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Tag Archives: American Visions

Art critics only seem to make the news when they die. Yesterday, we lost Robert Hughes (1938-2012), an Australian who was, in my humble opinion, the finest critic of American Art in the last 50 years.

Hughes was the author of the very best history of American Art ever written, and by very best I mean opinionated and frequently sarcastic. American Visions was an outgrowth of the BBC-produced documentary series of the same name that aired on PBS. You can watch the entire 7 hours online here. The book is widely available. I recommend both, even to people with only a passing interest in art. If you can get past the fact the Hughes is kind of a dick, you’ll learn a lot

It was no secret that Hughes held much modern art and many artists and art collectors in complete contempt. I love his work because he put into words many of the things I’d been thinking as I explored the trajectory of American Art history, albeit in a much more entertaining fashion. He wrote and spoke about art because he loved art and held the role of the artist in high esteem. I’ll share the following Hughes quote, borrowed from John Seed’s entry in today’s Huffington Post, to make my point:

“The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning. It’s not something that committees can do. It’s not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It’s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world.”

Seed also shared this video, taken from American Visions, where Hughes discussed contemporary art with a wealthy collector, hardly concealing his contempt for much of the work. He had this, for example, to say about Damien Hirst; “Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce.”

How can you not love that?

In an era when art critics have largely been replaced by “cultural writers” who spend most of their time hyping art rather than discussing it, Hughes will be sorely missed, at least by me.


This video

Though he was born and educated in England, Thomas Cole,  his work was quintessentially American. Not only did his realist landscapes determine, in large measure, the trajectory of American painting in the 19th Century, they helped shape how a young nation came to view the Western Frontier.

A Rocky Glen (Thomas Cole - 1846)

In the days before we were bombarded with imagery, a century before Television, when even newspapers contained nary a photograph, Americans got their “news” through the work of painters, illustrators, and engravers. Cole and his artistic progeny, first the Hudson River School and later the artists who swarmed over the American West, were the eyes through which we saw our wilderness landscape. Those eyes showed us beauty without limits, but what we saw was, in the final analysis, a storehouse of wealth to exploit without restraint. That probably wasn’t Cole’s intent, but its is his legacy.

Cole never really traveled beyond the tamed, civilized wilderness of the Eastern United States. He left it to his successors, like Moran and Bierstadt, to explore the trackless expanses beyond the Mississippi River. When those other artists traveled West, Cole’s spirit went with them. American landscapes of the period leaned toward large, if not in size than at least in scope. People, if they were in the frame at all, were generally tiny in order to emphasize the scale of the chosen vista. Collectively these artists created an American ideal that exists in our consciousness to this day. Their contribution to our identity is incalculable.

Niagara Falls (Thomas Cole-1830)

I had the exquisite experience last year of standing in a large gallery stuffed with 19th Century American landscapes at the Detroit Institute of Art late last year (DIA has over 2000 works by Cole in it’s collection, mostly drawings). It was moving in a way that was pretty difficult to describe, but whatever it was that I was feeling was enhanced by understanding of just how significant this room full of paintings had been in the development of MY country, My America.

American Lake Scene (Thomas Cole-1844)

It’s surprising in a way the very best piece I’ve ever seen about the work and importance of the American Realists of the 19th Century comes from an Australian, Robert Hughes, in his book American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, a book I highly recommend even to people with only a passing interest in art. As a critic, Hughes is both highly capable and highly opinionated. I think the fact that a number of living American artists detest him is a compelling recommendation of his work. Anyway, he had this to say about the work of Cole and his successors

“It was pure, and pointed to it’s Creator. The wilderness, for nineteenth-century American artists, is mostly stress-free. Its God is an American God whose Gospel is Manifest Destiny. It is pious and full of uplift. No wonder it was so quickly absorbed as metaphor of religious experience by the first mass audience American art was to reach. It dovetailed so well for the piety of its time.” (American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America: Robert Hughes (1997), 140-41)