American Visions

by Robert Hughes
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2006

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.”

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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 are not fixed forever; they are in the making. Progress is America’s most important product. Failure is not acceptable; if it does intrude, corrections can be made. All problems have solutions. Renovation and renewal can revive the weary and restore hope so that the nation secures its position as “the city on the hill” that providence intended it to be.

Such American visions have generated immense energy, but rarely has their ring of truth been as crystal clear as this exceptional optimism promised. What poet Robert Lowell named “the Serpent’s seeds of light” were planted in American ground from the beginning of its European colonization. Ironically fertilized by the self-assurance, blindness, and arrogance that excessive American optimism produced, those seeds have yielded a discouragingly large harvest in every season. According to Hughes, awareness of decaying optimism has accumulated to such an extent that “a large and growing number” of American citizens find that “the future looks worse than the past.”

Although the relatively good health of the American economy at the end of the 1990’s may make Americans more hopeful than Hughes thinks, he rightly holds that America’s social order marks its landscape with plenty of defeated expectation. Sometimes intentionally, but often not, American art and architecture have played significant parts in that reality and people’s awareness of it. What will Americans do with their debased optimism? How will American artists and architects respond to its challenges? American Visions does not provide the answers, but it helps Americans to ask the right questions.

Debased optimism, a telling outcome of American history, has origins that reach far into the past. Hughes indicates that it began, inadvertently and ironically, when seventeenth century colonists—some of them religious reformers, others seeking secular fortunes—saw North America as a “new world” where fresh starts could be made. Early in this land of promise, art and architecture blended European ways with forms indigenous and original. The early immigrants brought traditions with them, but they also had to make things up as they went along. As the thirteen colonies on the Atlantic seaboard rebelled their way to independence from England and then organized themselves into the United States, the late eighteenth century Founders borrowed the classical architectural lines of ancient Greece and Rome to enshrine their imagined republic of virtue. In this context, Hughes highlights the architecture of Thomas Jefferson and Charles Bulfinch and the painting done by Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale and his many talented children, Gilbert Stuart, and John Trumbull. Using the old in new ways, their American visions earnestly reflected the Enlightenment hope expressed by Philip Freneau, their poetic peer. In America, Freneau confidently predicted in 1784, “Reason shall new laws devise,/ And order from confusion rise.”

Fifty years later, American visions expanded westward. Thanks to artists such as Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran, the fashions of portrait and history painting gave way to the huge American wilderness and the “manifest destiny” that beckoned Americans to go west. Artistic expressions of the West enchanted Americans with a growing sense of possibility and promise. In The Course of Empire, however, Cole painted the warning that desolation might result. The Civil War’s destruction confirmed much of his prophecy. In his 1847 painting, The Last of the Race, Tompkins Harrison Matteson portrayed the fate of Native Americans, but their annihilation gave the pioneering scouts and land-hungry settlers little pause. The West was there for the taking, and taken it was.

Hughes’s view of post-Civil War America studies both the opulence and the grime of an increasingly urban and industrialized America, which produced both immense wealth and cast-iron cityscapes with their gritty working classes. The super rich bought, collected, commissioned, and displayed artworks in homes and museums designed and decorated by some of the day’s best talent. This American Renaissance, as Hughes calls it, had fine moments in the sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the architecture of Richard Morris Hunt, and the painting of John Singer Sargent, James A. M. Whistler, Mary Cassatt, and Childe Hassam. Meanwhile, the poverty captured by Jacob Riis’s camera and the strife and struggle of American slums portrayed in George Bellows’s paintings pointed to a darker side of American life that could not be easily transcended by the power and grace of symbolic and functional structures such as the magnificent Brooklyn Bridge, whose design, by John and Washington Roebling, was turned into reality by thousands of American workers, who risked life and limb to build it under perilous conditions.

As the twentieth century unfolded, Charles Demuth, Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Frank Lloyd Wright (the foremost architect of his time) increasingly added an unconventional modernism to American visions. Charles Sheeler’s 1930 American Landscape, one example of this trend, is a study of spheres, cubes, and cylinders that also reveals a smoke-filled sky and the water of a dead canal, the last natural remains in an industrial environment that has eclipsed its human creators. Scurrying between uncoupled boxcars on train tracks, one tiny human figure is barely visible. The visions of American modernism were not all so stark, but many of its expressions did introduce dissonant notes that contributed to the debased optimism whose story is tracked persistently in American Visions.

Imaginatively as well as commercially, skyscrapers dominated the American landscape in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Unfortunately, their streamlines collided with breadlines when times turned hard, depressed, and lonely, which they have often done for many Americans. In Hughes’s judgment, Edward Hopper, “the quintessential realist painter of twentieth-century America,” most skillfully pictures American loneliness in an indifferent world that mocks optimistic self-reliance and makes “manifest destiny” enigmatic, if it exists at all. Without “some refraction” through Hopper’s images, Hughes asserts, America cannot be seen accurately.

In post-World War II America, a similar point could be made about the abstract expressionism and pop art that contrasted so sharply with the contented homeliness that so many Americans still love Norman Rockwell for painting. In the 1950’s, Jasper Johns painted multiple American flags, but Hughes thinks that Johns’s uses of red, white, and blue, his renditions of the familiar stars and stripes, remain too ambiguous in their “beautiful and troubling muteness” to ensure that the artist’s intent was to inspire patriotic devotion. As for Andy Warhol, in the 1960’s, his 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans advertised a numbing commercial sameness to suggest how little nourishment American life provides for the nation’s soul.

Hughes set out to discover what could be said about America by looking through the lenses of its art. His main finding is that the confident optimism of American youth has worn itself out. No longer new or young, American life—successful, tragic, ironic, and ambiguous all at once—has resulted, unexpectedly but not surprisingly, in a debased optimism. In diverse ways, American art and architecture have created, reflected, and influenced that story. Debased optimism, however, is not where Hughes’s love- letter ends. The American Dream is not finished, nor is the epic of America over. Their glory may have become less than anticipated, but it need not be lost. “Tomorrow,” as Hughes’s typically American conclusion states, “is another day.”

Sources for Further Study

Art in America. LXXXV, October, 1997, p. 39.

Art News. XCVI, Summer, 1997, p. 131.

Booklist. XCIII, March, 1997, p. 1066.

Library Journal. CXXII, May 1, 1997, p. 100.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 27, 1997, p. 3.

The New Republic. CCXVII, July 28, 1997, p. 36.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, April 27, 1997, p. 42.

Newsweek. CXXIX, April 14, 1997, p. 74.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, February 24, 1997, p. 72.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, April 13, 1997, p. 1.

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