TOPICS > Arts

Spirit of a Nation

June 17, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
In his PBS series American Visions and 620-page book of the same name, Robert Hughes, art critic for Time Magazine, explores the sweeping history of American art and the influences that make it unique. He takes time to talk with Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston.
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TRANSCRIPT

PAUL SOLMAN: For nearly 30 years Robert Hughes has been Time Magazine’s art critic. Born and schooled in Australia, he began writing there and in England before being recruited by Time in 1970. In 1981, Hughes established himself as one of the country’s top art explainers, with his book and TV series on “Modernism: The Shock of the New.” He’s written several books since, including a bestseller on his native Australia, The Fatal Shore. Now he’s back on the air with an eight-part PBS series and a 620 page tome on the history of art in the United States, “American Visions.” We talked to him at Washington’s National Museum of American Art, part of the Smithsonian Institution.

PAUL SOLMAN: Mr. Hughes, welcome.

ROBERT HUGHES, Time Magazine: Thank you.

PAUL SOLMAN: You say in your introduction ” What can we say about Americans from the things and images they have made?”. That’s the central question.

ROBERT HUGHES: Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: What can we say?

ROBERT HUGHES: I knew that you were going to ask me that. It took me 600 pages to give some sort of answer to it. There are a lot of possible answers. You know, the–I mean, one of the things that you find out about Americans is despite the absence of religious–the extraordinary tenacity and primacy of religion in American life and how that has affected the way that it’s apt to bill it. One of the things you also find out is about that, you know, durable passion for the new, which was implanted here by the Puritans and has been here ever since.

PAUL SOLMAN: We recreate ourselves.

ROBERT HUGHES: Americans are constantly recreating themselves. They are constantly thinking in terms of newness as a regulating factor in a culture in the way that Europeans thought of antiquity. You know, the–this, after all, is the only major culture in the world that was predicated upon the idea of newness right from the start. The Puritans wanted to make a new heaven and a new earth, and this desire was transposed into landscape, into technology, into art — everything.

PAUL SOLMAN: Give me an example, if you would, of that early recreation of ourselves or creation of ourselves religiously, let’s say.

ROBERT HUGHES: Well, the idea that you redeem yourself from the sins of Europe; that you can leave the past behind, while at the same time bringing elements of culture, its cultural baggage with you, is very important to Americans. I mean, the Puritans thought that they could do it by, you know, by means of the religious revolution. Then when it became apparent that the–there was this immense field outside of the coastal settlement into which Americans, into which new Americans could move, which they could conquer, dominate, appropriate, and displace the original inhabitants of, there was this almost religious search for the image of landscape, you know, for the discovery of the image of God in the landscape, and, as it were, the appropriation of divine will into human will. This echoes through and through the paintings of the 19th century, and, you know, you might say that landscape painting is the great religious art form of America. And it became so really as early as the 1820′s with Thomas Cole. The reason why the wilderness has always played such a vast part in the American imagination is not just because it was there. It’s because the constructions that European Americans made of it.

PAUL SOLMAN: I was struck by your using an Amish quilt as an example of another theme of, sort of, the American–another American vision.

ROBERT HUGHES: Very much so because, I mean, here we’re dealing with the kind of speech which is very pragmatic, very abstract at the same time useful but entirely abstract, non-referential. These big Lancaster quilts are the first great abstract works of art made by Americans in America. But the thing is that they’re both remarkable as art and remarkable to the extent to which they avoid any reference to showiness. They don’t want to be worldly, even in their furniture and possessions.

PAUL SOLMAN: Another theme that I see in both the series and the book is this theme of sort of–or rather obviously, I guess, democracy.

ROBERT HUGHES: Yes. Yes. How do you find the images that express democracy in the first democracy in the world, the first major democracy in the world? It has to be invented. It has to be invented on the basis of classical antiquity, in this case. Jefferson believed, as did the other Founding Fathers, that the right true model for the American republic was the Roman republic, not the Roman empire, which they associated with King George III and all the vileness issued therefrom, but there were going to be Brutuses, there were going to be Catos, and they wanted an architecture that was appropriate to that–plain, straightforward, old, and new because it was old, you know, in short, the federal style. America has been very much preoccupied by the invention of tradition in that way. It had to be.

PAUL SOLMAN: You know, I think about the theme of democracy, and there’s one picture that you spent a lot of time on–Benjamin West picture of General Wolfe–

ROBERT HUGHES: Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: –dying as sort of instant history.

