What is American about American art? The first time I posed this question, I discovered it was forbidden. I had used it at the conclusion of a graduate student’s examination, giving her an opportunity to comment on broad trends over the course of American art history. I thought it a nice catch-all, letting the student expand on what she knew about art education, patronage, subject matter, and so forth. Through sheer coincidence, the question came up at a dinner party several days later. A colleague mentioned in passing that we were better off for no longer worrying about things such as “what is American about American art?” Having used just this exact wording, I was genuinely surprised, and asked why this was wrong. The answer was that it was unacceptable to search for national characteristics in art, that it was jingoistic, ominously close to the Volksgeist that Nazi artists sought to celebrate. “We haven’t done that for years,” I was told.

Apparently, however, it is again permissible to look for American qualities in our art—so long as these qualities are the usual suspects of modern scholarship. In American Visions,[1] an eight-episode television series now airing on PBS, Robert Hughes confronts the full pageant of American art, from its Puritan origins to the art-funding wars of the present. Through it all, the fundamental Americanness of American art is taken for granted. The treatment is in every sense panoramic, as camera-equipped helicopters race over the crests of mountains to the swell of orchestral music. It has gravitas, but user-friendly gravitas, and so we are treated to frequent shots of Hughes on the road, chatting informally with us as he tools around in his spiffy convertible. We are on board for an epic, we learn, but we have a genial tour guide, the Odyssey with a designated driver.

Hughes points out from the start that American Visions is not a survey of American art. Instead, he poses a question: “What can we say about Americans from the things and images they have made?” That is, he wants to ask the questions of sociologists and political scientists while using the methods of art historians. Hughes makes much of his outsider status. He came to America from Australia in 1970, joining the staff of Time, where he soon emerged as an engaging art critic with a rollicking delivery. His chief interests were modernism and the art market, which are reflected in his best-known work, the book and video series The Shock of the New. His newest work, he informs us, began as “a love-letter to America.” Somewhere along the way, it seems to have turned into a “Dear John” letter.

The companion volume to the series follows a straightforward chronological approach, a parade of selected artists whose careers unfold in the Darwinian chain of the modern art history lecture. The television series is much freer. With a strict chronology, the first episode would have been a slow crawl through a century of un-telegenic colonial limners. Instead, Hughes launches the series by considering American classical architecture, allowing him to look forward and back, developing the themes of American identity, its political foundations, and its tradition of crusading idealism. But the columns we see at the outset prove to be the sham casino classicism of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, setting a tone of skepticism that remains the unwavering mood over the next eight hours of the series.

Hughes’s wry encounter with Las Vegas is his response to the dilemma of the television art documentary: paintings are not exciting to watch on a television set. Nor do they lend themselves to reproduction on a fuzzy, flickering tube, making discussions of technique or color nearly impossible. But Hughes works relentlessly to open up the screen with live action. He seems to have had in mind Ken Burns’s celebrated Civil War series, in which still photographs alternated with vivid interviews. Thus when Hughes invokes America’s dissenting Protestant tradition, he interviews some surviving Shakers (although his Amish subjects, are apparently more discriminating, and hurry away from him). And when he contemplates “The Wilderness and the West” in episode three, he visits the Grand Canyon and is later delighted by an annual reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand. When he finally moves into the twentieth century and can draw on documentary footage of Alfred Stieglitz, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others, we sense his sigh of relief.

The consequence is that Hughes very seldom lets you look at a painting for more than a moment. He seems to distrust their ability to hold your interest. Even when showing Winslow Homer’s views of his wave-tormented Maine coast, he constantly intercuts footage of actual waves, as if the point were the water, not the painting. The result is a focus on the subject matter of paintings, and not on their artistic conception. Of course, it is possible to discuss paintings intelligently on television, but it requires a high degree of sympathy, a quality in which the cranky Hughes is rather tapped out. Instead of relishing the paintings, Hughes looks for the chance to make his polemical point—and to score with a cocky epigram—and then he is off to his next artist.

Along the way, we encounter many of the central figures of American art. Some are in the series because they need to be, such as Thomas Cole, although Hughes clearly cannot abide his moralism. Hughes’s taste is rather different. His pantheon includes John Singleton Copley, John James Audubon, Thomas Eakins, Charles Sheeler, and, above all, Edward Hopper. He celebrates the empiricists, preferring men who painted reality to men with agendas—whether political or cosmological.

