Nature vs. Culture
Robert Hughes' history of America and its art
by Robert Lloyd / L.A. Weekly, May 16, 1997

Like most intelligent people
, art critic Robert Hughes has a bad thing or two to say about TV. "American network television," he has written, "drains the world of meaning; it makes reality seem dull, slow and avoidable.... It is stupidly compelling, in a way that painting and sculpture, even in their worst moments of propaganda or sentimentality, are not." Yet -- pace Time, The Spectator, The New Republic and the many other notable organs of print that have over the years carried his clear, bracing, fluid prose -- he owes his renown, if not his reputation, largely to the tube (in spite, or even possibly because of, its "blue anesthetizing glare"). His 1981 series, The Shock of the New, which told a supposed 26 million viewers more about the avant-garde than they ever suspected they wanted to know, anointed him Kenneth Clark's successor as the David Attenborough, the Carl Sagan, the Julia Child of art history. With the more-than-possible exception of Sister Wendy Beckett, the not-quite-Carmelite nun with whom he shares a platform -- BBC-fed public television -- Hughes, whose ambitious American Visions begins May 28 on PBS, is arguably the best-known art critic in the English-speaking world.

He has had a bad word or two for his wimpled colleague as well, calling the good sister a "relentlessly chatty pseudo-hermit with her signature teeth" (they're buck), who pitches her commentary at "a 15-year-old level." It may be just these qualitie3s, of course, along with her utter unlikeliness, that have made Wendy such a success, or anyway a celebrity. The first time I ran across her, programmed apparently as filler on KCET (you never know when she'll turn up), explicating in full nun regalia Hockney's Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool, I had the sense I'd stumbled onto a lost Monty Python sketch; she might have been Terry Jones under that habit. But her fluttery enthusiasm was quickly winning and her obviously ad librium observations were eloquent and cogent (the Daily Telegraph called her "the best talker on art since Lord Clark gave us Civilization"), and it wasn't but a minute that I was calling in the wife to get a load of it all. Wendy's new show, the 10-part, five-hour Story of Painting, comes to PBS this fall, sequel to Sister Wendy's Odyssey and Sister Wendy's Revenge -- no, sorry, Sister Wendy's Grand Tour. I wont' venture to rate her criticism against the pros -- artwise she's an autodidact (literature was her subject at Oxford) and an amateur in the best sense -- but as a TV star and informal educator, she shoots, she scores.

She's an interesting contrast to Hughes, in outward attributes nearly his polar opposite. A wispy thing is Wendy -- a little wind could blow her away -- a 66-year-old epileptic who lives alone in a trailer on a diet mostly of skim milk. She spends most of every day in prayer. Hughes, slightly her junior, is most decidedly a man of and in the world, famously photographed a couple dozen years ago in fringed leather astride a motorcycle; he exudes rude health, and his current circumferences suggests appetites undenied. Even nearing 60, he could beat me up, I'm sure. A historian who's published books on Barcelona and Australia, Hughes is keen to the reactive nature of art, its unceasing dialogue with money and politics and all the art that went before it; whatever Wendy regards -- and her taste is literally catholic -- her thoughts fly ultimately to God. And yet they share a respect, deemed conservative in a time when you can't see the paintings for the plaques, for the Thing in Itself, the artwork that stands apart from theoretical self-justification, that can engage the viewer without the mediation of a priestly caste of critical interpreters. "Truly to look remains one's personal responsibility," Wendy has written, "and nobody else's response (and certainly not my own) can be a substitute." Hughes is unquestionably the superior stylist, but they are both plain speakers who believe in the plain power of great art to improve our passage through the world.

Sydney-born and still an Australian citizen, Hughes has lived in the United States since 1970, when he came to take up his Time post. (Time Inc. has co-produced American Visions with the BBC, and a special Hughes-authored issue of the magazine, on special heavy stock, in a special large format, will hit the stands two days before the series begins. Look for Jasper Johns' Flag on the cover.) Conceived as "a sort of love letter to America," the show aims to show how what we make reflects who we are and how who we are shapes what we make. It does this quite well, given that it attempts to trace the history both of the nation and the national art in only eight hours; by Hughes' own admission, such a project is "bound to be extremely partial, selective, and incomplete," and darned if it isn't. (The tale is doubtless more fully told in the thick, good-looking companion volume, already in the stores and sure to be available by credit card at the end of every installment. Operators will be standing by.) Anyone who knows the territory cannot help but mark the omissions. Hughes scants photography, performance and video, trims Ab-Ex to Pollock, Rothko and DeKooning and Pop Art to Warhol, Oldenberg and Rosenquist; not even Gilbert Stuart, he of the famous unfinished portrait of George Washington -- an American icon or nothing is -- makes the cut.

Nevertheless, quite a sumptuous spread has been laid on, and at clearly considerable expense, unless renting a helicopter is cheaper than I think it is. "Reading America is like scanning a mosaic," Hughes writes in The Culture of Complaint. "If you only look at the big picture, you do not see its parts -- the distinct glass tiles, each a different color. If you concentrate only on the tiles, you cannot see the picture." American Visions reflects that form: Master works and monstrosities, temples and tourist traps, divine fools and foolish divines, purple mountains' majesty and amber waves of grain follow one upon another in a deceptively methodical patchwork travelogue of space and time in which our big-themed national legend unfolds neatly into eternal opposites -- the city and the country, the factory and the farm, the farm and the forest, the native and the newcomer, north and south, east and west, shaman and sham. (Hughes sniffs at Jeff Koons' life-size Michael Jackson With Bubbles as thought it were literally and not just artistically a pile of crap), spiritual yearning and material obsession, manifest destiny and unquiet conscience. The story keeps turning back on itself as if to assert that Americanism is an inescapable condition. Amish quilts (which "refute the idea that folk art is just innocent social birdsong") recur as abstract paintings; the minimalist sculpture of Donald Judd recalls Shaker cabinets; Jackson Pollock, inspired in part by Indian sand painters, invents a new kind of picture in which Hughes finds "the sense of an epic landscape, the memory of links between man and nature in the New World that had infused American art 100 years before."

Hughes is all over that New World, from the rock-bound coast of Maine to the Crystal Cathedral, from the top of the Chrysler Building to the foot of Fallingwater; we see him now on the Brooklyn Bridge, now in a cornfield, now tooling across New Mexico in a convertible, and finally flat on his back in light-and-space artist James Turrell's big Arizona crater, studying the sky. ("Nature," he says, "not culture, is what made America American.") He is so widely informed, so well-spoken, so sure in his superlatives that it's difficult to disagree with him even when you do. Despite his reservations about television ("more debased than ever"), he's made it work for art. The camera picks out telling details, the screen gives paintings a luminescence (and a scale, depending of course on the size of your set) that even the best reproductions rarely have; and even the corny stuff (phony Doors music behind Rosenquist's F-111, phony Velvets to underscore the Warhols, Rothkos dissolving into sunsets) does its job -- providing context, refreshing the familiar with that old shock of the new. In the opening episode, discussing the theme-park nature of Washington, D.C., Hughes observes, "Each monument is partly a shrine, and partly a ride." American Visions is like that: good for you, but, as St. Lucy Ricardo might say, tasty, too.

Copyright Robert Lloyd © 1997 and 2011