THE NEW SHOCK OF THE NEW
Robert Hughes, eminent Sydney-born art critic, published his highly acclaimed book The Shock of the New in 1980. His longstanding position as art critic with TIME magazine gave him unprecedented access to artists around the world. His criticism was often contentious and he was viewed as a “conservative”, although he had no particular philosophical axes to grind. In this DVD, he offers a revaluation of what has happened to both “shock” and “newness” since that time. You can view the video at:
Hughes died at age 74 in New York in 2012 after a series of tragic events including a terrible car accident in Western Australia, which resulted in serious injury to Hughes and the three young men in the other car, and a court case. It seemed Hughes’ position as an expatriate Australian and a high profile intellectual were enough to make the Australian press furious and accusatory. Details about the accident and the case are contained in the interview with Jana Wendt here:
No doubt this terrible experience sharpened his perceptions and focussed his mind on issues of Being, life and death, and the moral obligations of the artist.
It is clear from the way this video is constructed, and from many of his interview questions, that he regarded much of the work of the contemporary art world darlings as a degradation of art, aimed at making the artist into a marketable commercial celebrity. The kind of “shock” the art world produces today is mostly absurd, ugly and pointless, from his point of view. He gives fascinating examples through interviews with stellar figures in today’s art world – Jeff Koons for one – and then offers examples of contemporary artists who in his view carry on the essential virtues of art.
His interview with Jeff Koons is really brilliant. What comes through so strongly is that Hughes is teasing or sending up Koons, who, in his well-tailored suit, is so sure of his own significance that he doesn’t realise it. Hughes draws attention to the fact that Koons regards himself as a direct descendant, or perhaps even reincarnation, of Michelangelo, and looks at his Pieta-like sculpture of Michael Jackson with a very jaundiced eye. I found this sculpture actually quite fascinating, and not horrible at all, although a lot of Koons’ work does seem to me trite, overblown and ridiculously overvalued.
Some of the other artists he considered included the little-known Paula Rego, b. 1935 in Portugal, whose brilliant disturbing images seem rich with narrative and engagement in a scarily familiar universe. The idea of a “discreet undermining” and the confessional/psychiatric tone of her work opens a different kind of viewing. The violence of folk tales and the terrors of childhood, the truth of families and the fear of never knowing what is under the bed (a pig, in one case!) envelop her works. Her work is political, traversing the line between private conscience and public responsibility. Her paintings especially of the 80s and 90s seem to some degree close to Lucien Freud’s, but I see her real affinities to be with the German figurative post-socialist Neo Rauch. She is a very fine painter technically, her figure work and composition is outstanding. It is clear why Hughes would want to contrast her with the vapid posturing of the Britpack artists; on any measure she is so much the better artist, yet she has been almost entirely “off the radar”. Her images are too deep, her vision too disturbing, and she is a figurative painter and a woman. At least three strikes against her.
Below: Celestina’s House. 2000-2001. Pastel on Paper: 200 x 240 cms. Look closely at the details of this amazing work, go to: http://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/artpages/rego_paula_celestina_house.htm
Other painters discussed by Hughes included Anselm Kiefer. Another political artist, it is much clearer to see his politics than in the case of Paula Rego. One work discussed, Den Goldenen Haar Margarethe, is based on the poem by Paul Celan, Death Fugue, which includes reflection on the phrase in the poem “Death is a master from Germany”. The inmates of the death camps will rise as smoke and their graves will be in the clouds. The lines are:
He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined.
For the full poem, see:
Kiefer’s painted images are dense and complex. In many of his paintings he seems determined to pull the viewer into the recognition of perspective, even if it is only of railway tracks heading for the death camp, or some empty barracks stretching to the horizon. Kiefer and Rego represent the need for an art which refutes the sterile irony of contemporary representation and asserts the primacy of a moral imagination.
Other better known artists discussed include Lucien Freud and David Hockney. I enjoyed these discussions less than the earlier ones, and felt Hughes himself had been drawn into a kind of hero worship. It was particularly odd to me that he went on to include such a long discussion of Sean Scully. Scully is an Irish-born New York based printmaker and artist working from a downtown studio. He has been nominated for the Turner Prize, and has had exhibitions all over the world, including in Australia. Best known for his huge abstract colour field images he seems to me a kind of overblown Mondrian. For his exhibition Colour of Light at the National Gallery in Canberra in 2004, he was quoted as saying of his paintings:
There’s a lot of physical force to them, a lot of tactile sexual energy, a lot of sensuality. But there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the relationship between the parts actually means and I think that that’s a very important aspect of my work. I mean if I have to choose a course between Puritanism and extreme romanticism, I think it’s clear than I’m going to choose extreme romanticism. But I think what I can contribute is something that has both in it, something that has the possibility of both in it, and it’s that extreme stretch that I want to try to achieve in my work. That’s my ambition.
Scully seems to be well-regarded by fellow Irish expatriates and admirers, but the case for his art seems much less strong than that of others in this discussion. What Hughes liked about it was the sense that it was meditative and contemplative, with its opaque and stone-like surfaces, density and lack of space. His art looks like architecture, Hughes asserts. Without standing in the same space with these gigantic works, it is almost impossible to grasp them. Yet, with a Rothko, you can look at almost any reproduction of one of his colour field paintings and feel immediately what it is doing, how it is drawing you in, what it means to think about meditation and contemplation. To some degree this is true even of the great “black” paintings in the Rothko Chapel, Houston, although to see any image of them is nothing like standing or better still sitting in that mystical space and watching the apparently black surfaces begin to breathe, move and emanate the life force.
Hughes closes his revaluation with some very strange remarks, as if someone scripting his show has insisted that he make some comments on very banal and boring issues. Can Art create Revolution? Or just social change? Is it enough to be “beautiful”? Do people need beauty? Are Museums (Art Galleries) the new Cathedrals? Closing with images of the Weather Project in the Tate Modern, the suggestion that this represents a new Sun God worshipped by art lovers below seemed tacky and almost stupid.
I felt deeply sorry for Robert Hughes by the end of this show. One of the greatest art critics of his era, a highly individualistic and sensitive man, Hughes seemed to be struggling against the very forces which he was condemning at the beginning of the film. It would be so interesting to have a documentary showing the “behind the scenes” of the making of the New Shock of the New. It might even be very shocking.