Big Picture

A chat with Robert Hughes

In just about every article on Robert Hughes lately, he's identified variously as the "most famous" or "successful" or "influential" art critic of his time. This is curious not because it's untrue, but because such adjectives rarely apply to anyone in his field. Asked about such laurels, Hughes, who's held his post at Time magazine since 1970, replies drolly that "influential art critics are sort of like influential beekeepers." "But I am a writer, you know," he adds, "and we always feel a certain quaking under our feet when we move."

In fact, the latest project from this Australian expatriate--the 628-page American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (Knopf) and its accompanying eight-part TV series (to be broadcast on KTCA on Wednesdays from 8 p.m.-10 p.m. beginning May 28)--is rather earth-shaking. Or at least one could say that art history hasn't gotten so much mainstream attention since Hughes's last book-cum-TV series, The Shock of the New, in 1981. American Visions shows the author once again to be equally engaging and erudite; his chronicles and keen analyses again embellished with gossipy anecdotes and notorious one-liners (e.g. Willem de Kooning's "Woman I," whose subject has "the worst overbite in all Western art"). For the TV series, Hughes and a camera crew spent more than two years roaming from New England to New Mexico, from Mount Rushmore to Monticello. As in the book, what unfolds is not so much the history of American art, but the story of America as told through its art. Last week, via phone, we hooked up with Hughes who was once again on the road, this time for a lengthy promotional tour.

CITY PAGES: What do you think theAmerican Visions programs say about the potential for showing intellectual things on TV?

ROBERT HUGHES: I don't know. I'd like to see American television keep some corner in which sometimes serious cultural subjects can be discussed in a reasonably entertaining way. But as TV becomes increasingly moronic--and it's gone way downhill in the old IQ department in the 27 years I've been in this country--there is just no possibility of doing that stuff on network.

CP: SoAmerican Visions is a fairly big deal then.

RH: I don't think one series by me is going to fix that situation, but at least we can offer some alternative to the usual trivial fare. There are a lot of intelligent people out there who feel they've been badly shortchanged by the big media. I hate American television, but television is in itself such a good medium; I just wish it was given the opportunity to display the kind of intelligence that it can.

CP: In the TV series and the book, you've got several threads you keep coming back to, what with the ideals surrounding the Puritans, the tradition of realism--

RH: And above all, American newness. That's key. This is the only culture in the world that made newness into a cultural absolute. That's what the Puritans brought, and it's worked itself out in all sorts of interesting ways over the following 300 years. I'm not trying to set Puritanism up as the single determining factor in the creation of American culture. That would be far too simple. But I think there's been a tendency of late to avert the eyes from the long-term results of Puritan ideas.

CP: Such as?

RH: The assumption, particularly in the art world, is that Puritanism is this intrinsically repressive thing to which we owe everything that's censorious or illiberal in American culture. It did bring those things--somewhere in back of those loony Christian Coalition people is the distorted ghost of Puritanism--but also this idea of starting over again, and creating the idea of newness as a cultural value. That also undergirds the attitudes of the founding fathers of the American Revolution. Jefferson was very much under the spell of the idea of radical Puritan renovation. And also this idea of American exceptionalism, which has had very remarkable cultural effects--another Puritan legacy. I mean these weren't just a bunch of people in conical black hats saying "Thall shalt not" to Demi Moore.

CP: And then you could relate exceptionalism to this endless innocence that Americans--

RH: Absolutely, the innocence that America's always supposed to be losing. I mean there's no less innocent country in the world than America.

CP: It's the same sort of thing you've said about Australia, how it is constantly "coming of age."

RH: Yeah, that's our cultural party trick--of course cultures don't suddenly come of age. Which is another part of the series, this idea that American painting and sculpture really only got good after 1945, and that everything that preceded it was in some way larval or preliminary. Someone like Eakins or Homer is in every way as great and interesting a painter as Jackson Pollack.

CP: I think that has something to do with our culture's short-term memory. It's difficult for people to remember anything before the age of television.

RH: That's right, because television is the main organizational memory, but it's a memory destroyer.

CP: So it's interesting that most ofAmerican Visions is devoted to art before 1945.

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