Monday, March 08, 2004

The Shock of the New

At long last, I'm getting to Sunday's entry even though it's almost Tuesday. Tonight's entry will be brief due to the lateness of the hour, in part, but also because I admit to be making this entry so as to try to maintain the discipline of keeping this thing going. Another matter is that I intend for the book entries to be on literary works, but at this hour, I'm not sure I can summon the energy.
Enough apologies.
I certainly haven't seen all the studies on modern art out there, but it would be difficult to imagine a better introductory study than The Shock of the New, by Robert Hughes. This book is the print companion to the PBS series of the same name he did some years back, and a quick check at seems to indicate that it's even been updated. Not that I'm an expert in art criticism, but it seems to me that the hostility of some of the reviewers toward Hughes' work comes from some weird place outside the text. The reviewers call the text either difficult or lazy; my choice would be "as provocative as the images themselves."
Hughes pursues his subject in roughly chronological but overlapping chapters dealing with themes (samples include "The Mechanical Paradise," "Trouble in Utopia," "Culture as Nature," and "The Future That Was") rather than periods, which seems to me a perfectly sane way to talk about a century that saw a profusion of new modes of expression appear and, at least to my eye, has yet to discard any of them.
Speaking of "my eye," one of the reviewers--the same one who called Hughes "lazy"--takes him to task for his uneducated observations. Maybe my problem is that I freely admit to being hugely ignorant about art generally, but in my mind Hughes writes powerfully and persuasively about the images he's chosen and is, yes, a bit breezy about contextualizing them, but he IS writing for a TV audience, keep in mind. At least he DOES contextualize them--and for my money, his first few pages of the opening chapter, "The Mechanical Paradise," could not be more succinct in developing the idea that, by the end of the 19th century, the Machine had changed forever how the artist sees nature.
In short: I have learned much from this book. Perhaps that makes me a simpleton as well, but I think that, taken as an introduction to its subject (which it is), you will not be disappointed.

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