Comment United Kingdom

Robert Hughes on why we need the Academy in the 21st century

I believe it's not just desirable but culturally necessary that England should have a great institution through which the opinions of artists about artistic value can be crystallised and seen, unpressured by market politics

Robert Hughes, 1986

Robert Hughes died on 6 August, aged 74. Along with Germaine Greer and Clive James, Hughes was one of the best known Australians of his generation. His fortes were two-fold: he had an easy facility to popularise art and was a formidable critic. Born in Sydney, Hughes left Australia in 1964. After travels in Europe, where he wrote for all the major London newspapers, he was made art critic for Time magazine in 1970 and settled in New York. In 1980 he wrote and broadcast “The Shock of the New”, which traced the history of art from Impressionism to Modernism. In 1987 he published “The Fatal Shore”, a study of the early settlement of Australia that became a bestseller. His documentary on Francisco Goya was broadcast in 2002 and in 2006 he published the first volume of his memoirs, “Things I Didn’t Know”. His criticism ranged from the subtle and sensitive, as in his monographs on Auerbach and Lucian Freud, to the caustically dismissive—“Jeff Koons is the baby to Andy Warhol’s Rosemary” or “The presence of a Hirst in a collection is a true sign of dullness in taste”—for which he was best known.

This article was first published in the RA Magazine, Summer 2004, and formed the basis of Robert Hughes's annual dinner speech at London's Royal Academy of Arts in June that year.

Why do we need the Academy in the 21st century?

Many years ago, when I was still cutting my first pearly fangs as an art critic, one thing used to be taken for granted by me and practically everyone I knew in what is so optimistically termed the “art world”. That thing was that all Academies were bad, the enemies of progress—and though nobody knew how to define that slippery notion of progress in the arts, we were all in favour of it, that went without saying. What, you didn't like progress? You and Sir Alfred Munnings, fella. And the Royal Academy excited our particular scorn.

It seemed to stand for everything that was most retrograde and irrelevant. No serious artist could gain anything from having the tarnished letters RA tacked onto their name, so redolent of boardroom portraits, cockle gatherers at work or sunny views of Ascot.

Now, if you thought of this historically, it was an odd situation. For as it was originally set up in 1768, the Royal Academy was only one of a number in Europe: unlike those in Paris, Madrid and elsewhere, it was the least official, a product of the English genius for structured informality.

Despite its name, it did not get subventions from the monarch. It enjoyed no government funding and no guarantee of private patronage. It supported itself with annual shows, from whose sales it took a modest commission. These shows, which started in 1769, were for many years the chief artistic events in London.

Burlington House was not in any real sense the arm of a cultural establishment, as the French Academy was under the iron thumb of Le Brun. It attracted most of the most gifted and advanced artists then working in England. Nobody could say that a society that counted geniuses of the order of Constable, Turner or Fuseli among its members was an enemy of inspired art. The counter-example always given is William Blake, who resented Joshua Reynolds's Discourses and his tastes in painting. This created the idea, which many people still hold, that Reynolds hated Blake and was determined to repress him for his visionary genius.

There is no truth in this. It is one of the pious legends of Modernism. Blake certainly disliked Reynolds, but in fact, the Academy didn't do badly by Blake, and he continued to exhibit there for most of his life. The myth of Reynolds's opposition to Blake fitted in nicely with a much later idea of the Academy as enemy of the new.

But this really took hold in the first half of the 20th century, during which the Academy elected a series of conservative presidents, a process which reached a climax of sorts in the late 1940s when Alfred Munnings—a brilliant horse painter in his better moments but a paranoid blimp of a man—set out to use his presidency as a stick with which to beat Picasso, Matisse and assorted other Frogs, Wops, Huns and other denizens of that despicable place, Abroad.

Since Munnings raucously hated everything that Hitler had just been trying to wipe out as degenerate Jewish art, his timing was distinctly off. The Royal Academy, it seems, had shot itself in the foot so dramatically that it no longer had even the stump of a leg to stand on.

By the time I first came to live in England in the 1960s, and for years thereafter, the obsoleteness of the Royal Academy as a benign factor in the life of contemporary art was simply assumed as a fact. I have never heard any of the artists I knew mention it, let alone talk about some desire to join it. Nevertheless one went to its shows, which were sometimes complete eye-openers. I will never forget the impact that the great Bonnard exhibition of 1966 had on me, or the astonishing show of Neoclassicism in 1972, or, more recently, the 1987 show of British art in the 20th century.

The chance to see shows like that, I realised, was the one reason why I had wanted to leave Australia in the first place.

As the years wore on, it began to seem a bit absurd to bear the Academy ill will for things that happened in Burlington House when you were less than ten years old, or not born yet. The rhetoric of Modernism had tried hard, desperately hard, to distance itself from the academic. It was as though the Academy was a kind of Medusa's head, whose gaze could turn talent into stone. The very term had been made into a term of abuse. But could that be the whole story? Looking back, I don't think so. There are quite clear and, to me, convincing reasons why we need to revive the Academy today. And they have nothing to do with rules and conventions.

First of all, the idea of a democratic institution run by artists was valuable in the 18th century and it still is today. The good it can do for art cannot be replaced by either the commercial dealing system or by the national museums. I don't want to disparage dealers, collectors or museum directors, by the way. But I don't think there is any doubt that the present commercialisation of the art world, at its top end, is a cultural obscenity. When you have the super-rich paying $104m for an immature rose-period Picasso, something is very rotten. Such gestures do no honour to art: they debase it by making the desire for it pathological. As Picasso's biographer John Richardson said to a reporter on that night of embarrassment at Sotheby's, no painting is worth a hundred million dollars.

An institution like the Royal Academy, precisely because it is not commercial, can be a powerful counterweight to the degrading market hysteria we have seen too much of in recent years. I have never been against new art as such; some of it is good, much is crap, most is somewhere in between, and what else is news? I know, as most of us do in our hearts, that the term “avant-garde” has lost every last vestige of its meaning in a culture where anything and everything goes. Art does not evolve from lower states to higher. The scientific metaphors like “research” and “experiment”, that were so popular half a century ago, do not apply to art. A string of brush marks on a lace collar in a Velázquez can be as radical as the shark that is disintegrating in its tank on the other side of the Thames.

I believe it's not just desirable but culturally necessary that England should have a great institution through which the opinions of artists about artistic value can be crystallised and seen, unpressured by market politics. And the best candidate for such an institution is a revitalised Royal Academy, which always was dedicated to contemporary art.

Part of the Academy's mission was to teach. It still should be. In that regard, the Academy has to be exemplary: not a kindergarten, but a place that upholds the primacy of difficult skills that leak from a culture and are lost unless they are incessantly taught to those who want to have them. And those people are always a minority. Necessarily. Exceptions have to be.

In the 45 years that I've been writing criticism there has been a tragic depreciation in the traditional skills of painting and drawing, the nuts and bolts of the profession. In part it has been caused by the assumption that photography and its cognate media—film and TV—tell the most truth about the visual. It's not true. The camera, if it's lucky, may tell a different truth to drawing, but not a truer one. Drawing brings us into a different, a deeper and more fully experienced relation to to the object. A good drawing says “not so fast, buster”. We have had a gut full of fast art and fast food. What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water; art that grows out of modes of perception and making, whose skill and doggedness makes you think and feel; art that isn't merely sensational, that doesn't get its message across in seconds, that isn't falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our nature. In a word, art is the very opposite of mass media. For no spiritually authentic art can beat mass media at their own game.

This is not a problem when the Academy was founded. A quarter of a millennium later, things are different. But drawing never dies, it holds on by the skin of its teeth, because the hunger it satisfies—the desire for an active, investigative, manually vivid relation with the things we see and yearn to know about—is apparently immortal. And that, too, is why we need the Royal Academy: perhaps even more now than 50 or 100 years ago. May it live as long as history allows!

More from The Art Newspaper


14 Jan 13
23:11 CET


I like Robert Hughes but wonder if a resurgent Academy in Britain or elsewhere could achieve what he hoped it would. Orginally, the Academies (in New Zealand where I live, as elsewhere) could serve as a mechanism for helping the cream rise to the top. But today they could not manage the sheer weight in number of artists that exist. Also, it would now be impossible to reach any sort of consensus on the merits of artists among critics, galleries etc. And thirdly, when the Academies were important they only dealt with painting and sculpture (with associated interest in prints and drawings) whereas the media and concepts employed in the visual arts is now extremely broad. The best hope probably lies in quality, independent, art criticism (that isn't too hard for people to understand).

27 Aug 12
16:1 CET


Robert Hughes will be ecstatic in his grave to know Tracey Emin teaches drawing at the Royal Academy ? Stella Vine and Sarah Maple are far superior as artists and feminists 24/7( so is Akiane Kramarik and she`s only 17 and totally independent already in every respect). Damien Hirst`s and Matthew Collings`s `values` are welcomed with open arms. Thus the solipsism of what Debord calls " the integrated spectacle" flourishes at the Royal Academy too. Camille Paglia is a far superior writer and educator on all counts. Hughes and the Royal Academy are actually very provincial practically and historically. Witness the present silence from all at the so-called independent Royal Academy about Pussy Riot.

20 Aug 12
14:43 CET


This is the deputy editor here. "The Shock of the New" date is now correct. Thank you.

20 Aug 12
3:46 CET


The dating of "The Shock of the New" is off. I watched it in 1995.

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.


Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email


Share this