Art critic is better at lambasting than he is at analyzing

November 11, 1990|By DANIEL GRANT

Nothing If Not Critical:

Selected Essays on Art and Artists.

Robert Hughes.

Knopf.

429 pages. $24.95. Granted, the tone of most magazine writing tends to be a bit on the sneering side, full of sarcasms and hyperbole passing for new ways of saying the same old thing, but Robert Hughes' venom seems to have no end. It also seems to have no specific basis, as the tone of almost everything emanating from Mr. Hughes, a Time magazine art critic, is one of crotchety scorn.

It gets so bad that even when Mr. Hughes has clearly enjoyed something, such as the "Van Gogh in Arles" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York Ciy in 1984, he cannot express it without offering contempt for something else: "the general public, one may predict, will see very little. Its members will struggle for a peek through a milling scrum of backs; will be swept at full contemplation speed (about thirty seconds per image) through the galleries; will find their hope to experience van Gogh's art in its true quality thwarted." He then complains about the "bazaar of postcards, datebooks, scarves" and other assorted souvenirs.

Did Mr. Hughes expect that 200 famous paintings from the most notable period of a famous artist's career might be displayed so they wouldn't draw large crowds? Are souvenirs, which help museums pay for themselves and let visitors take home something by which to remember the art, that terrible? There is something very shallow about Mr. Hughes' sneers that leaves a bad taste in one's mouth rather than gives cause for reflection.

Reading through these essays, almost all of which had appeared in Time or the New York Review of Books between the late 1970s and late 1980s, one does start to catch what Mr. Hughes is really angry about -- the effect of money on taste and on artists themselves. Nothing riles him as much as the recurrent subject of how the avant-garde became the establishment (what hypocrisy!) and how artists saw their creations as means to money-making (what cads!). Andy Warhol is described as becoming "the semiofficial portraitist to the Peacock Throne [the Shah of Iran]. When the Interview crowd were not at the tub of caviar in the consulate like pigeons around a birdbath, they were on an Air Iran jet somewhere between Kennedy Airport and Tehran."

There is no mincing words about painter Julian Schnabel, whose "work is to painting what [Sylvester] Stallone's is to acting -- a lurching display of oily pectorals -- except that Schnabel makes bigger public claims for himself."

The language is certainly vivid, pointedly so, but the larger point of these essays is that art is not what it once was, artists are not the giants they once were. Two issues can be raised about this overriding theme -- is this so, and does it really matter in terms of one's enjoyment of contemporary art? -- but Mr. Hughes prefers to lambaste what he doesn't like than question why he doesn't like.

As with other critics who condemn the times we live in (and, by the way, there are critics in every age who lament the decline of the present), Mr. Hughes is shy on discussing individual works of art for long stretches.

Why is that? Because individual pieces require particula attention to issues of form, content, fabrication and intention that may not fit into a big, witty hyperbolic generalization. Magazines like this kind of wordplay, where everything is snappy and savvy and a bit cynical, but one expects more of a book. The decline of art criticism is a subject that Mr. Hughes might want to tackle next.

Mr. Grant is a writer living in Amherst, Mass.

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