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Book Review: ‘The Shock of the New’

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Australian art critic Robert HughesModern Art, War & Corporatism

Famous expatriate Australian art critic Robert Hughes died on 6 August 2012, aged 74.  It is appropriate to remember this impressive Australian by re-reviewing his important book “The Shock of the New” (1980) that analyzes the revolutions in Modern Art since the late 19th century. This re-review is also needed because the corporate takeover of Art perceived by Robert Hughes in 1980 has now extended to a pervasive corporatism that has subverted and perverted Western democracies to the point that they can now be seen as Lobbyocracies, Murdochracies (reflecting the global power of the Murdoch media empire), or Corporatocracies in which Big Money buys politicians, parties, public perception of reality, votes and thence political power.

“The Shock of the New” arose out of a TV series that Robert Hughes wrote and narrated for the UK BBC. It is lavishly illustrated with 261 plates, nearly all in color. However in 2012 we have the advantage of Google “Images” as a companion to reading the book. Thus plates 2 and 3 in the book are of 2 paintings by Paul Cézanne entitled “Mont Ste-Victoire” but Googoling “Paul Cézanne” and then clicking “Images” yields about 400 colored images of paintings by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), the post-Impressionist French painter often called the “father of abstract art” as the artist who bridged late-19 th century Impressionism and the Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. This wealth of imagery enables one to make connections between Paul Cézanne and the Cubists, the portraits of Modigliani and the radical use of color (notably red) by later artists (e.g.  Henri Matisse and André Derain).  With the help of Google “Images”, this succinct review of “The Shock of the New” can be seen as a Work of Art itself, providing a wealth of temporally and culturally related images of the works of a large number of modern artists – indeed an infinitely greater informational and perceptional complexity than Andy Warhol’s “200 Campbell’s Soup Cans” (1962).

Before reviewing the book in detail, it is sensible to briefly consider what one means by “Art”. From my perspective as a Humanist scientist and artist, we have an obligation as sentient, social creatures to try to understand ourselves and to approach understanding of others with a hopefully reciprocated empathy. Art is a way of understanding ourselves and our surroundings in a profound way that is otherwise difficult to achieve or to describe. Art can be described as a powerful process of bridging self and non-self and in this sense includes music, literature and poetry that also transcend mere superficial description of reality. “The Shock of the New” reviews successive revolutions in Art - mainly in painting, but also in sculpture and architecture - from the Impressionism that succeeded classical realism in the latter half of the 19th century. In doing so, Robert Hughes provides a wealth of interesting insights.

Chapter 1, “The mechanical paradise” reviews the impact of the Industrial Revolution and the mechanization of life. Hughes observes “Any sight is the sum of different glimpses. And so reality includes the painter’s efforts to perceive it. Both the viewer and the view are part of the same field. Reality, in short, is interaction”. The Art of Classical Realism was dominated by perspective and progressive diminution to a point on the horizon, but the Industrial era view from a Balloon or the Eiffel Tower, and thence from aeroplanes and skyscrapers, is a radically different often rectilinear patchwork. ”The sum of different glimpses” led to the complementary distortions of Cubism. Hughes takes us on a rapid evolution from Paul Cézanne’s patchwork landscapes, to Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), the similar Cubist works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and thence to Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay, the Futurist Umberto Boccioni, Gina Severini, Giacoma Balla, Marino Marini, the sculptor Joseph Epstein, Francis Picabia and then finally for me, Marcel Duchamp’s brilliant “Nude Descending a Staircase 2” (1912). Hughes concludes this Chapter thus: “That splendor of the new age would soon be less evident. After 1914, machinery was turned on its inventors and their children. After 40 years of continuous peace in Europe, the worst war in history cancelled the faith in good technology, the benevolent machine. The myth of the Future went into shock, and European art moved into its years of irony, disgust and protest”.

Chapter 2.   “The faces of power” considers the impact of the First World War on European Art. Hughes writes: ““What would the later history of modern art have been, if the Great War had never been fought? It is impossible to know. The war gutted an entire generation … But one can indicate what war did to culture. The fact that its reality was incommunicable to non-combatants, those home jingoes whom Wilfred Owen dreamed of slaughtering with a tank – “then there’d be no more jokes in music halls/ To mock the shattered bodies round Bapaume” – opened a vast gap of experience between the ones who had fought, mostly young men,, and their civilian elders. Thus the war started the first of the exacerbated conflicts of generation that would mark modern culture right through to the 1960s … After the catastrophes of Verdun and the Somme, this generation – or. at least, those of it who had dome time in the trenches – knew it had been lied to. Its generals, bunglers like Haig and cattle-herders like Joffre, had lied about the nature and length of the war. Its politicians had lied about its causes, and a compliant self-censoring press had seen to it that very little of the realities of war, not even a photo of a corpse, found its ways into any French, German, or British newspaper. Never had there been a wider gap between official language and perceived reality. When the war finally ended, it was necessary for both sides to maintain, indeed to inflate, the myth of sacrifice so that the whole affair would not be seen for what it was: a meaningless waste of millions of lives.  Logically if the flower of youth had been cut down in Flanders, the survivors were not the flower: the dead were superior to the traumatized living. In this way, the virtual destruction of a generation furthering increased the distance between the old and the young, between the official and the unofficial. One result of this was hatred, among certain artists, of all forms of authority, all traditional modes. But the main result was a longing for a clean slate” (pp59-60).

The mainly French and German anti-war Expressionists, Futurists and the Dadaists wanted a radical change in Art, the radical Dadaists in particular believing that Art could transform society and save mankind. Artists considered in this chapter included Jean Arp, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, Franz Marc, Ernst Kirchner, Max Ernst, John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, Otto Dix, Raoul Hausmann, George Grosz, Rudolph Schlichter, and the Russians Natalya Goncharova and Marc Chagall. In post-war, post-revolution Russia the Constructivists saw Art as part of social production i.e. “socialist art”, Russian exponents including Kazimir Malevich, Nathan Altman Vladimir Kozlinksy, Vladimir Tatlin, El Lissitsky, Nikolai Kolli, and Aleksandr Rodchenko, Fascism in Italy and Germany similarly demanded a Modernist change of style reflecting the new power ideology, exponents being R.A, Bertelli, Enrico Pampolini, and architect Albert Speer. Similar power architecture spread to the US. Hughes concludes “The one thing our century has not given us, in the arena of State architecture, is the image of free will”. On the other hand, what is left of the art of dissent? Very little”. Hughes considers the work of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) as a special case of “an art of complete social eloquence” in Mexico (like revolutionary Russia, a poor, largely illiterate country with a culture of devotional art). Hughes considers Pablo Picasso’s huge “Guernica” (1937) (concerned with the Fascist destruction of the Basque town of the same name) as “the only one humane, political work of art in the last fifty years [that] has achieved real fame” (p108).  

Hughes concludes that “the artists of the Weimar Republic or Leninist Russia… could still believe, in good faith and without bombast, that art could morally influence the world. Today, the idea has been 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” (p111). However if we regard photography and video as  “Art” one notes the image of the Vietnamese girl running from the napalmed village that helped stop a war that took 15 million lives through violence or war-imposed deprivation (see Gideon Polya,  “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950”, now available for free perusal on the Web). Indeed for a collection of such politics-changing photographs see “My Brother’s Keeper”. As a humanitarian  artist I still hope that Art can help stop war, genocide, ecocide and terracide (Google  “Art for Peace, Planet, Mother & Child” and in particular see on Flickr my huge anti-war  painting “Qana” based on “Guernica”– but such Art is drowned in the flood of image overload from the corporate Mainstream media.

Chapter 3, “The landscape of pleasure” describes how “the nineteenth century did not invent the art of pleasure, it broadened it”. Hughes describes stylistic changes from the pointillism (dot-based paintings) of George Surat to the variously inhabited landscapes and scenes of Puvis de Chavannes, Claude Monet,   Paul Cézanne, Paul Gaugin, André Derain, Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, and Georges Braque, the sexual pleasures painted by Pablo Picasso and the brilliantly-colored designs of Henri Matisse. Hughes considers “Landscape, imagined as Arcadia” in the Abstract Expressionism of American Helen Frankenthaler. Hughes: “”After 1950, there is no doubt that America was getting ready for an art of unalloyed pleasure … The paintings [Helen] Frankenthaler, [Kenneth] Noland, [Morris] Louis, and Jules Olitski did in the 1960s were, as a whole, the most openly decorative, anxiety–free , socially indifferent canvasses in the history of American art” (pp154-156).  Hughes finally discusses in this connection the landscape-informed Abstract Expressionism of Richard Diebenkorn and Robert Motherwell.

