NOTHING IF NOT CRITICAL Selected Essays on Art and Artists By Robert Hughes Knopf. 429 pp. $24.95

AFTER the death of Harold Rosenberg, lustrous prose about visual art with the right amount of crusty demotic seasoning all but disappeared, except in the columns of Time magazine and occasionally the New York Review of Books, where Robert Hughes churned and turned his phrases into the essays that appear in this collection. Behind the jaunty prose and occasional verbal swagger lurks an oddly old-fashioned writer who both feels and reflects and whose prose is almost always based on real experiences with works of art. He does not shrink from worldly allusion (in other words he is not patronizing, as when in his essay on Giorgio de Chirico he writes: "Morbid, introspective and peevish, de Chirico belonged to the company of the convalescents: Cavafy, Leopardi, Proust. The city was his sanitorium, and as a fabricator of images that spoke of frustration, tension and ritualized memory, he had no equal.") And he does not deprive the readers of the mass-circulation magazine of his pithy inventions, such as calling Baudelaire a "wounded argonaut of the boulevards" or Kandinsky a painter who "carried his culture in one portable labyrinth on his back, as if he were a rambling snail." When he can sprawl in the more prolix columns of the New York Review, he does not assume donnish airs, although occasionally his high spirits do turn into high dudgeon in a somewhat spluttering mode.

Some of Hughes's best commentary, revealing his openness to fresh experience and his commendable knowledge, occurs in the section of the book he calls "Ancestors." When obliged to review large-scale museum exhibitions, he comes with that rare commodity, the innocent eye, and patiently finds the means to communicate his visual discoveries to his readers. Sometimes, as in his review of a Chardin exhibition, he reveals a basic conservatism, a respect for tradition underlying his otherwise exuberantly modern stance, reveals, indeed, who he really is au fond (I throw in the French phrase as does Hughes himself now and then to set off the sentence). "To see Chardin's work en masse, in the midst of a period stuffed with every kind of jerky innovation, narcissistic blurting and trashy 'relevance' is to be reminded that lucidity, deliberation, probity and calm are still the chief virtues of the art of painting."

It is this basic belief that sponsors Hughes's most passionate writing. It goads him into serious attacks on hyperbole, whether it appears in the tendentious writings of academics, particularly those aping the French, or in the incantatory prose of museum curators defending their choices. Hughes hates the fashion industry and its mythmaking even in its academic robes. In his review of a Caravaggio exhibition, he twits academe for its fashionable revisionism: "We have a proto-Marxist Caravaggio, the painter of common people with dirty feet and ragged sleeves. There is also a homosexual Caravaggio, the painter of overripe bits of rough trade, with yearning mouths and hair like black ice cream. Most of all, there is Caravaggio the avant-gardist." Oversimplified views of a master ancestor always get Hughes's dander up, often in delightful riptides of strong words. They remind him of all that is wrong with us, including the way we treat the good old values which he is courageous enough to defend.

For instance, he deplores much contemporary painting for its flimsiness, which he sees as the result of bad training in bad art schools where the student is "raised like a battery chicken on a diet of slides." "Reproduction", he claims, in one of his many amusing propositional phrases, "is to aesthetic awareness what telephone sex is to sex." When he speaks of old masters, he always stresses their deep acquaintance with the original works of still older masters. Of Degas: "The figure you think he skimmed from the street like a Kodak turns out to have been there already, in Ingres or Watteau . . . and of Mondrian: "The philosophical beauty of {his} squares and grids begins with the empirical beauty of his apple trees." WHEN HUGHES turns his eye on the sociology of the times, he does not spare the brimstone. In his section called "Contemporaries," he writes of the instant celebrity of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who appealed to "a cluster of toxic vulgarities," among them a racist's idea of the black as naif, a fetish for the freshness of youth, an obsession with novelty, the slide of art criticism into promotion and art into fashion, investment mania and finally the audience's "goggling appetite for self-destructive talent." These motifs are pursued in several of his best essays on the contemporary artists thrust forward by the 1980s, which Hughes sees as a "low, dishonest decade for art." Against the instant stars Hughes juxtaposes a number of artists -- painters above all -- that have remained true to the best traditions, many of them neglected by American hypesters, such as the British painter Frank Auerbach, whom he ably defends.

Hughes's choicest rhetoric is reserved for the skewering of fashionable French obfuscators such as Jean Baudrillard, whose barnstorming through America as a high-class star receiving salaams justly rouses Hughes's ire. He attacks with deadly accuracy. Jargon, he writes, is always with us, but American academics and art-world characters prefer the French kind, "a thick prophylactic against understanding." Baudrillard's indifference to real experience -- Hughes's own touchstone and a good one -- results in an oracular mess of generalizations: "The result is to clear writing what the flowery blandishments of the valets to Gorgibus's daughters in Moliere's Les Precieuses Ridicules were to the sincere expression of feeling: a parodical mask, a compound of snobbery and extravagant rhetoric."

Still, as Hughes himself says, "Life goes on despite theory, and so does art." The title of the book may be just a jot self-congratulatory -- it takes a lot to transform a journalist into a bona fide critic -- but Hughes has successfully turned the trick.

Dore Ashton is the author of many books on modern art, including "The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning."