American Visions Time, Inc., in association with Thirteen/WNET, PBS
American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America
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seemed the last thing American viewers could be expected to respond to without cynicism, a time when tweeds had been superseded, even among professors, by bell-bottoms, Civilisation was an enormous hit.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 been proposed for our admiration or delectation. Let’s see how much it actually deserves. They asked, of each thing: How good is it? And they found, like all intelligent critics, that different things are good or not so good for different purposes, and for what are always different reasons. They were not afraid of generalizations, but they never used a generalization to explain a particular work of art. This is why it was so crucial for Clark to trek all the way to the Parthenon or the Uffizi and park himself, overdressed and blinking like a rabbit in the light, on some inconvenient ledge outside it, rather than to be shown standing in a lecture hall with a pointer and a slide projector. He was on culture safari. Looking at art was an adventure. You never knew what you were going to find.
Everybody’s a critic,” goes the saying; but it’s not so. Most people either know what they think before they encounter a new poem or a new painting, so that the actual experience of reading or seeing it changes nothing, or they don’t know what they think before they encounter a new work of art and they don’t know afterward either. A good critic is someone who doesn’t know what he or she thinks before the experience but who has an idea about it afterward, and is able to explain that idea to someone else. Going in with an open mind is as difficult as coming out with a formed opinion; neither is as difficult as expressing the whole experience in clear and compelling language. People who can do this successfully, over and over, occasion after occasion, are as rare as people who can create poems or paintings worth explaining in the first place, and there tend not to be a lot of them around at any given time. Hughes is one of the very best.
The book version of American Visions, written after the eight television episodes were shot, is, like its predecessor, The Shock of the New, packed with discussions of hundreds of individual works of art-paintings, sculpture, monuments, buildings, furniture, photographs. There are 365 illustrations in the book, 323 of them in color, and every work illustrated plus dozens more are treated in the text. The writing blends sensitivity with muscularity, boundless (or nearly boundless) aesthetic curiosity with an emphatic distaste for pretension. Hughes has a gift for describing objects in an alert and critical way, and American Visions, with its discussions of altarpieces, headstones, pueblo architecture, Shaker furniture, Civil War memorials, Sargent portraits, New York City skyscrapers, Pollock drip paintings, Fifties Cadillacs, Warhol soup cans, and Bruce Nauman installations, is a virtuoso display. There is not a dull or redundant page, and there are 635 of them.
Hughes’s treatment of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (1936-1939), the house he built for a department store heir over a small waterfall in the woods of Pennsylvania, is an exemplar of his practice.
The house is cantilevered out over Bear Run on concrete supports, and its three terraces-concrete trays, in effect-seem to float in the air. Their apparent lightness is increased by the low parapets, which Wright designed to his own short stature, not for taller inhabitants. They are supported on a tall stone core wrapped around the kitchen, with bedrooms above (again, the Wrightian theme of the hearth or kitchen as focus of the house). As all the supports, which he called “bolsters,” are anchored in solid rock and can only be seen from the back, the effect of levitation is magical at first view. The south walls, looking over and down the stream, are glass. The west and east walls are fieldstone, and seem to grow up out of the rock. Wright used color subtly, neither camouflaging the house nor making it stark. The terraces are a warm, light peach tint, and the metal window framing is a sharp earth-red, which, when seen against the winter snows, has the same visual snap as the bare red branches of a Cornus elegantissima poking through the whiteness.
In sum, this is a wonderful set of variations on themes: the liquid water surface and the hard skin of glass; the cut fieldstone masonry, and the raw rock ledges; the sense that the bulk of the building is cradled in the rock while the balconies fly out into the air, working against gravity and the assuring grasp of the earth. All the opposites, held in a poetic synthesis. They make you forget-until you go inside-the perversity of Wright’s idea of building a house over a waterfall that can’t be seen from inside it, but only heard: a dull, continuous roar that, in spring-melt time, must have rendered life in Fallingwater nearly insufferable.
In three hundred words, the house is placed before our eyes; its effects are evoked, detail by detail, and architecturally explained; the visual poem the building makes is verbally recreated; and the whole beautiful balloon is then shot cleanly out of the air by the final sentence. That sentence is the signature touch. It doesn’t quite say, “Don’t be fooled”; for fooling you, making an illusion, is what art does. It only says that, in the end, there are other things in life besides beauty. Admire, and move on.
The more Hughes admires the effect, the more fascinated he becomes by the technique, by the machinery, employed to get it. His discussions of paintings that he clearly has personal affection for, such as John Singleton Copley’s luminous portrait of Paul Revere holding his chin in one hand and a silver cup in the other (circa 1768- 1770) or John Singer Sargent’s darkly spectacular flamenco scene El Jaleo (1880), are all about the devices the painter has used to give the illusion of verisimilitude and spontaneity. This is, at bottom, a very American style of appreciation: an appreciation for how the damn thing was made. A brand new car looks fabulous and drives beautifully-and what’s the first thing an American male can’t wait to do? Look under the hood.
Hughes never suggests that understanding the means demystifies the result, because he never imagines that the experience of art is mystical in the first place. This is one of the reasons he is so sharply dismissive, for example, of the grandiose spiritual claims made for Abstract Expressionist projects like Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross” (1958) (“utterly vacuous”) and the Rothko Chapel (1971) (“the expected epiphany does not come”). Hughes is a critical empiricist. When he hears the word “sublimity,” he reaches for his stiletto.
The television series is a little more problematic. Hughes estimates that the script for each of the eight programs averaged about three thousand words, and that each of the nine chapters in the book runs to over twenty thousand. This means, of course, that the series treats far fewer artists and far fewer works of art, and in a much thinner historical context. In The Shock of the New, Hughes had eight hours to present a century’s worth of art within a single tradition. In American Visions, he has the same amount of time to cover a much wider variety of art forms over a period three-and-a-half times as long.
The trouble isn’t that things get left out. Things get left out of the book, too, as they would from any treatment of such a gargantuan subject. It’s that between the desire to maintain the sense of a survey and the desire to organize each episode around a specific theme cracks open up, and the show sometimes falls into them. Our narrator pops up in Las Vegas, at Monticello, in Plymouth chatting over a dish of Puritan take-out with a couple of costume Pilgrims, driving along the highway in a big convertible, sitting in the study of Alfred Kazin, as a fedora-topped businessman in an imitation black-and-white Thirties documentary, on the roof of the Chrysler Building, upside down staring at the sky in the crater of an extinct volcano in Arizona. He tells us about Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and J.P. Morgan. He explains the extermination of the American Indian, the effects of the turn-of-the-century European immigration, the consumer culture of the 1950s, and the reaction to the Vietnam War. He dilates on the importance of religion in American life, the importance of nature, and the importance of the automobile. The result is a narrative overload.