A JERK ON ONE END

REFLECTIONS OF A MEDIOCRE FISHERMAN

An unlikely match of subject, author, and series (this is a volume in the Library of Contemporary Thought) puts art critic and historian Hughes (American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, 1997, etc.) at the other end of a fishing pole. Hughes brings the same mixture of insight, self-deprecating whimsy, and caustic wit to the subject of angling that he has put to good use in art criticism and polemics. During his Australian boyhood, he was an avid fisherman, and he has retained that enthusiasm for “a good deal of my life. . . not with enough dedication to qualify as “expert,” however you might define that.” But his dedication to fishing has enriched his inner life in ways that are unexpectedly reflected in his “day job”: like novelist Craig Nova (see page 1205), Hughes has found fishing “an education in seeing and discriminating,” in learning to read the subtleties of water in motion and natural phenomena in the unending search for clues to where the fish are biting. More than that, however, A Jerk on One End is a discerning and clever history of the cultural and class implications of fishing, followed by a passionate and convincing, if brief, survey of the dreadful ecological effects of industrial fishing as practiced around the world today. Hughes is wonderfully candid about the seeming contradictions in the ethics of his sport, so much so that his argument with the factory fishing mavens is made that much more compelling. A thoughtful and witty little volume whose readership should extend beyond the fly-fishing purist.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-345-42283-X

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1999

AMERICAN VISIONS

THE EPIC HISTORY OF ART IN AMERICA

The ever voluble Hughes tackles 350 years of history with irony and gusto in this eminently readable handbook on American art. We live in a country shaped by colonization and immigration. This means, Hughes argues, that America will always bear a troubled relationship to its history, striving to sublimate alien feelings (and guilt) by fixating on ``identity, origins, and the past, or by the faith in newness as a value in itself.'' The roots of this faith, and of America's cultural production, remain wrapped around a Puritan bedrock, laid with the zealous intention of turning New England into the New Israel. This sense of a spiritual quest, of a constant attempt to transcend the past, surfaces repeatedly in America's great landscape painting, as well as in Jackson Pollock's action paintings, while the Puritanical distrust of the craven image haunts the spartan nature of Minimalism. But after centuries of rich, varied, and fruitful history, Hughes holds, Ronald Reagan's reign had a unique (and calamitous) impact, transforming the world of art into ``the artworld'' as trillions of fictive dollars circulated, producing as an offshoot numbers of status- seeking collectors. The rarity of old pictures, matched with a demand for art, prompted greedy dealers to mine the slew of students being churned out of the art schools, inflating and discarding premature talents. On the heels of that circus, Hughes sees American art on the decline, a thin, wheezing steam pump desperately trying to recycle past successes in order to make a buck. His readings of three centuries of both art works and trends are lively, detailed, and persuasive (though perhaps a bit too harsh regarding recent art), and his ultimately pessimistic take is expressed with great clarity. A meaty and illuminating excavation, full of vigor and punch, to accompany a spring PBS series. (330 illustrations and photos, not seen) (First printing of 100,000)

Pub Date: April 30, 1997

ISBN: 0-679-42627-2

Page Count: 608

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1997

CULTURE OF COMPLAINT

THE FRAYING OF AMERICA

It's hard not to be stirred up and entertained by the three jeremiad-essays Hughes (Barcelona, 1992, etc.) offers here. He goes scatter-shooting at cows with very broad sides: “the American talent for the twin fetishes of victimhood and redemption”; the PC academy (“ ‘The Canon,’ that oppressive Big Bertha whose muzzle is trained...at the black, the gay, and the female. The Canon, we're told, is a list of books by dead Europeans—Shakespeare and Dante and Tolstoy...you know them, the pale patriarchal penis people”); postmodern architects (“the pediment-quoting Ralph Laurens of their profession”); Jean-Michel Basquiat (“the black Chatterton of the 80's”). Hughes deplores the “multi-culti” scam of a cultural establishment unwilling to stand up to the Jesse Helms-types and thus retreating into an homogenization that doles out quality to all so that none will rise too high to be chopped down. But real European- or Australian-style multiculturalism, he argues, is of great benefit—a haunting of one culture by another, an enrichening. So far so good (if glitzy: for Time's art-critic, there's no idea whose subtlety can't be sacrificed for a clever line). But the swaggering postures Hughes assumes all over the room are convincing only in the brightest-lit corners. He does a little historical background for his best point—that art for Americans has always been a therapeutic activity—but elsewhere hardly a background is shaded in. The problematics behind our melding of cultures, behind a moral issue such as abortion, or underlying formalism and shock-aesthetics—these Hughes avoids drilling into deeply. Mostly, it seems, he's writing to the small, disenchanted section of the same go-go cultural guild he bewails; in such tight company, he has to do little more than press journalistic hot buttons cleverly. Not since John Gardner's On Moral Fiction (1978) have we had such a pellet-gun shower of right-wing leftism, back-to-basics positivism—and like Gardner's, it settles down more as vanitas than veritas.

