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seemed the last thing American viewers could be expected to respond to without cynicism, a time when tweeds had been superseded, even among professors, by bell-bottoms, Civilisation was an enormous hit.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.
Part of the problem may come from the fact that the series had five different directors, so that stylistically the episodes are not entirely consistent. By far the best of the eight is the opening hour, “The Republic of Virtue.” It is chronologically out of place, since it covers the architecture of Monticello and Washington, D.C. (in the book, this is the second chapter, not the first), so that the next episode has to circle back to deal with the art and architecture of the earliest European settlers. But the decision to run “The Republic of Virtue” as the opening show was sensible, since it is strikingly photographed, and since its emphasis on the American sky, in shot after shot of buildings and monuments, gets picked up again at the very end of the series, when Hughes visits the volcanic crater in Arizona, which is being transformed into a site for viewing the heavens by the artist James Turrell-thus linking the founding of the republic with the sense of nature as the primary source for aesthetic forms.
This opening segment was directed by James Kent, who also directed another excellent episode, “Streamlines and Breadlines,” partly about the New York skyscraper boom of the 1920s and 1930s (Hughes spends a good deal of airtime on and around the sexy and photogenic Chrysler Building, to the neglect of a less titillating but nobler achievement of the period, Rockefeller Center) and partly about Edward Hopper, an artist Hughes particularly admires. These seem the most successful programs. Elsewhere, there are hits and there are misses. The visit to Turrell’s crater was a lovely choice to close the television series. (The book ends, instead, with a sharp and somewhat dyspeptic analysis of the contemporary art scene.) An unrehearsed interview with Jeff Koons, in which the unflappable auteur of high-end kitsch is flayed alive inside of two minutes by our narrator, is memorable television.
On the other hand, a sequence in which an actor sings two verses of Bunthorne’s confessional (“Am I alone and unobserved?/I am./Then let me own,/ I’m an aesthetic sham”) from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience-meant to illustrate a point about James McNeill Whistler, though the identification of Bunthorne with Whistler is arguable and the relevance of advanced British aestheticism to the American scene is marginal-seems anomalous. A visit to a mountain where the children of a deceased eccentric are attempting to fulfill his dream of turning it into a 500-foot model of the head of Crazy Horse has a Charles Kuraltish air of news-magazine hokiness about it. The scene in which Hughes, cloth napkin draped over his shoulder, interviews the ersatz Pilgrims is so distracting that it is easy to miss the point he is trying to establish, a point that turns out to be crucial to his larger argument, about the Puritan distaste for decorative art.
The busy-ness of the series is possibly owed to an anxiety about the medium. The rhythm of television programming is established by the rhythm of the commercial-bright, staccato, and high in sensory fat. It is not news that the tempo of television has increased exponentially since the year of Civilisation, almost to the point that people raised on “Bonanza” and “Laugh-In” can scarcely follow contemporary programming. MTV, which essentially converted popular songs into commercials, is usually blamed for this speeding up of the television aesthetic; but whatever the cause, it is clear that the sound bites are shorter and the cutting is faster than ever.
Hughes despises television-“this Niagara of visual gabble,” as he calls it in his collection Nothing If Not Critical (1990). He is also critical of slides and reproductions of paintings generally-media that are to aesthetic awareness, as he says elsewhere in that book, “what telephone sex is to sex.” “Art requires the long look,” he insists. A man with these views is not the obvious person to mount a major television series on art, and it is a credit to Hughes’s democratic sense of mission that he has pulled off this exhausting undertaking with unfailing seriousness and grown-up wit and intelligence. But the medium, never his friend, has become his enemy. Cameras zoom over purple mountain peaks and across amber waves of grain; seas crash on rocky shorelines; choruses intone “America, the Beautiful”; tourists offer testimonials at the Grand Canyon and the tomb of Robert E. Lee; geysers spurt; radical ecologists sit in forest clearings and utter primal screams. You almost would not be surprised to see Michael Jordan suddenly enter the picture to execute a flying dunk. It’s a consequence of the desire to illustrate everything. Hughes’s narration is always pithy, and his screen presence is bracing (though he sometimes appears to make his interview subjects a little nervous). But he’s competing with a lot of other pith. It’s difficult to provoke thought about American attitudes toward nature when every mention of the word seems to trigger a ten-second clip of a sunset. Television is always overanxious to solicit attention, which is why the usual response to it tends to be not engagement but passivity.
