The deaths in such close proximity of Gore Vidal and Robert Hughes provide a reminder that reputation for wit and literary fame these days have little or nothing to do with the content of the work on which they are supposedly based. Vidal was as wrong about, well, pretty much everything as a man can well be and still hold his head up in polite society. Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard makes the point nicely:
With implausible romances like Lincoln and Burr he filled more readers’ heads with more historical crapola than anyone since Parson Weems. ("So powerful as to compel awe," said Harold Bloom of Vidal’s make-believe histories.) He thought the Bilderbergers and members of the Bohemian Grove controlled world finance. ("He is a treasure of state," said R.W.B. Lewis.) He befriended Timothy McVeigh and spoke warmly of him. ("Vidal did not lightly suffer fools," said the obit writer in the New York Times.) He dished out anti-Semitism in a dozen different venues with imperturbable serenity. ("Both by temperament and by birth he was an aristocrat," said the Times.) He called William F. Buckley a crypto- Nazi. ("Vidal was known for his . . . scathing wit," said Diane Sawyer on ABC.) He wanted to try Henry Kissinger for war crimes and suggested that John McCain had invented tales of his torture at the hands of the Vietnamese. ("A savvy analyst and glorious gadfly on the national conscience," said the L.A. Times.) He was paid nearly a million dollars, adjusted for inflation, to collaborate with the pornographer Bob Guccione on Caligula, the most expensive stroke film ever made. ("An astonishingly versatile man of letters" — the Post again.)
Even by the reckoning of the mainstream culture, a record like this should have earned Vidal honors only in Kooksville, yet the mainstream culture celebrated him as if he were the greatest American literary figure of his day, "a titan of the literary world" as Jay Parini put it in the London Daily Telegraph, sometimes known as a conservative newspaper.
Hughes was by no means as dotty as Vidal, but he was essentially a popularizer of the works of others, the pedestrianism of whose own ideas could not be disguised by the forcefulness with which he regularly promulgated them. Yet here is Mark Hudson — once again in the Telegraph, I’m afraid:
The jury will be out for some time on Hughes’s significance: on whether he was much more than a superb journalist; on whether he sold himself short by becoming part of the American media landscape even as he professed to abhor it; on whether he was a kind of Richard Burton of art criticism who never quite lived up to his formidable gifts. In the meantime, there is no one who comes remotely close to stepping into his shoes, in terms either of the sheer scale of his personality or the alpha male directness of his opinions.
Mr Hudson’s own "alpha male directness" expresses itself paradoxically, noting of Hughes that "many of his judgements were patently wrong, but when it comes to looking back on the art critics of the last forty years, he may well appear the only one who mattered." There is a tell-tale whiff of vulgarity about this notion of "mattering" which gives us a clue as to what such writers as these, who are not otherwise suffering from apparent cognitive handicap, are really talking about.
It is this, I think: that both Vidal and Hughes found a way to make themselves into celebrities — for celebrities are these days the only people who "matter" (and who only matter) — and they did so out of nothing more than writing and talking, even if their talk was nonsense and their writing gibberish. Such success by such means is the secret dream of every intellectual — a term I use, as always, as pejoratively as possible. Both these sages managed, as a few others have done, to get the honorific adjective "public" added to the title of "intellectual," and both did it largely by being insulting about others who had found similar routes to celebrity — the likes of Norman Mailer and Truman Capote in the case of Vidal, or Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons in the case of Hughes. These were the guys they were competing with for popular attention, and their fake squabbles offered the media the prospect of an intellectual smackdown so exciting that any idea of the actual content of what any of these writers write or artists create went and still goes straight out of their heads.