Robert Hughes was not a philosopher, psychologist or poet. He was an art writer and popular historian. His work sings when his eye is not on his own soul but on the world beyond him, both in the past and in the present. He was a shrewd, incisive, if occasionally rash, commentator, not only on the spectacle of skill but on that mad, motley, yet also wondrous circus we call 'culture.'
Some of its segments are far more polished than others – indeed, some are almost sloppy. Yes, the thing is billed as 'unpublished,' but much of it also often feels unready, which makes it an odd capstone to the publishing history of such a perfectionist as Hughes.
This large volume, welcome though it is, is unwieldy. The excerpts from some of Mr. Hughes’s other books — The Fatal Shore, about Australian history, Goya, Barcelona, Rome — rest uneasily next to his criticism and more personal writing. Out of context, these lumps feel undigested.
The blessing and the curse of an anthology is that it is both too much and not enough. There are no editorial notes in this volume, aside from an index of terms and an introduction — more accurately a tribute or appreciation — by the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik. It is a book to dip into and out of rather than to be enjoyed as a continuous narrative. In the best-case scenario it will inspire a few readers to track down the books Hughes published during his lifetime.
Throughout the volume, the most colorful recurring character is the current art world. Unfortunately, without a precise timeline, the reader is left to guess exactly when Mr. Hughes is wryly noting the inflated art prices, kickbacks of paintings fresh from the studio to supposedly neutral critical colleagues, and other absurdities surveyed here. Many of the events described could have taken place between 1980 to the present, and perhaps that is the point.