There is no question that if almost any academic historian of American art and culture had presented such a series, the content would have been vastly different. It would almost certainly have accentuated the noncanonical at some cost to the canonical. That is, it would have argued for the inclusion, in any view of our artistic history, of work by lesser-known nonwhite and women artists, and have done so by attempting to reveal the extent to which the marginalization of nonwhites and women was furthered by the way they were represented in (or made invisible by) canonical painting.
Hughes is not oblivious to the relation between representation and social status; he directs our attention, on many occasions, to the political implications of the way black Americans and Native Americans are portrayed in various works. But this is never his principal interest. His principal interest is the success or failure of the work of art as a work of art, something that includes but is not limited to the kind of social witness it offers. Nothing disgusts him so much as a famous artist who cannot draw well; it is a constant theme with him. Draftsmanship is not, generally speaking, the current academic criterion for serious critical consideration.
Many academic (and non-academic) critics of art take the image essentially for granted. The issue for them isn’t how the image was made, but what is being done to it-how it is being appropriated, subverted, parodied, reinscribed. For Hughes, these effects are always secondary, and he tends to see them as instances of displaced politics. The notion that “doing something” to a received image is a possible means of reducing the amount of injustice in the world seems to him to lead down a blind alley, and away from the cultivation of vision and technique that makes for good art.
We thus start to get a glimpse of rising hackles on our guide as we approach modernism, with whose vanguardist pretensions Hughes seems less patient than he was in The Shock of the New; and by the Sixties, they are fully erect. There is a good deal of contemporary art he admires, but Hughes’s suspicion of the political is matched by his hostility to the theoretical. The emergence of feminist art and art criticism since the Sixties is barely touched on in American Visions. Conceptual art earns a single dismissive paragraph (in which no artists are named). Performance art goes virtually unmentioned. Hughes’s neglect of those movements, though, is consistent with his attitude toward movements generally. His project is not about politics or philosophy or aesthetics; it’s about works of art, and the farther away they get from those things, the better he is inclined to like them. This is a critic who finds “Luminism” a potentially procrustean notion.
And the project is after all, as Hughes makes a point of noting, a personal view-his view, in other words, and if viewers or readers don’t find it congenial, no one is pretending it is the last word on the subject. “For this, I cannot offer an apology,” Hughes says in the introduction to the book; and he need not. He intends to show us what interests him, and to explain why. In one respect, though, his disdain for academic tendencies carries him too far. His book contains not only no footnotes but no bibliography-something he explains as his tribute to “the general intelligent reader,” a person he claims American academics profess to believe does not exist. Academics may sometimes write as though they believed such a thing, but no one, so far as I know, professes it. A general intelligent reader is, in any case, presumably a person who is not averse to going out and hunting down a few other recommended books on a topic that interests him or her. And it is difficult to believe that a survey of the scope of American Visions does not rest on a very large accumulation of scholarship and interpretation, which it would have been gracious to acknowledge, if not in actual citations (and very few names of other critics and historians are even mentioned in the text) then in a bibliography. (The Shock of the New had that.)
But the question whether the reception of American Visions will suffer because of criticism by anyone inside a small part of the art world is not a serious one. A more fundamental question is whether a survey of American art can deliver on what American Visions advertises. “What America’s greatest art reveals about our national character,” announces the headline on the cover of the special issue that Time (where Hughes has served as chief art critic since coming to the United States in 1970) has published to promote the series. Hughes is not responsible for Time’s headlines, but he offers something of the same rationale in his introduction to the book. “Our object was not to do an ‘art series’ as such,” he says there, “but rather to sketch some answers to an overriding question: ‘What can we say about Americans from the things and images they have made?’ Essentially, we wanted to look at America through the lens of its art.”
