism down under, that’s to say, represented not high culture but philistinism. Anyone found haunting an art gallery or a library would be suspected, like a crab climbing out of a barrel, of being a snob and an elitist and a deserter, whose own people were not good enough for him. (The same knight’s-move torture is captured in another Hughes anecdote that I treasure: His mates at the University of Sydney became so concerned by his fondness for female company that they formed up and huskily asked him straight out if he was a homosexual.)

The resulting Antipodean diaspora has given us Peter Porter, Clive James, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, Richard Neville, Bruce Beresford and others, many of whom began to feel partly reconciled to their “old country” (and more radicalized by their connection to it) after the election and subsequent removal of Gough Whitlam’s Labour government in the early 1970s. At last, a prime minister who could actually be glimpsed at the Sydney Opera House! At last, a prime minister who did not regard Australia as a mere “ditto” to British or American foreign policy. In exile terms, this cultural metamorphosis was quite well represented by a beefy and hearty critic for Time magazine, who could be seen enthusiastically discoursing about painting–and making it accessible to the “masses” while holding his own in the atelier–yet could be glimpsed on weekends at Shelter Island, on one occasion slugging a landed shark to death with a baseball bat (if rumor is not a lying jade) and on another tossing his shotgun into the harbor lest its presence coincide with a fit of the blues. Drinks were served, or so it was convincingly said. Restaurants were certainly reviewed, as well. Women were often kind, as they can be to those, however chaotic, who appreciate them.

Thus Hughes’s memoir, Things I Didn’t Know, rightly begins at the moment when a life of appetite and gusto might have been aborted: with a catastrophic car accident in Western Australia after a hot day of tussling with the sort of fish who can fight back. To say that Hughes was lucky to survive the wreck of the vehicle would be banal. There must have been moments, as he surveyed the mangling of his physical frame, when he wondered if he had been fortunate at all. (His improbable survival is just where the brick shit-house factor came in handy; that, and the timely action taken by an Aborigine named Joe Fishhook, whom we have to thank for these ensuing pages.) It’s been said that there’s nothing like the exhilaration provided by a near miss, and I have once or twice found this to be true: The lingering result of a near-death experience that nearly crushes you body and soul is obviously not so cheering. So call this a memoir that is soberly written by a dead man on leave.

Australian style in its native form is hyperbolic and enthusiastic and populist. Hughes’s self-deprecation and understatement, by contrast, are almost exaggerated. Of the several layered pentimentos contained within the story, one can only hope to select a few, and I choose his Catholicism, his “Sixties” and his unslakable thirst for color and action upon canvas. I do this partly because I used to wonder why Hughes got Andy Warhol–product of the same triptych–so wrong. In his dislike for Interview magazine and its affectless admiration for the Shah and Nancy Reagan, Hughes denounced Warhol in intemperate tones that, to his credit, he later came to reconsider. Now all his other regrets are on display, in a self-interrogation much more penetrating than anything Interview ever printed.

Everybody has read at least one recollection of the mixed bag of thrills and horrors that attends a Catholic boarding-school education. These chapters have tended to be written by those who survived the experience rather than by those who were physically and psychically crippled (at least until the recent freshet of agony and misery from those who were raped and tortured in infancy). Hughes certainly writes with the confidence of one who thinks it has done him no lasting harm. A whipping here, a mad lecture on sex there, a few laughs at the expense of priests who identified Marxism with the Antichrist, and of course an old Father O’Connell who had a feeling for devotional art and accidentally communicated this to the growing boy. On the whole, perhaps, school was a bit of a holiday from a slightly distraught home life, where both of Hughes’s parents died without giving him the chance to murmur farewell.

One knows right away, however, that at the very first opportunity this boy is going to leave town, leave the country, set off for the bright lights first of London and then of Europe, pay for an abortion, vent his scorn on cold war politics and dogmatic faith, and tumble into a world of sex and drugs and rock and roll. And this is why I stress Hughes’s addiction to understatement. He describes the utter boredom and pointlessness of much of the crash-pad-and-hash life into which he plunged, and it is only his attempt to make light of the experience that shoves it into a piercingly sharp relief. Many people had narrow escapes from the Sixties, when relationships could be dropped and picked up as quickly as callow opinions or tabs of acid, but it was Hughes’s bad luck to form a kind of matrimony with a true drifter and dilettante (and evident sack-artist) who once gave him the very pox that she had caught from Jimi Hendrix. That could be a funny story at some remove: What makes it unfunny is her preference for hard drugs and needles over their only son, Danton Vidal Hughes. This boy later committed suicide. Hughes mentions the death almost as gruffly–and as briefly–as did Kipling in noting the passing of “my boy Jack” in Something of Myself.

It is only toward the very end of the memoir that Hughes utters the line that furnishes the title. “By now,” he says, “I realized that my main impulse for writing a book was to force myself to find out about things I didn’t know.” This could be said by or about almost any author–“the educator must be educated,” as Marx put it, and no serious person is not self-taught–but it would be as true to say of Hughes that he came to find out things that he knew already. He may have discarded (and with contempt at that) the wicked doctrines of Catholicism, but he knew at once how to appreciate Matthias Grünewald’s altarpiece at Isenheim. His insight into Goya is well-known to us from a previous book. If you like Grünewald and Goya you will also recognize Otto Dix–several times mentioned in passing–as the real thing as soon as you meet him. And if these painters become your gold standard, and Barcelona and Florence are where you feel at home, and if you learned to distrust cant and meretriciousness and the fever for novelty when you were in your 20s, well then–you will one day try to evict popinjays like Julian Schnabel and Damien Hirst from the perch on which the pseudos have placed them.

At one point Hughes describes his beloved Catalonia as being, in temper, simultaneously revolutionary and conservative. He might have had himself–or indeed his favorite cartoonist Robert Crumb–in mind. Thus, from his religious boyhood Hughes retained what was aesthetically valuable, and from his Sixties youth he repudiated what was morally and intellectually vapid. In a vastly funny section, he describes how near a miss the latter transcendence was: When Time first called to recruit him from London, he was still so stoned and so paranoid that he thought it was a probe from the CIA. (He still exhibits a trace or two of this, making a listless and mushy analogy between Vietnam and Iraq.) But once the confusion had been overcome, there followed a season of pleasure for lovers of art, and a season of hell for the phonies who prostituted it. No critic could have asked for a better run. (And how odd that one should feel any nostalgia for the Time of those days.)

Here’s something I didn’t know until I read Things I Didn’t Know. Leonardo da Vinci was so full of self-loathing and self-doubt that, whenever he tested a new quill, he would scrawl the same unhappy inquiry: “Dimmi, dimmi se mai fu fatta cosa alcuna” (Tell me, tell me if anything ever got done). Is this encouraging or discouraging? I suspect that Hughes–who admits to an unfinished work on Leonardo as a reproach to all his finished ones–would prefer to say that it was a very good question, and be glad still to be around to ask it.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy