'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
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."
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
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