Thursday, August 09, 2012

Return of the Native

Robert Hughes (1938 - 2012)  by Pants

When the news came this week of the death of Robert Hughes, the most commonly played soundbite was from a television show in which he explained that his prodigious career as an art critic had come about entirely by accident. He had 'wangled' a job as a cartoonist at a magazine called The Observer, then edited by Donald Horne, a noted Australian literary figure himself. The story, in Hughes's words, goes,

'... [Horne] came blasting and blazing into the outer office, where we were all sitting around, drunk, after lunch, and he said, "I've just fired the art critic. Who here knows anything about art? You must know something about art - you're the cartoonist. Well, you're the art critic now." And that's how it all started.'

The persistence of this caricature struck me as odd given the towering shadow Hughes cast in the international art world for more than thirty years. It was so dominant across local news media that it forced me to give this curiousity some serious thought. The conclusion I reached was that Australia is still unable to tolerate a 'talent' in one of the posher professions unless it can be belittled down to something that any one of us could have achieved given the same spin of fortune's fickle wheel. By inferring that underneath all that big-worded bluster, Hughes was just a knock-about 'larrikin' and a bit of a chancer, it allowed us to reclaim him as one of our own. 

Peter Carey wrote movingly in one's beloved Guardian of how the Australian public turned against Hughes following his near-fatal car crash in 1999, and how devastated he was by the betrayal. I wasn't around then so can't give a first-hand account but it does sound like the kind of brutality at which Australia can excel with the right kind of incident, players and media participation. One only needs to recall the ferocity with which the country devoured Lindy and Michael Chamberlain after their baby was taken by a dingo. (And I was around for most of that.) Throw in the hysteria that inevitably accompanies any motoring accident, the 'outback' setting and, well, I can imagine.

The truth is that Australians don't now and never have liked individuals, especially ones with strong and firmly stated opinions. The 'egalitarianism' we value so passionately is not an appreciation or even a tolerance for differing points of view but rather an insistence that everyone conforms to the same narrow band of Australianness. The 'right to a fair go' we so vehemently defend comes with plenty of caveats. One's entitlement to fairness is frequently conditional on mob agreement and can be withdrawn on its collective whim. The relentless and ghastly group bullying of our (female) Prime Minister is a case in point.

Hughes scurried back to his home in New York City following the accident, declaring that the birth-mother country could sink into the sea for all he cared. He accepted with a great deal of ill-grace a fine for dangerous driving under the ominous threat that things could get a lot nastier for him if he continued to bleat about it. Carey suggests that the rift between man and birth-mother country was never fully resolved.

And yet, the tributes in our media this week have been unequivocal. It appears he is recognised here more for his convict history The Fatal Shore (which I have not read) than The Shock of the New (which I read often). The accident and its toxic aftermath have not been mentioned by anyone other than Carey who lives in New York City and writes in a British newspaper. 

Hughes, like Lindy Chamberlain before him, seems to be destined for national treasure status. Just as Lindy Chamberlain had to be punished for a crime uncommitted and then re-imagined in the national psyche to achieve acceptance, so must he. 

I propose a toast to the accidental, yet brilliant, career of one Robert Studley Forrest Hughes.