Arts Afire

On the Small Screen: American Visions

At first glance, Robert Hughes' new eight-part PBS series American Visions generates a mystique no different from the vaguely "educational," utilitarian one so often associated with PBS documentaries; it seems good for you. After all, unless you're an art historian, Hughes' series on the history of American art informs you about artists, movements, and influences that you probably always wanted to but never really have known much about. And like the narrators of those ubiquitous nature documentaries, Hughes at times enunciates in a hushed whisper, coding the viewer in to the "importance" of the subject matter under examination.

Robert Hughes' American Visions valorizes American art, persuading viewers that its themes are not endlessly derivative.

Annoyingly, the series producers enact the subjects of the artworks; for example, if Hughes discusses a modernist artist's rendition of a sailboat at sea, the producers will cut to either stock, archival, or just plainly shot footage of a sailboat at sea, a technique which suggests that the viewer can't imagine a sailboat for him or herself and denies the artwork the chance to really speak for itself. While it perilously runs the risk of coming across as a dry, droll lesson about American art, the one factor that rises above others to make it really stellar is the on-camera presence of Hughes.

Robert Hughes is an outsider, an Australian who has lived in the United States as an author and Time magazine's art critic since 1970 but has never become an American citizen, a resident alien. He is well aware that his citizenship status denies him the chance to experience one of the themes threading throughout much (but particularly) early American art, the experience of "officially becoming someone else: becoming American, starting over, leaving behind what you once were," as he writes in American Visions (Knopf, $65 hard), the recently published book which grew out of the television series. But if he has missed out on this essential trait of American life and lore, he nonetheless gains something from it: Because he is a foreigner, he seems to have freer access to treat the American character anthropologically. As he announces at the beginning of the first program, "Republic of Virtue," he wants to "show what we can tell about Americans from the things that they've made, and how these images act in the story of American experience. When we look at them through the lens of their art, what do we see?"

Hughes also announces that he is making the television series as "an expression of gratitude for what [America's] creative life has shown me," and if distance covered in the effort to give a name and place to American art's many locations is a barometer of an art critic's gratitude, then he expresses his powerfully. We accompany Hughes to Amish Pennsylvania, a cliff edge overlooking the Grand Canyon, a "temple" of Minimalism in Marfa, Texas (Donald Judd's mill aluminum installation), the New York Armory to represent the site of the 1913 Armory Show, the wildly controversial exhibit because of its inclusion of modernist art, and, in Topsfield, Massachusetts, the Parson Capen House, an example of English vernacular architecture practiced by Joseph Capen, a reasonably wealthy Puritan preacher. If an artwork Hughes considers important takes place, say, at a certain seashore, Hughes is shown walking there along the beach meditating on the work under discussion. At Plymouth Rock, he "interviews" several grandiloquent Puritan pilgrims sitting down to a meal who answer Hughes' questions in character. When examining the life and work of the dandy James A. M. Whistler, Hughes brings him to life by showing us a scene from a Gilbert & Sullivan satire of Whistler and Dandyism. In one of his quirkiest incarnations, Hughes, resembling a noir tough, dons a Thirties fedora in program six, "Streamlines and Breadlines," to further bring Art Deco to life. In short, Hughes imbues the series with his enthusiasm for American art by taking part in the art, by going to its original sources of inspiration, by acting out its subject matter as much as possible.

The sum total of Hughes' series and book is to valorize American art in an attempt to persuade viewers that its themes are not endlessly derivative. His point is driven home at the beginning of the series when discussing the founding fathers' adoration of ancient, specifically Roman, public buildings and visual iconography. As he writes in the book, "The chief project of American culture before, during, and for years after the Revolution of 1776 was to graft pagan antiquity onto Puritan newness: to use what was old in a new way." To exemplify the founding fathers' adoration, the camera depicts the Rotunda at the University of Virginia and Washington, D.C.'s federal buildings only to cut unexpectedly to a Las Vegas marquee sign advertising Caesar's Palace. Hughes talks about how "eerily familiar" and yet jarring the ancient Romans would find something like Las Vegas' Caesar's Morgue, which is an indoor shopping mall with computer-controlled lights that cause the building's roof to change from dawn to dusk in 30-minute cycles. Instead of decrying Las Vegas' bastardization-for-commerce of ancient forms, Hughes wryly smiles observing Caesar's Morgue, and it seems evident without any explanation how ultimately fascinating the American tendency is to commingle "high" art with seemingly lower, commercial concerns.

