American Visions Time, Inc., in association with Thirteen/WNET, PBS
by Robert Hughes. an eight-part television documentary produced by BBC Television and
American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America
by Robert Hughes
Knopf, 635 pp., $65.00
Robert Hughes’s American Visions is the descendant of one of the most successful noncommercial television series ever made, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which was produced by the BBC and broadcast here in 1970. In a medium that favors trim, ageless, flawlessly coifed word-machines, Clark was an unlikely star. He had, as it happened, considerable television experience. He had been hosting programs on art for the BBC, some of which were imported to the United States and shown on public television here, since the 1950s. But there was nothing obviously telegenic about him. He seemed a man who was game enough to perch on a rock outside the Parthenon if that was what the script required, but who would feel a good deal more comfortable in front of a lectern, or in an armchair in his study. His appearance was tweedy and donnish; his voice was high-pitched for television; he sometimes gave the impression, before he spoke, of adjusting his dentures. Viewers adored him. At a time when the glory and grandeur of the Western tradition might have seemed the last thing American viewers could be expected to respond to without cynicism, a time when tweeds had been superseded, even among professors, by bell-bottoms, Civilisation was an enormous hit.
Hughes’s first multi-part television series was The Shock of the New, broadcast in 1981. Tweedy and donnish is distinctly not the Hughes look, but his show was the perfect pendant to Clark’s series, after which it was, quite consciously, modeled. Its subject was modern art, from Paul Cézanne to Frank Stella, and it, too, was a smash. Twenty-six million people watched it, and the book Hughes spun off from the series was a stunning critical performance.
Hughes’s take on modern art wasn’t any more iconoclastic or revisionist than Clark’s take on Western civilization. Revisionism wasn’t the point. The point was to make people see what they thought they had already seen but had really only half-seen, or seen through a theoretical or art-historical fog. On page after page, mostly familiar works were described, probed, and evaluated in fresh, pithy, colorful language by a writer whose considerable intelligence and learning were displayed without affectation. Hughes didn’t just bring modern art alive; he brought modern criticism alive. For writers trying to find a non-academic critical idiom that was neither dogmatic nor belletristic, his book was a revelation and an inspiration.
That was one reason for the success of Civilisation and The Shock of the New-the assurance that great art was great for good and unembarrassing reasons, reasons that became obvious once people could be persuaded to give their attention to the object in front of them rather than to whatever aesthetic or political prejudices happened to be circulating around them. The other reason was that neither Clark nor Hughes was disposed to make transcendental claims for his subject. Their approach was simple and empirical. Here is this thing-Charlemagne’s sword or Duchamp’s urinal-that has …