Master of All He Surveys

Robert Hughes’ very old-fashioned lessons in art.

American Visions
Co-produced by the BBC and Time Inc. in association with WNET in New York City
PBS, May 28 and June 4, 11, and 18, from 9 to 11 p.m. EDT

American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America
By Robert Hughes
Knopf; 635 pages; $65

Few things in school were more comforting than the art survey conducted as a series of slide lectures: The darkness of the hall, the brilliant color of the pictures, the droning intonation of the instructor. You could slide into an alpha state just like that, and if you nodded off, your dreams would be glorious. If Robert Hughes had been the lecturer, though, you would have stayed awake. His percussive Australian bark is bracing to begin with, and he keeps the ball rolling with vigor, dry humor, and unrelenting self-confidence. The history of American art is a compelling subject; if you already know the plot, the pleasure in this miniseries lies in watching Hughes play the course, less like Professor Whatsit than like Arnold Palmer.

Hughes is a remarkable character, endowed with apparently limitless energy. As if granted some kind of diplomatic immunity, he manages the feat of writing for Time at considerable length on sometimes abstruse subjects. He is adept at engaging intellectually complex matters robustly and without fuss, and at presenting his often disputatious opinions as mere common sense. Above all, he is unafraid of swimming against the current of received ideas. His dismissal of most of the big-noise art of the 1980s might have made him look like a fogey at the time, but today it only adds to his stature. He combats academic sophistry and marketplace prevarication alike, with skill and panache.

As a television series, American Visions is a superior form of adult education. It compresses an awful lot into eight hours, not only the history of American art but also art as a function of American history–not illustration but enactment. Hughes travels around the country displaying pictures and buildings, furniture and cars; shows an occasional few minutes of vintage film; and conducts some admirably compressed interviews. The survey’s pace is always brisk, and it possesses a sufficiently high bread-and-circuses quotient, mostly in its subsidiary function as a travelogue, that the spinach factor goes virtually unnoticed. It does have a few oddly uncertain cornball elements–a hint of re-enactment here and there, such as the bit that opens the segment on the Depression: Hughes photographed in black-and-white and wearing a hat, gazing upward like a rube–as if an editorial battle had been not quite resolved. And the bombast adroitly avoided by the narration is sometimes handed over to the music. There is also a surplus of potted social history when the recent past draws nigh; we’ve seen footage of addled 1950s consumerism a few too many times already, and these days it seems little more than quaint.

But Hughes wastes little time on atmospherics–there isn’t a bit of Ken Burnsism anywhere–and his opinions are always bluntly expressed. He is not more hesitant about stating how little Thomas Jefferson would have thought of the Christian Coalition, and it of him, than he is about interviewing Eric Fischl and then immediately informing us of his severe limitations as a draftsman. Many of the interviewees are tidily self-indicting: from a certain Mrs. Tayloe, an astonishing anachronism of the Tidewater aristocracy; to Arnold Glimcher of the Pace Gallery, who allows as to how not just any millionaire is worthy of forking over cash in his boutique; to Jeff Koons, who looks and sounds like a freshly manufactured Disney underboss.

H ughes guides the viewer from the Puritans to the present day, hitting not only the high points but some interesting curiosities, none of which are idle, along the way. There is more than an interesting shudder to be had, for instance, from the room in the Governor’s House in Williamsburg that is decorated entirely with weapons (trellises of woven sword blades, oval mirrors framed with flintlock pistols); it graphically represents the ancestry of today’s home-arsenal mentality. The two signal themes are landscape and engineering, the former encompassing everything from the Hudson River painters to the earthworks of the 1970s (with the odd omission of Frederick Law Olmsted), the latter taking in furniture, bridges, buildings, and cars. The practical arts are shown to particular advantage; the second episode, for example, features adobe and Puritan architecture, Shaker design and Amish quilts, all those things that share the quality of looking extraordinarily modern in their spareness and strength of line. Hughes appreciates automobiles, and shows off the Cord 810 as well as a dazzling lineup of Cadillac tailfins, while he deplores Henry Ford’s ideology and excoriates Charles Sheeler, whose worship of machinery led him to become a propagandist for Ford. The image that recurs most often in the series is probably that of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The most puzzling thing about the series, therefore, is its near-total omission of photography. It might be understandable if photography, a major subject unto itself, were avoided altogether. As it is, Hughes devotes time to exactly two photographers, Mathew Brady and Jacob Riis. He mentions a third, William Henry Jackson, but only in disparaging contrast to Thomas Moran, his painterly counterpart. Moran, the staff artist on Ferdinand Hayden’s 1876 geological survey of Yellowstone, is presented as a capital-A artist, and Jackson, the survey’s photographer, as the control who merely proved that Moran did not exaggerate. In outline, this is a very old argument, and perhaps it is not surprising that Hughes, who in many ways is nothing if not a traditionalist, chooses to continue it. But it’s just plain weird to have a survey of American art that does not so much as name-check Walker Evans, or Edward Weston, or Robert Frank, or that discusses Alfred Stieglitz as if he had only been an impresario.

Prominent among Hughes’ shibboleths is a belief in craftsmanship that appears less fashionable with every passing decade. On the one hand it means that he can recognize the value of such an underappreciated artist as the sculptor Martin Puryear, whose often dazzling work fails to make art-world hot copy. On the other, it makes him suspicious of anything that seems too easy. Photography presumably falls into this category, although you would think he’d know better by now. He is also blind to the merits of most art that can be labeled conceptual; earthworks pass because they are so labor-intensive, but not, say, Mike Kelley’s assemblages of secondhand stuffed animals, despite their excruciating emotional power. Hughes seems to wish that postmodernism would simply go away, like color-field painting. One hopes he will in time come to triumph over this Hilton Kramer incubus in his soul.

T he course comes with a textbook, of course, a handsome package that does not weigh too much for the human lap, which is a good thing, since it is an art book in which there are many more words than pictures. The book complements the series without merely restating it. It repeats many of the pictures but not all, and some of its text is identical (including some of the laugh lines, although not the one about the “Pepsodent-ad” lips worn by the shark in Copley’s Watson and the Shark, 1778). It is broader, featuring a great many more names and details, while the series devotes more time to selected artists and shows more of their works, and can thus appear deeper. Ideally, the student should employ both. As a survey course, it necessarily breaks no new ground, but it is uncommonly clear, crisp, eloquent, opinionated, and even personal.

“New York’s shifting, rising skyline” (35 seconds):
Sound06 - depression.avi or Sound07 -; download time, 2 minutes at 56K {Sound01 - TV-amvisions2.asf for sound only

Chatting with Jeff Koons (39 seconds):
Sound08 - hijeff.avi or Sound09 -; download time, 1.75 minutes at 56K Sound02 - TV-amvisions3.asf   for sound only

Detroit auto erotica (23 seconds):
Sound04 - carfins.avi or Sound05 -; download time, 2 minutes at 56K Sound03 - TV-amvisions1.asf for sound only