Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Interviewing Robert Hughes on the ABC Andrew Denton fails to ask the one question I want to know the answer to: why did Hughes choose to publish his autobiography (at least, the first instalment of it) at this particular point in time? I mentioned the publication back in late August.

Hughes in the flesh resembles a retired police officer but sounds like the private school graduate that he is. The gruff exterior is frequently, and disarmingly, broken by the individual lying beneath the surface. The hearty laugh underscores the polish of the rounded syllables. The gravelly purr of his throaty peroration impinges on the humour and humanity of his words.

Denton grills him on his emergence as an art critic — which happened almost by accident — and on his accident in Western Australia — which led to years of estrangement from his homeland. But more interesting, and more personal, than these are his words about his son.

Here the human side emerges. For an art critic, who must often be acerbic and direct, to open yourself up like this must be something of a challenge. There must be two modes of expression in him.

And he smiles broadly, like a Mandarin, when he talks of his wife, Doris. But Denton is more interested in the appearances, rather than the substance. He goes for the weak areas, like the trained journalist that he is.

“Only a confident man says it wasn’t till years later I made a fool of myself,” suggests Denton. “Have you ever truly made a fool of yourself as a critic, do you believe?” “Well I certainly made a fool of myself as a husband and as a lover and as a … you know, various other things,” answers Hughes, candidly. He doesn’t say ‘as a father’, although that also will come up during the conversation. “I don’t think I’ve ever really done anything really bad in that way,” (as a critic) says Hughes, to answer the question he had initially avoided answering. “I mean, just a bit stupid,” he says, the American accent entering momentarily on the last word. (My brother, who has lived in Houston for over twenty years, also does this with some words, although he retains his educated Australian accent remarkably.)

Denton then plays a piece of footage of Hughes in his twenties. “Very confident young man,” says Denton. “Yeah, horribly,” says Hughes. “I wish that I could muster that kind of self-confidence now.” But he had a “pissy arrogance” then, he adds later.

“I’ll tell you what they wanted,” he says of the Time magazine editors who brought him on board thirty years ago. “They wanted somebody who could actually write about art in a way that wasn’t — here I sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet — in a way that was not condescending. Intelligible to people who were not art experts.”

Hughes’ eloquence is evident during the interview. He is able to keep up a long monologue with no effort. Denton struggles in the face of this eloquence, like a clown at a children’s birthday party entertaining the kiddies with balloons twisted into the shapes of zoo animals. But Hughes won’t be mangled into any shape other than the one he choses to inhabit. Nevertheless, Denton keeps at him.

What was it that made Hughes want to move away from his father? “I didn’t want to move away from that. Well, you see, he moved away from me by dying when I was 12. So I actually retained a sort of idealised picture of him in my mind. I’ve always been slightly frightened that he would not have disapproved of what I ended up loving.” You lack, asks Denton, your father’s disapproval? “I lack my father’s disapproval, which I would have earned had he not died.” “The idea that I would never be the man he was, has always haunted me.”

Still talking about childhood, he says he hated boarding school, which in addition to exposing him to bullies took him away from his mother. “Do you feel warmly toward your mother?” “Yes, but in a distant way,” answers Hughes, who moves, prodded by Denton, from boarding school to sport (in which he didn’t enjoy participating much at school).

“[Sport] … implants a desire for that very vice which I have frequently … been accused of, namely elitism,” says Hughes, spelling out the syllables of the last word clearly, forcefully. “You know, Australians like to think what blazing democrats they are, but actually it’s in their addiction to competitive sport [that] they are total unrepentant, unregenerate, unrelenting elitists.” How? “Only one person can win a game. Only one team can win a game.” Denton struggles with this level of passion and turns it into a joke, but it’s a wonderful, accurate and unassailable truth that Hughes has pointed to here. We (the general public) are not what we think we are.

“When I say I’m an elitist,” says Hughes, “I don’t mean I’m an elitist in the social sense. I don’t believe in social snobbery or any of that stuff. But I do mean simply that I’m one of that class of people who prefers well-made things to badly-made things, who prefers articulate speech to mumbling, all those kind of skills and capacities add up for me to elitism. It’s a preference for the best you can do, or get.”

Sounds reasonable to me. Sounds perfectly sensible. In my mind, at least. Perhaps I’m an elitist too.

The interview will be posted in its entirety on the Enough Rope (the program) Web site, including a podcast, for those who are interested in the whole performance, which includes this wonderful line: “The only way that you can develop is by keeping on working.” Hughes has certainly done that. A second instalment of the autobiography is in the works, he implies.


Anonymous said...

I find Denton a well-intentioned but often awkward interviewer. He fails to pick up unexpected but interesting threads and run with them, instead sticking too closely to the script. For instance, last night, when Hughes said that he was lucky the Time Magazine Editor he'd spectacularly blown off called back - how did that second conversation go? But yes, Hughes was great, and a much more intriguing and genuine person than I'd imagined.

Perry Middlemiss said...

Pretty good summary of the program. Hughes came across much better than I thought he would. I came in a bit late (my wife is trying to catch up on old West Wing episodes on DVD) so didn't see him walk in. But he seemed strong and confident. The blustering exterior looked like cracking a little when he spoke of his son who suicided a few years back. I think Denton handled it pretty well. Assuming he's still on the tube when Hughes comes back with volume two he can ask ariel's question. As Hughes put it, if the Time editor hadn't called back, he (Hughes) might have been art critic on the Albury Gazette. I somehow doubt it.

Dean said...

Ariel: Yeah, it would have been interesting to know how that conversation went. I find Denton a bit shallow. But that's the way they prefer it. He's a populist, not an intellectual.

Perry: I watched it from the opening credits and he didn't walk in. The interview started with the two of them sitting own already. He nursed a walking stick, of course, throughout.

Anonymous said...

I'm probably being a little over-critical - I know it's much harder than it looks to do a live interview and no, I couldn't do a better job than Denton. I think it's because he is continually lauded as our best interviewer that I expect a lot from him (and I don't think he delivers on that, though I don't know who I WOULD choose as our best interviewer).

Sam TwyfordMoore said...

I think Hughes is a fucking Australian legend, and I completely agree on his point about elitism, not snobbery elitism. It is something a relative of mine, R. Tognetti, has written about. Australia is a shit country for artistic minded. Who gives a shit about cricket. I'll take criticism, literary or otherwise, over cricket anyday.

I've only read the first chapter of Hughes autobiography, but it is harrowing and controversial, beautiful prose. I agree with Gerald Murnane, Hughes is one of our most lucid and precise writers, which is often overlooked because he writes in criticism.

Dean said...

Sam said: "Australia is a shit country for artistic minded."

I agree. And I think it's only going to change when we get rid of the cultural cringe. We're so worried about excelling in the life of the mind, that we concentrate on cricket to compensate. That's what I think.