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Robert Hughes on the good ol' days of art critics with expense accounts


Vanity Fair has published an excerpt of Robert Hughes’s posthumous memoir, “The Spectacle of Skill.” Here’s an excerpt of that excerpt in which he reminisces about the good ol’ days being an art critic at Time with an expense account and full editorial autonomy. Not too shabby, Mr. Hughes.

Nobody at Time ever told me what shows to review, still less what to say about them. All that was left entirely to me—a remarkable guarantee of editorial freedom. Everyone, from the managing editor down, agreed that since I had been hired for my judgment and for a certain independence of mind, they did not think it their business to interfere with either. Actually, I don’t think any of the editors cared strongly enough about art in general, or had enough acquaintances in the “art world,” to put any pressure on me. I don’t know what it would have been like to review classical music, especially opera, for an expert and highly opinionated frequenter of the Met and Carnegie Hall like Henry Grunwald [Time’s managing editor from 1968 until 1977]. I assume that the post would not have been without its difficulties—though they could hardly arise now, since the Time magazine that exists today is much less likely to be interested in such obscure and elitist diversions as weighing the merits of a production of Tosca, let alone an evening of Phil Glass. You could as easily imagine the magazine reporting on a quarrel over taxonomy between lepidopterists.

In 1970, when I went on Time’s payroll as its art critic—I encountered references through the next three decades to the magazine’s “chief” art critic, but in fact there was only one. The magazine didn’t have all that much space for art coverage. That it regularly had any at all was something of a miracle, due entirely to Henry Luce’s original belief—not shared by all managing editors—that once Time acquired the ability to print in color, the best thing it could do with such pages was use them to show art to readers. This, happily for me, had become one of the magazine’s minor traditions.

Anyway, a moment’s arithmetical reflection will show that there wasn’t the least chance of “covering” the sprawling “New York art scene.” At the very theoretical most, I had 52 articles a year. But in practice, I had nothing of the kind, because not every issue of Time had an art section. Sometimes it would be killed to make way for front-of-the-book pieces, sometimes for back-of-the-book covers; generally my allotment of stories came down to about 25, and at the very most 30, a year.

This was both a curse and a blessing. It was a curse because a lot of interesting stuff was bound to go unreported and un-noted. It was a blessing because in a week that carried no art story, I was free to work on a book, or goof off, or go fishing, or take a (liberally interpreted) “research trip.” Clearly, since I got paid every week, the blessings outweighed the curses. Being the art critic of Time in the 70s was like enjoying a perpetual research grant from the most benign of foundations. I could go more or less anywhere I wanted, look at anything I wished to, and be paid generously for doing it.

It was a very different life to that lived by critics in the “Arts & Leisure” section of The New York Times, which, compared to my own relative indolence, was all arts and practically no leisure at all. For every word I published in Time, the chief art critics of The New York Times—John Canaday, who was succeeded by Hilton Kramer and John Russell—must have pumped out three or five.

Since Time had a reputation to maintain as “the international newsmagazine,” I was not going to confine myself to New York, either. Nor would my editors have expected me to. My brief, liberally interpreted, was to cover the world. The magazine even sent me to Moscow (once) to cover an enormous retrospective of Kasimir Malevich. If there was a show in Rome or Florence, Paris or Brussels, Berlin or London, or indeed practically anywhere in Europe, a show that could be argued to hold some interest for an intelligent reader and from which two, four, or six pages of splashy color could be extracted, off I would go. I would stay in the kind of hotels I had never been able to afford—the Gritti in Venice at Biennale time, Claridge’s when in London, the Ritz in Madrid, and in Paris the Meurice—and live, without qualification or the smallest twinge of shame, the life of Riley. I knew perfectly well that this period of luxury was not going to last forever—as indeed it did not, for me or anyone else on the staff of Time—and I felt no hesitation about enjoying it while it was available; at least, in later years, when I heard some power hog from the movie industry bombing on about the truffes sous la cendre he had recently demolished at Le Park 45 during the Cannes Film Festival, I would not need to wonder what they tasted like. I, too, would have eaten them—just once. And as a matter of record, they were indeed worth eating—just that once. It is years since a Time staffer got to eat such comestibles at the company’s expense, but I did, quite often, and I cannot find an iota of shame in myself for having done so, especially since nobody on the 34th floor seemed to mind these gastronomic extravagances in the least.

By the same token, only once did my newly acquired access to beyond-the-pocket luxury steer me toward trouble. This was in Paris in 1972. I forget what show I was covering, but I had been given a few introductions for my visit by a newly acquired friend, Alexander Liberman, known to the world at large as the editorial director of Condé Nast and to a rather smaller segment of it as a serious and (as I believed at the time, and still do) a seriously underrated sculptor. He had been very lonely since [Abstract Expressionist painter] Barnett Newman died and feeling deeply victimized by the art world, which regarded him as “too elegant,” for to run Vogue is to forfeit the esteem of American art critics. We would speak at length about the history of his work, and artists—even [minimalist painter] Frank Stella had studied it over some 15 or 20 years—using this or that suggestion of Alex’s ideas without ever acknowledging it. [Art critic] Clement Greenberg, confided Alex, had privately told him that he knew what debts Stella, Noland, Frankenthaler, et al. owed to Alex; but had never said anything about it in print.

Alex lived in the hope that someday, at 85 years of age, maybe, he would be able to drop all of it, retire from Vogue, and have five or six years doing nothing but paint and make sculptures. Does one lose energy? For Alex, perhaps every trip down the corridor to a layout conference meant a watercolor lost, a weld unfinished. It was his answer to that question that provides me with the unforgettable image of Alex shaking his immaculate gray head, each hair of scalp and mustache precisely trimmed, a wading bird flicking water from its feathers. “I do not know and I do not expect to know.”