“The Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes”
Robert Hughes was a large, ruddy, passionate man with a mordant, propulsive prose style, an acid sense of humor and a keen appreciation for the ridiculous in American culture, a quality that is never in short supply. He was also an art critic for Time magazine for 30 years; the author of more than a dozen books, including a best-selling history of Australia, “The Fatal Shore”; host of a television tour of modern art, “The Shock of the New”; and an avid fisherman. I knew the man, and I liked and admired him, although I did not always share his opinions about art and artists.
“The Spectacle of Skill” is a compilation of selected writings by Hughes with new material from the unfinished memoir he was working on when he died in 2012. The collection’s title is taken from a passage in an earlier book about his life, in which he tells the story of the horrific car accident that nearly killed him in Australia in 1999, as well as the legal wrangling and lurid press coverage that followed. His fellow Aussies in the media cast him as “a vile elitist,” an uppity, vainglorious heretic to the egalitarian faith of the continent known as Oz.
Answering the charge, Hughes writes: “I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work, or a good carpenter chopping dovetails, or someone tying a Bimini hitch that won’t slip.” It is a telling statement because it reveals the man’s belief that a hard line exists between the good and the bad, as well as his unshakable belief in craft and skill. Hughes was enamored of the thing well made, whether it was an elegantly constructed sentence, a beautifully executed knot or a painting.
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