As a host, Hughes has a certain pugnacious charm. His characteristic move is a frowning stride around a painting before turning to the camera to deliver his bemused summation. In these set-piece reviews, he can be enormously entertaining. Hughes is an excellent debunker, a Mencken at detecting puffed-up reputations. The series is filled with little polished gems of cynicism, such as this one on the artists’ colony at Taos, New Mexico: “The Taos of today isn’t much like the Taos of the 1920s. It’s become a High Sierra theme park, full of faith healers, wannabe witches, dealers in multicultural kitsch, all flashing their silver and turquoise concho belts at one another.” (The tone of this passage is pure Tom Wolfe—note the touch of the concho belt—which Hughes probably recognizes since he takes pains to distance himself from Wolfe: elsewhere Wolfe’s work is described as “silly.”)

Hughes is also good at evoking the thrust and parry of the artist-patron relationship. This reflects his decades of observing the art market, giving him a jaded view of the American patron and his motives, which he then projects backward through time. Here is Hughes, sitting in the Vanderbilts’ dining room in the Breakers at Newport and imagining the thought process of the nouveaux riches of the Gilded Age:

Suppose you wake up one morning with an idea and you say to yourself, “by God, I shall have a cottage by the sea and in that cottage there will be a dining room with a ceiling forty-five feet high and the walls sheathed in rose alabaster the color of raw steak.” You still may get it wrong, because your next-door neighbors who own the other half of America may have just finished their dining room in marble the color of poached fish. So you must get an architect to fantasize on your behalf, secure in the knowledge that because he is working for practically everybody else in your class, he won’t get his symbols crossed. He will maintain a seamless etiquette of shared ostentation, with variants.

In this lively, colloquial chattiness, Hughes echoes the breezy format of Time, which is even breezier now than when his stint began in 1970. Confined to six-hundred-word reviews, he learned to make every phrase count. In the nutshell of the short paragraph, Hughes, like Hamlet, is a king of infinite space. Every artist is tagged with an arresting, one-line review: James Rosenquist and his F-111 (“a Pollock in pasta”), Marcel Duchamp (“a great abattoir of sacred cows”), George Bellows (“low life and high testosterone”). Hughes’s prose contains so much condensed imagery that it is like an overrich sauce served by itself. But a tone that grabs your attention on one page is not necessarily the tone to sustain interest for eight hours, just as the most amusing barroom wit is not necessarily the best companion for a cross-country drive.

All things considered, Hughes has written a very competent art history survey. This is apparent in the companion volume, which fills in the gaps of the more impressionistic television series. The principal figures are there, the assessments generally reflect modern consensus, and even his puncturing of inflated reputations is hardly as naughty as he implies. He risks no fatwa by blaspheming against Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. And his portentous revelations about his favorite artists (“Hopper is an artist I trust implicitly”) are scarcely the stuff of controversy. What is rather surprising, in the end, is that there are no surprises. Throughout the course of the book, Hughes reveals no notable personal idiosyncrasy, no oddity of taste—of the sort that a strong-minded, independent personality might be expected to show; nowhere do his insights inspire us to take a second look at an artist. Behind Hughes’s take-no-prisoners delivery is the cautious syllabus of a rather bookish, middle-aged scholar.

Hughes, however, is out for bigger game than mere artists. In the third episode, “The Wilderness and the West,” we enter the ideological heart of the series. This begins, innocently enough, with the American tradition of landscape painting, and the formation of the Hudson River School. Established in the 1820s by Cole and others, this movement was nostalgic and retrospective, a lament over the retreat of the forests and the advance of the steam engine. Central to it was the idea that the American landscape was unique, geologically and spiritually, and that it offered deep moral lessons. For Hughes, this is anything but benign. He is alarmed by American reverence for the landscape, which he invariably connects to violence—and sordid commercial motives. When we meet Daniel Boone, Hughes describes him journalistically as “frontier scout, Indian killer and real estate dealer,” apparently in order of increasing offensiveness.

