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The Artists of Cultural Criticism: Remembering Robert Hughes and Judith Crist

August 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
As taste-makers, critics can reveal the best and worst in art and film -- from inspiration to distraction. Jeffrey Brown and New York Times' A.O. Scott remember two such critics: Robert Hughes, who spent three decades writing for Time Magazine, and Judith Crist, who championed a new wave of actors and directors in the 1960s.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, the critic speaks and sometimes roars. We remember two legends of the genre.

Art critic and historian Robert Hughes died Monday in New York after a long illness. He was 72 years old. A native of Australia, Hughes spent more than three decades as art critic for “TIME” magazine, and reached many millions more through his work on television.

His 1980 documentary “The Shock of the New” changed conceptions about 20th century art. It originated on the BBC and also aired on PBS. Later, Hughes wrote and presented “American Visions,” another series that aired on PBS.

Here’s an excerpt of Hughes discussing the work of the American painter Winslow Homer.

ROBERT HUGHES, Critic: His great subject was always before him, the sea. It is a field of primal encounter. Homer insists that you are always alone before it, which you are.

For him, it is bound up with his rejection of industrial America.The machine enslaves the men who serve it. Only in the woods or on the ocean or on its rocks are we truly free, truly American.

I think now, you know, you don't have that kind of authoritative figures. So, some people would say, well, the art of criticism has declined. On the other hand, if you think, as I do, that what criticism essentially is, is a form of argument and conversation, it's talking in a passionate and knowledgeable and opinionated way about art and culture, then I think we are in an age where criticism is flourishing.A.O Scott, The New York Times' film critic

He understood the structure of waves, currents, surges, loops of foam, the sheer power of the water breaking over Cannon Rock, its relentlessness and its strange, fickle, yet maternal beauty.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another hugely influential figure in the world of cultural criticism, Judith Crist, died today at age 90. She was a champion of a new generation of American and international directors and actors in the 1960s and after. And like Robert Hughes, she was more than ready with a sharp zinger when she disliked a work.

Crist wrote for a number of major print organizations, including The New York Herald Tribune and TV Guide. And she was the first regular movie critic on “The Today Show,” serving there for a decade beginning in 1963.

A short time ago, I talked about Crist, Hughes, and the art of criticism with A.O. Scott, chief film critic for The New York Times.

Tony Scott, welcome.

Let’s start with Judith Crist in your own field of film criticism. What will she be most remembered for?

A.O. SCOTT, The New York Times: Well, she was, for one thing, the first woman to serve as a regular critic on a daily newspaper at the New York Herald Tribune.

She also had enormous range in the kinds of media that she appeared in, in newspapers. She was the first critic at “New York” magazine. She wrote for TV Guide. She appeared for many years on television on “The Today Show.”

I think what she will be remembered for — what she is remembered for among critics and among her readers and viewers is the sharpness of her opinions, whether pro or con. She could be very, very slashing and witty. I think the director Billy Wilder famously said that to offer one of your films to her for review was like asking for a neck massage from the Boston Strangler.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ouch.

A.O. SCOTT: And she was witty and she was sharp and, you know, always, always gave, I think, a very clear opinion. So she was, I think, a very helpful critic for people who wanted to go to the movies and who wanted to know what she thought of them.

And she also wasn’t — she was the furthest thing from a film snob. She championed popular art, along with foreign films and more adventurous films. She didn’t have any use for the hierarchies of art and entertainment.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so turn to Robert Hughes then, in a different field, but also a critic of great stature in art criticism, also speaking to a huge audience, also through print and television.

A.O. SCOTT: Yes, he also traveled from magazines and books in the world of print to television.

I think I first became aware of him through “The Shock of the New,” his extraordinary PBS series on modern art that was full of contentious opinion and wit. And his writing in time was the same way. He, too, I think shared with Judith Crist a reputation for a certain civilized savagery, you might say.

(LAUGHTER)

A.O. SCOTT: He was extremely well-spoken and erudite and just a master of English prose and also a master of the elegant takedown.

He could really — if he thought an artist or a work of art was shoddy or meretricious or bad in any way, he could say it with the most devastating learning and economy and humor.

JEFFREY BROWN: And both — interesting, interestingly to me, both sort of reaching out to very large general audiences and explaining some new changes in their world, Crist looking at the world of film beginning in the ’60s that was opening up, an international world to an American audience, and Hughes, as you say, explaining this almost inexplicable to many people, right, the world of 20th century modern art.

A.O. SCOTT: Well, I think that is right.

I think you make a very good point, that they were both very smart and learned and sophisticated people who wrote about material that was sometimes very difficult or confusing or strange to their readers. And they were writing for the widest possible general audience.

And they managed to explain and argue about this stuff, whether it was avant-garde art or experimental film, in a way that was clear and accessible and never condescending. I think they practiced criticism as a democratic form, which is not to say that they didn’t have standards. They had very, very high and explicit and rigorous standards for the stuff they were judging.

But the idea was that anyone could participate. You could pick up “New York” magazine or “TIME” magazine and read about foreign films or experimental art and find that you could understand it and that the person who was talking to you was speaking your language and communicating with you in a very clear and persuasive way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so I want to bring it up to date, to ask that. How has the role of the critic changed? It’s your world now. There’s new technology. There’s — there are a whole lot of changes out there. But what is different now? What remains the same?

A.O. SCOTT: Well, I think that there are two ways to look at it.

You know, you can look back at the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s, into the ’80s, and you can see that there were these large, heroic, dominating critical figures, whether it was Judith Crist, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, who also passed away earlier this year, in film, or Robert Hughes, Hilton Kramer, John Richardson in art, the great theater critics who could open and close plays.

I think now, you know, you don’t have that kind of authoritative figures. So, some people would say, well, the art of criticism has declined. On the other hand, if you think, as I do, that what criticism essentially is, is a form of argument and conversation, it’s talking in a passionate and knowledgeable and opinionated way about art and culture, then I think we are in an age where criticism is flourishing.

There’s almost too much to keep track of. It’s just a little more democratic, a little more pluralistic, maybe a little noisier and more ill-mannered. And it happens on social networks and on the Internet, as well as in broadcast, on the radio, in print.

And I think that it’s a very lively and exciting, if sometimes confusing time to be a critic.

(LAUGHTER)

A.O. SCOTT: One difference now, for example, is that, if you are a critic, as I am, working at a publication like The New York Times, and you write something that people take issue with or are offended by or disagree with, or if you make a mistake or an error in judgment, you are going to hear about it very quickly.

JEFFREY BROWN: You hear about it right away, right? Yes.

A.O. SCOTT: Within hours, if not minutes…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

A.O. SCOTT: … from people who — who are not always friendly or polite, but who sometimes know quite a lot about what they are talking about and about what you are talking about.

So, you have to be on your game in a way that I think is very healthy, if also sometimes exhausting.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Judith Crist, Robert Hughes and the continuing role of critics.

A.O. Scott of The New York Times, thanks so much.

A.O. SCOTT: It was a great pleasure. Thank you.