Not that he thinks money and art good bedfellows. In the last program, "The Age of Anxiety," he calls the Eighties a "low, dishonest time in American art" because of the decade's highly publicized and outrageously inflated art prices. He aptly proves his point by visiting artist Jeff Koons' studio, confronting him because he does not make any of the art works he sells, hiring instead a workshop of about 12 craftsmen Koons calls "phenomenal"; you'll have to see it for yourself, but Hughes basically does away with any pretensions Koons might have had about being an artist. You've got to admire a critic who, instead of hiding behind his books, will witheringly confront a fake to his face not just for the sparks the spectacle will produce but for the pleasure of shining a glaring, illuminating light on an artist he thinks is pulling one over on the art world and public's head. There's something "American" in that confrontation, just as there's something "American" in Hughes' apparently inexplicable inclusion of former senator Mark Hatfield (R-Oregon) for his reflections about what the Lincoln Memorial means to him. Convincing the viewer of the stoutness and inherent American quality of Lincoln's words engraved behind the monolithic seat, Hatfield smiles at the viewer as if he were trying to persuade him to vote Republican. But with Hughes, never doubt that he has a little trick up his sleeve, for the way the camera frames Hatfield's head and the just-as-prominent portrait of Ronald Reagan behind him says something about that old notion of the American (and Roman) desire that a nation's public works should foment the public virtue.

Nonetheless, Hughes is better when he lets the artwork or the story behind it speak for itself, as in the story of John Singleton Copley, a son of poor Irish immigrants who arrived in Boston in 1736. In 1766, Copley wrote to Benjamin West, an American painter then residing in London, that "...In this country as You rightly observe there is no examples of Art, except what is to [be] met with in a few prints indifferently exicuted, from which it is not possable to learn much." Copley lamented that there were no public institutions in America like the Royal Academy in London, and realizing that he would never progress as an artist if he did not receive needed criticism, he sent a painting of his stepbrother, Boy With Squirrel (1765), off to London and to no less a judge of portraiture than Sir Joshua Reynolds, who at once wrote Copley that he must go to London to allow his talents to flourish. But Copley didn't go; perhaps he liked being the big fish in a little pond, or was just "nervous and indecisive by nature," as Hughes states.

American Enlightement: In Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin note John Singleton Copley's use of the sly triangles of Mr. Mifflin's opened book and the woven, triangular threads of Mrs. Mifflin's loom to equate their duties.

Whatever the reason, by 1774, when he finally did go to London, he had already painted Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (1773), which more than demonstrates his advancement from Boy With Squirrel. In it, Copley is keenly interested in displaying the relationship between this young radical Whig of Quaker origins and his wife of a distinguished Boston family. Conventional 18th-century portraiture dictated that the wife gaze admiringly at her husband, who typically looks out toward the viewer. Here, however, Sarah Mifflin stares questioningly at the viewer while weaving, and his pride and admiration of her are evident, the Enlightenment visualized. Mr. Mifflin has his finger marking the page he is reading in a small book, the pages open just enough so that the viewer can glimpse the text. The shape of the marked pages creates a small triangle, a triangle which is replicated in the shape of Mrs. Mifflin's woven threads, an intelligent equation of her work with his, another unheard-of notion in 18th-century portraiture. Thus, the idea that her self improvement is equal to his is subtly manifest. Enlightened self improvement: An idea both early and contemporary Americans enact and fervently idealize.

Lastly, there's that pesky problem of the inevitable comparison of book to television series. What seems noteworthy in this instance is that the book developed from the series, not vice versa. Fidelity criticism is the practice of analyzing a film or television text in light of its original source, usually a book, a critical engagement that seems rigged to favor the original source. Certainly, there are aspects of the book that cannot be copied in the series, namely the detailed and often amusing text. The beautiful paper the book is printed on, with its rich reproductions of art works, mirrors the perfect size of the book, which is meant to be read and used, not plopped on a coffee table for house guests to admire. The series cannot embody these traits. But it can give close-ups on details of paintings, and it can put the viewer in visual context of an artists' surroundings or period.

KLRU has aired the first four programs of American Visions and will be airing programs five ("A Wave From the Atlantic") and six ("Streamlines and Breadlines") on Wednesday, June 18, and programs seven ("The Empire of Signs") and eight ("The Age of Anxiety") on Wednesday, June 25, from 9-11pm both evenings.

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