Nothing if not critical

Adam Gopnik, New Yorker

There are few critics whose work can be read for style alone, and many of the best of those are essentially impressionists or appreciators, like Whitney Balliett and Henry James, idiosyncratic enthusiasts who wrote most often to explicate a new, if sometimes baffled, love. There is a still smaller number who, though passionately opinionated, and as often inclined to damn as praise, manage to turn opinion itself into a kind of art form, who bring to full maturity the moral qualities that hide in violent judgment—qualities of audacity, courage, conviction—and make them come so alive on the page that even if the particular object is seen in a fury, the object seems less interesting than the emotion it evoked, while some broader principle always seems defended by the indignation. Of that still rarer kind, those who come first to mind in English might be Tynan and Shaw on the theatre, Johnson and Jarrell on poetry—and to those names must be added that of Robert Hughes, the Australian (and, latterly, American) art critic, who died this week.

Hughes was many kinds of writers—his hugely popular account of Australia’s founding, “The Fatal Shore,” and his two marvellous books on the cities he loved, “Barcelona” and “Rome,” as well as his biography of Goya were all memorable in their kind—but his fame rightly rested on his thirty or so years of art criticism for Time, and (as he knew) above all on the series and book “The Shock of the New,” still much the best synoptic introduction to modern art ever written. “Nothing if Not Critical” was the title, taken from Iago, that, with mordant self-mockery, he used for a collection of his criticism. And he was a pure critic: both his memoirs and his essays on cities came most alive when he was laying into someone, or pouring praise on something, explaining why one fountain in Rome is more beautiful than another, or why someone he met in the course of life was not beautiful at all. The critics’ work was his work—not disclosing, but describing, fixing, defending, denouncing.

He was, first of all, an artist who just missed having a career as one—as a young man, a cartoonist, his line was said to be ridiculously, fluidly nimble. Read Adam Gopnik’s obit at New Yorker …