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Things I Didn't Know: A Memoirby Robert Hughes
"Hughes's preference for uttering the occasional good old English (or Australian) obscenity rather than pussyfooting around euphemisms may seem refreshing to some and shocking to others. Either way, he can only rarely be accused of being dull....His anecdotes are frequently hilarious, sometimes cruel or vindictive, but largely entertaining. Hughes's sheer relish for writing is irresistible." Christopher Andreae, The Christian Science Monitor (read the entire CSM review)
Synopses & Reviews
Robert Hughes has trained his critical eye on many major subjects: from Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Goya) to the city of Barcelona (Barcelona) to the history of his native Australia (The Fatal Shore) to modern American mores and values (The Culture of Complaint). Now he turns that eye on perhaps his most fascinating subject: himself and the world that formed him.
Things I Didn't Know is a memoir unlike any other because Hughes is a writer unlike any other. He analyzes his experiences the way he might examine a Van Gogh or a Picasso: he describes the surface so we can picture the end result, then he peels away the layers and scratches underneath that surface so we can understand all the beauty and tragedy and passion and history that lie below. So when Hughes describes his relationship with his stern and distant father, an Australian Air Force hero of the First World War, we're not simply simply told of typical father/son complications, we see the thrilling exploits of a WWI pilot, learn about the nature of heroism, get the history of modern warfare — from the air and from the trenches — and we become aware how all of this relates to the wars we're fighting today, and we understand how Hughes's brilliant anti-war diatribe comes from both the heart and an understanding of the horrors of combat. The same high standards apply throughout as Hughes explores, with razor sharpness and lyrical intensity, his Catholic upbringing and Catholic school years; his development as an artist and writer and the honing of his critical skills; his growing appreciation of art; his exhilaration at leaving Australia to discover a new life in Italy and then in "swinging '60s" London. In each and every instance, we are not just taken on a tour of Bob Hughes's life, we are taken on a tour of his mind — and like the perfect tour, it is educational, funny, expansive and genuinely entertaining, never veering into sentimental memories, always looking back with the right sharpness of objectivity and insight to examine a rebellious period in art, politics and sex.
One of the extraordinary aspects of this book is that Hughes allows his observations of the world around him to be its focal point rather than the details of his past. He is able to regale us with anecdotes of unknown talents and eccentrics as well as famous names such as Irwin Shaw, Robert Rauschenberg, Cyril Connolly, Kenneth Tynan, Marcel Duchamp, and many others. He revels in the joys of sensuality and the anguish of broken relationships. He appreciates genius and craft and deplores waste and stupidity. The book can soar with pleasure and vitality as well as drag us into almost unbearable pain.
Perhaps the most startling section of Things I Didn't Know comes in the very opening, when Hughes describes his near fatal car crash of several years ago. He shows not just how he survived and changed — but also how he refused to soften or weaken when facing mortality. He begins by dealing with what was almost the end of life, and then goes on from there to show us the value of life, in particular the value of exploring and celebrating one specific and extraordinary life.
"Cultural critic Hughes (The Fatal Shore) slices into his own life with his ever-ready scalpel of penetrating analysis, opening his saga in 1999 with his near-fatal car accident at age 60 in his native Australia. Glimpsing death, he perceives its mouth as 'the bocca d'inferno of old Christian art,' a sampling of the rich, wide-ranging corpus of knowledge he brings to bear upon every aspect of his life. His improbable recovery touches off both earnest and acerbic reflections on his upbringing, his native country and the manifold influences that power his works and wanderings through Europe and America. Recognizing his life as an act of rebellion against his sanctimonious war-hero father, he re-enacts his virulent rejection of military aggression and his punitive boarding at Catholic school, where the priests vilify him for reading James Joyce in secret. His immersion in the artistic ferment of the '60s echoes the worldwide convulsions — both cultural and political — of that decade, pulling him into the avant-garde circles that girded his critical career. Hughes's vivid ruminations and sharp-eyed insights combine in bold, definitive strokes to yield a rich portrait of the art expert." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Cultural critic Hughes (The Fatal Shore) slices into his own life with his ever-ready scalpel of penetrating analysis, opening his saga in 1999 with his near-fatal car accident at age 60 in his native Australia. Glimpsing death, he perceives its mouth as 'the bocca d'inferno of old Christian art,' a sampling of the rich, wide-ranging corpus of knowledge he brings to bear upon every aspect of his life. His improbable recovery touches off both earnest and acerbic reflections on his upbringing, his native country and the manifold influences that power his works and wanderings through Europe and America. Recognizing his life as an act of rebellion against his sanctimonious war-hero father, he re-enacts his virulent rejection of military aggression and his punitive boarding at Catholic school, where the priests vilify him for reading James Joyce in secret. His immersion in the artistic ferment of the '60s echoes the worldwide convulsions — both cultural and political — of that decade, pulling him into the avant-garde circles that girded his critical career. Hughes's vivid ruminations and sharp-eyed insights combine in bold, definitive strokes to yield a rich portrait of the art expert. 