Remembering Robert Hughes, the Art Critic Who Took No Prisoners

“Some think that so much of today’s art mirrors and thus criticizes decadence,” Robert Hughes once said; “not so. It’s just decadent, full stop. It serves no critical function. It is part of the problem.”

Hughes died Monday at the age of 74. One of the towering figures of late 20th century art criticism, the Australian writer is best known for The Shock of the New, his 1980 television series on the rise and fall of modernism, and the bestselling book of the same name. He wrote at least 15 other wide-ranging books on art and history. He was an eloquent writer and a tough critic. “It was decidedly not Mr. Hughes’s method to take prisoners,” writes Randy Kennedy in the New York Times obituary. “He was as damning about artists who fell short of his expectations as he was ecstatic about those who met them, and his prose seemed to reach only loftier heights when he was angry.”

Perhaps nothing made Hughes more angry than the pernicious influence of money on art in the past few decades. In the scene above from the 2008 BBC documentary The Mona Lisa Curse, Hughes pays a visit to Alberto Mugrabi, whose wealthy family makes no secret of its efforts to manipulate the art market by buying up large numbers of works by certain artists (often those whom Hughes despised, like Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst) and storing them in warehouses. What follows is less of an interview than a browbeating. When it’s over and Hughes has left the room, Mugrabi says, “He’s a tough cookie.”

Related content:

Robert Hughes, Famed Art Critic, Demystifies Modern Art


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