What has he seen? There are two overarching historical arguments in American Visions. Neither is especially highlighted, in keeping with Hughes’s preference for particularity and his suspicion of generalizations in discussing works of art. But he has already made those arguments elsewhere, in the introduction to Nothing If Not Critical and in the last chapter, on “Art and the Therapeutic Fallacy,” of his best-selling Culture of Complaint (1993). Both are rise-and-decline scenarios. The first argument is that American art was shaped by the Puritan distrust of decoration and by the democratic distrust of elites. These distinctively New World prejudices ruled two staples of European art-portraits (with their natural tendency toward aristocratic subject matter) and the female body-more or less out of bounds. What took their place was landscape painting. Nature, suitably depopulated, acquired a spiritual significance persuasive enough to overcome Protestant resistance to the decorative and luxurious but vague enough to appeal across the board to most members of America’s many and diverse religious sects. There could be no American Déjeuner sur l’herbe, so there was plenty of l’herbe instead.
American landscape painting rose to prominence in the nineteenth century, and the fixation on nature has remained, Hughes believes, the main tradition of American art. It explains, for example, the appeal of Pollock’s large drip canvases: “The life with which they are imbued is that of Nature, near and far,” he says. The inspiration of the natural world is reflected in Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977), a beautiful photograph of which decorates the dust jacket of the book, and in Turrell’s crater art.
But the sanctioning of nature painting carried a rider, which was that art must have a moral dimension. This association of art and morality is, Hughes thinks, a specifically American obsession, and it explains not only the character of nineteenth-century American art, but also why Americans overreacted to the pranks of a modernist gadfly like Marcel Duchamp, and why the homoerotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe became a political cause célèbre. The multiculturalist notion that art should be valued for its contribution to the well-being of the people represented in it Hughes regards as the flip side of the fundamentalist call for censorship, and equally derivative of Puritanism. His regret (spelled out more explicitly in Culture of Complaint) is that the moralist impulse, always a feature of the American art scene, now seems everywhere in the ascendant.
Hughes’s other argument is also connected to the Puritans. The Puritan belief that America was a new world, a blank slate, a place where true virtue was truly conceivable, evolved, Hughes thinks, into a love of newness per se, a passion he sees reflected in the continual creation of new model cars, the planned obsolescence of consumer goods, and the rapid acceptance of modern art and its institutionalization in museums. By the 1980s, he argues, the belief in newness for its own sake had spawned an art market absurdly indifferent to, or ignorant about, quality, and, by flooding the market with overpriced and meretricious pseudo-art, this led to the demise of the American art world. Whatever seems new, or radical, or subversive, continues to be praised indiscriminately by dealers and critics, because a knee-jerk faith in vanguardism is the only aesthetic instinct left. Progress, however defined, must be morally good.
In the last chapter of American Visions, Hughes brings these arguments together.
A central myth, not only of American art but of America itself, was that of newness: the perpetual renovation which, from the moment of Puritan arrival in the seventeenth century, stood as the promise of God’s contract with a chosen people in the New World…. By 1900 the myth of newness, of perpetual progress, had been vastly fortified and confirmed by technology: Americans could make anything, solve any problem, produce a Niagara of inventions, and lead the world while doing so. So it was hardly surprising that soon after modern art arrived in America, the idea of the avant-garde, representing progress in the imaginative sphere, should have been welcomed, seized on, and eventually institutionalized to a degree unheard of in Europe. Americans, more than any other people, learned to believe that art progresses: that its value to human consciousness lay in renovation, seen as therapeutic in itself…. This mantra of debased optimism no longer rings culturally true…. For the smaller sphere of the visual arts is equally fatigued, and its model of progress-the vanguard myth-seems played out, hardly even a shell or a parody of its former self.
