American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America 
by Robert Hughes.
Harvill, 635 pp., £35, October 1997, 9781860463723
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There often seems to be a connection between the style of an art historian or critic and that of his or her favourite artist. Reading Tim Clark on Courbet, it is easy to see the reasons why the writer chose his subject: iconoclasm, a bold and aggressive rejection of stylistic precedence and traditional modes of expression are common to both. In the case of Robert Hughes, author of the monumental American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, the artist of choice would be John Singer Sargent, brilliant pictorial chronicler of the beau monde of the 19th century. Like Sargent, Hughes is a brilliant crowd-dazzler and populariser; like Sargent, he is unadventurous in his choice of precedents; like Sargent, a dashing but flattering wielder of the brush, he is a writer whose pen rarely causes pain or difficulty to his readers. I am sure one of the reasons Hughes ‘gets’ Sargent so well, without condescending to him as most academic art historians do, is that he seems to identify so strongly with him. Of the fashionable bravura brushwork and stereotypically aristocratic feminine charm offered by the portraitist’s Lady Agnew, Hughes declares: ‘there is a perfect match between the decorous luxuriance of Lady Agnew’s pose, the creaminess of the paint, and the shadow of tension on her face. For that, one can forgive a lot of the routine rich and famous work that Sargent himself would later disparage as his “paughtraits”.’ One might say the same of Robert Hughes, with a few modifications to account for differences of medium.

Despite its vast girth – 635 pages, cover to cover – and even vaster ambition, American Visions left me with more questions than answers. Indeed, its stated intention – ‘to look at America through the lens of its art’ – might arouse suspicion from the start. Surely, the idea that art offers an unmediated vision, as though through a transparent lens, of a whole culture over many centuries is as simplistic and outdated as its alternative: that art ‘reflects’ society like the surface of a mirror. Both these unfortunate rhetorical formulations suggest that there is some natural relationship between art and the social order, between representation and reality, which the metaphor of glass, either transparent or reflective, reveals. Yet, when we get down to specific cases – whether sculptural effigies of George Washington or the painted flowers of Georgia O’Keeffe – we find that artists inevitably construct and invent their representations of American experience, whatever we may mean by this vague, polymorphous concept, rather than simply revealing a pre-existing entity through a transparent lens. The metaphor is misleading from the start.

Certainly, Hughes’s project cannot be faulted on the basis of coverage: it starts out with the arrival of the Spaniards in the early 16th century, includes architecture and, here and there, popular art and design – Shaker quilts and Fifties tail-fins – as well as painting and sculpture, devotes considerable attention to the art of the 20th century, and winds down with Louise Bourgeois, Andreas Serrano and a few swings at that imperturbable kitschmeister, Jeff Koons, and his inflated cast of cuddly bunnies and miniature blown-glass bimbos, as a not so grand finale. In between, we have everything from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cole to Thomas Eakins to Thomas Hart Benton; from Mary Cassatt to Georgia O’Keeffe to Eva Hesse; from the Shakers’ minimalism (good) to that of Barnett Newman (bad); from Bierstadt’s expansive, theatrical Western vistas to Edward Hopper’s cramped, seedy urban interiors. Although a lot of words are expended on matters that have more to do with social and political history than with art, Hughes is clearly not a social historian of art nor a political engagé, as far as his interpretation of the work is concerned. Although his heart is in the right place where know-nothing Congressional committees are concerned or censorship is an issue, and he is quick to demolish the critique of Modernist American architecture concocted by a chauvinist die-hard like Tom Wolfe, his liberalism has its limits. Identity politics plays no role in his understanding of contemporary representation. While he is all for the rights of blacks and gays to free artistic expression he is decidedly less happy with recent feminist contributions to contemporary art and criticism, and neglects altogether Asian-American or Latino contributions to the art world.

As far as the art work itself is concerned, Hughes’s position is basically rather conservative: he hardly ever departs from the canon – anyone looking for new discoveries will be sadly disappointed – and even here, his preference seems to lie more with the realist or juste milieu side of the spectrum: his heroes are Copley, Cole and Church; St Gaudens, Eakins and Homer; Frank Lloyd Wright and Edward Hopper. When it comes to abstract art, his likings tend to be predictable: nobody could be considered a maverick nowadays for admiring Jackson Pollock or David Smith, and Hughes’s heart clearly belongs to the least challenging, most superficially appealing of the major abstract artists – Robert Motherwell and, of course, the semi-abstract favourite of those who don’t really like abstraction, the tasteful and inoffensive Richard Diebenkorn. For a truly major artist who goes too far in abstract reduction, an artist like Barnett Newman, who made his reputation on large-scale monochrome canvases interrupted by a single contrasting line, and accompanied his vast ‘zips’ with a rhetoric of unabashed sublimity, Hughes has nothing but contempt, a contempt expressed with embarrassingly dismissive vulgarity on TV if somewhat tempered in cold print.

In many ways, though, the book is eminently successful. Certainly, it achieves its announced intention to be an epic history of art in America. It is extraordinarily readable despite some almost inevitable slow patches, and many of the set-pieces on individual artists and works of art are tours de force of visual description and verbal pyrotechnics. When Hughes gets down to Jasper Johns, for instance, or Eakins’s Gross Clinic, he is capable, as is almost no other journalist, of translating complex visual and expressive material into compelling, finely tuned expository prose. Here he is on the group of doctors in the Eakins painting: ‘These are the realists: the men who can carry out the bloody work of healing and not flinch. Their gazes, arms, hands, even (in a brilliant touch) the white slash of the anaesthetist’s hairparting, all converge on the incision, the red wound and hand, so harsh and sudden against the swooning white thigh and the black coats.’ Composition, colour and pictorial focus converge effortlessly in this passage, which makes a single portion of the vast canvas come vividly alive.

Sometimes, however, the surface is a little too smooth, the rhetoric too slick, the verbiage too virtuoso in its confident mastery of the difficult or the ambiguous: at moments, one yearns for the rich and suggestive opacity of a more difficult writer; a stumble, some indication that it is not such easy going as all that; that the writer has doubts or ambivalences, indeed, just those provocative difficulties which make the Modernist enterprise itself so enthralling. But no, Hughes is all straightforward, unhesitating self-assurance.

This is only one of the reasons I am left dissatisfied with, even annoyed by, American Visions. My other sources of annoyance can best be posed as a series of questions. The first question I want to ask is: where does all this material – facts, opinions, interpretations – come from? Straight from the head of Robert Hughes? Or is it based on the work of other art critics and historians? There is almost no indication of sources, of differences of opinion, even in the case of some of the so-called factual material, which more prolonged scrutiny might reveal to be less uncontroversial than it first appears to be. Certainly, famous moments of dissension are hauled out – the Armory Show, for example; or the transition from the domination of Abstract Expressionism to that of Pop Art – but there is no sense that Hughes is engaging not merely with the art-objects themselves seductively framed by their ‘historical background’, but rather with a discourse, indeed, a series of discourses. Nor is there any indication that many of these discoveries and interpretations, originally made by specific scholars and critics, and not by Robert Hughes on his own, were hotly contested. Would the issues of homosexual identity that Hughes discusses so confidently in relation to Jasper Johns’s Targets or Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram have been available to him without the pioneering and boldly controversial work of Kenneth Silvers? Or, in the case of the inventiveness of Johns’s work, previous investigations by Leo Steinberg, Max Kozloff or Fred Orton?

From the vantage-point of a card-carrying feminist, Hughes’s procedure raises the spectre of Big Daddy, most prominently in the less nuanced realm of the TV series, where that tough but sensitive, intelligent but pugnacious, non-wimpish, non-academic, regular guy appearance, so like, through no fault of his own, I must admit, Rodin’s Man with a Broken Nose or the Hellenistic gladiator; so unlike, in his rumpled chinos (except for the ever-authoritative accent), the elegant Lord Clark in his bespoke jackets, pressed shirts and impeccably sober ties, simply reeks of rough-hewn masculine authority. But more to the point, it is an annoyance rooted in the very substance of the book itself, for all its virtues. Although ‘democratic’ in his wish to appeal to a large audience, Hughes conveniently forgets that art history itself is a democratic discipline, produced by the labour of an army of those academics he so despises. There are few original ideas here – if ‘originality’ is even a possibility at the end of the 20th century – and there is certainly no original information. It is more than a minor failing to have omitted footnotes and bibliography: it is a disaster. In short, Hughes, like many other popular cultural gurus, makes it appear that his is a ‘natural history’ of American art, rather than the fruit of the complex arguments, difficult research and the multiple intellectual transactions of other people.

My second critical question is related to the first. What about some mention of new methodologies in art history and criticism, including American art? Does a self-conscious consideration of various possibilities in talking about art help or hinder in the effort to attract a wider public? And this question leads to still another one. What is the intended audience for American Visions? Hughes’s stipulated ‘general intelligent reader’ immediately excludes most of the American public. It implies a self-selected audience, college-educated, professional-managerial, upper-income, already interested in art, and, I might add, if attendance at art exhibitions and galleries is any indication, an audience which is preponderantly female in its make-up, although Hughes never alludes to this fact. Despite its announced breadth of appeal, the outreach of American Visions is distinctly limited. Surely, such a self-selected audience is entitled to some indication of new directions not merely in art, but in the interpretation of art. Despite its glossy excellence, one would never guess, reading American Visions, that this has been a time of profound change in the discourse of art, a time of self-criticism, revision and sophisticated and self-conscious theory. Hughes, I might add, is not alone in his mistrust of the theoretical. Popular and semi-popular writing about art, seeking to engage a broader public, tends more and more to avoid the problematic and the deconstructive. Indeed, journals with pretensions to cultural prescience have recently taken to employing non-specialists to write their art reviews, belletrists who can be trusted not to raise bothersome theoretical issues, but rather to focus on engaging biographies and elegant ekphrasis, as though Tim Clark or Rosalind Krauss had never written, as though the way that art is written about has no effect on the way the works themselves are perceived and evaluated. Unfortunately, Hughes has, in this book, joined forces with his journalistic peers in maintaining that the relation between word and image is transparent and self-evident.

Finally, one wants to ask where he has positioned himself in this text. Obviously, the author does not think it necessary – indeed, might consider it sophomorically ‘theoretical’ – to clarify the position from which his powerful and elegant voice-over emanates. In a television programme, the position of the narrator seems self-defined: there is Hughes and this is what he believes. But in a book, his position becomes more equivocal. At times, Hughes seems to position himself right down there with the boys who do the painting; at others, he distances himself from the outright bohemian nonsense, the modern and Post-Modern ballyhoo propagated by artists and their followers and spokespersons, making it clear that while such shenanigans as the Armory Show or Mabel Dodge’s pretentious salon may be part and parcel of the art world, he, Hughes, like his potential audience of readers, is a sensible, down-to-earth fellow, not taken in by the likes of Warhol or Jeff Koons. No wonder his favourite 20th-century artists never veer too far from the beaten track of sensible middle-class mores (and never reach the really interesting pinnacles of artistic innovation): Hopper and the truly soporific Richard Diebenkorn are artists who indeed make their appeal to the ‘homme moyen sensuel’ of the later 20th century. His negative critique of Barnett Newman’s non-figurative Stations of the Cross series could be answered by pointing to Judaism’s traditional taboo on the creation of graven images as well as a post-Auschwitz reluctance on the part of the Jewish artist to represent the unrepresentable, whether it be the camps or Christ’s Passion. One might, on the same ill-taken grounds, criticise the film-maker Claude Lanzmann for not showing actual, suffering Jewish bodies in Shoah. But Hughes never deals with the larger reasons behind his choices: they are simply relegated to the realm of ‘personal taste’ and as such remain unquestionable and unproblematic. This is a pity, for there has never been a time when such issues as ‘taste’ and ‘value’ so urgently needed to be aired, contested, and brought out into the open as the loaded concepts they are.

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