TODAY at 8 p.m. American public television will show part five of Robert Hughes' BBC produced series on modern art, "The Shock of the New." Viewers have had the opportunity since January 11 to decide for themselves whether the rugged, opinionated manner of the Australian-born Hughes is to their liking or not. But whether you vote yes to this newest example of electronic culture or choose a sit-com instead, this book is well worth the attention of anyone even mildly curious about the visual arts of this century. Unlike the volume that resulted from Kenneth Clark's television series "Civilisation," Hughes has done a great deal more than offer bound copies of his scripts. The Shock of the New is five times the length of the eight-part television narrative, and while not as replete with gorgeous visuals, it has more hard, provocative thinking about art than the cathode-ray tube could ever accommodate. To this observer, it is the most successful effort to date to deal with painting, sculpture, and architecture in this dual broadcast/print format.
From the outset, Hughes made the right decision. He has not covered the arts of the last hundred years chronologically, but thematically, and in a sense, all the themes of his eight chapters revolve around a single issue: whether the art of our times still has the power -- and the ambition -- to change lives.
Things get off to a slow start in the first chapter which is largely exposition for later developments. The skeleton of the TV series is too visible as Hughes tries to link the optimism of the machine age -- symbolized for the purpose of media dramatization by the Eiffel Tower -- with burgeoning modernism in the arts. It is a valid connection, though a bit overdrawn since the need to tell the tale via images rather than abstract concepts is one of the fallouts of an essay whose raison d'etre is TV. Given this recognition, however, the reader can adjust for the overstatements and odd juxtapositions which are the residue from the television series -- and, in fact, this becomes less troublesome as the narrative progresses.
In the second chapter, which deals with politics and art, Hughes ranges over an array of artistic approaches, from Dada to Futurism, Suprematism, Expressionism, and 'brutalist' architecture, concluding with Diego Rivera and Picasso's Guernica. This cutting freely across time periods and geographic boundaries is one of the strengths of the study, for while Hughes frequently sees somewhat eccentric relationships between periods and artists, it is so fresh an approach to familiar material that the reader is grateful to hear the old story in a new way. Part of this freshness is the very personal voice that the narrator employs. This is Hughes talking as he would among art world friends, unafraid to voice his iconoclastic notions and then defend them. For example, here is the author on the subject of Nazi and Fascist contributions to architecture:
"Authoritarian architecture must be clear and regular on the outside, and let the passing eye deduce nothing of what goes on inside. It must be poker-faced to the point of immobility; the mask must not slip . . . Twenty-five years later, most new American university campuses, particularly in southern California, would have at least one building that looked like it. As if by osmosis, it became the reigning style for cultural centres and other buildings emblematic of civic high-mindedness . . . Its examples are legion; they stretch from the Lincoln Center in New York . . . to the brutish blandness of the Kennedy Center . . . to the all-out Mussolinismo of the entrance to the Lyndon Johnson Memorial Library."
What is wonderful is that Hughes is just as direct and passionate about his enthusiasms, a quality revealed most perfectly in his chapter on the sensualists in modern art. The author's joy is transmitted as he discusses Matisse "inventing the Mediterranean," and Picasso who "did not have a talent for serenity . . . [who] liked strong and specific feelings . . . [especially] sex." Even in the mellow mood that this chapter induces, Hughes is not without his critical faculties. At the end of this discussion, he includes the '60s' formalists, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and the critic who championed their work, Clement Greenberg. For Hughes, the formalists produced "the most openly decorative, anxiety-free, socially indifferent canvases in the history of American art." To the author, these works represent nothing more than "a minor mandarin style," a remark that will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows since, as Hughes notes, "This art became the American modern museum art par excellence."
It is tempting to describe this book exclusively in terms of Hughes' blunt reappraisals of modernism. For when he dismisses Warhol as a "commercial illustrator," this reader cheers, but then his judgment seems to fail when he calls Clyfford Still's work "strained, crusty . . . beset by cliches." And what can one think when even the East Building of the National Gallery is criticized as "a building whose main function was to praise its own stature as an institution"? Hughes' point of view resists categorization and it is the quest for his next brilliant statement or absurdity (depending, of course, on the reader's opinion on that subject) that makes the pace of the book so quick, the tone so muscular and persuasive.
Yet there is more to this text than history dotted with personal observations. Hughes is clearly troubled by an abdication of responsibility on the part of contemporary artists. He feels strongly that in the last few decades art "aspires to the condition of Muzak." Artists have lost the belief that the work they create can make a difference in the larger realm, of society, outside the walls of museums and auction houses. Hughes feels that the "high" arts have capitulated to our media-dominated world; ironically, of course, he uses the enemy to make his own case. But this is precisely because he is not naive about the prevalence of media. He knows "the present has more distraction." Hughes, however, wants artists to abandon their "small ambition . . . [their] bland occupation with semantics" and engage and subdue the philistines with a newly spiritualized and committed art. It is a brave and unexpected course for Hughes to take in this history of modernism and the wonder of it is, though he is pessimistic, the narrative throbs with energy and, curiously, hope.
So it is a bumpy journey into known but surprising territory on which Hughes takes the reader. At the outset, the author quotes Baudelaire as inspiration: "I set out to discover the why of it, and to transform my pleasure into knowledge." The Shock of the New succeeds by reversing this process -- by helping his reader to know one man's demanding, sometimes wrongheaded, but consistently enriching process of thought, Hughes has given his readers immense pleasure.