Chapter 4, “Trouble in Utopia” deals largely with architecture and the domination of aesthetic ideals (e.g. simplicity and linearity) over the human needs and realities of people actually living and working in such creations. Hughes discusses the work of architect Adolf Loos: “like [Gustav] Klimt, or Kokoshka, or Egon Schiele, or for that matter the Viennese doctor Sigmund Freud, Loos believed that art was libidinous before it was anything else. “All art is erotic”, he roundly declared”. Hughes then considers architects  Antonio Sant’ Elia, Burnham and Root (Chicago), Louis Sulllivan, Max Berg, Wassily Luckhardt, Bruno Taut, Ludwig Mies van der Robe, Auguste and Gustave Perret, Ludwig Hilbersheimer, Charles Ếdouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier),  Buckminster Fuller, Frank Wright, Richard Meier, Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa (Brasilia) and Walter Gropius, Lyonel Feiniger, and Adolf Meyer of the Bauhaus school. Hughes deals with the Dutch idealist group named “de Stijl” (“the Style”) that included designer Gerrit Rietveld, sculptor George Vantongerloo, the architect J. P. Oud, and the painters Theo van Doesberg and Piet Mondrian. Hughes asks “And why should Mondrian’s last [New York] paintings still move us, whereas the Utopian city plans of architects do not? Partly, no doubt because the space of art is the ideal one of fiction. In it, things are not used and they never decay; one cannot walk in a painting, as one walks along a street or through a building” (p207). Hughes asserts (1980): “The last half century, in architecture, has witnessed the death of the Future. Like the Baroque, or the High Renaissance, the modern movement lived and died. It produced its masterpieces , some of which survive, but its doctrines no longer have the power to inspire visions of a new world; and the Expressionist idea of the architect as “Lord of Art” , which gave the modern movement its evangelical drive, is dead beyond resuscitation” (p211).

Chapter 5, “The threshold of liberty” deals with Surrealism and commences “The wish for absolute freedom is one of the constants of intellectual life, and of all the art movements of our century, the one most concerned with this essential quest was Surrealism. Surrealism wanted to set people free (p212)… Surrealism’s favorite way of evoking what is called “the marvelous, that most prized quality of all experience, was by chance association” (p225). Hughes successively considers André Breton, the  French writer,  poet,  founder of Surrealism and author of  first Surrealist Manifesto (Manifeste du surréalisme) (1924), and the Surrealist artists Max Ernst, Arnold Böcklin, Giorgio de Chirica, Henri Rousseau, the builder Ferdinand Cheval (The Facteur Cheval), Juan Miró, architect Antonio Gaudi (designer of the mighty and marvelous “La Sagrada Familia” cathedral  of Barcelona), Salvador Dali, Meret Oppenheim, René Magritte, Kurt Seligmann, Hans Bellmer, Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, and Alberto Giacometti. Hughes thence considers Surrealism in the US with  Joseph Cornell, Ashile Gorky , Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock. Hughes concludes “What remains of Surrealism?  Certainly, less than artists once hoped. Surrealism never realized its declared intentions; the kingdom of the imagination is no nearer than the kingdom of the saints… The World they opposed is still there: a painting by [Dada, Surrealist, modernist, American] Man Ray recently sold for three-quarters of a million dollars. Nothing remains unacceptable, and thus Surrealism remains, in theory, a shining example of liberty on which, in principle, nobody acts”(p268).

Chapter 6, “The view from the edge” deals with “the search for images of those states of mind, embodied in nature, that exist beyond or below our conscious control” and commences with the brilliantly mobile, impassioned  and colorful work of Vincent van Gogh.  Hughes comments that “In van Gogh’s work , the self is scratching to be let out. But in Edvard Munch’s, the self is out; and it fills the void in Romantic nature left by the withdrawal of God”. Hughes provides a misogynist interpretation of a Symbolist and neurotic Munch: “But if one  was not rejected by a timid virgin, one was bound to be castrated by a femme fatale” (p277).  Hughes analyzes Henri de Toulouse–Lautrec’s paintings of society involving an  “art of watchers watching” and thence the “psychological” portraits and other paintings of Ernst Kirchner, Oskar Kokoshka (who painted some of my Vienna Hirsch relatives), Max Beckmann,  Chaim Soutine (but no mention of the exquisite Expressionist portraitist Amedeo Modigliani!), and thence the more abstract William de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee. The Rumanian sculptor Constanin Brancusi achieved an immutable idealization of form that Hughes compares to the Christian notion of the immortality of the soul. Hughes considers the American realist tradition of dominant landscape that translated to the Modernist  transcendentalist approach of American painters  such as Georgia O’Keefe, and Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Clifford Still, the minimalist Barnett Newman, and  finally Mark Rothko, of whose work Hughes writes: “The viewer is meant to confront the paintings in much the same way as the fictional viewers, gazing on the sea in a Caspar David Friedrich, were seen confronting nature: art, in a convulsion of pessimistic inwardness, is meant to replace the world” (p323).