The Hudson River School gave artistic expression to what Hughes regards as America’s Original Sin, the myth of American exceptionalism. The idea that America had a unique, God-given destiny among nations is to Hughes a malignant credo, because it “required constant fueling by paranoia to keep it at the boiling point.” Unfortunately, it is difficult to mine the serene landscapes of Thomas Cole for paranoia. This Hughes finds in the art of the American West, with its images of beleaguered whites rallying themselves for one final stand against the onslaught of demonized Indians. For him these paintings are primal documents of the American character, testifying to a strand of xenophobic violence that is never far from the surface, although its targets have shifted over time. Thus in the nineteenth century it raged against Indians; at the start of this century it turned against immigrants; in the 1950s there was an embarrassment of rages—and not only against Communists, for “American hatred of homosexuals ran particularly hot.” And now, with the end of the Cold War, new enemies must be discovered within.

Here, at last, is the punch line of Hughes’s love letter: America has produced a bouquet of hatreds in order to sustain the myth of its superiority. And this myth exists not only to comfort us but also to provide the ideological cover for an agenda of imperialist expansion. One of the oddest parts of Hughes’s argument is the idea that art plays a “considerable role” in promoting the agenda of expansion. (Perhaps that accounts for all the art-loving American imperialists one meets.) Here is Hughes on the link between imperialism, violence, and art:

Manifest destiny meant what it said, that it was manifest, obvious beyond all argument, that Empire had to expand beyond the Mississippi, and not stop rolling until it met the Pacific, and whatever you found along the way was yours by absolute right … and if the Indians fought back, they weren’t just resisting invaders; they were up against history itself. And to see yourself as a force of history is to be absolved from both pity and guilt. Manifest destiny was America’s great myth of redemptive violence and art played a considerable role in promoting it.

Absolved from pity and guilt? Has any country in history ever cradled a public life as self-questioning and self-criticizing as that of America? The pity and guilt industry of modern America did not begin with Hughes—it goes back, time out of mind, through the muckraking journalists, the literature of abolition, the social activism of the Quakers, and ultimately to the world view of the first European colonists. It is a primal American habit of mind, as primal as exceptionalism itself, from which it derives its energy. Even Custer, presumably one of those forces “absolved from pity,” penned his own protests against the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But Hughes will have none of it.

Here is where his use of art is not only dishonest, but also rather lazy. If he were serious about indicting American policy against Indians in a history program, he would need to tell of changing policies, broken treaties, attacks and reprisals, and a vast apparatus of charitable and educational efforts by whites. The story would be a tragedy, but a complex one. But in this series, everything unfolds with the simplicity of a medieval morality play in which the devil is clearly labeled—in this case with a blue cavalry uniform. All Hughes need do is show a painting of a cavalry attack and intone that “the American government preferred [Indians] dead.” He takes American perfidy as a thing settled beyond argument, at least in polite society.

Hughes’s America is the “Amerika” of the 1960s, a corrupt, violent enterprise that is flawed in some fundamental and irreparable way. The idea that there might be a positive side to it, and that American idealism might inspire acts of sacrifice or heroism, is something that he would prefer to ignore. In fact, the idea seems to irritate him, and his reflex when encountering such an act is to find something snide to say. Here is how he describes the entry of America into the First World War: “Patriots kicking dachshunds to death in the streets.” Even the formation of Yellowstone Park, the culmination of a half-century of cultural ferment over the meaning of the wilderness to America, earns a sneer: it “did wonders for the cash flow of the Northern Pacific Railroad.” In good 1960s fashion, the profit motive is seen to underpin everything.

In terms of art history, western artists such as Frederick Remington and Charles Schreyvogel were figures of secondary importance, illustrators rather than painters. Hughes, however, awards them much attention because they advance his hypothesis of “redemptive violence.” But the encounter with the wilderness produced more than western genre merchants; it also led directly to the American landscaped park, an intellectual creation of the highest order, whose greatest exponent was Frederick Law Olmsted. For New York’s Central Park, Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux, borrowed from European theory, with its Romantic image of the landscape, but in characteristic American fashion they gave to landscape an additional moral and social meaning. Olmsted was a social critic before he turned to park design, and his landscape theory always gave broad scope to the social dimension, treating the park as a kind of civic forum for the mixing of urban classes. In the ensuing half-century, virtually every American city was reshaped by the ideas formulated at Central Park. With much justification, it is widely regarded as the most important American artistic achievement of the nineteenth century.

