Books: Even As We Speak — Presenting the Richard Dimbleby Award |
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Presenting the Richard Dimbleby Award

It’s my honour to present this award to a man who writes so well that his art criticism and cultural comment would have made great television even if they had never left the printed page. Everything he writes has pictures in it. To write so vividly you have to see vividly in the first place. Blessed with the incomparable advantage of having been born and raised in Australia, he got clear blue sky into his eyes when young and has been seeing the world through it ever since.

Above all he could see how the art of painting reflected the world. Setting up a powerful base in New York, he wrote art criticism which brought in the whole society that produced the art. Though his intellectual resources threatened to burst the bounds of any medium to which they were confined, it never occurred to him that television, even American television, was beneath him: it was there, to be entered at its weak point — its growing dearth of the authoritative voice. Through that weak point could be made the strongest effect, and his effect was instantaneous. Just when we thought that the great tradition of the comprehensive television arts essay established by Kenneth Clark was fading, suddenly there was The Shock of the New to prove that it could be not just recapitulated but even transcended. About the notorious pile of bricks in the Tate Gallery our award-winner said everything necessary in a single sentence: ‘Anyone except a child can make such things.’ This was better than wisdom. It was wit: wisdom with wings.

His most recent BBC series, American Visions, was a gift to America for which not only Americans should be grateful. Anyone who watches television anywhere in the hope that it can still make life better instead of just more bearable should be glad that there is still someone who incarnates what cultural comment ought to be: overqualified yet uncondescending, serious without solemnity, packed tight yet with unimpeded flow, providing us, as if it were our birthright, with the priceless bonus of television’s simplest yet most precious blessing — the talking head who brings words alive. I have known this man since we were students together and have never ceased to wonder at his gifts, yet the millions of people throughout the world who have watched and listened to him in delight know the best thing about him as well as I do. Tonight I am proud to represent them in paying tribute to a prince of the English language. The Richard Dimbleby Award for Outstanding Contribution to Factual Television goes very deservedly to — Robert Hughes.

(From a presentation speech at the BAFTA Awards, 1997)