Robert Hughes may not be the best art critic writing today, but he has certainly been the most necessary. For 27 years, he has used his mass-culture bully pulpit at Time magazine to remind Americans that, beneath the din and hammer of our jacked-up culture, quieter objects are worth regarding. It wasn't until the '80s, however, that the Australian expat really earned his adopted country's thanks. During that decade his writing -- accessible yet authoritative, boisterous yet refined -- cut like a scalpel through the mystification, hysteria and general gobbledygook that hung over the art world like a footnoted, greenback-stuffed cloud. Hughes wasn't responsible for the collapse of the wildly inflated '80s art scene -- the random movements of the aesthetic stock market saw to that -- but his astringency offered some blessed relief from the prevailing hype.
Hughes' skewerings of the hot-air art heroes of the '80s -- the lightweight Jean-Michel Basquiat, the bombastic Julian Schnabel, the unspeakable Jeff Koons -- and his one-hand-tied-behind-my-back drubbing of multiculturalism's imbecilities in his keen, rollicking "The Culture of Complaint" (still the best single book on the culture wars) have earned him a reputation as a virtuoso swordsman, the choleric D'Artagnan of SoHo. But Hughes is as stimulating when he is praising work he loves as when he's throwing artistic shrimps on the barbie. Energetically fusing high- and low-culture idioms, tossing off descriptions that jump and pop with epigrammatic brilliance, Hughes is perfectly equipped for the art critic's paradoxical task: telling stories about objects.
Perhaps because he considers himself a writer first, a professional art critic second (he is the author of an acclaimed book on Australia's early history, "The Fatal Shore," as well as a history of Barcelona), Hughes has embraced the vanishing role of cultural mediator -- the highbrow critic who serves up intellectual entertainment. Like Kenneth Clark, whose "Civilization" series eloquently surveyed two millennia of Western culture for a mass audience, Hughes challenges the idea that high culture is incomprehensible to all but academics and mandarins. His 1980 study of modern art, "The Shock of the New" (Knopf), which accompanied an eight-part television series, is a magisterial achievement -- bracingly opinionated, beautifully written, filled with the kind of casually illuminating cross-references to literature, social history and the great tradition of Western art that only a writer in full, energetic command of his subject can muster. Now, with "American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America," Hughes has undertaken an even larger task: writing a social history of 400 years of the visual arts (including architecture and furniture, but excluding film, computer-based and video art) in America. So large a task, indeed, that Hughes cracked under the strain, suffering a nervous breakdown that, he said in an interview with Salon, he cured with psychiatry, Paxil, marijuana and writing.
"American Visions," which accompanies an eight-part television series, written and narrated by Hughes and airing on PBS beginning May 28, opens with a reproduction of the earliest surviving painting done by a European artist in North America (a weirdly stilted 1564 watercolor depicting lily-white Indians greeting French Protestant settlers, most of whom were soon massacred by Spanish Catholics from St. Augustine, Fla.) and ends with perhaps the most notorious artwork of the last decade, Andres Serrano's 1987 "Piss Christ." (Hughes does not offer an assessment of Serrano's NEA-shaking photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine, although his statement that in the 1990s "all factions poured out the vials of their resentment" may offer a clue as to his opinion.) Between those two events, Hughes uses the vast canvas of his subject to explore American art, American history and the American psyche, moving easily from Shaker furniture to Audubon, from the gilded excesses of the Newport plutocrats to the naturalistic canvasses of George Bellows, from Pollock to Kiki Smith.
"American Visions" is not a particularly theoretical book: It announces no Grand Theory of American art or, for that matter, America itself. That's just as well: America and its art are much too unruly to fit into a single theory without lopping off most of what makes them interesting. "I know this sounds dumb," says Hughes, "but I was really writing about what interested me."
Insofar as the book does have a thesis, however, it involves America's paradoxical and fetishized relationship to the New. From the beginning of the Puritan era, Hughes argues, Americans have seen themselves as a chosen people, picked out by God or destiny or egotism to change the world. The Puritans brought "the idea of newness as the prime creator of culture" to mythical heights -- with highly equivocal consequences. On the positive side, Americans have always found it easy to slough off the past and reinvent themselves, sometimes with revelatory results. But the exaltation of newness, like the related cult of eternal youth, contains within itself the seeds of despair. For America, as Hughes writes at the end of "American Visions," "is not new but old. It has the world's oldest democracy (and Boston is an older city than St. Petersburg); it has been riven by inequality and social tensions to the point of fatigue, resentment and fanaticism; and for the first time in its history, the future looks worse than the past to a large and growing number of its citizens."
