Thursday, 9 August 2012

Robert Hughes: No Cookbook Art Historian!

Robert Studley Forrest Hughes, art critic and historian, born 28 July 1938; died 6 August 2012:
Northern Voices drew on Robert Hughes in its issue Number Two from his book 'Barcelona' (1992), in which he had repeated a conversation he had had with the Catalan artist, Salvador Dali, in which Dali had told him that the great unknown modernist artist (apart from himself) was Joseph Pujol.  Pujol, as Robert Hughes writes:  'performed under the nickname of Le Petomane, the Fartomaniac.'   For us, Hughes was an anarchistic art critic who so contrasted with the gentle anarchist art critic of the middle of the 20th Century, Sir Herbert Read, and the 'Toff' 1970's presenter of 'Civilisation', Lord Kenneth Clark.  And yet, on the day of his death at the age of 74 this week, one commentator on Radio Four's 'Front Row' actually likened Hughes to the 19th Century art critic, John Ruskin.  It was Hughes presentation of 'The Shock of the New', that tackled the job of criticising and analysing modern art in a country, Great Britain, that was probably the most sceptical of its value.  After all, hadn't Wyndham Lewis, the Vorticist, long ago warned us all of fashions in art in his brilliant essay 'The Demon Progress in the Arts'.  Robert Hughes on TV and in his book has helped a sceptical public to make sense of modern art in the late 20th Century.

Besides the Shock of the New, Hughes wrote The Art of Australia, Heaven & Hell in Western Art, The Fatal Shore, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach, and Nothing if not critical:  Selected essays on art & artists.  The book by Hughes that I am most focused on right now is Barcelona (1992), mainly because I am about to review the Liverpudlian Professor Paul Preston's recent book The Spanish Holocaust.  Knowing Spain and the Spaniards, I am impressed by how much better the Australian art critic is at getting under the skin of the subject than the anointed English Professor Preston.  In Chapter 2 of The Spanish Holocaust, which Professor Preston entitles 'Theorists of Extermination' he concentrates on the tendency of the right-wing theorists to use ethnic or perhaps racial categorisations to distinguish themselves from their Republican opponents on the left.  Thus, Preston is able to quote from Onésimo Redondo Ortega writing in the fascist monthly JONS*'Marxism, with its Mohammedan utopias, with the truth of its dictatorial iron and with the pitiless lust of its sadistic magnates, suddenly renews the eclipse of Culture and freedoms like a modern Saacen invasion ...  This certain danger of Africanization in the name of Progress, is clearly visible in Spain'.  Paul Preston, with his superficial historical analysis, here applies a North European rational and explanation to a proposition by a right-wing propagandist that is really rooted in the culture of Spanish and Moorish anthropology at a deeper level.  Preston offers us a North European analysis of  the complexities of Hispanic culture to justify his own crude thesis and the argument of a Spanish right-wing racism not so different from that in Hitler's Germany or perhaps the English Defence League right now.  In doing so, in trying to simplify Spanish politics and culture to make it easier for outsiders to understand and to sell books, Professor Preston displays an anthropological illiteracy and cookbook analysis in his attempt to translate developments on the Iberian peninsular. 

By contrast, Robert Hughes in his Chapter One 'The Color of a Dog Running Away' describes this same phenomena as a deeply rooted xenophobic part of the Iberian culture and civilisation, and not as something specifically confined to right-wing Spaniards, like the old Falange Party or Onésimo Redondo Ortega.  Perceptively, Mr Hughes wrote that even in perhaps the most European part of the Iberian peninsular, Catalonia, the slogan 'Catalans de sempre' ('Catalans since forever') was 'somewhat xenophobic', and that a friend  of his from Barcelona that had met a peasant in the Catalan village of Ampurdan, who had told him of the city folk that had bought second homes in the village, and he had said of them:  'Son tots moros' - 'they are all Moors'.  This habit of calling the inhabitants of neighbouring towns 'Moors' was widespread when I was living in Spain, and Robert Hughes writes:  'The key expression of xenophobia is violently loaded:  xarnego... it shifted to "foreigners"; a peasant living in one valley of the Ampurdan, for instance, would use it of a peasant the other side of the hill.  But with immigration, it came to denote - in the pejorative sense - any working-class person of non-Catalan Spanish origin living in Catalonia.' 

I offer this contrast between Robert Hughes's anthropological approach and Paul Preston 's cookbook analysis, to show how the Australian gets inside the subject in a way that Preston imposes his own Anglo-centric bias and prejudices upon the Hispanic world in order to create a Civil War portrayal as being between Cowboys and Indians, with the occasional renegade thrown in for good measure.  With Robert Hughes in his Barcelona, we get what Frederic Raphael describes as 'the most accessible - art critic in the world ... in Barcelona his art-historical and his sociological talents converge in what is often a dazzling collage of Catalan peculiarities';  with Preston we also get a very accessible historian but one who sacrifices the special sociological qualities of Spain to a narrative to cater to an Anglo-Saxon and North European mind-set.  Professor Preston, like Hegel, wants to say that things which look differently, as in Spain, are really the same, and in overlooking the significance of these distinctions and special qualities of Spain and the Spaniards, he retreats into stereotypes and caricatures.

Robert Hughes writes:  'I became a Barcelona enthusiast, as near as I recall, in the spring of 1966.'  He went there because he was fanatically keen on George Orwell, and Hughes wanted to see 'the one city in Europe about which that insular Englishman felt moved to write with wholehearted affection'.  Of the city of Barcelona he wrote:  'Taste cannot be legislated, but at least the integrity of the past can be.'  He felt that after Franco died in the 1980s Barcelona 'developed the strictest historical preservation code of any city in Europe', and that this code 'works somewhat to the advantage of traditional Catalan crafts - ceramics, iron forging, high-grade joinery, glass - which were dying twenty years ago'.   Like the anarchists, who 'particularly loathed' the Sagrada Familia Church,  Hughes writes:  'With few significant exceptions, the Catalan intelligentsia has never liked it'.  And yet, it is too much of an attraction to Japanese tourists to be torn down.  Its original designer, Antoni Gaudi had said 'Poverty preserves and keeps things' and 'Many monuments have been saved from the ravages of the "academics" through lack of money'.  At the moment Catalonia, like other regions in Spain, is in deep trouble economically and perhaps Barcelona will not suffer the municipal vandalism like Manchester, and some of our Northern cities and towns have.  Mr. Hughes ends by saying that the Sagrada Familia will always be a 'divisive building', just as Barcelona 'for most of its life ... has been a divided city'.   Mr. Hughes, himself, was a divisive and controversial critic.

*  Onésimo Redondo Ortega wrote this in J.O.N.S. (Juntas de Ofensiva National-Sindicalista) in 1933 and, according to Gerald Brenan, the J.O.N.S. merged with the Falange Espanola of José Antonio Primo de Rivera in 1934.  Redondo studied Law at the University of Salamanca, but according to Paul Preston's comments elsewhere Redondo's anti-Semitism derived more from fifteenth century Castilian nationalism than from Nazi models (see wikapedia entry for Redondo).   This would seem to contrast with what Preston is saying above.  Preston admits José Antonio Primo de Rivera the leader of the Falange had 'little or no interest in the "Jewish problem",' but he struggles to build a case of right-wing racial bias generally while ignoring hostile Spanish attitudes to 'los moros' and the Jews among the wider general public.
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