'American Visions' Keenly Eyes National Culture through Art Host Robert Hughes Infuses PBS Series with Wit and Insight

Article excerpt

'American Visions," a new eight-hour public-television series on American art written and narrated by critic Robert Hughes, is as much about American culture as it is about painting and architecture.

Throughout these programs, which range from the Colonial period to the present, Mr. Hughes maintains that there has been a continuity in American concerns, and that these are reflected in art. He repeatedly returns to notions like nature, newness, public virtue, work, and the frontier.

As in his much-praised 1981 series on modern art, "The Shock of the New," the Australian-born Hughes is an agile guide whom the television audience will find easy to follow. He dwells on buildings and paintings, teaching how to look as well as how to think about art. A master of terse barbs and poignant insights, Hughes is also unrelentingly witty. The morning after, viewers will be rehashing his epigrammatic darts the way they do "Frasier" and "Seinfeld." Big-budget effects Unfortunately, the first program, "The Republic of Virtue," is a faltering introduction to the series. Excessive helicopter shots, a costly and unnecessary embellishment throughout the series, whirl around the Capitol and the monuments of Washington. While Hughes talks about the Founders' classical restraint, Wagnerian music boils in the background, and storm clouds chase over the White House roof as they do in "Independence Day." When Hughes settles in to discuss Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, the program admirably rights itself. From then on, it presents a lean, succinct, and discerning discussion of early American painting. Never one to shy from the brutality of history, Hughes stamps the series with continual references to slavery and its legacy. In the second program, "The Promised Land," Hughes describes religious life at an early Spanish mission in New Mexico, as well as in New England's Puritan past. Although he cynically observes that culture has always followed money, he wisely allows that quilts produced by the Amish in Pennsylvania are as high an art form as any other aesthetic product in early America. Landscape as metaphor Program 3, the gem of the series, unites Hughes's muscular language with an appropriately vast subject. "The Wilderness and the West" persuasively shows how American landscape has been portrayed as moral ground, yet also served as a bulwark for blind patriotism, racism, and the destruction of nature. The kernels of knowledge that flavor these productions are not always savory. Viewers learn that John James Audubon shot birds, wired their corpses into animate shapes, and only then produced his meticulously rendered paintings. "The Gilded Age," fourth in the series, begins with the American Civil War and concludes with Frederick Jackson Turner's thesis about the closing of the American frontier. The increasing importance of photography in America's self-imaging is apparent both in depictions of the war and in the realism employed by painters like Thomas Eakins. In the late 19th century, the natural sublime gave way to a technical sublime, exemplified by the Brooklyn Bridge and Chicago skyscrapers. …