75,000 first printing. (Sept)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Robert Hughes has been many things in his more than six and a half decades — art critic, biographer, historian, polemicist, television commentator — and he has done all of them exceedingly well. As art critic for Time magazine from 1970 to 2001 (and a continuing contributor), he raised the standards of magazine criticism to new heights and demonstrated conclusively that it is possible to write serious... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) criticism in a mass-market publication. His survey of modern art, 'The Shock of the New' (1981), was and remains the definitive book on the subject, though Hughes' vigorous opinions do not always sit well with certain factions in the exquisitely vicious art world. 'The Fatal Shore' (1987), his history of the founding of Australia, his native country, is a masterpiece of the popular historian's art. His portrait of a great Spanish city, 'Barcelona' (1992), and his biographical study, 'Goya' (2003), are superb examples of their respective genres. Now Hughes has turned his hand to autobiography, with predictably and gratifyingly rewarding results. His has been a writer's life, and, like most such lives, it has been primarily a life of the mind. Such drama as he has experienced — two unhappy marriages before a lucky third one, the suicide of his 33-year-old son, a terrible auto accident that brought him within a breath of death — certainly has been painful, but except for the accident, he devotes relatively little space to these matters in this memoir, preferring reticence over display where private business is concerned, a merciful choice in this age of self-servingly confessional memoirs that attempt to cash in on real or fancied business of the most intimate nature. The story Hughes prefers to tell, as his title suggests, is the story of his education — not so much of his formal education, though he does have interesting things to say about the Jesuits who taught him at an Australian boarding school, as about what he learned out in the world. As he says of a book on which he worked when he was young, a biography of Leonardo da Vinci that he never completed: 'I realized that my main impulse for writing a book was to force myself to find out about things I didn't know. It has always been like that; the reason for this memoir is the same, to excavate and bring into the light things I had forgotten or repressed, along with the stuff that remained at the front of my awareness. Otherwise, why do it at all?' Hughes' rise to the eminence he now enjoys did not come easily and began in somewhat unlikely circumstances. His family lived in Sydney and was rather prosperous, but the familial environment was not conducive to the artistic interests that eventually became his life's preoccupation. Born in 1938, he was by a dozen years the youngest of his parents' four children. He never really knew his father, who died when he was 12 but whose influence on him nonetheless was great: 'This righteous and inflexible man, a brave warrior but not a professional soldier, a war hero who shot down eleven German planes in the First World War, a fiercely orthodox Catholic, and an intense patriot, determined the direction and conditions of my life. It was at least partly in reaction against him, and what he stood for, that I became an expatriate, a political skeptic, an atheist, a liberal, a voluptuary, and, in most ways, a disappointment to the ethos he lived by. And, perhaps no more creditable than these, a writer about art.' The young Hughes' 'introduction to the visual arts' began with cartoons in Punch, the British humor magazine, and a series of illustrated children's books, but it wasn't until he was 15 that a wise teacher got him thinking about the nature of art, and it wasn't until more than a decade later that the full dimensions of his calling were revealed to him. He was in Italy, contemplating 'a quite staggeringly complicated and ambitious (14th-century) painting' known as the Maesta, by Duccio di Buoninsegna: 'Art, I now realized, was the symbolic discourse that truly reached into me — though the art I had seen and come to know in Australia had only done this intermittently and weakly. It wasn't a question of confusing art with religion, or trying to make a religion out of art. As some people are tone-deaf, I was religion-deaf, and in fact I would have thought it a misuse, even a debasement, of a work of art to turn it into a mere ancillary, a signpost to some imagined, hoped-for, but illusory experience of God. But I was beginning, at last, to derive from art, from architecture, and even from the beauty of organized landscape a sense of transcendence that organized religion had offered me — but that I had never received.' Earlier, from the Jesuits, Hughes had learned that 'no matter what the demands of "self-expression" may be, nothing is anything without fully articulate, conscious form.' This conviction, coupled with his passionate belief in the transcendent possibilities of art, permitted Hughes to evolve over the years into modern art's most demanding critic. Deeply sympathetic to 'the hostile, nervy freedom from parental and religious authority embodied by Surrealism,' he nevertheless insisted that art had to be more than 'new' to be good, and over the years he came to be a fierce opponent of the faddism to which the art world is so susceptible. He was strongly influenced by the writing of Kenneth Clark, Cyril Connolly and, especially, George Orwell, whose 'direct use of the English language, in exposition and in argument,' and whose willingness to follow his own nose he emulated to obvious and happy effect. He started writing about art in Australia in the late 1950s for the Observer, 'a fortnightly journal of political and cultural opinion modeled on the English "Spectator,"' and that is when his education really began. By fortunate coincidence, it was a moment when Australian art, long under the thumb of a conservative Old Guard, began to take tentative steps toward independence and originality, but not much of it was very good, and