Chapter 7, “Culture as nature”, involves Hughes addressing the impact of mass media on art: “The sense of natural order, always in some ways correcting the pretensions of Self , gave mode and measure to pre-modern art. If this sense has now become dimmed, it is partly because for most people Nature has been replaced by the culture of congestion… Overload has changed our art. Especially in the last thirty years, capitalism plus electronics have given us a new habitat, our forest of media. The problem for art, then, was how to survive here, how to adapt to this habitat – for otherwise, it was feared, art would go under” (p324). Pre-war American artists coming to grips with American urban reality included Joseph Stella, Charles Demuth  and Stuart Davis. Hughes describes how  radical post-war American artists addressed the capitalist consumer and media saturation culture, his examples including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Richard Hamilton,  Andy Warhol (of Campbell’s Soup and Marilyn Monroe Pop image repetition notoriety), Roy Lichtenstein (of Pop art comic books transmogrified notoriety), James Rosenquist  (“The F-111”),  Claes Oldenburg (“Two Cheeseburgers with Everything”) and culminating with photo-realism as with Robert Cottingham (“Roxy”, 1972) . Hughes concludes testily: “Art is a small thing, though an expensive one, compared to the media. It is a vibration in a museum; it deals with nuances that have no “objective” importance. It is not even a very good religion... But once it gives up its claims to seriousness, it is shot, and its essential role as an arena for free thought and unregimented feeling is lost. The pop sensibility did much to take those claims away, dissolving them in the doctrine that the medium was the message” (p364).

Chapter 8, “The future that was” continues in much the same vein as the conclusion to the previous chapter. Hughes comments “Movements belonged to the sixties – Op, Pop, Colour-Field, Minimalism, and so on. By 1975, all the isms were wasms, while the only people heard talking about “movements” were art dealers, who missed a regular supply to punch the market along” (p365). Hughes reviews notions of the avant-garde and discusses the Marxist critique that abstract art had retreated from the real world, citing the ferocious work of Edward Kienholz as a counter. For Hughes: “the avant-garde’s claim to transform the objective conditions of life through art has collapsed” (p377).  Hughes cites works of R.B. Kitaj and George Segal that are disconnected with any such transformation. However Hughes cites sculptor and “maker of happenings” Joseph Beuys as “the most influential figure in the post-modernist European art world” (p379). Hughes makes a damning assertion: “Given the pressure of the market, and the dissolution of the old sense of community whose expression was the art movement, what could a vanguard artist in the seventies do about it? In practice, not much. Since works of art were being consumed as much for their radical credentials as for their historical stature, the only object that could declare itself wholly free of the taint was a failed work of art. Thus the problem gave birth to a question: How do I become an inconsumable artist?” (pp385-387).  By way of answering this question, Hughes gives examples of large kinetic sculpture (Nicolas Schöffer), panels of pages from Homer’s Odyssey (Hanne Darboven), 120 bricks in a rectangle (Carl André, Tate Gallery London), large-scale desert creations by Robert Smithson (“Spiral Jetty’), Michel Heizer (“Complex One”), and Walter De Maria (“Lightning Field”), Lucas Samaras’ “Mirrored Room”, Hermann Nitsch’s “Orgies & Mysteries Theatre”, and Arnulf Rainer’s self-decorating “Body-Language” (the landscape-clothing works of Christo also rate a mention by Hughes). David Hockney’s real estate paintings are gently deprecated but 1970s figurative paintings by Philip Pearlstein and Avigdor Arikha receive praise from Hughes as do 1978 works by Frank Stella and Bridget Riley. Hughes concludes “Art discovers its true social use, not on the ideological plane, but by opening the passage from feeling to meaning”.

In summary, Robert Hughes’ “The Shock of the New” has taken us on a 100 year guided tour through Modern Art. Robert Hughes’ 1980 observations about the corporate and government capture and distortion of the art industry,  the absence (photography and video aside) of politically effective art, and the emptiness of Pop and Minimalism are sad commentaries on the continuing growth of unconstrained corporatism in the West. Indeed the first decade of the 21st century has seen the consolidation of corporate power, the transformation of Western democracies into Murdochracies, Lobbyocracies, Corporatocracies, and the continued silence of both Mainstream Art and Mainstream Media about the horrendous human cost of the Zionist-backed, US-led Western War on Muslims (12 million dead from violence or war-imposed deprivation since 1990; Google “Muslim Holocaust, Muslim Genocide” ). Indeed Art now needs to be edited to reflect man-made global warming realities: the Arctic summer sea ice that presently requires  a white top to my huge painting “Terra”  will be all gone by 2015 according to Professor Peter Wadhams, Professor of Ocean Physics at Cambridge University (see “Terra” by Gideon Polya on Flickr).

Serious art is swamped by image overload from corporate-sponsored Philistine mass culture and  advertising  agencies acting for the corporate and political Establishment one percenters.  However civilization endures:  use this review to cut and paste the names of quoted artists - and indeed of artists not quoted in “The Shock of the New” (e.g. “Amedeo Modigliani”) – to do a Google Search and click on “Images” and thereby rapidly access a huge library of images of serious Art that bridges self and non-self and  seriously explores the human condition.  Vale Robert Hughes, a great civilizer and a cultural icon.


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