Television, a 'pungent vernacular phrase' and a sympathy for pioneers have made art critic Robert Hughes a top cultural broadcaster. Tim Hilton takes issue with his new, lavish survey of American art
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The Independent Culture
Robert Hughes has been the art critic of Time magazine for the past quarter of a century and is well known for a history of the early days of his native Australia, The Fatal Shore, and for The Shock of the New, a general survey of modern art adapted from a BBC television series of 1971. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, his new book on American art from its settler origins to the present day, also derives from a set of television programmes shown last November: Hughes acknowledges a debt to the late Sir Kenneth Clark, a pioneer of TV art programmes who also fashioned a best-selling book, Civilisation, from his scripts.

Just one other influence is saluted in Hughes's preface, Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man (the book and TV series appeared in 1973). Hughes cites Clark and Bronowski in a defensive manner, pointing out that their books included neither footnotes nor bibliographies. "There are no footnotes on television," he says, thus asserting that his American Visions need not give further detail to its primary text. We are also given to understand that Hughes does not have to acknowledge his sources and won't suggest to his readers that other opinions might be consulted. His own opinions are indeed most firmly stated, as though Hughes were telling his viewer or reader that it would be rash to disagree with him. But the stance doesn't quite work. For while Clark's patrician manner annoyed many, it was always obvious that he knew more than he was saying on television. Hughes's approach suggests that he has no information or wisdom beyond his present utterances.

This is characteristic of modern television, both in newscasts and cultural programmes. We now know, as Clark did not, that television rings false if it is not demotic. One reason why Bronowski was an excellent broadcaster was that he was a refugee. He had spoken two native languages before he learnt English. The experience of a third tongue clarified and perhaps emboldened his expression. Hughes quite rightly proclaims his Australian origins, and although he has been in the USA since 1970 we surely hear - and read - the accents of Australian conversation in his accounts of American art. A swaggering attitude toward the autocue has helped him to become such a fine popular historian. The first four chapters of American Visions contain deft and gripping descriptions of early settlers, their art, architecture and artefacts. The narrative is simple and fresh. This is Hughes at his best. Obviously he feels for pioneers. The problem is that he is less at home with sophisticates.

As the book goes on, one is more and more aware of a contrast in the Hughes persona. Here speaks the confident star critic from his powerful position high on Manhattan Island. At the same time one senses a wish in him to be a settler, a real old-timer, a plain man untroubled by modernism, unsettled by thought. Intellectuals scare Hughes, however belligerent he appears to be, and I doubt if he reads what they have to say. Effective television programmes are not devised by spending studious hours in libraries. American Visions begins to falter when Hughes talks about his first modern artist, Whistler, and this clever painter's aesthetic position. None of Whistler's significant work was done in America or belongs to American art, but let that pass. The point is that Hughes cannot cope with Whistler's dispute with Ruskin. For to consider Ruskin it would be necessary to sit down with his writing, far too time-consuming an activity for a busy public man.

Hughes makes up for his lack of original research by the originality or his manner. Simple introductions to modern art are legion, but I know of no other with such a gift for the pungent vernacular phrase, and such reliance on this gift. It's as though Hughes's voice, rather than any knowledge or taste, gives him the right to be opinionated. Stretches of the book become dull because that voice is lost or turned off. The description of the 1913 Armory Show, significant because it introduces America to European modernism, is rather flat. We are offered yet another version of straight art history, and the controversies of the Armory period are familiar. The historical narrative of American Visions loses conviction as it enters the 20th century. But I do like the capsule descriptions of single American artists such as Edward Hopper or Frank Lloyd Wright. These capsules suit Hughes, because they are about the same length as a short Time preview; or the attention span commanded by two or three images, plus commentary, on television.

The subtitle of American Visions is "The Epic History of Art in America". However, the book's manner is not epic but episodic. It lacks the underlying convictions of epic and cannot come to terms with the larger historical questions. Why is today's American art so bad? Was there a triumphant, and then a tragic period, in its earlier progress? Is art in general, not just in America, in decline? Hughes is no sucker when it comes to the present-day antics of New York artists and the phoney museum-speak of their champions. He does not like what he sees, and yet he cannot explain what has happened. His final pages are helpless and his last sentence is Scarlett O'Hara's banal observation that "tomorrow is another day".

Hughes's book is inadequate when describing anything after the crisis years around 1970: coincidentally or not, exactly the period when he first became an American art critic. The atmosphere of the time might explain his unpleasant disparagement of a truly great critic, Clement Greenberg (1909-94), a New York intellectual of the pre-war Partisan Review group, whose Art and Culture is both art criticism and a classic of American literature. Greenberg had been close to Jackson Pollock, David Smith and other artists of the '40s and '50s. In his view, Abstract Expressionism was indeed the triumph of American painting - Greenberg also said that Pop Art wasn't good enough and that the late modernist painting of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski was preferable to the new conceptual art. These views should be taken seriously. Hughes's sneering account of Greenberg proves only that the television star is the lesser man. While television has exaggerated Hughes's virtues, the later chapters of American Visions demonstrate that he is not a virtuous art historian.

'American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America', Harvill Press pounds 35.