Timothy Noah

Robert Hughes Never Mellowed

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If too much of what you learned about the world in your adolescence came from Time magazine during the 1970s--as was the case with me--you encountered, in Time's pages, exactly one great writer. That was the art critic Robert Hughes, who died this week. You'd think a then-flush outfit like Time would put more than one great writer on its payroll, but for whatever reason it did not. Hughes's hiring was apparently some sort of glorious accident.

Hughes wrote for TNR, too, and TNR's "The Plank" is paying tribute by reprinting an excerpt from an essay Hughes published here in 1990 on the decline of the New York art scene. (The complete piece can be found here.) I thought I'd add a snippet from Hughes's final book, Rome: A Cultural, Visual, And Personal History (2011), which I happened to be reading when word came of his death. The passage, a brief meditation on the legacy of the Crusades, removes all doubt (if any existed) that Hughes remained pugnacious to the end:

The eleventh-to-thirteenth-century assaults of Christian forces were a peripheral affair in the Muslim world, and the Muslim counterattacks hardly menaced the stability of the Christian empire.... Nevertheless, their memory retained enormous rhetorical power, casting the Arabs in European eyes as cruel, barbarous infidels, and the Christians in Muslim eyes as culturally bestial thugs. That is why the Islamic media, to this day, continue to refer to the American armies in Iraq as "crusaders"--not by any means the compliment that the stupider voices of American faith fancy it to be. What gets ignored in this clang and rattle of poisoned stereotypes is the immense cultural heritage shared between Islam and Christianity--though not the Christianity of the ranting American fundamentalist bigots, or the Islam of the murderous lowbrow ayatollahs. As Christians once built Chartres and Saint Peter's, Muslims once built the Blue Mosque of Istanbul and the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the courts and gardens of the Alhambra. Their librarians preserved all that we have of classical drama and philosophy. They created in al-Andalus, the Arab name for Moorish Spain, one of the supreme cultures in world history--supreme, not least, in its tolerance for other faiths and creeds, a tolerance not shared by the anti-Semitic Catholic brutes who did the dirty work of the Reconquista for Ferdinand and Isabella.

Today, Islam's fundamentalist descendants can invent nothing, preserve nothing, create nothing. Comparing them with the remarkable figures of their own history is like comparing some illiterate IRA knee-capper to Seamus Heaney or William Butler Yeats. And it's the same on our side, where the Christian fundamentalists have no sacred art to show, no writing of aesthetic significance, and little architecture beyond drive-in megachurches.

 

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