The Shock of the New

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Robert Studley Forrest Hughes, AO was an Australian art critic, writer and television documentary maker who has resided in New York since 1970. He was educated at St Ignatius' College, Riverview before going on to study arts and then architecture at the University of Sydney. At university, Hughes associated with the Sydney "Push" – a group of artists, writers, intellectuals and drinkers. Among the

❮Epub❯ ➥ The Shock of the New ➤ Author Robert Hughes –
  • Paperback
  • 444 pages
  • The Shock of the New
  • Robert Hughes
  • English
  • 14 August 2019
  • 9780500275825

10 thoughts on “The Shock of the New

  1. says:

    Again today I was lost in admiration of this history-with-attitude of 20th century art. I think it’s the best single art book I’ve read. It’s stuffed full of ideas and sentences that refresh like a splash of seaspray. Viewing Paris from the Eiffel Tower in 1889 was “one of the pivots in human consciousness”. The phonograph was “the most radical extension of cultural memory since the photograph”. Cezanne “takes you backstage”. In cubist paintings the world was “a twitching skin of nuances”. “Machines were the ideal metaphor for that central pornographic fantasy of the 19th century, rape followed by gratitude.” “To make ‘socialist’ art, one must stop depicting ownable things: in short, go abstract.” “The idea that fascism always preferred retrograde to advanced art is simply a myth.” “Mass media took away the political speech of art.”

    This book is the 1991 expanded version of the 1980 book-of-the-TV-series. He moves the story forward in several broad themes – how art confronts or is absorbed by power; what architecture thinks it’s doing to us; the interior landscapes of art like surrealism and abstraction; and how art has lost any kind of plot it thought it might have had, and if that might be a good thing.

    I opened at random and my eye fell on p 382:

    Duchamp invented a category he called “infra-mince”, “sub-tiny”; it was occupied, for instance, by the difference in weight between a clean shirt and the same shirt worn once.

    The only thing wrong with this book is that Mr Hughes didn’t do an even more expanded and updated version before he died in 2012. But you can’t have everything.

  2. says:

    My favorite story about modern art comes from my friend. I’ll let her tell it:

    So I was in the Museum of Modern Art one day, you know, walking around and stuff. I walked in one room and I saw this thing on the wall, and it looked really weird. So I bent down and started to look at it. There was this other visitor, who started looking at it too. Then all of the sudden the wall opened and a man walked out. Me and the other visitor looked at each other and laughed. It was a doorknob.

    I love this story because it neatly encapsulates how so many of us feel in museums dedicated to modern art. There we are, surrounded by objects and images that are alternately baffling, confusing, random, bizarre, boring, interesting, ugly, beautiful, or any combination of the above. We don’t know what we’re looking at or how to look at it; and yet we are asked to treat it with a great deal of seriousness and respect. Some people get angry and mourn the death of art; some write art criticism, much of it equally incomprehensible; some people genuinely love it; the rich pull out their pocketbooks and make tax deductible investments; and many of us just shrug our shoulders.

    For my whole life I was decidedly in the latter camp. But because I wanted to better appreciate the Reina Sofia here in Madrid, I decided that I needed to learn more about visual art in the twentieth century. This documentary—and I only watched the documentary, though I plan to buy the book—proved to be the solution to my ignorance.

    The Shock of the New is an eight-part documentary series written and presented by Robert Hughes. Although considerably shorter than Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation, an astounding amount of information is packed into this program. Hughes takes us through art nouveau, art deco, cubism, primitivism, futurism, Dadaism, constructivism, fauvism, utopianism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, pop art, op art, and much more. Permeating this rapid tour is a mixture of Hughes’s acerbic criticism and a sense of 80s gloom. Hughes emphasizes over and over again how the hopes of modern artists to change the world have proven empty, and ends the program by proclaiming the death of the avant-garde.

    For Hughes, art (and he means highbrow visual art) has completely failed in its attempt to become socially significant in the modern age. This point is most poignantly made in his episode on modern architecture. An entire school of architectures arose in the twentieth century with dreams of becoming social engineers. They didn’t design buildings for individuals, but planned utopias. They designed housing complexes that were meant to change the way people live their lives; the inhabitants were no more than small, interchangeable pieces of the architect's grand vision.

    Many governments put these ideas into practice in the hopes of curing poverty. The result was places like Pruitt-Igoe, the famous housing project of St. Louis. The project won awards when it was first contructed; but in a short time the place was famous for the high levels of poverty and crime (not to mention the racial segregation) suffered by their inhabitants. Finally, it got so bad that the buildings were destroyed. In Hugh's words:
    Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future. This is what you get when perfectly decent, intelligent, and talented men start thinking in terms of space rather than place, and about single rather than multiple meanings. It’s what you get when you design for political aspirations and not real human needs. You get miles of jerrybuilt Platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens.