He thus closes the book, as he does the show, with two quotations: Yeats’s “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity,” and Scarlett O’Hara’s rather more American sentiment, “Tomorrow is another day.”
What is notable about both of Hughes’s general arguments is that they essentially invert the advertised promise of the project. American art is not being examined to explain something about the character of American life. The character of American life is being used to explain something about American art. American ideology is the dominant term; American art is, usually, the secondary term. For the Puritan inheritance didn’t just channel American painting in certain directions after the eighteenth century; it limited it as well. Hughes devotes a generous portion of his story to Winslow Homer. Homer was a wonderful artist. But he was not Manet. He didn’t challenge and change the way a society thought about art and its relation to the world.
The emphasis in American Visions is naturally on painting. But one thing that becomes apparent, as the story moves along, is the extent to which American painting has been the work of immigrants and expatriates, and the extent to which American painters have turned to Europe for their training, their models, and sometimes even their markets. The artist who made America’s most famous history painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), Emanuel Leutze, was a German. Benjamin West, the painter of The Death of General Wolfe (1770) and the man Hughes calls “the father of American painting,” did most of his work in Europe, and became not only the court artist but the personal friend of (of all people) George III. Copley spent much of his career in England. So did Sargent. Whistler spent essentially his whole life there. And of course many of the American modernists and Abstract Expressionists were European émigrés.
This is not to raise a question about who counts as an American artist or what counts as American art. It is only to ask whether painting is a form of creative expression particularly intimate with what Time calls the “national character.” Within the purview of Hughes’s own project, it is the utilitarian arts that give us the strongest sense of having contributed to Americans’ idea of Americanness: Shaker furniture, Amish quilts, tall office buildings, streamlined automobiles. But there are also the visual arts that do not fall within Hughes’s purview: film, photography, and (for good or ill) television. And beyond those, there is popular music. If someone were to list the distinctly American contributions to world culture, and the arts from which Americans have taken their understanding of themselves, these are the arts they would name.
The most basic obstacle to be overcome in presenting a series on the history of American art is (although Hughes, as an Australian, is too polite to say it outright) the American indifference to history generally. One of the bad versions of the “myth of newness” is intellectual presentism-the habit of limiting one’s understanding of anything to what it will do for one now, today, in this bad mood or identity crisis. Hughes’s response to art is based on a knowledge of what has been done in the past, the fund of technique, form, and allusion artists draw upon to create what is, in the end, always only marginally “new.” He’s quite right that Americans are mostly presentists. It’s drilled into them from grade school to hate the very idea of homework.
This is one reason, I think, for the success of the two American painters who really did connect with the larger culture, and changed the way Americans thought about art and its relation to the world: Pollock and Warhol. The notion that the drip paintings and the soup cans have nothing to do with technique or with the history of art-that Pollock or Warhol simply tore painting free from theory and tradition-is an illusion. But it’s part of the illusion those works create-the illusion of unmediated, nonintellectual spontaneity. You don’t have to stand there trying to figure those paintings out. They reach out and grab you. When people said of Pollock, “My five-year-old could do that,” it was a roundabout way of paying him the ultimate American compliment: a drip painting wasn’t a formal conundrum or a piece of painterly academicism; it was pure expression, a yawp. It had the sheer frontal boldness Americans like to associate with character. “What you see,” as Frank Stella once put it, “is what you see.”
Americans tend to want everything the way they want their food: fast. If art is good for you, they’ll swallow the pill and get on with their lives. If it’s poison, please say so; they’ll be happy to avoid it. The refusal to take the time to understand things in any number of dimensions greater than one is the chief source of the national stupidity. It’s a trait that probably lies too deep for tears; but if anyone can alleviate it, Robert Hughes is probably the person.
–May 29, 1997
June 26, 1997