The distinguished art critic Robert Hughes was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters of the University of Melbourne in November 1995. His acceptance speech is reproduced here in full.
IT HAS TAKEN me 39 years to get a degree from an Australian university. I am flushed with relief and gratitude. My academic history, I will now confess, has been a sorrow to me and a disgrace to my kin.
I enrolled at Sydney University in 1956, intending to do an arts-law course and then become a barrister, like my elder brother, Thomas Hughes. My conscious mind had persuaded me that I could follow in his footsteps to the bar and maybe give him some competition. But, alas, my unconscious led me to the wrong bar.
Released after five years in a Jesuit boarding school, I discovered beer, girls, and university journalism.
I swanned around the quadrangle in a black duffle-coat, a garment designed for deck duty on naval patrols in the North Sea, but ill-adapted to South Pacific conditions. In its left pocket was a black box of Balkan Sobranies, the cigarette of choice among 19-year-old æsthetes at the time. They had gold tips, and one would jam them into a holder while discoursing to a blonde from Vaucluse on the superiority of Ronald Firbank to Henry Lawson. In the right pocket was a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness, of which I could not read a word, since it was in French. Sometimes I would take out Sartre and lay him on the formica table in the "Royal George", and then place the Sobranies on top, like the cherry on an ice-cream sundae.
I wrote articles for Honi Soit, the student newspaper. I drew cartoons and penned extremely derivative verses. I acted, badly, in the University Revue. From time to time I condescended to attend a lecture or turn in a paper. It was the fullest year of my young life and at the end of it I found, inevitably, that I had failed Arts I, a course that a fairly diligent amoeba could have passed.
By that time I knew what I was going to do: I would go to Paris and be an artist. The rugged Gauloise Disque Bleu would replace the effete Balkan Sobranie. Perhaps my elder brother would contribute to my welfare on the Left Bank, out of gratitude for having the threat to his legal career neutralized. But strangely, he would not. So I decided to stay in Sydney and be an architect, like my sister, Constance, who seemed not to mind the competition.
I spent three very happy years in the Faculty of Architecture, mainly acting in the University Revue, writing for Honi Soit and The Nation, painting extremely derivative pictures, and now and then handing in a Beaux-Arts rendering of the west front of the Parthenon or a design for a new surf-club at Manly in the manner of Le Corbusier.
I did not graduate, because after a drunken lunch in 1962 with the founder of Penguin Books I was offered my first book contract: a £300 advance to write a history of Australian art. Wavering between virtue and vice, I chose the vice of writing.
Such was the end of my academic career. The only building that came out of those years of desultory acquaintance with Ictinus, Bramante, Vanbrugh, and Sir John Soane is a toolshed, behind my house on Long Island. The rhythm of its façade and the forthright character of its fenestration have been noticed by some, though not by my wife.
Since then, especially in America, I have lived in a world where practically everyone except me has a degree, sometimes several. I have even jibbed at hiring research assistants, because they are all more qualified than I am and I know they know.
The professorial glare still has the power to strike me dumb, and I sometimes feel as though I've gotten away with a harmless confidence trick. Particularly when I go to Italy, where, because of my job, people sometimes address me as "Dottore".
In the past I would feel a twinge of guilt, from which you have now absolved me. To quote one of Macbeth's henchmen, as the bloody Scot learns he has been made Thane of Cawdor: "Strange honours come upon him / Which, like new garments, cling not to their mould / But with the aid of use". Doctor. Dottore. Herr Doktor. Sounds good.
I have been writing art criticism for 35 years, 25 of them in New York. It is the fate of a critic to make enemies. Every so often, I hear that some aggrieved artist or curator, exaggerating his or her victimhood -- as Americans are apt to do -- has uttered the prophetic words: "One of these days Hughes will get what he deserves". I am happy and grateful that this University, today, has proven them wrong.
The University of Melbourne Gazette, Autumn 1996.
Robert Hughes died aged 74 in August 2012.