Tag Archives: Robert Hughes

The Pleasures of Criticism

Good criticism ‘opens up’ our understanding of an object, idea or event: what its presence can mean as part of the human experience. 

                                 Paul Goldberger

The title here may be misleading.  I have no interest in selling the idea that harsh judgments are ‘fun’ to make.  That’s what “criticism” can mean.  But it isn’t what I think of when I use the term.  I’m more interested in its second and less common meaning: writing that combines analysis and assessment of the most interesting forms of expressive activity.  Criticism is a sustained and considered effort to understand a new project: usually the work of an artist or innovator interested in moving beyond the strictly utilitarian. Critics try to make sense of what these people have done or perhaps failed to do.  They may come from academic or journalistic organizations, or freelance on their own.

Almost every field–from architecture to food–has potential ‘appreciators’ who profess to use fresh eyes and ears to extend our understanding about a particular effort.  Criticism can be as accessible as reviews of new books, plays or music in a news outlet like the New York Times.  It can also be seen in the rarer video essays of Anthony Bourdain, Leonard Bernstein or Michael Tilson Thomas.  Some efforts stand as monumental and single works of sustained analysis, like like Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950. (Oxford, 1975).  And some can be impressive panoramas that leave us richer in our understanding of a single kind of human enterprise. Among these, I’d count Michael Arlen’s fascinating assessment of television in the Vietnam era, Living Room War. (Viking, 1969).

                                  Joan Didion

Criticism ought to be a cherished kind of writing—not just because it promises incisive observation, but because good criticism ‘opens up’ our understanding of an event: what its presence can mean as part of the human experience.  To use a simple example, I will never eat in most of the restaurants that the New York Times’ food critic will write about.  But Pete Wells’ assessment of the food and the experience of a particular eatery is still interesting.  Wells isn’t doing a Yelp review.  His best reviews place an establishment in a timeline, and its food in a broader culinary tradition.  The food he samples functions as a kind of ‘find’ in an archaeological dig.  It’s roots are from somewhere else, but handed down and modified by whoever is in the kitchen.  And, of course, its New York.  So most restaurants feed strivers looking for sensations that are different and potentially better.  Who knew that Malaysian coffee can be so different?  How have Americans not understood the varied and fascinating textures of something as basic as rice?

      Robert Hughes illustration by John Spooner

Try any field of effort, and there are fascinating critics from the present or recent past to explore.  Many have been journalists: Robert Hughes on art, Alex Ross on concert music, Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael on film, Joan Dideon on the East and West coast life, Paul Goldberger on architecture, or Gary Giddens on jazz.  Whatever the work, we expect critics to be curious, aware, and more interested in discovering and knowing than judging.


Living in the thick of a culture requires sorting out and assessing the passing parade of ideas and artifacts that vie to make an impression.

I was trained as a rhetorical theorist and critic.  No shingle hangs out of my office to attract potential customers.  But with communication as my world I am never at a loss for subjects to explore and ponder. I and thousands of other academics are following in the footsteps of other rhetorical critics before us, including Wayne Booth, Hugh Duncan, Jane Blankenship, Richard Weaver and Kenneth Burke.  The names of these academics are perhaps not familiar.  Yet they have shaped what communication means in the American academy.  They are still read by flocks of undergraduates on their way to sharpening their critical and analytical skills.

                     Kenneth Burke

Burke wrote what many of us sometimes say in moments of exasperation: we are all critics.  Living in the thick of a culture requires sorting out and assessing the passing parade of ideas and artifacts that vie to make an impression.  The key difference is that our own ad-hoc judgments are usually personal: said without much prior knowledge and not very well worked out.  That’s why our opinions are usually less interesting than a gifted writer who is also a professional appreciator.


Is There a “Masculine Style?”


Robert Hughes illustration by John Spooner
       Robert Hughes illustration by John Spooner                                                 Google Images

It’s little wonder women are more likely than men to agree to couples counseling.  Counseling to mediate serious differences requires more than just serialized opinion-giving.

Generalizing about gender and communication is fraught with problems. As we would expect, there is considerable variability within individuals.  And the idea of gender is undergoing tectonic shifts.  But research in the area persists, always with interesting and sometimes conflicting outcomes.

