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Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes Chart


Robert Hughes has been called the "most popular art critic in the country," and to have given Time magazine its "only consistently good writing" in recent years (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 4/5/93). As an art critic whose heyday has been in the so-called Postmodern era, Hughes has admittedly struggled with living in a new global world where there is no longer a definitive hotbed of artists living in one city, making one great thing after another. Hughes' views on modern art are fairly traditional: he values an artist's formal training more than his instinctual gifts, and he has been highly critical of art that he perceives as ostentatious or self-serving. Overall, Hughes' greatest contribution as a theorist has been to challenge the supposed hubris of Modern artists whose work lacks some greater purpose and exists solely for itself.

Key Ideas

Hughes believes that the art market is necessary and helps many struggling but talented artists to survive. He is highly skeptical, however, of some artists who in his view blatantly pander to the whimsy of the market. In other words, he distrusts artists who are motivated by the tastes of the market and not by their own vision.
Hughes reveres the great Abstract Expressionists of the '40s and '50s, while at the same time is cautious of bestowing too much praise. Above all, Hughes values an artist's technical prowess and his/her ability to be visually descriptive and earnest, but firmly believes that not all Abstract Expressionists are worthy of the same praise.
Hughes maintains that great art is a cultural manifestation of sorts, and that particular styles and movements cannot and should not be viewed as separate from their cultural and historical context.


Childhood and Early Years

Born to Geoffrey Forrest Hughes and Margaret Eyre Sealy, Hughes was expected from a very early age to grow up and assume a career in law. Both his father and paternal grandfather were prominent lawyers, and his older brother Tom pursued a career in law as well (eventually becoming Attorney General of Australia), but Robert ended up choosing a different path, one that surprised even him.

Hughes attended St. Ignatius College in Riverview, Australia, and later attended the University of Sydney where he studied art and architecture. Not being a very committed student, Hughes dropped out of college and took a job as a cartoonist for the Sydney-based periodical The Observer. Soon afterward, Hughes was randomly assigned the role of art critic at the magazine, despite having no real background or formal education in the arts. This was the defining moment in Hughes' early professional life, sparking an interest that would eventually become a career.

While still attending University in the 1950s, Hughes was briefly a member of the left-wing intellectual group called Sydney "Push," which comprised of artists, poets, journalists, philosophers, musicians, lawyers and even career criminals, who typically gathered in pubs to organize large political demonstrations and protests.

In the early '60s, Hughes was one the first contributors to Oz Magazine, a satirical humor magazine based in Sydney, which eventually became known for its subversive and counter-cultural content.

Leaving Australia

In 1964, Hughes left his native Australia for Italy, where he traveled extensively for the better part of a year, before finally settling in London in 1965. While living in England he wrote for The Daily Telegraph, The Nation, The Observer and the London edition of Oz Magazine.

While Hughes has described his time in England as less than exciting ("I was having this weird and disastrous marriage .. I was hanging out with a bunch of Australian hippies who were running Oz Magazine.."), he did gain valuable broadcasting experience with the BBC; experience that would become very helpful in the years to come.

In 1966 Hughes published a book entitled The Art of Australia, a detailed history of Australian painting. (Although Hughes was quoted in 2002 as saying, "They could tow Australia out to sea and sink it for all I care," the critic has exhibited a love/hate relationship with his native country, believing that its heritage as a prison colony actually contributed to its role as an insulated home for a few great artists.)

Moves to America

In 1970, Hughes moved to the United States and took a job as chief art critic for Time magazine, a position he held until 2008. Hughes has described his being hired by Time as a "shot in the dark for both them and me."

In 1978, Hughes was recruited to become a commentator on ABC's news magazine program 20/20. After only a single taping, Hughes was fired and immediately replaced with a seasoned journalist.

In 1980, the British television network BBC broadcast Hughes' series The Shock of the New, based on Hughes' book of the same name. The educational series was devoted to the development of Modern art since the Impressionist period.

Hughes is the only critic to twice receive the College Art Association's Frank Jewett Mather Award for art journalism, in 1982 and again in 1985. In 1993 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Later Years

In addition to writing several books in his career, on topics such as the artist Francisco Goya and the history of Australian art, Hughes has been a regular contributor to Time and been a commentator on many American and British television programs. His most notable contribution to American television was the 1997 PBS series American Visions, which traced and critiqued the history of American art and artists since the Revolutionary War. Visions was revered for its impressive breadth of scope, with Hughes covering everything from the early landscapes and Abstract Expressionism to Art Deco and architecture.

In 1999, when Hughes was in Australia filming a television series, he was involved in a near-fatal car accident that broke his leg, shattered his elbow, and left him in a coma for several weeks. The next year Hughes was found not guilty by an Australian court for dangerous driving (he was reportedly driving on the wrong side of the road before the accident).

In 2001, Hughes got married for a third time, to the American artist Doris Downes, who is well known for her paintings of botanicals and natural history. Hughes and Downes are still together. That same year, Hughes' 33-year old son Danton, a sculptor, committed suicide in Australia.

In 2006, Hughes published his memoir entitled Things I Didn't Know. The book only covers the first 30 or so years of his life and career, stopping in 1970. Hughes has indicated that a second volume of his memoirs is in the works.

In addition to Time, Hughes has written for The New York Review of Books and The New Republic.


Hughes is arguably the only art critic in recent history to have made art criticism necessary again. Other critics in the post-Abstract Expressionist era have adopted a less formal tone, and have praised the avant-garde for being new and provocative without regard for subject matter. Hughes on the other hand has revived a sense of formalism and history when it comes to art.

Hughes has taken Harold Rosenberg's idea of a new globalism in art (where movements and styles are no longer found in a single geographical area, like New York or Paris) and critiqued art based solely on its aesthetic value within a global culture. As art movements and styles can no longer be categorized by city or schools of thought, Hughes has strived to educate the art world on what makes for quality art outside the context of the market-dictated value. The biggest example of this is Hughes' outspoken tirades on the work of contemporary British artist Damien Hirst, whose works tend to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and whom Hughes has accused of being "tacky" and "absurd." Other artists whose work has received less-than-favorable attention are Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

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