Robert Hughes, the New York-based Australian born art critic whose documentaries for public television brought art to the masses — or at least the tiny slice of the masses who watched public TV — has died. He was 74 and had been living in New York the past 40 or so years.
A particularly fine, lucid and trenchant art critic — he wrote for Time for decades — his TV series, “The Shock of the New” in the early '80s, was a public TV landmark: A sprawling analysis of modern art that wasn't always exactly admiring. A cultural critic, he saw art as something that didn't hang on a wall as much as hang in our psyches — a reflection of mores, historical currents, and human lives. If memory serves — and it very well may not (sorry) — there was also a conservative bent to his criticism. He preferred the classics to the chaos of the moderns.
In any event, his TV work is readily available on the web; here's the fourth episode of “New,” entitled “Trouble In Paradise,” that literally opens with Hughes driving beneath the World Trade Center towers, offering his own critique of the Manhattan skyline larded with the views of others.
Hughes had a memorable footnote to network news as well. He was the very first host of "20/20,” with Robert Hayes, former editor of Esquire. Poor Hughes and Hayes were sacked after the very first edition, done in partly by another critic — the influential Tom Shales of The Washington Post — who wrote that “the pair came off as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dum, with one of the Dum's having a distracting and irrating Aussie accent.” (Hugh Downs replaced them.)
The sacking didn't hurt Hughes' TV career. His best TV work was to follow. Here's the obit from the Sydney Morning Herald. (He was born in Sydney.)