One conclusion of special interest is the idea that men are more assertive. Based on research over the last several decades, analysts such as linguist Deborah Tannen have proposed that advocacy composed of open declarations, frequent opinion-giving, and summary judgments tend to be dominant in a typically masculine communication style. While admitting many variations from person to person, this trait is thought to be in contrast to a feminine style that emphasizes asking questions, giving feedback, and withholding early judgments.

I’ve always thought the distinction—though fuzzy—carried some validity. To be sure, the exceptions are numerous and notable. Take the case of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. People would come out of meetings with her with the complaint that they’d been “handbagged to death” with unilateral demands. That’s in sharp contrast to men like Bill Clinton, who can be more tentative and feminine in his relational patterns.  Even so, listen to a group of men compare notes on the state of nation or likely matchups for a professional sports showdown.  The odds are that you are probably going to hear a lot of opinion-giving, all freely offered to any and all listeners.  Typically, each opinion is given serially, with each individual taking a turn, sometimes with an opposing introjection, but not as a part of a sustained search for agreement.

This is a feature in the political rhetoric of Donald Trump that can be so annoying. Qualifications, expressions of puzzlement, empathy, or the desire to first hear what the other side thinks: all of these seem to alien forms of address to the presidential candidate. By contrast, Hillary Clinton started her Senate career in 2000 with a “listening campaign.”  And by all accounts she did listen, especially to upstate constituents.  By contrast, Trump pontificates.  Endlessly.

In my field some have made the claim that academic debate as a structured form of public discussion is a uniquely masculine style. Debaters learn not to over-qualify, not to admit to more than is necessary, and especially to cling tenaciously to the claims they’ve laid out in their case notes.  It’s not such a big jump to the conclusion that women are much more likely than men to agree to couples counseling.  Counseling to mediate serious differences requires more than just serialized opinion-giving.

What can be annoying in a political candidate like Donald Trump can be winning in a gifted thinker or writer.

But there’s a twist: what can be annoying in a political candidate like Donald Trump can be winning in a gifted thinker or writer. We often like decisive rhetoric if its well conceived. Think of Ernest Hemingway, Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley or David Remnick. The annoying comments of Uncle Fred at family get-togethers may just be a common variation: opinion-giving stripped of grace and wisdom.

My favorite writer in the masculine style was Robert Hughes. The native Australian who was Time Magazine’s art critic for many years has left us a body of provocative criticism, including wonderful books on Francisco Goya, the history of Rome, the unusual origins of his home country, and rise and fall of New York as a cultural mecca.  His gifts for incisive criticism were formidable:  occasionally ill-considered but always rich in following historical arcs. Consider Hughes dim view of American television after an unsuccessful stint in the late 1970s as a co-host on ABC’s 20/20:

You cannot watch network TV without being shouted at or wheedled, every two minutes, to buy something.  This saturation is now so extreme that many cheesed-off viewers feel that commercials are the actual content of network television.  And they may well be right, particularly if you agree that the chief purpose of network TV is to create an entirely fictive paradise of desire to which daily reality is merely a backdrop, a world so carefully rearranged that we don’t have to experience it.  In this Paradise, information is replaced by infotainment, as events are constantly altered to fit the requirements of TV editing.

For millions upon millions of people, a vast audience, much larger than print can claim, TV has taken over their image banks, their modes of social expression, their dreams, their fears.  TV creates the icons to which they look and the forms of homage they pay to them.  And yet there are some things TV cannot do; and because it knows this, because it is not made by fools, TV favors and strives to create a mindset in which those things are not values. They include, for instance, the ability to sustain and enjoy a nuanced argument; to look behind the screen of immediate “iconic” events, to keep in the mind moderately large amounts of significant information, to remember today what some joker said last month.  Instead it wants us to be content with a seductive blizzard of images, a fast surface a few electrons thick, full of what is called “information” but is in the main just emotively skewed raw data.  It’s content lurches between violence and blandness, and it never, ever, stops. (The Spectacle of Skill, 2015).

All of this from a writer who died before having a chance to polish these words as part of a planned biography.

It’s perhaps a given that we expect critics to have opinions. That’s why we read them, whether men or women.  And when they are this good, they elevate what can otherwise be an unproductive mode of address. So if it exists, the masculine style has its limits, especially as pertains to developing an empathetic interpersonal style.  But it can also be bracing in the critic or analyst who has opinions worth listening to.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu