Television is the least discriminating of cultural forms, and one doesn’t expect it to provide a sensitive account of the history of art. Nonetheless, small-screen films about painting and sculpture are quite numerous on the European side of the Atlantic: ambitious producers like to make them, for they carry prestige within the television business and can be surprisingly popular in the world at large. Some years ago, looking for a rival to Sir Kenneth Clark’s acclaimed set of programs entitled “Civilisation,” the British Broadcasting Corporation invited Robert Hughes to write and narrate eight hour-long scripts in which he would describe some of the themes of twentieth-century painting. His Shock of the New (first published in 1981 and now revised) both records and expands the text used for the series. It is a book, certainly, but its manner belongs to the original medium. Hughes had formidable...


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