- Anything But “Correct”
The favorite topic of complaint these days of many historians of American art, Hughes’s intriguing accomplishment is hardly “academically correct.” It is personal—the author does not hesitate to use the first person singular and addresses the reader as “you”; it is colorful—Hughes writes in the vernacular, with not a hint of academic abstraction; it has a frankly celebratory point of view—the author even calls it a “love letter”; it incorporates recent findings of scholars without footnotes or bibliography. On the plus side, colleagues agree, it is full of excellent color reproductions (the consequence of which, I hesitate to complain, is that the book is very heavy).
Hughes tells a story of paintings, sculpture, architecture, furniture, and photographs made in America from the first Spanish settlements in the Southwest until now. “What can we say about Americans from the things and images they have made?” (p. vii) he begins, and indeed the book is inspired by “saying” rather than the more nuanced activity of writing. Pronouncing, chatting, rambling, quibbling and fuming, Hughes maintains in print the voluble character of his television serious of the same name which inspired this book. He is fascinated by Americans; he is enchanted by American history; he admires us and he is disappointed in us. If the book is an epic, as the title claims, the epic hero is Hughes. The reader can not forget that he is there.
Hughes begins his journey in the Southwest, with artifacts made by the Indians converted by Spanish priests; then he jumps to British-colonized New England and, with few exceptions stays in the Atlantic coastal area, particularly New York. The “things and images” made by Americans that he chooses to look at are familiar ones, located in major museums and published books and articles. This is reasonable. One undertakes an epic journey to reinterpret with one’s own authority what the potential listener already knows something about. Hughes makes his journey through eight eras. He begins with “O My America: My new Founde Land,” in which he treats Southwest art and Atlantic colonial art; then moves into “The Republic of Virtue,” looking at [End Page 704] history paintings and architecture and portraits inspired by neoclassical ideals; next is “The Wilderness and the West,” a deeply interested talk on American Landscape and the American Indian. He names the late nineteenth century as the “American Renaissance,” and in that domain describes elegant work of artists like John Singer Sargent and architects like Stanford White. Somewhat incongruously in the frame called “The Gritty Cities,” he admires the work of Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer, but then moves the listener into the Ashcan School of the early twentieth century. With “Early Modernism,” he chats about such American modernists as Charles Demuth, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Frank Lloyd Wright; stops somewhat breathlessly in the era of “Streamlines and Breadlines” in the 1930s; and then with the tone of one on familiar territory settles into the last one third of the book with “The Empire of Signs,” the era from 1945 into the 1970s; and finally, “The Age of Anxiety,” in which he completes his journey.
As an epic hero, Hughes is an outsider, viewing America with the lens of a green-card Australian who came to stay in 1970. This is apparent in his very first chapter title (“O My America: My new Founde Land”)and continues to be quite refreshing throughout the journey. Because he is Australian, he uses the term “America” rather than “the United States” (a countryman of his once explained to me that the words “United States” evoked imperialism and colonialism, whereas “America” meant good ole boys). Informed by the current desire in Australia to push Australianness back to 1788, when the first boatload of convicts arrived at Port Jackson, Hughes pushes the starting point for full-blown cultural “Americanness” back to the colonial era. He gives attention to aspects of “America” that still fascinate Australians, although Americans themselves have abandoned these touchstones as...