When the great Robert Hughes died in 2012, he left behind a body of criticism unmatched by any other English-language art critic of the 20th- (or 21st-) century: in print (The Fatal Shore, Nothing If Not Critical, Barcelona, American Visions, Things I Didn't Know); in lectures; on screen (The Shock of the New, American Visions, Goya). His love and understanding of hundreds of years of Western creation were exceeded only by his genius at putting us inside that love. And by his despair. Hughes's first and perhaps greatest masterpiece was the 1979-80 book and television series The Shock of the New. Even in those early days Hughes fears and warns us about what is to come: the commodification of not only all forms of human art, but all forms of human life. He saw it coming; and it came, worse than Hughes or anyone else could have imagined. And it broke his heart.
2008's The Mona Lisa Curse was his swan song, a hymn of despair for all that had been lost: a faith in the power of art to make things better, to change the world, to change men's souls, to heal and to sooth, to take us out of ourselves rather than to drive us back into separation and confusion, art's desire to know and to tell the truth, its unremitting earnestness. As it would turn out, Hughes would tilt at capitalist windmills the whole of his marvelous career, because even in 79-80 (before Reagan!) all these things were already going, going from our hearts, paving the way for the Time of the Assassins: Koons, Schnabel, Basquiat, Richard Prince, Salle, Baudrillard, Damien Hirst, Mapplethorpe, Longo, the Whitney. Worse was to come, of course, yet Robert Hughes kept tilting for us, kept reminding us.
Forty or even thirty years ago anyone, amateur or expert, could spend an hour or two in a museum without wondering what this Tiepolo, this Rembrandt, this de Kooning might cost at auction. Thanks to the unrelenting propaganda of the art market this is no longer the case, and the imagery of money has been so crudely riveted onto the face of museum-quality art by events outside the museum that its unhappy confusion between price and value will never again be resolved. It is like the bind in the fairy tale: At the bottom of the meadow a treasure lies buried. It can be dug up -- under one condition: that while digging, you do not think of a white horse.