Literary foreigners have ever been drawn to this country, curious to see for themselves the doings of our bumptious, God-fearing, and famously democratic people. Such notable authors as Tocqueville, Dickens, Henry James (American by birth, but cosmopolite by persuasion) and Nabokov have passed our way, leaving reports that continue to instruct and amuse us. After 160 years, for example, Tocqueville’s observation that in America “each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object: namely, himself” has only sharpened its edge, and it will take more than interstates and Holiday Inns to dissipate the pall that Humbert Humbert left hanging over our highways after his desperate romp through the stucco courts and the clapboard cabins of a bygone America.

Is there anyone around now who can fix us with this kind of searching, alien gaze? In the past, visitors often complained about the unswerving American belief that every good thing was possible in this, the newest and best of all possible countries. But if our self-satisfaction annoyed them, it also offered a solid basis for criticism. Today that old complacence is shriveling into a mere husk of dispirited nostalgia, less irksome to the foreigner, no doubt, but also more diffuse as an object of study. Now the observer has to feel around for the erratic pulse of the new America nervosa–a difficult and quite possibly distasteful task. Small wonder that the post of visiting critic-at-large has been vacant for some time, and all the more grateful should we be, therefore, that Robert Hughes has volunteered for the job.

I like Hughes. His book Barcelona is a lovely blend of art, culture, and history perfectly suited to its subject; The Fatal Shore, which tells the story of early penal Australia, is even better. Hughes writes history as if it were still a branch of literature, with page-turning intensity and a sensuous, manly style. Documents are not data to him, but vessels filled with blood and guts. The past still stings in his nostrils. But earthy as he is, he seeks the essence of a people, what used to be called their soul: Barcelona has as much to say about the Catalan spirit as about urban design, and the real subject of The Fatal Shore is the birth of the Australian nation, midwifed by the English cat-o’-nine-tails. So it might be our loss that when Hughes took on the daunting subject of America he did so not as historian but as critic of art. History, after all, is a mere sideline for Hughes, who is the regular art reviewer for Time magazine. Yet if anyone can get to the bottom of this country through its art, that person is Robert Hughes. He certainly has the gumption for it. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America is the record of his attempt.

In the very first sentence of the book Hughes presents his credentials as foreign observer: namely, he is a foreigner. Although he’s lived in New York for nearly three decades he remains a citizen of his native Australia. Hughes regards this as essential to his outlook; he makes the same point on the first page of Culture of Complaint (1993), a kind of prolegomenon to the present work. But a green card, important as it is to the alien, cannot certify him with a fresh eye or an objective, open mind–vital organs to the restless analyst of the exotic culture. Although American Visions is undeniably learned, lavish, and big, I don’t think Hughes is going to surprise many readers with his freshness or convince them with his objectivity. He may not have transplanted himself directly into the American soil, but he seems to have scooped quite a bit of it into his own little pot over the last 30 years.

Americans adore whatever is new; an invincible streak of puritanism runs right through their history; though their culture may seem shallow to Europeans, Americans look to the beauty and bounty of nature to even the balance; a practical people, impatient with theory, they prefer the precision and clarity of results. These familiar propositions are all that Hughes has to offer in the way of large themes. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with these ideas–they wouldn’t be so conventional if they weren’t also true–only that one expects more from an author who is so well acquainted with his subject, who commands such a penetrating critical intelligence, and who begins by posing the excellent question, “What can we say about Americans from the things and images they have made?”

What one expects, in brief, is a history like those he has already written. In his other major survey, The Shock of the New, Hughes lays out the problems and purposes of modern art with remarkable clarity. As a tour guide, he is smooth and he delivers the goods: readers who follow him through an otherwise bewildering series of styles discover a comprehensible, almost rational pattern. By the time they file into the gallery of the 1960s and hear their guide explain that “the middle-class audience finally enfolded every aspect of ‘advanced’ art in its embrace, so that the newness of a work of art was one of the conditions of its acceptability,” even the humble layman can say he has been edified by the tour, if not always charmed by the art.

When that same layman is escorted through the halls of American art, from portraits of righteous colonial divines to contemporary pieces by no less righteous performance artists, he likewise wants to know: why did this practical, can-do, nature-loving nation of puritans give up making art about the world for making art about art? But this time his curiosity will be disappointed. Modernism, which hit Western culture with the force of a tidal wave in The Shock of the New, is just another set of breakers in American Visions: in the same way that 19th-century American artists move from didactic history to natural grandeur to scenes of polite leisure, 20th-century artists paint what they can hear instead of what they can see, drip their colors, and make sculptures out of the rubble of abandoned steel mills. There are no watersheds in this book. Its author is more concerned with his idea of American art as a whole: various and evolving, but still unified by those basic American themes of novelty, puritanism, nature, and practical precision. Hughes digs below the greatest differences in subject matter and technique looking for his connections, and, ingenious critic that he is, he finds them.

Consider his treatment of what he calls empirical realism, the American desire “to engage the material world as an end in itself.” Hughes traces it back to the colonial portraitist John Singleton Copley, noting the “hard, unfussed, uningratiating realism” of his work and “the candor of its empirical curiosity.” In Europe Copley was criticized for being too “liny”–too harsh in his outlines–but at home, Hughes tells us, Copley’s disdain of frills struck a deep American chord. He sees this directness again and again in the work of later artists, in the ships painted by Fitz Hugh Lane in the 1850s (“ships had an American spirit in them–a keen pragmatism”) and in the seascapes of John Frederick Kensett. Hughes finds affinities in these very different painters by treating them above all as American artists–an admirable method until he crosses the threshold into modernism. Thus the spareness of Kensett’s later marine paintings is supposed to mark his “discovery of abstraction”: Hughes describes Eaton’s Neck, Long Island (1872), an exceptionally barren depiction of sea, sky, sand, and a hummock of vegetation, as “almost as abstract as a Rothko.” What can this possibly mean? When he sang scat, was Louis Armstrong “almost” as wrapped up in rhythm as Snoop Doggy Dogg?

From the heights of his perch Hughes can hardly see that, while Kensett set out to paint some thing, however unadorned, Rothko set out to paint–what? Whatever it was, the artist’s intentions are just small potatoes against the larger pattern of the critic’s own themes. Even quilts made a century ago by Pennsylvania Dutch farmwives “seem to prophesy the explicit geometry of some American art in the 1960s and 1970s”; they display “a soft, swaddling Minimalism, in which one recognizes a spareness of design just pulled back from dogmatic rigor.” There is a famous character in classical French comedy who is delighted to learn that he has been speaking prose his whole life without knowing it. Would these good Amish ladies be equally pleased to learn that they had created “America’s first major abstract art”?

American Visions is full of this sort of thing: premodern art prophesies the modern, and modern art reworks our old passions and anxieties. In this way minimalism and conceptual art are classed as new forms of puritanical hostility to the graven image–“fixed in the American genome for three hundred years.” Hughes prefers not to ask how many conceptual artists could come up with a graven image even if they so desired; instead he draws a line that connects, say, a Shaker rocking chair with someone who registers disapproval of the modern art market by exposing his own body to third-degree sunburn. It’s unfair to demand proof for a connection like that, but we might ask whether it leads to anything worthwhile.

Consider the line Hughes takes on Donald Judd, “the doyen of ‘high’ Minimalism.” About 15 years ago Judd arrayed 200 large aluminum boxes, each with a different internal design, inside a couple of abandoned artillery sheds on the high plains of southwestern Texas. He replaced the walls of the buildings with glass to permit the clear light of the grasslands to play freely over his boxes, which were burnished to a glow that made them seem almost soft and transparent. The effect is powerful, stark, and bracing. Hughes explains the appeal of this strange monument by saying that “its denial of the sensuous is deeply American”–an astute epitome that shows just how sharp his foreign eye can be. But when he goes on to describe this work as a kind of secularized Puritan meetinghouse, a “temple of esthetic fanaticism,” even the most sympathetic of his readers will be baffled. Was Judd really more fanatical than any other dedicated artist? The perfectly mute whatness of his boxes may indeed be a sign of zeal, but to link Judd’s array with the chaste interiors of early American religion (“boxes with God’s word in them”) is to let a glib allusion serve as an idea.

Glibness is always a danger when the historian applies his ingenuity to tying up the loose ends of a chronicle, and the second half of American Visions is much more chronicle than comprehensive history. This is all the more disappointing after a first half in which Hughes adroitly weaves personalities, politics, and society into a coherent view of the subject. The themes may be unsurprising, but their treatment is sure. Through early republican architecture, history painting, nature study, shifting images of the American Indian, and a new urban aesthetic, Hughes traces out a trajectory for American art as a whole. Then, with the advent of modernism, the book seems to break down into one thing after another.

The art itself may be partly to blame for this, but the author’s own style suffers from the transition too. Tautness and precision, the Hughesian stock-in-trade, give way to truculence and jargon. An annoying Time-like pertness obtrudes: the Pieta at the 1964 World’s Fair, for instance, was displayed “like a full-size reproduction of itself carved from Ivory soap.” (Many pages of American Visions are in fact drawn from reviews in the magazine.) The first part of the book includes a number of poignant epitomes (reading Jefferson, “you feel his enthusiasm and curiosity on your face like sunburn”; Louis Sullivan “struggled toward a kind of modernism that did not exist and still does not”) while the second is full of flabby critical dodges. Again and again Hughes tries to make his connections by saying that artist x “certainly had the chance to study” the work of y, or that images in nonfigurative art “can be read as” body parts, smokestacks, or whatever. How disheartening to see Hughes, owner of one of the most pungent prose styles around, blowing bubbles like this description of the forms in an abstracted still life: “Elegant, frugal, and less ponderous than their nearest French equivalents, they have the crystal-clear assurance of fine modernist architecture.” This could pass easily for a pronouncement at a wine tasting, which suggests how far Hughes has abstracted his own style.

Whatever doubts we may have about his themes, his connections, and the occasional looseness of his language, we might still have complete confidence in the critic’s essential virtue–his judgment. We don’t even have to agree with his views to retain that confidence, as long as he is basically fair-minded and objective. “Objectivity” doesn’t mean having no axes to grind; it means keeping them in the open. The greatness of a critic like George Orwell, one of Hughes’s own heroes, lies precisely in this kind of openness. Whether he was taking on Dickens or Kipling or the whole British Empire, he made sure his own politics and prejudices were clear–the better to battle himself, his true object of criticism. Hughes, I am sorry to say, is unwilling to do that. As a result he is often betrayed into dressing up his partisan views as aesthetic judgments, an old practice that we now call “political correctness.”

But hasn’t Hughes gotten himself a reputation as a scourge of this very thing? He has indeed performed the good service of scolding extremists of all kinds, both the “patriotically correct” followers of Jesse Helms and those on the other side who insist, for example, that enslavement of Africans was a European invention or that we should give up phrases like “a little nip in the air.” With his foreign nose Hughes has sniffed out the puritanism that hangs around many of these squabbles. In Culture of Complaint he put the matter this way: “Some works of art have an overt political content; many carry subliminal political messages….But it is remarkably naive to suppose that these messages exhaust the content of the art as art, or ultimately determine its value.”

Very well said. Why, then, in American Visions, after first dismissing the idea of manifest destiny as the tool of corporate flacks and “jingo senators,” does Hughes go on to accuse the landscapist Albert Bierstadt of “propagating a dream of conquest” with the “sublime histrionics” of his “extravagant paeans to Manifest Destiny”? One can argue whether or not that ideal has fulfilled its promise, as stated in a manifesto Hughes quotes derisively, to reach the Pacific Ocean “to animate the many hundred millions of its people…to teach old nations a new civilization.” Hughes may be skeptical, but is such skepticism a license to let the political content of Bierstadt’s work “determine its value” as art? That’s just what he does, blatantly so in his treatment of one of Bierstadt’s most popular works, a view from a pass in the Sierra Nevada. To Hughes it’s nothing more than an advertisement for the railroad that commissioned the canvas, making Donner Lake From the Summit “the patriarch of all American travel posters.”

In American Visions the railroads and other large enterprises of the Gilded Age are all bad guys: they appear only to rape the land, kill the Indians, and exploit their workers. Hughes has a good time describing the mansions of the robber barons, huge piles erected with all the bad taste their money could buy, and when they were moved by their “delusive piety” to build libraries, schools, parks, museums, and other amenities for the people, he tells us they did so merely to “inspire gratitude in the laboring masses and defuse their resentments.” (If Hughes believes that this logic still holds, he doesn’t reveal which resentments are being defused, for example, by the Principal Financial Group through its underwriting support for the American Visions project.)

But not until Hughes gets well into the 20th century does his criticism merge thoroughly with his politics. We can triangulate his position by comparing his treatments of three rough contemporaries, Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton, and Jacob Lawrence. Hughes is positive and respectful toward O’Keeffe, though he does take a few shots at the weakness of her drawing and the sentimentality of some of her famous bone images. What bothers Hughes about O’Keeffe is not her work but her status as an icon of feminism. Readers of that persuasion are not part of his constituency, so he can enjoy himself tweaking the cult that has given O’Keeffe a “peculiar immunity from any sort of critical demurral.”

Hughes saves his big guns for Benton. As a man he was “a cantankerous loudmouth”; as an artist he was “dreadful…most of the time”; his colors were “tawdrily emphatic”; overall his work was “flat-out, lapel-grabbing vulgar.” The reason? During the 1930s, when abstraction pointed the way to the future, Benton looked backward: he tried to adapt a late Renaissance style, and worse, he used that style to realize a lusty and nostalgic vision of rural America. That’s two strikes. Strike three is the “consuming and pathological intensity” of Benton’s distaste for homosexuals, a feature of the artist’s psychology in which the critic shows great interest. His art, according to Hughes, was all “idealization and propaganda” for a “wholesome, unconflicted image of America,” much like the Father Knows Best world of 1950s television that “became a ‘real’ but lost America for right-wing fantasists like Newt Gingrich.” Benton is so bad an artist that even his early experiments with abstraction impress Hughes as “illustrations of abstraction rather than abstraction itself”–a distinction of nearly theological niceness.

On one side of the coin, daggers; on the other, a fragrant bouquet for Jacob Lawrence. His well-known “Migration” series, which portrays the northward movement of blacks in the early decades of this century, is “a visual ballad, each image a stanza.” Hughes has nothing bad or even mildly critical to say about this art. If the images seem static, it’s their “Egyptian stillness”; if the drawing looks flat, it’s a “reliance on silhouette.” Above all, despite the suffering and pathos depicted in the series, “Lawrence was not a propagandist.” Lawrence had no less a message than Benton, but Benton is the one who’s full of “rhetoric”–a favorite pejorative of Hughes’s, applied also to Bierstadt. It was not rhetoric, you see, to evoke the “permanence and resistance” of a downtrodden yet dignified race; but when the idea was to show the heartland of this country flexing its muscles with a perfectly complacent optimism, the resulting “surge and flow…mainly produced rhetoric.” (“Surge and flow,” by the way, are just fine in the hands of Jackson Pollock, who was Benton’s pupil.) In this way Hughes is not only unfair to Benton but condescending to Lawrence. Some may squirm when they read that in the “Migration” series “you sense that something is speaking through Lawrence–a collectivity,” or that “probably only a black artist could have handled it with the depth of feeling it required.”

Hughes is certainly right about one thing: Benton was on the wrong side of history, as the triumph of abstraction was to prove soon enough. Those like Benton who failed to see what was coming were pushed to the margins as mere “pictorial cornhuskers.” A telling phrase: “pictorial” functions as an epithet, just as the word “illusionist” does in the writings of Clement Greenberg, the main critical booster of abstract expressionism in the 50s and 60s. Both refer to the backward idea that, as Hughes puts it, if “the American public…was assumed to want recognizable images of its own place, history, and folkways,” then it was the job of art to provide those images. After World War II no artist who wanted to be taken seriously could think this way any longer.

The story of how this happened is well told in American Visions. Not surprisingly, as he works through abstract expressionism Hughes finds some of his major themes recurring: there is the American fascination with the new, of course, and nature may be discovered even in the canvases of Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still–in Still’s case over the objections of the artist himself. To the layman mystified by the movement’s drips, squelches, and large fields of color, this will make as much sense as anything else. Even Greenberg found it necessary to assure readers that “some works of abstract art are better than others. The critic of abstract art is under the obligation to be able to tell the difference.” Does this mean that such a critic is the only one who can tell the difference?

Hughes certainly can. Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still are so-so, but Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell are very good. So is Willem de Kooning–as a painter. His sculpture is likened to “giant nose-pickings,” an image made all the more horrifying by the absence of any pictures of the offending objects. That also happens to be the most vivid choice of words in this part of the book, where, inevitably, Hughes’s style hits rock bottom. In a painting by Franz Kline, which to the unaided eye looks something like a close-up of an oriental ideogram, “the balance between the rushing black and the captured density of the static white seems exact, yet imperiled by the energy of movement.” Though abstraction is supposed to be its own reward, Hughes works hard to find coded images in nearly everything: wind and weather in Pollock’s “all-over” painting, Guardia Civil hats and bull testicles in Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” series, and so on.