But not by Hughes. Olmsted goes unmentioned in the series and the book (although Vaux is mentioned in another context as a “minor figure”). This is a shocking gap. If Hughes were genuinely curious about what American art reveals about America, then he might have made land a connecting theme of the series. Not only painting, but the development of the American house, the picturesque suburb, the national highway system, even the environmental art movement—all are haunted by a peculiarly American view of the land. And a central story of American culture is revealed in the treatment of land, the perennial tug of war between the communitarian and the individualist impulse, played out in the detached house, with its spreading porch and enclosed yard.

In America’s landscape-art runs a sensual strain that is absent from the rest of American art. Here was one area, at least, where tactile qualities, physical sensations, and even voluptuous qualities were admitted and granted free range. This is one strand of American art to which Hughes returns, again and again, without ever developing it as a theme in its own right: the anti-sensual strand that runs through American art. Saturated with seventeenth-century Protestant strictures against graven images, high art came late to America, and even then it had to creep in through a few restricted channels. At first came the portrait, the pinched and static likeness of colonial tradition, with none of the implied motion or energy of the contemporary Baroque art of Europe; later came the didactic image, of which the Hudson River School was the first comprehensive movement. Here American artists excelled at the minute description of physical reality (like their Dutch Protestant predecessors). But even here there prevailed a certain parsimony in the handling of paint, applied flatly and without bravura. The tradition of the human body as the central subject in art never achieved a foothold in America. There is more sheer tactile pleasure, more succulence, in a single Rubens nude than in almost all of American art. The chief exception to this pattern—the Aesthetic movement that culminated during the 1880s— was essentially a European movement, dominated by figures such as Whistler and Sargent, who were culturally Europeans.

From the beginning, the ideal of colonial painting was a surface of absolute smoothness, and a suppression of the visible brush stroke. The result was a portrait of outlines, with flat surfaces between; even artists who could do better would retrograde to the flat colonial style for clients who preferred it. The plastic description of the face as a three-dimensional form remained a luxury, and in one artist’s price list, an additional charge was levied for modeling a face in the round. Even sculpture, which by definition exists in the round, tended toward anonymous surfaces. America’s nineteenth-century neoclassical sculptors worked in Rome and Florence, making small models in plaster or clay which were turned over to their Italian assistants for execution in marble. The result was a series of statues whose flesh was strikingly impersonal and unyielding, bereft of surface interest. But then, the flesh in Hiram Powers’s Greek Slave, America’s first celebrated nude, was not meant to give pleasure. It was enlisted in the service of a moral allegory, a narrative of a Greek captive who maintains her Christian modesty even while being exhibited naked in the slave market of Moslem Istanbul. Here was a nude as chaste as Doris Day, untouched—in theory, at least— by even the artist himself.

This impersonal working method has many analogues in American modernism: the objectivity of Precisionism, the anonymous surfaces of much Pop Art, the love of the air-brush and the silk screen, and even the Jacobin severity of today’s political art. Common to all of this is a rather atrophied vocabulary for sensual qualities, a kind of cultural anorexia. And Americans’ habit of judging things on the basis of outline and flat color—while denying themselves any tactile pleasure—extends beyond art. How else can one explain that quintessential artifact of American culture, the modern tomato?

In short, the American attitude toward art is about as far from Art for Art’s Sake as could be. Whether the didactic uplift of a Hudson River School canvas, or the “consciousness-raising” of a Barbara Kruger epigram, the impulse is the same utilitarian conception of art. Even today, NEA art grants are as likely to be rationalized on the grounds of their educational value. After nearly four centuries, Americans are still faintly embarrassed when called upon to justify art, and invariably reach for things outside art in order to do so.

In the end, Hughes is not terribly interested in Art for Art’s Sake either. Like the admirers of Powers’s Greek Slave, he does not value the pleasure it gives but the story it tells. For him this is the familiar story of racism, xenophobia, homophobia. Here he reflects an age-old habit of American thought, an understanding of art as a means to an end rather than a goal in itself. And in this, after twenty-seven years at Time, he is more American than perhaps he can even realize.

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  1. American Visions, written and narrated by Robert Hughes. The series is a co-production of the BBC and Time Inc. in association with WNET (PBS and Warner Home Video, $149.95 for the eight-volume set). A companion volume to the series, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, by Robert Hughes, has been published by Alfred A. Knopf (635 pages, $65). Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 10, on page 14
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