Robert Hughes v. Alberto Mugrabi

It’s almost painful to watch the conversation between Alberto Mugrabi and Robert Hughes. Hughes’s bullying does his wit, learning and great skill as a writer no credit. There’s no particular reason that this clip comes back to light except that it reminds one of the great antipathy that exists toward the art market.

Update: We’ve already had a response to the video remarking that it is Mugrabi’s inarticulate defense of Warhol and Prince that is most striking about the video. But that’s exactly the point of posting it. What we have here is a battle of wills between the critic and the market (personified by the private dealer, Alberto Mugrabi.) The signal feature of the last decade in the art world has been the erosion of critical authority and the rise of rapid market-determined artists.

Hughes falls into a trap here when he decides to have a confrontation. Because, although the fall of critical authority and the rise of market valuation have taken place at the same time, it is not the market that is displacing the critic. The market is filling a void as critical authority declines. So Hughes is bullying the wrong person.

Worse still, in his desire to show up Mugrabi, Hughes has forced himself into hypocrisy. He’s flattened his own ideas about Warhol simply because Warhol has gotten to “popular.” Hughes ends up playing the teenage musical prodigy who has to dismiss one of his influences because lesser fans now that band is cool. It’s reductive and distracting from the real issue.

Something important is taking place in the art world–and, indeed, in global culture. That something is destabilizing. It breaks down cultural authority and creates rapid and dramatic shifts in value. This will not always be the case. But during this period, the art market has filled the void by offering some measuring stick. Even if those valuations turn out to be illusory in the long run, the cause is not the market being an upstart but the decline of the previous regime.

In taking the bait, Hughes consigns himself to the old regime. For an instructive counter-point, look at John Richardson. But I suppose that’s a subject for another time.