His particular favorite seems to be the sculptor David Smith: “Smith was to the 20th century what Augustus Saint-Gaudens had been to the 19th.” In other words, the best. Among the many splendid monuments created by Saint-Gaudens is the portrait of Abraham Lincoln that stands at the southern entrance to Lincoln Park. Interested readers may wish to compare this sculpture with Smith’s Cubi XVII, which is pictured in American Visions. It consists of eight cubes and rectangular solids balanced, as if magnetized, on a cylindrical base. Hughes praises the “Cubi” series as the culmination of the artist’s “range of expression,” which “had never been seen in American sculpture before.”

Hughes presents this kind of abstraction as the last heroic stage of American art–at least for now. As he reviews the subsequent parade of “isms”–soon to become “wasms” in his excellent phrase–abstract expressionism increasingly wears the patina of an almost classical antiquity. It was the one indigenous, world-storming movement in American art, a source of great prestige as the leading edge of “an American modernist establishment that had gone global.” Hughes likes this movement so much he seems not to notice the odd coincidence that many of its leaders couldn’t draw: we learn that de Kooning admitted no talent for illustration, that Pollock was ham-fisted as an “orthodox draftsman,” and that the drawings Newman made before he won fame with his vertical stripes were just “feeble biomorphic doodles.”

Thus Hughes criticizes from inside the art world. He steps outside only to look down upon the poor dumb Americano of the 1950s, a mindless cipher sitting in his ugly suburban tract house, barely visible through a mephitic fog of TV commercials, cold-war paranoia, and social conformity. Does that remind you of your childhood? Even Disneyland, that quintessential playground of the American empire, is “authoritarian…a factory for the manufacture of one-level meaning and the repression of imagination.” If only the slobs strolling down “Main Street, U.S.A.” knew the damage they’re doing to the imaginations of their own children! Hughes may sound more than a little agitated here, but Disnophobia is not uncommon among foreigners–intellectual foreigners, I mean. The sight of all those natives waiting in line to get their brains laundered is distressing to people who didn’t grow up watching the Mouseketeers. They’re like tourists at a bullfight: they know the exhibition is full of symbols and significance, a living relic of some golden age, but they can’t help being appalled. (Later in the book Hughes ridicules the paranoia of another visitor–a Frenchman, admittedly–who discovers that “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it is no longer real.” Hughes calls this “twaddle,” as if he hadn’t been boggled by the Magic Kingdom in exactly the same way.)

“In short,” according to Hughes, “a huge administrated monoculture began to grow [note the whiff of conspiracy], and it started to blot out the earlier ideas of a Texan, a Virginian, a Californian, or a New York cultural ethos.” Oh, Mr. Hughes! Have you never been to those places? Didn’t we see you behind the wheel of a sports car on our TV screens, tooling across America?

The explanation for this strange commentary may lie in its final phrase, for few people would provide a better illustration of the well-known “New York cultural ethos” than Robert Hughes himself. He mentions Los Angeles exactly one time, following the words “the centerless sprawl of.” When he quotes the artist Stuart Davis–“I, too, think great art will come out of the Middle West”–he cannot resist the parenthetical aside, “did he really?” And when he stands amid the wreckage of decommissioned B-52s outside Tucson, Arizona, so as to ponder “a culture of grandeur, self-confidence, and almost unbelievable abundance, but also of self-doubt and paranoia,” he thinks that the city over there, beyond the tail fins, is called Phoenix. This reminds me of Whitey Bimstein, one of A.J. Liebling’s many New York associates. When Liebling asked him once how he liked the country, Bimstein said, “It is a nice spot.” Maybe America looks so homogenized to Hughes because so much of it shares the quality of not being New York.

This is a quaint attitude, but it can be a liability to someone trying to understand the country as a whole. Things may get left out–the state capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska, for instance. Of course, anyone who reads American Visions is going to find at least one of his favorite works missing. Still, I can’t help wondering if it wasn’t the author’s distaste for middle America that caused him to pass over Bertram G. Goodhue’s art deco masterpiece, which sticks out of the fruited plain like a huge grain elevator or perhaps like a cob of the very corn itself. This neglect is all the more surprising because, in general, architecture is one of the things covered best in this book. Chicago is certainly given its due. So it seems strange to set out with the question “What can we say about Americans from the things and images they have made?” and then ignore a building that so perfectly embodies the American civic virtues in their regional form. The Nebraska state capitol does this, without the slightest trace of irony or self-consciousness. But a monument like that is bound to look small to someone peering through the wrong end of a telescope in SoHo–to someone who, whatever his passport may say, has gone so thoroughly native.

American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America by Robert Hughes, Alfred A. Knopf, $65.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration Ken Wilson.