    Hughes makes a similar point about government architecture. State building design has taken on similar forms in fascist, communist, and capitalist countries. Indeed, when you see the actual buildings side by side, there is no denying this. It is the architecture of power, pure and simple. I’ve been to Albany, and I can attest to Hughes’s point that it is the ultimate expression of the centralization of power. Walking through the city center, you feel crushed by the square forms and the monumental concrete spaces. It all seems like it was designed for a creature bigger and tougher than a human. At any rate, it is certainly not the architecture of democracy; it is the architecture of bureaucracy:
    As far as today's politics is concerned, most art aspires to the condition of Muzak. It provides the background hum for power.

    Thus we see the utopian dreams of elite architects create misery in the lives of the poor; and all state ideologies are reduced to expressions of brute power. Meanwhile, we see the progress of visual art, from a religion of the future, to an act of protest, to a commodity to be bought and sold by rich investors and institutions.

    With the decline of traditional religion, many artists thought that they could fill the gap left in society. They would create the values and the society of the future. The group that most perfectly embodies this hope were the futurists, who thought that machines would transform society for the better. But looking back now, having seen what modern warfare can do, the futurists’ worship of the machine seems strange and even perverse.

    After that, artists were not as optimistic, but there still existed the idea of an avant-garde who could see more clearly, feel more keenly, think more honestly, who could act as the conscience of society. But even that idea fizzled, and it died when art became a commodity. How can art make a countercultural statement when any image can be turned into an advertisement? How can you pretend that you’re challenging the status quo when your works are being bought and sold by the opulent rich?

    Finally, art degenerated into gestures about art. Hang a cardboard box on a wall in a museum. The art is not the box itself but the gesture of the box, and the gesture asks questions about the limits and the nature of art. But this gesture is the final act of art’s attempt to be a source of social values. After attempting to supply values, then to ask fundamental questions about values, the avant-garde ends by asking questions about its own value. Well the art does have a value, and it’s how much someone will pay for it at auction.

    But Hughes ends on a positive note, and I think this is entirely justified. First, blanket condemnations of so-called “modern art” are more intellectually dishonest than the worst of modern art’s excesses. By any standard, there have been a huge number of brilliant artists in the last century. Besides, there is always a kind of historical myopia that goes on when you try to judge recent history. There has been a lot of bad art created in every century, and the twentieth was no exception; we just see it more clearly.

  3. says:

    The first few episodes of this – I watched this, by the way, but will need to get hold of the book now – are nearly entirely a rip off of Walter Benjamin’s work, particularly his Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The modern has been so dominated by machines and the question of how machines relate to humans is an open question that continues to haunt our nightmares. The Matrix movies are a particularly interesting example of this. But the history of this nightmare is much older than that and is not restricted to drama or even artistic representation. That I can respond to images I have witnessed over a couple of weeks, intermittently watched from YouTube, and then to type this on a screen on my laptop projected onto a larger screen I decided recently I needed to work from and to do this all while listening to Mozart’s Requiem is almost too bizarre for words. Our relationships with machines today is perhaps too difficult for us too fully understand. And machines are no longer the lumbering and crashing things that gave strict pulse rhythmic or metronomic structure to our working lives in factories. No, today the difference between human and machine is becoming harder to recognise, harder to understand, harder to remove ourselves from.

    In this work, as in Ways of Seeing, we are told that cheap mechanical reproduction of works of art – such as that which is made available by the camera, the printing press, the television image, the computer screen – all devalue art, all are like zombies on the true work of art. They devalue art not merely for the obvious reason that art today comes to us, rather than requiring us to go on pilgrimages to co-locate our bodies with the very corporality of the artwork, but rather that the sheer abundance of the images available to us, the multiplicity of the reproductions everywhere around us, turns these images into virtual viruses. Is it possible to imagine a single person today in the developed world who has never seen the Mona Lisa? But a mere 250 years ago even a pilgrimage would not have been enough to guarantee getting to see most of the works of art we today ‘know to look at’, even if we know almost nothing else about them. Art has lost its connection with space –and it has always had a problematic relationship with time.

    Some of the most interesting parts of this work are where Hughes discusses issues associated with advertising and how art has found ways to relate to it (think Andy Warhol here for starters) or how space and the construction of ‘human’ spaces in architecture, for example, has been achieved and expressed under modernism. There is little that is comforting in this history. Much of the architecture really isn’t human at all, but rather a song of praise to humanity as worker ants. There is a lovely part of this where we are shown some chairs that no human bum was ever supposed to sit in. Sharp and impractical, the chair stands as a Platonic form, as a monument to clean lines, if also sore backs.

