Art Critic Robert Hughes Demystifies Modern Art in The Shock of the New

With the aid of YouTube, you can watch an episode of Robert Hugh­es’ doc­u­men­tary series The Shock of the New each week, just as it first aired on the BBC and PBS in 1980. But I defy you to watch “The Mechan­i­cal Par­adise,” the first of its eight install­ments, and not plow through the rest in a day. Hugh­es, a pro­lif­ic art crit­ic who has writ­ten books on every­thing from Fran­cis­co Goya to America’s cul­ture of com­plaint to the city of Barcelona to the his­to­ry of his native Aus­tralia, has also host­ed tele­vi­sion pro­grams about every­thing from Car­avag­gio to Utopi­an archi­tec­ture to the Mona Lisa. The Shock of the New, a project which found expres­sion as a book as well as these broad­casts, takes on the ambi­tious task of trac­ing the progress of mod­ernism through visu­al art. But the roots of the move­ment run deep­er into his­to­ry, and so this first episode begins at the base of the Eif­fel Tow­er, a mon­u­ment to the accel­er­at­ing sci­en­tif­ic and tech­no­log­i­cal progress of the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry that would so dis­rupt the aes­thet­ics of the twen­ti­eth.

As a read­er of art crit­i­cism, I’ve long trust­ed Hugh­es’ writ­ing on these sub­jects more than I do any­one else’s. Clear, bold, con­crete, and always, in a blunt­ly stealthy way, more nuanced than it seems, Hugh­es’ tex­tu­al per­sona stands against what, in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, he calls the “airy-fairy, metaphor-rid­den kind of pseu­do-poet­ry” that he sees as hav­ing flood­ed the field. As a guide through the his­to­ry of artis­tic mod­ernism, he proves as no-non­sense yet dry­ly enter­tain­ing on film as he is on the page. Whether turn­ing our atten­tion toward spe­cial details of Braque and Picasso’s can­vass­es or zip­ping around in a 1900s road­ster, Hugh­es presents with the assur­ance of author­i­ty but not its intel­lec­tu­al over­reach, pulling you along to Fer­nand Léger, the Futur­ists, and Mar­cel Duchamp. And as a view­er of tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­taries, I’ve long trust­ed the late sev­en­ties and ear­ly eight­ies as the form’s gold­en age. In this episode and beyond, The Shock of the New show­cas­es what the pro­duc­tions of that era did best: a moody elec­tron­ic score, archival clips cre­ative­ly used, and extend­ed sequences that give us time to real­ly look. (Voiceover work by Judi Dench and Mar­tin Jarvis doesn’t lose this chap­ter any points, either.)

The Shock of the New con­sists of the fol­low­ing episodes: “The Mechan­i­cal Par­adise,” “The Pow­ers That Be,” “The Land­scape of Plea­sure,” “Trou­ble in Utopia,” “The Thresh­old of Lib­er­ty,” “The View From the Edge,” “Cul­ture as Nature,” “The Future That Was”

You can watch them on YouTube.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Guggen­heim Puts 65 Mod­ern Art Books Online

Pow­er of Art: Renais­sance to Mod­ern

John Waters: The Point of Con­tem­po­rary Art

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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