Pub Date: April 1, 1993

ISBN: 0-19-507676-1

Page Count: 210

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1993

BARCELONA

After a rousing introduction that touches on the Spanish Civil War and Miró, Gaudí, and the Barcelonese mania for design and its folk-pride in “seny” (well-proportioned common sense), coexisting with its “tradition of intense, wrenching civic change, of long-shot gambles and risky endeavors,” Hughes plunges into the history of the city and of Catalunya entire—and is all but lost in its swamp thereafter. Understandably wishing to replicate his deserved success with The Fatal Shore (1986), Hughes takes Barcelona chronologically. But where the Australian epic of the earlier book was one of remade identities and turbulent national narration, Hughes here is faced with more frozen layers of culture and provincial self-regard. He goes at it painstakingly—all the names and dates are here, from the Romans onward—yet the result is deprived of Hughes's signature dash and vector. There are fine historical cameos—ever hear of Narcis Monturiol and his pioneering submarines, proof of Barcelona's helpless but also wonderful addiction to modernity?—but Hughes also must address himself to literature (the Catalan language being so important a determinant to the culture), and when he does this he seems to lose the confidently acerbic snap that his visual-art and architecture prose has (“The language of L'Atlantida is rich, sonorous, imbued not only with rhetorical grandeur but with intimate precision of observation and feeling”). The Gaudí section, which is very good, comes only at a very long book's end, by which time you are weary, and less involved than its great subject merits.

Pub Date: Feb. 28, 1992

ISBN: 0-394-58027-3

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1992

A solid work of art history, though not the revelatory summing-up the author appears to have aspired to. (215 illustrations,...

GOYA

Time’s art critic and cultural pundit (A Jerk on One End, 1999, etc.) finally produces his decades-in-the-making consideration of the Spanish painter.

Hughes had been “blocked for years,” he admits, before a 1999 car crash in his native Australia landed him in the hospital for more than six months and gave him direct experience with the “fear, despair, and pain” that Francisco Goya (1746–1828) excelled in depicting. Despite opening on this personal note, the text overall is simply another demonstration of Hughes’s always impressive ability to write about art for the general public without either pandering or putting on airs (American Visions, 1997, etc.). The prose is vigorous and opinionated—swipes at “the animal-rights faithful” and Hemingway’s “kitsch writing” during a discussion of Goya’s bullfighting etchings, for example—but no more so than usual for this writer. And the firmly expressed opinions don’t convey a more private engagement with the material: exegeses of Goya’s scathing series on The Disasters of War or his great painting of political martyrdom, The Third of May 1808, are intelligent, thorough, and involved without achieving that additional intimacy accessible only to an author more willing to sound vulnerable than Hughes is. We wouldn’t miss this quality if the opening pages hadn’t seemed to promise it; Goya smoothly blends art, cultural, and political history with biography to cogently capture its subject’s wide-ranging genius, reminding us that the creator of such searing images of human cruelty, duplicity, and stupidity as the Caprichos etchings was also a perfectly contented, if slightly bored, painter of sedate royal portraits for three generations of Spanish monarchs. (The reactionary Fernando VII finally drove him into self-imposed exile in France in 1824.) For all Hughes’s fluid exposition and astute character assessments, it remains a mystery how this “man reasonably at ease in the world” could cast such a cold eye on its horrors.

