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ART | Television Review

Decline and Gall

'Good TV,' maybe. Good criticism, no. With his new PBS series, Robert Hughes again states his case for the descent of Western (this time American) art. Our critic isn't buying it.

May 25, 1997|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

Corinthian columns, classical pediments, a sculptural charioteer, flaming caldrons--the opening scenes of "American Visions," Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes' eight-hour television series on the history of American art, which has its debut Wednesday on PBS, are filled with triumphal images.

He is not, however, touring the monuments of ancient Greece, fountainhead of the Western democratic ideal with which the United States first imagined itself into being. Nor is he in ancient Rome, which American Federalists idolized and whose art and architecture inspired so many of our 19th century buildings and sculptures.

Instead, the critic is on the Strip in Las Vegas, seeing the glamorous sights at Caesars Palace. The setup is vintage Hughes.

The history of American painting and sculpture is a scholarly subject of limited appeal and potential dryness, but here it is introduced with exuberant panache, as demanded of the mass medium of TV. These are skills the expatriate Australian writer perfected long ago, as amply demonstrated by "The Shock of the New," his hugely successful series about the often esoteric byways of Modern art, which aired on PBS 16 years ago.

Furthermore, when the flashy casino images eventually fade into classical picture-postcard views of the graceful Lincoln Memorial, the imposing Capitol dome and Thomas Jefferson's masterpiece, Monticello, a thread of visual continuity is drawn from the present to the past. Hughes slides easily into the realm of hazy history, which Americans vaguely revere, even if they tend to know little of it.

Concise and eye-grabbing, this is "good TV." Yet, it is also vintage Hughes in another sense, and this one we could do without. For we have begun our tour of the history of American art in the crass and grossly materialistic desert oasis so that Hughes can make the series' overarching point.

Look what it has come to, the sullen critic frowns, comparing the civic monuments of Washington to the hurly-burly of the Vegas Strip. The elevated classical vocabulary of "a republican temple of virtue" that inspired so much American architecture a century and a half ago has degenerated into this, "the popular palace of middle-class sin."

Here we go again. It's the umpteenth chapter in Hughes' favorite tiresome tale: the saga of the Decline and Fall of Western Civ. The critic, poised amid the tacky rubble, offers himself up as tour guide to paradise lost.

Frankly, I don't have much patience with this sort of condescension. Hughes is smart, unformed, funny and a master of the turn of phrase. But as one who's quite enamored of a good deal of American art and architecture of the last 30 years, and who finds some of it at least the equal of anything produced in Europe or elsewhere in the past, I get irritable when the broad brush of gloom and doom is hauled out to paint lopsided pictures.

Nor does "American Visions" turn out to be nearly as engaging as "The Shock of the New"--and it isn't just because of its seemingly endless shots of the narrator driving around the countryside in an open-top convertible, to no apparent purpose. The most surprising feature of the new series, given Hughes' impressive rhetorical flourish, is how flat-out boring most of the episodes are.

In tone and philosophy, however, the program seamlessly continues his earlier work. The specter of collapse was also the subtext of "The Shock of the New," which weekly charted a slippery slide from greatness into infamy that art supposedly underwent as the grueling 20th century wore on--from the acknowledged grandeur that was Matisse to the presumed quackery that was Warhol.

Similarly, decline was the fuel that stoked Hughes' fire in the pages of Time during the raucous 1980s, when an overheated market turned the art world upside down. It formed the basis of his blustery 1993 book on multiculturalism, "The Culture of Complaint," which managed to make William Bennett and his ilk sound like Little Nell. And, not surprisingly, it's at the core of "American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America" (Alfred A. Knopf, 636 pages, $65), the heavily illustrated--and heavily promoted--book now being published to coincide with the dull new television series.

Open the book to the text's first illustration, and you'll start to see what I mean. A charming version of Edward Hicks' famous "The Peaceable Kingdom" (circa 1834) shows, way off in the distance, a toylike William Penn and a band of Quakers concluding their peace treaty with the Indians, while the foreground is dominated by a serene, pastoral gathering of wild beasts. The lion has lain down with the lamb, in both the animal kingdom and the human one, as appropriate to an American Eden ordained by God.

Now, turn to the book's last illustration, many hundreds of pages beyond. Here's another glowing religious image--albeit one of a rather different order.

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