    But where this series is at its best is in the very last episode. Many of the others are more or less quick introductions to the works and thoughts of various artists and schools of art. But in the last episode Hughes makes much the observation that art today is fully embedded in capitalism. Embedded in the sense that art is the ultimate investment strategy. And if we know anything it is that everything has its price, including the aesthetic experience.

    (I’m up to the Lacrimosa in the Requiem by the way)

    To what expect can a work of art have a price, though? Sure, it has rarity and it has desire (the two qualities that Hughes says capitalism manipulates to make art appropriately valuable as an object for investment and accumulation), but what is the relationship between art and money and value? Hughes makes the troubling observation that it is almost impossible to look at a work of art today without wondering what someone like Gina Rinehart might be able to pay for it. Of course, the idea of Gina Rinehart buying any sort of art is troubling, but it is also that such people are buying art, not for its own sake, but rather because it makes good financial sense, that shifts too how we view art.

    But isn’t this a contradiction in terms? Didn’t we start off by saying that the thing that is most obvious about the world now we have mechanical reproduction is the devaluing of art works? Didn’t we say that we now have an almost communism of images – virtually freely available and overly-abundant? How can images be both valueless and objects of near infinite value?

    There is no contradiction, though. The problems is the one that I experienced when I went to hear Mozart’s Requiem, a month or so ago, live for the first time. Look, the sound that is coming out of my speakers at the moment is lovely, it is also quite moving in parts – for God’s sake, this is Mozart’s Requiem, after all. But in another sense it just isn’t his Requiem. Instead, it is a surface level expression of something that, when experienced in a concert hall, suddenly becomes three dimensional and loud in ways that I’m not even sure is possible from speakers. This isn’t a matter of volume, per se, but a richness of sound in a large volume of air that simply isn’t possible in a room in a suburban house.

    And the same is true of paintings. Last year I went to see Infinite Horizons – an exhibition of the landscapes and other paintings of Fred Williams. Some of his paintings suck the air out of the room. They simply aren’t the same as the photographs of them in art books. And not just because of the materials used and only really visible when you are beside them, or of the scale of some of the paintings. It is also, and equally importantly, how we approach a work of art in an art gallery which is quite different to how we approach one in a book of photographs. It is exactly like the difference between going to church, and watching Songs of Praise on television.

    Artists have tried to fight back. Rather than create artworks on canvases – convenient for buying and selling and transporting, for example – they have (at least at the time of the recording of this documentary) focused on art events and performance art. But this too often resulted in narcissism. The twin poses of art, likewise all too often, are either that of Narcissus or Medusa – the artist on self-display or the artwork that is supposed to turn us to stone, turn us into a gapping statue. It seems to me that the attitude of high art in all its attempts to shock, is meant as the selling point for the kinds of people who wish to turn art into an object of capital accumulation. The elite in the sense of bankers or CEOs.

    Is it possible that the only kinds of art available to us are either high art that makes a mockery of itself by constantly seeking new ways to shock, or the crass ‘popular’ art of television that is so mind-numbingly repetitious that to spend five minutes watching it is to feel like you have awoken in a hall of mirrors? Is there nothing else available to us but this?

    I think there is. I think that how this series ends is our true hope. We need art as a way to understand the world we live in, as a way to come to terms with the human condition – and this, the real feeling that comes from trying to honestly engage with the real questions that confront us as humans is what makes it inevitable that art will go on. Art helps us understand our world and our place in the world. It presents us with images of that world meant to confront and disturb and reassure and frighten and comfort us. Only a fool would think that art could somehow stop because bankers want to express its value as a price sticker.

    You know, the real shock of the new has less to do with how artists respond to advertising, or to corporate bureaucracy, but rather how too often art today is recruited to justify the unjustifiable. There was a time when we were horrified by genocide. But look at the cover of Mitchell’s Seeing Through Race and tell me that is not a artist’s vision of a Palestinian town without Palestinians – tell me that is not art in praise of a certain kind of genocide. When our images make such claims, soon our hearts follow down the same path.

    Hughes doesn’t believe that art is capable of changing the world – he is certainly right about it not being able to make us more moral – but while it can be the greatest expression of our individuality, it can also be a call of the herd, a call of the mob, it can become our best means of dehumanising The Other.

