village explainer

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In his recent memoir, Things I Didn’t Know, art critic Robert Hughes pinpoints the moment he decided to leave his native Australia to begin a new life as a permanent expatriate. It was a warm evening in 1962. Hughes and his mentor, popular historian Alan Moorehead, were talking shop as they pounded down Gewürztraminer at Hughes’ apartment in Sydney. “If you stay here another ten years,” Moorehead told him, “Australia will still be a very interesting place. But you will have become a bore, a village explainer.”

Hughes heeded his friend’s advice, staying first at Moorehead’s villa in Tuscany, then moving to London, where he lived on the fringes of hippie counterculture (“all dope, rhetoric, be-ins, and powdered bullshit,” as he recalls) and wrote art reviews for the “quality Sundays”: the Times, the Telegraph, the Observer, the Spectator. In 1970, he got a call from Time (on a neighbor’s phone; his had been disconnected) offering him a job as the magazine’s art critic. His anecdote about this incident is a perfect snapshot of the good old days of cultural journalism: The editor who called him was drunk from his habitual three-martini lunch; Hughes was stoned to the gills on hash and, in his paranoia, assumed he was talking to the CIA. They worked it out; he took the job, moved to New York, and over the course of 30 years churned out hundreds of eloquent, witty, briskly opinionated columns for his target audience of intelligent, nonspecialist readers.

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