Big Picture

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 the American 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: So American 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 of American Visions is devoted to art before 1945.

RH: Without any intention of disparaging American modernism, which had great achievements, I think you just have to see it in the long context.

CP: Within that context you show the Gilded Age introducing another thread to American art--that of spectacular and the therapeutic, as opposed to the simplicity of the Puritan ideal.

RH: This is the time when a certain kind of declaratory grandeur begins to enter American consciousness. Incredible sums of money are being made; there is a vast surplus to spend on cultural trophies. And from this comes the idea of the modern museum. But it has to be, as it were, "made good" by a whole sort of conception of public benefit--uplift, moral improvement, education, and so on.

CP: I guess that idea of a moral force does tie it back to the Puritans in some way.

RH: It does--art becomes legitimate in 19th-century eyes to the extent that it can demonstrate its morally therapeutic powers.

CP: Would you say that we've been living a kind of schizoid combination of those two--the Gilded Age and Puritanism--in the last 20 or 30 years?

RH: Well, I think they're sort of always present on the American hard disk, those two programs. It's so strange. On one hand you've got this intensely moralizing religious country whose culture seems to oscillate at present between fantasies of reform in the way of cultural repression, and on the other hand, this extreme pornotopia. You've got those two extremes, and perhaps not enough public middle ground.

CP: I found it kind of poignant how, in the final TV program, "The Age of Anxiety," you kept going back to the huge empty spaces of the West with artists like Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman, Susan Rothenberg, and James Turrell.

RH: This is done partly for metaphorical purposes, but also because that image of American landscape underwrites so much in American culture--it has not been dispelled and there is no reason to dispel it. It comes with the deal.

CP: But it was also a pretty depressing point to end on.

RH: I don't really think that as far as the visual arts are concerned we're in a great period. The idea that the visual culture continuously and spectacularly renews itself and can do so indefinitely is a rather naive one. We're in a period of disappointed vanguard expectations, where you have institutions and those who run them and the market that drives it all--they're sort of scrabbling to maintain this idea of perpetual renewal, but it just doesn't seem as convincing as it once did. Now, this is only disappointing if you were raised with vanguardist expectations. Anybody with a grain of sense knows that no culture maintains its impulses forever; it's more like a sawtooth, it's up and down.

CP: And we're kind of in a fallow period right now. So what do you think it would take to make the art world--or "Artworld," as you call it in your book--more vital?

RH: Oh, a lot more talent! [laughs] A lot more talent, a lot more skepticism about current ideologies, a lot less emphasis on the remedial, the therapeutic, the separatist. A lot less being content with rather pissant politics. But that isn't going to happen in a hurry. The fact is, we have a very academized art world.

CP: Speaking of talent, you were a painter at one time.

RH: Yeah, a very bad painter. I'm glad I did paint because a) at least it gave me some sense of how hard it is to produce anything resembling a good picture; and b) it gave me some intimacy with the medium.

CP: But you actually made decent sales, I've read. What kind of stuff were you doing?

RH: I was doing bad imitations of de Kooning! [laughs] Well, they weren't totally contemptible, but look--what Rilke said is true: "To be a poet at 20 is to be 20, and to be a poet at 40 is to be a poet." I was, so to speak, a poet at 20, but then I realized in the end that I couldn't give my work a very good review.  

CP: So many people do that, and the art world just encourages it, making art stars of 25-year-olds. But I wonder if we don't simply have too many artists--my mom, who's about your age, wonders why all my friends are in bands or are artists.

RH: Why indeed? Again, because of that belief in creativity as therapeutics. I don't know how many artists a country of 260 million can support, but probably fewer than you think. The funny thing is, at almost any time the number of really good artists seems to be about the same, no matter how many people there are. CP

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