A solid work of art history, though not the revelatory summing-up the author appears to have aspired to. (215 illustrations, 115 in color, color not seen)

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2003

ISBN: 0-394-58028-1

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2003

A long, unblinking look in time’s mirror, by a writer who has spent his life mastering his subject and his craft.

THINGS I DIDN’T KNOW

A MEMOIR

A sometimes poignant, sometimes nasty, often amusing and always erudite memoir by the historian and art critic (Goya, 2003, etc.).

Hughes begins his account with near-death (a 1999 car crash in Australia), ends with the beginnings of his professional life in 1970 (aboard a plane from Rome to New York City, where he will begin his long tenure as art critic for Time magazine). In between are stories about his family (the Hugheses had some prominence Down Under; his father was a heroic pilot in WWI), about his fierce Roman Catholic schooling (it didn’t take), the genesis of his love of art, his decision to leave Australia, his loves and losses and failed marriage, his European travels, his gradual emergence as a writer, his relationships with artists and publishers and the BBC (for whom he freelanced). At times, Hughes is gleefully self-deprecating, no more so than during his protracted tragi-comic account of his marriage to a woman who, throughout their relationship, apparently slept with just about every weirdo in London (and elsewhere) in the ’60s, including Jimi Hendrix, whose contribution to Hughes family harmony was a case of the clap. “I was a cuckold going cuckoo,” he laments. The author also skewers and grills a number of folks and phenomena and fashions—from Tiny Tim to Irwin Shaw (who once stole Hughes’s girlfriend) to Easy Rider to what he views as the entire anti-intellectual, superficial, hyper-religious, ultra-phony, trashy, celebrity-besotted American culture of today. Some highlights: the merry mortars he launches against the Australian press, his stories about Catholic boarding school, his account of Florence’s disastrous 1966 flood, his flops as a writer (he couldn’t finish a book on da Vinci), his swift report about his courtship by Time. (An error: Polonius is addressing Laertes, not Hamlet, when he says “to thine own self be true.”)

A long, unblinking look in time’s mirror, by a writer who has spent his life mastering his subject and his craft.

Pub Date: Sept. 25, 2006

ISBN: 1-4000-4444-8

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2006

ROME

A CULTURAL, VISUAL, AND PERSONAL HISTORY

In the spirit of his Barcelona (1992), the art critic and cultural historian zooms through Roman history, from Romulus and Remus to today.

Hughes’ (Things I Didn’t Know, 2006, etc.) subtitle is a bit misleading—“personal history” composes but a nail or two in the impressive edifice he has erected—but few readers will complain about anything else. Though his focus is principally on architecture, painting and sculpture, he pauses occasionally to provide historical context, offer portraits of key personalities and grouse about popular culture. Hughes eviscerates The Da Vinci Code (“wretchedly ill-written”), religious fundamentalists (who, he says, have created no art above the level of “drive-in megachurches”), the belief in the virginity of Mary and the noisy crowds in the Sistine Chapel (“just shut the fuck up, please, pretty please, if you can, if you don’t mind, if you won’t burst”). He also raves about artists and artistic works he loves, injecting his text with heavy doses of superlatives: The Pantheon is “certainly the greatest of all surviving structures of ancient Rome”; the Sistine ceiling is “one of the world’s supreme sights.” (Hughes also gives a grand account of the debate about the recent cleaning of Michelangelo’s masterwork.) The author’s knowledge about individual artists and works—and about Roman history—is prodigious, but he is never is pedantic or dull. There are a couple of strange moments—do readers need to be told what Schadenfreude means? Isn’t it a stretch to say that Keats and Shelley were friends?—but mostly there are moments of delight and surprise. We learn that on the Grand Tour, Horace Walpole saw his dog eaten by a wolf in the Alps; we smell the streets of ancient Rome; we discover that hippos were among the animals that fought in the Colosseum. An appealing mixture of erudition about high culture and curmudgeonly complaints about low.

 

Pub Date: Nov. 2, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-307-26844-0

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: July 26, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2011

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