And as American society has declined, so has its culture: "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. This, however, only seems unnatural or disappointing to those whose expectations have been formed by vanguardism. Cultures do decay."
That decay is in part organic, the result of a natural progression in which a once-dynamic culture sinks into mannerism, academic repetition and final decline. But the decline of America's visual culture has also been hastened by the narco-stimulation of our age's jittery noisemaker, mass media, whose awesome power simply blows away the punier resonance of art. In a brilliant excursus in "The Shock of the New," Hughes points out that "in a culture of mass communication, art can only survive two ways: by stealth, or by living in those game parks we call museums ... The impossibility of competing with streetscape sometimes reaches the proportions of farce, and one place where it necessarily does so is Las Vegas. One cannot imagine public 'art,' let alone a museum, on the Vegas strip. It would have nothing to do there except look high-minded and insignificant. Here the idea of art simply evaporates, it flies off in the face of the stronger illusions with which this place is saturated: sudden wealth, endless orgasm, Dean Martin. Vegas is the Disney World of terminal greed, and part of its appeal to the Pop sensibility was that it contained an infinity of signs all plugging the same product: luck. The product is abstract. Only the signs are real."
But Hughes regards the chief villain -- and perhaps the only one we could conceivably resist -- as the peculiarly potent American belief in progress, the idea that art always gets better as it gets newer. "I don't think that Marsden Hartley was crawling around on the ground so that Jackson Pollock could become a butterfly!" he snorts.
Americans' uncritical belief in the value of newness, for Hughes, reflects the degeneration of the modernist project, whose essence was not just to find new forms but to find new forms that could express old truths. Hughes is an eloquent defender of modernism, but he is only willing to follow its logic so far. For him, its two most "advanced" forms, conceptual art (which ultimately derives from a few cunning gestures made by the chess-playing lady-killer and dandy Marcel Duchamp) and art that takes media as its ironic subject (whose blandly nihilistic parent is Andy Warhol) represent creative dead ends. With rare exceptions (and even those exceptions tend to be grandfathered in by Hughes on merely historical grounds -- as in, "it may not be good, but it once reflected a Zeitgeist"), he regards conceptual and ironically media-engaged art as insufficiently in touch with nature, not tactile enough, excessively intellectual and divorced, in their terminal hipness, from that embodied feeling and sensuous intelligence that great art must manifest.
One can be in general agreement with Hughes' views (does the world really need more "ironic" simulacra of media junk? more visual representations of sentences?) and still recognize that they raise certain awkward questions about modernism itself -- more particularly, about how to justify critical judgment when almost all the rules for evaluation are gone. One of the problems, for Hughes, is that intellectualized, ironic approaches were part and parcel of the modernist project from the beginning. Where does one draw the line?
Hughes, who incessantly strives to find connections between works of art and the political, biographical and social realities from which they spring, stands at the opposite pole from Clement Greenberg, the champion of abstraction (and previous holder of the title of "America's most famous art critic"), who considered representational art hopelessly outmoded. With his wide-ranging humanist vocabulary, Hughes reads (and sometimes overreads -- history can be as false a muse as formalism) works as metaphorically revealing the truths of their time. But since the truth of our own time is often concealed from us, might it not be that an apparently ridiculous contemporary work actually speaks to a cultural or social reality we are too close to see? And conversely, that the aura that surrounds earlier works is specious, a product of historically induced sentimentality?
Hughes himself is not entirely consistent on this point. He praises Carl Andre's minimalist "Equivalent VIII," 120 white bricks laid out in a rectangle, as "one of the classic objects of its time." Is it a classic object because of its time, or because it has certain formal properties that would make it a classic at any time? If it's the former, then Hughes' dismissal of the likes of Schnabel becomes suspect: Wait 20 years, and those paint-daubed broken plates are going to be classics! If it's the latter, then the specter of formal relativism rises up: What's so damn special about these 120 bricks? I got 121 bricks!
