When I heard of Hughes death the other day I was sad to think another great public intellectual had been lost to us. It’s immaterial that he was Australian when you contemplate the impact he had worldwide with his art and cultural criticism. His was a robust, highly nuanced perspective, delivered in a very Australian manner – gruff sometimes, articulate with an Australian accent, and ever inclined to call a spade a fucking shovel. As Carey writes there was something patrician in his manner that not everyone got, though to me that was always surprising. I tend to think more were intimidated by his unashamedly elitist take on the world. He was very sniffy about the mediocre, and in a world chock full of mediocre people it’s no surprise that many took it personally.
I met him in about 1998 in a small gallery of the Melbourne Arts Centre. He was there to speak to those of us thoroughly committed to turning Australia into a republic. At the time I’d have stormed Parliament to make it happen. He was staunch, passionate and relentlessly rational in espousing exactly why that should be the case. Afterwards, I spoke to him briefly as the crowd milled, and was in no small way chuffed to shake his hand and to find agreement on the same things.
It’s a sad loss for Australia, whether Australia knows it or not. He is one of the last remaining great ex-pats to pass away. Though he lived in NYC he remained very Australian in both citizenship and manner. He was an important commentator – and example – of who we are. Who’s left of that legendary lot? Clive James, though he is very ill, the indomitable Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer…
I’ll miss Hughes and his irascible intellect, and will always wonder now what insight we have lost with his passing.