    Mozart has started his Requiem again. I should stop writing this. But even if Hughes’s clothes and hairstyles have dated enough for even me to notice – this is still a series well worth watching.

  4. says:

    I bought this book after a trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I left the museum confused and annoyed by Modern art. I could not find anything to explain Modern art. Nothing that wasn't complete unreadable, unwatchable or incomprehensible. Then I picked up this book. I read about 30 pages in the book store and couldn't put it down. Robert Hughes' prose flows, clear and crisp. I like that he could explain an artist's work in a way that lets you know he doesn't like it, but is open to your liking it. I think watching or reading any of Hughes' work, is like a conversation with a your really smart and excentric uncle. After reading this book and watching the series, I now understand Modern art and feel justified by being annoyed by it.

  5. says:

    Most of the other reviews say it all - this weighty and expensive book was the main text of my college class on Modern Art but but boy was it worth it. Hughes is such a succinct, perceptive historian and critic - he takes complicated topics and doesn't simply examine then, but unpacks and illuminates. Probably best seen in conjunction with the original BBC series, you will almost certainly learn something you didn't know, find something you weren't aware you loved, finally be able to put your finger on why you hated something else, and be dazzled and somewhat saddened by how important art used to be in the lives of people. An amazing book - they should make every high school student read it!

  6. says:

    A brilliant book to finish off my challenge for this year, Hughes has a way of explaining complex cultural issues that just sticks with me and makes so much sense. He does though have a tendency to use phrases and turns of phrase in French or Italian or Latin and just expect readers to know them, I had to use Google Translate, and they still often made absolutely no sense at all. Oh, and it's quite obvious when he doesn't personally like an artist, as his analysis tends towards the "I suppose this artist has some merit, if you're mad" end of the spectrum. But those are the only criticisms I can make of a wonderful wonderful book. I'm going to quote a long section from the end of Chapter Two now because it's so beautiful:

    "It seems obvious, looking back, that the artists of Weimar Germany and Leninist Russia lived in a much more attenuated landscape of media than ours, and their reward was they could still believe, in good faith and without bombast, that art could morally influence the world. Today, the idea has largely been dismissed, as it must be in a mass media society where art's principal social role is to be investment capital, or, in the simplest way, bullion. We still have political art, but we have no effective political art. An artist must be famous to be heard, but as he acquires fame, so his work accumulates "value" and becomes, ipso facto, harmless. As far as today's politics is concerned, most art aspires to the condition of Muzak. It provides the background hum for power. If the Third Reich had lasted until now [ the late eighties as Hughes writes ], the young bloods of the Inner Party would not be interested in old fogeys like Albert Speer or Arno Breker, Hitler's monumental sculptor; they would be queuing up to have their portraits silkscreened by Andy Warhol. It is hard to think of any work of art of which one can say, This saved the life of one Jew, one Vietnamese, one Cambodian. Specific books perhaps; but as far as one can tell, no paintings or sculptures. The difference between us and the artists of the 1920s is that they thought such a work of art could be made. Perhaps it was a certain naivete that made them think so. But it is certainly our loss that we cannot."

  7. says:

    Hughes' opinionated and politically charged biography of modern art and its dialogue with a culture in turmoil is always on the side of the radical against the status quo. He is harshly critical of the academy and establishment, and of regressive regimes, movements and critiques. He hates oppression, elitism, and frivolous self-indulgence, which is his general opinion of postmodernism.

    The Shock of the New was a hugely important part of my education, helping me to become conversant in the movements of modernism and the work and perspectives of many of its protagonists. It gave me the confidence to look at a Rothko without fear and to talk about the experience passionately. The pleasure I have subsequently experienced in seeing, sharing and discussing art is in large part owed to Hughes.

  8. says:

    Hughes possesses all the essential traits of a brilliant art critic: he's not a snob, he's perceptive about the difference between shyte and wank, he's enthusiastic about playfulness and populism, and he's willing to admit he's wrong (in this book, it's Philip Guston). The fact that his career was centered upon TIME Magazine is a testament to his sense of populist principle, and evidence that there really are no other brilliant art critics out there. (I had my hopes for Dave Hickey way back when, but...) Most normal people -- especially those of the "you call that art?!?" school of thought -- should give this book a go. You'll be smarter and happier strolling the museums, and you'll also be more cynical.

  9. says:

    Great text about the history of modern art, from the influence of the impressionists forward. It is fun to read, and does a good job of correlating the history of a given time to the ideology of a movement in art. If you think you don't like modern art, read this book!

  10. says:

    A hyper-competent but slogging look at the last century or so of modern and postmodern art. Similar in complexity and scope to a 300 level undergrad Art History course.

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