Hughes had begun to sense 'a deep dysfunction in my Australian nature. I didn't feel altogether at home either in the bush or on the beach.' He became friends with the distinguished writer Alan Moorehead, best known as the author of 'The White Nile' and 'The Blue Nile,' 'my beau ideal of a popular historian,' and in time, no doubt, his model for the writing of 'The Fatal Shore.' Moorehead told him in 1962 that 'I would have to leave Australia, just as he had done, if my work was ever to go anywhere.' Moorehead said: 'If you stay here another ten years, Australia will still be a very interesting place. But you will have become a bore, a village explainer.' So with little to his credit except letters of introduction from Moorehead and a bit of money, Hughes headed for the United States and then for London, where 'I knew nobody and I felt lost — a provincial Australian in a place that still, in 1964, tended to look down on Australians.' He began to educate himself at the city's great museums, though, and then took up Moorehead's offer to use his house at Porto Ercole, in Italy. His months in that country left him 'more at ease in the world and filled with delight at what its human and inanimate contents could mean, say, and create,' and when he returned to London in the mid-1960s, he was far better equipped to fit in and find work. He also arrived in London just as the 1960s were turning into the Sixties. He seems to have done his share of dope and swinging, and he married a woman who was the embodiment of Sixties excess, but he never fell for the 'collective self-importance' of the 'London underground' with its 'adoration of the unbridled truth of the self.' He 'never for a moment believed the promises of Revolution Now that were floating about — all that messianic drivel about changing the world by dropping out of it,' and he 'sensed then, and know with a fair degree of certainty now, that it is an illusion to suppose that sexual promiscuity helps create personal freedom. There is a huge difference between the condition of freedom and that of accepting no responsibilities to anyone.' Most important for the career that was to follow, he rejected 'the idea that there was something inherently repressive about old art, as though the past were a dead weight that new art, young art, had to shake off.' He learned that 'the past is pervasive; it seeps into everything; it is the very air that artists and their public breathe,' and he lost for good 'a belief in the potency of the avant-garde.' He writes: 'I have never regained it, and today, looking at the ever-more-feeble efforts on the part of the art world to designate its latest products as "cutting-edge," "edgy," "radical," et cetera, I am not in the least sorry to have lost it. Some new works of art have value of some kind or another. Others, the majority, have little or none. But newness as such, in art, is never a value.' So in 1969, when Time invited him to try out for the position of art critic, he was ready. It was, as he says, still a more or less serious magazine then and it paid far more attention to books and the arts than it does now. Though Hughes is more generous to its founder, Henry Luce, than I would be, he is right to credit its managing editor at the time, Henry Grunwald, with keeping its 'cultural priorities' straight. The newsmagazines mattered then in ways they no longer do, and in his three decades at Time, Hughes had much to do with the reputation it enjoyed. Hughes is, by his own rather defiant declaration, 'completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense.' He is, 'after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today.' He quite properly refuses to apologize for this: 'I am no democrat in the field of the arts, the only area — other than sports — in which human inequality can be displayed and celebrated without doing social harm.' How right he is, and how vigorously he argues his case — which is to say the case for informed judgment independent of fashion — in this splendid book. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj(at)washpost.com." Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"So funny, candid, and incisive is Hughes' self-portrait and chronicle of postwar art world up to 1970, readers will hope avidly for a second installment." Booklist
"A long, unblinking look in time's mirror, by a writer who has spent his life mastering his subject and his craft." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"This fascinating and entertaining read, at times somber and at times amusing, is recommended." Library Journal
Book News Annotation:
Those familiar with any of Hughes' works--The Fatal Shore, Barcelona, The Shock of the New, American Visions, and Goya--will grab hold of this autobiographical work, knowing the author's extraordinary ability to communicate his engagement with life and art.
Annotation ©2006 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Book News Annotation:
Those familiar with any of Hughes' works--The Fatal Shore, Barcelona, The Shock of the New, American Visions, and Goya--will grab hold of this autobiographical work, knowing the author's extraordinary ability to communicate his engagement with life and art. Annotation Â©2006 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
Robert J. Hughes received a bachelor' s degree in Business Administration from Southern Nazarene University, and completed both his Master' s degree and Ph.D. from the University of North Texas with specializations in Business Administration and college teaching. Dr. Hughes currently teaches Introduction to Business, Personal Finance, and Business Math for the Dallas County Community Colleges. He is the recipient of three different Teaching in Excellence Awards at Richland College. In addition to Business, he has authored college textbooks in Personal Finance and Business Mathematics which are used throughout the world. Currently, Dr. Hughes is active in many academic and professional organizations. He has served as a consultant and investment advisor to individuals, businesses, and charitable organizations.
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