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Saturday, 14 June 2008

An unsigned piece in Salon magazine labels Robert Hughes one who is good at “telling stories about objects”.

His magisterial Barcelona (1992) - which may be the culprit when it comes to allocating blame for the almost endless series of cultural histories that ushered in the new millenium - illustrates the point.

Not Simon Schama but Robert Hughes is thus responsible for the endless histories of clocks, salt, cod, and everything else made or consumed by humans. Barcelona - published just before the 1992 Olympics disturbed the sleep of the city angels - is likely the catalyst for an explosion of non-fiction that continues without cease.

The book covers a lot of ground, though not all in equal detail, as Hughes candidly points out in his introduction. Yet there are still too many names belonging to individuals who have no resonance for the average English-language reader.

Something similar must happen when you watch a Formula One race from trackside. You glimpse a name as it flickers across the retinal glass and disappears in a blink around the narrative arc.

The only sound we hear is ‘i’, ‘i’, ‘i’, ‘i’ - every Catalan name has the vowel in its centre, so the city seems to exist like some surreal box of chocolates that are irritatingly various on the outside but are all filled with the same orange cream, reminding us of afternoon tea with aunty Madge in Waverly.

When what we really want to do is race our billy cart down the dangerous hill of Wharf Road, along with the others - all the boys who go without shoes in summer.

Hughes is stiff with politicians, priests, kings, mayors and soldiers alike. The most luscious prose drips off the end of his mental spoon when he’s dipping it into the aesthetic kernel of some beautiful object, and the more curious and striking - the better.

Even poetry seems secondary to Hughes. He doesn’t quite ‘get’ literature, just as he doesn’t quite ‘get’ the Gothic. While he pays obedient lip-service to art and architecture conservation - as a self-evident public ‘good’ - in his writing style and in the ‘genius’ of his mental habits, he’s more akin to the later 18th century absolutists who redesigned Paris.

Similar projects in Barcelona did not go as far, because (he tells us early on) Barcelona and Catalunya in general are monumentally conservative places. The reason why Hughes’ concepts - the avenues of his bias and thought - are straight and true is, of course (and he also makes this clear early on), because his native Australia is similarly hidebound and parochial.

Hughes lives in America but his mind is of the French type. He has respect for the patriarchal habits of the Catalonians but his heart is in the streets of Paris, storming the Bastille.

It is quite possible - likely even - that one day Hughes will write the definitive book about regional competitiveness in Australia. The main rivalry - between Sydney and Melbourne - resembles that between Madrid and Barcelona.

Unfortunately, like the 20th century, Barcelona is just too long. It’s not worth finishing because you know (not hard to see straight down those long, elegant avenues into the far distance) how it will end.

Hughes is no novelist, and as a chronicler of art as a collection of objects with everyday relevance, he has few equals. Nevertheless, the weight of his sarcasm and his scorn are more significant than the lift of his praise.

European control valve manufacturing facilities as at year 2000
The map shown here was made during a period working for a manufacturing company in Tokyo. It shows how the north of Spain is categorically different - it is strong in manufacturing, not food production - from the rest of the country (with the exception - and Hughes also points this out - of the Basque country).

The map shows that northern Spain, like northern Italy, is a manufacturing and engineering centre, similar to northern France, Germany, England, and the western parts of the Czech Republic.

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