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The Influences on Our Taste : ROBERT HUGHES : Art and the Alien Social Picture

December 20, 1987|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

NEW YORK — This is Calendar's third annual listing of Taste Makers, individuals who have brought a distinct focus to 1987 and who we feel will continue to influence the world of arts and entertainment long after this year passes. They were selected not so much for specific contributions in their respective fields but because they are clearly creative forces who move and shape taste. They were interviewed to find out what kinds of influences have moved and shaped them.

We've selected these eight individuals to reflect a broad range of creative work, though each year we try to vary the disciplines. For instance, in 1985 we interviewed architect Arata Isozaki, composer Philip Glass and restaurateur Alice Waters, among others. Last December, the group included choreographer Mark Morris, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown.

What follows, we hope, is a look at the thinking behind some of this year's brightest creators and commentators . . . 1987's Taste Makers.

This project was edited by David Fox, assistant Calendar editor.

\o7 Art critic and historian. Author of "The Shock of the New," based on his eight-part BBC/Time-Life series on the history of modernism. Most recently wrote "The Fatal Shore," the epic history of Australia's founding. He's been Time magazine's controversial art critic since 1970.

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It's unusual for a critic's reputation to transcend his specialty, but Robert Hughes' arresting combination of scholarship, spikey independence and a brilliant prose style have edged him into a position where his general observations are taking on greater cultural weight--largely because he is deeply informed while remaining refreshingly free of cant.

As a descendant of a family of lawyers, he is at home with the intellectually combative. A Jesuit Catholic upbringing--though he now considers himself an atheist--gave him an added sense of logic and a feel for the spiritual resonance of the icon. He left the University of Sydney early, before his mind could be polluted with academic jargon, and spent a three-year sabbatical in Italy, touring Tuscany and Umbria on a Lambretta, during that singular and crucial period in one's life when, as he puts it, "your mind receives impressions like wax and retains them like marble."

Australian-born Hughes is one of those rare individuals whose prose style is echoed in his everyday speech, which is rapid and precise, and impatient with the slippery intractability of catching the right word on the fly. At 49, he has the burly charm of a military officer at ease both in the field and at the state dinner.

Of the unanticipated, best-selling success of "The Fatal Shore" (which was published in 1986) he reflected, "Perhaps it's because American historians have gone against narrative writing. The new school of thought has history as something determined by economics, where the Victorians thought of it as being determined by character.

"I wanted to recapture a society whose history is created by people; your average sensual man does like a story. The novelists have given up on on writing how a society actually operates. The Victorians were wonderful at this. You can read Dickens or Trollope and you're immersed in society ticking away at all levels, from banking to the price of fish. The Americans now have such a ghastly preoccupation with inner workings that they can't look at the larger social picture.

"I imagine it was the novelists' failure that led to the boom in New Journalism. What will we get to know of the late-20th Century for as long as we consider the individual as the matrix of society? Mute alien people describing each other. The global village has turned out to be a bloody nightmare. Its tendency towards the homogenization of experience has overrun everything. I feel nostalgia for a world of differences."

Hughes' SoHo loft, which he shares with his wife, Victoria, and a large Australian sheep dog, commands a view of the western skyline of lower Manhattan, which on a clear day gradually darkens from pale yellow to mango to lava as the night sky rolls over it. As you'd expect, the loft is generously endowed with objets d'art, which range from a large Lee Krassner on one wall to small sculptural artifacts (such as an Oriental vase) on the window sills. One formal 19th-Century poster of a barrister hangs improbably, like something you'd find in a men's club or a judicial chamber. "An ancestor of mine," Hughes says, with a slight grin. As a youth he wrestled with the career options of architecture or the law, eventually choosing neither. "I'm an auto-didact," he said. "I don't have degrees."

An adjacent room houses his floor-to-ceiling library, complete with ladder. The living room is otherwise uncluttered, with what seems slightly oversized, though comfortable, furniture. Like its restless masculine host, it has a large, unsettled aspect. An Australian bushranger's hat rests on a shelf near the entrance (he hunts and fishes as much as he can during the year).

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