(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In 1931, while the Great Depression shadowed American life, historian James Truslow Adams published The Epic of America. His book popularized an ambitious and ambiguous concept called the American Dream. Taking that idea to be the nation’s “greatest contribution” to “the thought and welfare of the world,” Adams argued that its credibility depended on a special land and social order, which, together, encouraged prosperity, opportunity, freedom, and equality. Without this American vision, he concluded, “the epic loses all its glory.”

Dreams, landscapes, social order and disorder—all of these and more inform Robert Hughes’sAmerican Visions. Its probing, six-hundred-page analysis, complemented by more than three hundred colorful illustrations, makes this book as brilliant as it is penetrating. Sometimes gloomy, frequently critical, typically well researched, and always interesting, Hughes’s nine chapters show that American art and architecture often deserve to be included among the nation’s best contributions to the world.

The history of those contributions has epic proportions because it so strongly summons visions of the distinctive land and social order that Adams and countless other Americans have banked upon to fulfill their dreams. Although he finds American culture in decay at the twentieth century’s end, Hughes remains cautiously optimistic about it. The directions that American art and architecture will take in the twenty-first century remain to be seen, but Hughes hopes they will be buoyant and inventive enough to help Americans move beyond defeated expectations that endanger the Dream’s credibility and erode the epic’s glory.

Many voices are needed to tell the epic of America. Artists and architects have special parts in that chorus. Their work captivates Hughes because of its diverse mixtures of continuity and discontinuity with previous traditions, but even more because its distinctive styles create and tell, revise and retell, a monumental story that is both inspiring and problematic. A book alone, however, even one the size of American Visions, could not do justice to Hughes’s desire for Americans to appreciate and learn from this culture’s best artistic expressions. Therefore, he made American Visions three projects instead of one.

The book grew out of Hughes’s eight-part television program, coproduced by BBC-2 (British Broadcasting Corporation) and Time Warner and available on videocassette. Broadcast by PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) in the late spring of 1997, the series was introduced by a special issue of Time, the magazine for which Hughes has been the art critic since the early 1970’s. Hughes acknowledges that even the large size of his book leaves it “extremely partial, selective, and incomplete.” Nevertheless, this “love-letter to America,” as Hughes calls American Visions, goes far toward answering its governing question: What can be learned about Americans from the art they have made?

Hughes possesses eminent qualifications to handle these large assignments, and his work does not disappoint. In addition to his tenure as Time’s art critic, he has published nine other books, among them The Shock of the New (1980), a history of modern trends in art, and The Culture of Complaint (1993), which investigated the “culture wars” that have polarized American opinion. Hailing from Australia, Hughes has a lover’s quarrel with American life. This self-described resident alien likes Americans but prefers not to be one. Blessed with an ironic wit and a sharp-edged prose style that minces few words, Hughes is the friendly critic that the United States always needs.

American Visions concentrates on specific places and buildings, particular paintings and artifacts, individual artists and their special circumstances, talents, and limitations. Hughes starts with the designs of Spanish colonists in the Southwest, the Puritans of New England, and the Anglophile society of Virginia. Some three hundred years later, he sees Americans struggling through “The Age of Anxiety,” as his final chapter calls it. The contemporary artists who explore these times—for example, Philip Guston and Susan Rothenberg, Edward Kienholz and Barbara Kruger—are not canonical figures such as Winslow Homer and Georgia O’Keeffe, but their work continues America’s epic.

How will Americans cope with “debased optimism”? That question, the epic history of art in America suggests to Hughes, identifies the nation’s pivotal issue as the millennium approaches. Optimistic beliefs have long conditioned American character. Their resounding mantra says: Tomorrow will be better than today. Children will have a better life than their parents. The past can be put behind us. Keep looking forward. New beginnings are always possible. Personal identities...

(The entire section is 2006 words.)