ROBERT HUGHES: It’s instant history but then of course it’s the first significant history painting done by an American, not of an American subject, actually, of an Anglo-Canadian one. But the mere fact that West chose to put all the people in that painting in modern–for him–modern dress, the garb of the 1760′s, was considered revolutionary in England, because the tradition in the history painting was to dress up the noble protagonist in Roman or Greek costume, you know, a toga, a key top, a peplum, and to have these figures in the military uniform they actually wore struck people as a strange sort of pragmatic American, plain-speech intrusion, but it influenced an awful lot of painters and led to the kind of history painting that would be predominant by the 1800′s.

PAUL SOLMAN: After all of this, the 600 and some odd pages of the eight-part series, which American visions are you most struck by, or is that a fair question?

ROBERT HUGHES: I’ll tell you, look, there have been these–broadly speaking–these two strands. One is a kind of empirical, pragmatic realism that starts with John Singleton Copley, really, I mean, its roots lie further back in craftsmanship, in future, and what have you. And you get it in Audubon. You get it in Eakins. You get it in Homer. You get it all the way through to Stuart Davis and beyond. You know, plain speech, you know, not over fussed materials, you know, the American gray.

And the other one is this tendency towards a curious, sometimes rather inflated mysticism that begins really on the shores of the Hudson River and they–and painters like Church and which goes again right through, you get it in O’Keefe, you get it in Marsden Hartley, you get it in Mark Rothko, for instance, and that too goes through. Now, there are many other interweaving factors, but those seem to me to be too sort of main lines that are distinctly American .

PAUL SOLMAN: How do America’s visions stack up against other cultures? After all, you were steeped in Italian art before you came–

ROBERT HUGHES: Yes. I was steeped in Italian art. I had my motorcycle and saw as much of it as I could for three years. Well, look, it’s obvious, I think, you know, that if you add up the total–you know, if you could, add up the total of American art, it wouldn’t, you know, stack up against what was achieved in France in the 19th century, let alone what was achieved in Italy between, you know, the 1200′s and the 1700′s. That’s not the point, really. The point is to examine what is distinctive about America, you know, to sort of try and see American material in its own quality, which is very often a lot higher than people think. I mean, when I first came here, there was this idea current in the art world that American art only came of age after the Second World War with abstract expressionism, you know, Winslow Homer were creeping around like a larva so that Jackson Pollack could distend his wings and be a butterfly. This is rubbish. You know–since Copley — America has consistently produced really deeply interesting and sometimes pretty profound and very good artists.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, okay, then how do we, the American audience, stack up against others?

ROBERT HUGHES: Oh, well, much–I mean, I think the American audience is infinitely more aware, conscious of, and interested in art than, you know, your average French or, dare I say, English audience.

PAUL SOLMAN: Even though in 1962 when the Mona Lisa comes to New York, according to your book, it’s .79 seconds that the typical person spends in front of it in New York?

ROBERT HUGHES: .79 seconds, yes. Well, that was the first run picture blockbuster, as it were. That wasn’t through the choice of the people who were seeing it. It was the primitive efforts at audience management that the museums were making. I mean, that was truly–I mean, that was a farcical episode, because what happened was that the Kennedys decided it was time to have the world’s two most famous babes in the same room at the same time–Jackie and Mona, you know.

PAUL SOLMAN: But we remain an audience that are attuned to art.

ROBERT HUGHES: Yes. I mean, look, more people go to museums than go to college football association games.

PAUL SOLMAN: You end the book and the series with a very grim quote from Yeats about–the best–

ROBERT HUGHES: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”

PAUL SOLMAN: Right. Does it depress you that that’s your assessment of the American scene these days?

ROBERT HUGHES: Well, I think American culture has been vastly damaged by, you know, by the sort of trivial fanaticism of its culture wars, you know, over the last few years, the so-called culture wars. I don’t think this is a great time for American painting or sculpture. There are some very, very good artists out there at work. But what you have to remember is this is not, you know, this is not tragic. I mean, cultures do, you know, run out of steam occasionally. And American writing is very good, if you can generalize in this way. The–you know, there are troughs. It’s not one great ascending eagle-like curve the way that people used to think it was. No culture is like that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, Robert Hughes, thank you very much.

ROBERT HUGHES: Thank you very much.

JIM LEHRER: The final two hours of “American Visions” can be seen on most PBS stations tomorrow night.