Behind such questions, of course, lurks the nihilistic, emperor's-new-clothes fear that there is no longer any valid way to judge whether a work of contemporary art is any good or not. Smoke a joint, forget that you think that Schnabel/Koons/Basquiat is an opportunistic asshole and that his painting sold for $800,000, and presto, you're looking at the Pieta! Hughes has no better answer to the problem of relativism than any other critic working in what he, unoriginally but accurately, calls "the age of anxiety" -- which may explain why he says that if he could go through the '80s again, he might not be quite so severe.
But consistency, in art criticism, is the hobgoblin of little minds -- and Hughes' sinewy, informed, passionate responses to what he sees are the more convincing for not being passed through a theoretical filter. What remains in the mind are his special virtues: his gift for spotting figurative elements in nominally abstract paintings, as when he sees the Santa Monica beachfront light in Richard Diebenkorn's "Ocean Park" series, or finds Spanish hats and bullfight motifs in the great browns and blacks of Robert Motherwell's "Spanish Elegies" paintings; his dramatic imagination, which constructs potent back-stories that feel exactly right ("a great Hopper always emits one moment of frozen time, literally a tableau, as though the curtain had just gone up but the narrative hadn't begun"); and his ethical sense, which leads him to movingly declare that Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial in Boston, a frieze showing the black Civil War colonel Robert Shaw and his all-black regiment marching to their deaths against overwhelming odds on the ramparts at Fort Wagner, is "the most intensely felt image of military commemoration made by an American."
"American Visions" is not quite the equal of "The Shock of the New": modernism seems to have afforded Hughes a bit more intellectual grist, more resistance to his critical muscles, than did America. Still, it is a fine book, a lively, learned and provocative tour of a vast subject: One learns something interesting, and often remarkable, on virtually every page. Everyone knows that Albert Bierstadt painted sublime landscapes that gave voice to the American mythology of the West -- but how many realize that one of his masterpieces, "Donner Lake From the Summit," was paid for by the Central Pacific Railroad, and that those who saw it learned, as Hughes puts it, "first, that the Donner Pass held no more terrors for the traveler; second, that the railroad didn't damage Nature; and third, that the deep cushions of a Pullman Palace car on the CPR were the right throne from which to view its splendors." Of Philip Guston's "Painting, Smoking, Eating" he writes, "Guston may have been the first painter to paint that frame of mind so well known to artists and writers: slothful regression. You pee in the sink. You put out your cigarette in the coffee cup. The bloodshot Cyclops eye is the abstracted gaze of a whole succession of literary heroes who can't move, from Laurence Sterne's father through Bartleby and Oblomov to Samuel Beckett's paralyzed loners. Time moves very slowly in this congealed place, and paranoia reigns."
Perhaps the most heartfelt passage in "American Visions" is Hughes' tribute to the early modernist Marsden Hartley, a brilliant artist who twice watched those he loved best die and whose homosexuality condemned him to being a perennial outsider. Of Hartley's final years, when he returned to his home in Maine, Hughes writes, "Here the strands come together: the dead things and discarded fragments, emblems of memory, of the harsh sunderings and disappointments of Hartley's life; the living crustacea driven helplessly from their small moorings, like Hartley himself; the dead lovers, 'lost at sea,' 'given up.' Six years later, this greatest and most conflicted of early American modernists died in a small Maine hospital, to which he had been taken unwillingly, wishing only to go in his upstairs rented room surrounded by his few 'things.'"
By his own critical example, Hughes reminds us that when viewed with an open mind and an energetic spirit, art matters. He does not elevate its significance: "Art is a small thing, though an expensive one, compared to the media," he writes in "The Shock of the New." "It is a vibration in a museum; it deals with nuances that have no 'objective' importance. It is not even a very good religion. But once it gives up its claims to seriousness, it is shot, and its essential role as an arena for free thought and unregimented feeling is lost." It's precisely because Hughes avoids sublime rhetoric, speaks of art as something that humans made and that humans can understand, that he is so convincing. With tough wit, an innocent eye and a singularly well-functioning bullshit meter, Hughes stands up for the indomitable, joyous seriousness of man the maker, for the simple, always amazing proposition that a human being with a canvas, a brush and a few pots of paint can teach us to see the world, and maybe even ourselves, anew.