Good Old Shock of the New

Wow, wow, wow!  Thank you, MrShockoftheNew, whoever you are, for uploading the grand old BBC art documentary series Shock of the New to youtube.  For those of you who love art, just stop reading this now and go watch one of the episodes. Unknown

The series was written and hosted  in the 1970s, by art critic Robert Hughes (now deceased) in all his swoony, snarky, golden-haired youthful splendor.  He is opinionated, to say the least, but even when he’s dissing something, he does it in such a way that you learn quite a bit.  Between Robert Hughes and Tom Wolfe (in From Bauhaus to Our House), I somehow managed to fall in love with midcentury architecture even while they poked holes in the utopian schemes of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia or the glass box purity of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Actually, Hughes does praise Mies’ Seagram Building, and he casts it firmly in the twentieth century tide of architectural movements and developments like the Bauhaus,  and Louis Sullivan’s primary vocabulary of the skyscraper.  As a survey course on the innovations of 20th century art and architecture, The Shock of the New reigns supreme.  While Hughes critiques modernism, he carefully reconstructs the how/why/wherefore of each painting, building, and sculpture so that, by the end of each 57-minute episode, you don’t dare say, “Yeah, well, my five-year-old could’ve painted that,” because you see that no, they couldn’t have.

Hughes filmed his series all over the world and he is careful to show each art movement or monument in it social environment. When he talks about the “failure” of Brasilia as a utopian dream-turned-nightmare, he takes us to the streets of the Brazilian capital city and shows pedestrians about to get run over by as he calls it, “an infestation of VW Beetles,” and the crumbling concrete in one of Niemeyer’s plazas.  In truth, many Brasilia buildings have been restored, are still used,  belatedly but belovedly placed on historic registries.  Oscar Niemeyer was awarded the Pritzker Prize in architecture in 1988.  So, Hughes was not always correct in his indictments, but he makes the valid point — still being made on the pages of Dwell, Metropolis, and in architecture schools today — that architects must never lose sight of the human beings they propose to shelter and the human need for comfort.   A still-slim, long legged Hughes scrambles up from an uncomfortable De Stijl armchair, making a visual point but dialing back the obvious cheap shot of ‘who the hell would have this in their living room?’.  Instead, he rescues the chair by saying that its primary function is artistic statement.  Sometimes form doesn’t follow function — it’s just form for the beautiful sake of form.

At any rate, I must’ve been 15 or 16 years old when my mother and I watched Shock of the New on PBS for the first time.  As I’ve said before, my mother was an art student/practitioner/patron/activist, and she was watching not only the series, but my budding fascination with architecture and art.   She had a strange habit of  treating me like a mountain lion cub — throwing me a bone but then expecting me to go out and kill the deer by myself.  She brought home books from the library, like a new biography of art collector Peggy Guggenheim,  for instance, or handed me the art columns in Time Magazine, or made sure I knew about the sculpture of George Segal.   One night after watching Shock, she told me that I should write Robert Hughes a letter and that she’d give me the money to get on a plane or Greyhound bus to show up at his office and ask for an apprenticeship.   I think at that time he had become the art critic for Time magazine and had offices in New York.  If I had been made of sturdier stuff, I would’ve taken her up on her dare.   But I wasn’t.  I was immature, insecure, incredibly self-conscious, and pretty enough to know that I was starting to attract attention.  Mom used to say, “Oh for god’s sake, Mimi, stop thinking that everybody’s watching you!”  The truth was, as she probably well knew, that when you’re a 15-year-old girl, everybody is fucking watching you, men, women, the kid across the street . . . everyone.  You awaken to the fact that, for many years to come, you will be an object.

Poor Robert Hughes.   Imagine what he would think of some female teen from the provinces showing up and shakily asking for a job.  Being from Australia, he well understood the uphill battle of finding cultural footing as an outsider.  His memoir Things I Didn’t Know details his own journey from Australia to Italy to London to New York.  I think we pick  idols for reasons we don’t even understand.  Well into my thirties, I read Hughes’  account of his suffocating, traumatic first marriage that lasted for years and sucked the life out of books and projects that — unlike the brilliant Shock of the New — never saw the light of day.  (As he describes it, he spent many hours sitting at home worrying about where his wife was while she was, in fact, out screwing people like Jimi Hendrix.)  Nearly a decade into a gorgeous, treacherous, self-immolating relationship, I read this and briefly forgave myself for not having the energy to write every day.  If the great Robert Hughes admitted that he let love fuck his work over, then I felt a little bit better.

Anyway, I still adore Robert Hughes and miss him dearly.  Even though some have characterized him as a bombastic bull-walrus of an art critic, few  dispute his punchy, articulate brilliance.  If I never was the girl who could be goaded into getting on the bus, more’s the pity.  What was the worst — or best — that could happen?  That I’d become his underpaid — perhaps laid — flunkey?   In the process, I’d have developed life savvy, a thick skin, and an indisputable arsenal of art knowledge, connections, and enough cred to launch my own career.

No matter.   Limpet like, I pay tribute to someone who enriched my life, and digress into an explanation of myself.  Don’t we all do that?  If you’re curious about the work of Robert Hughes, do read the Wikipedia entry (against the advice of librarians and academics, I’m sure).   It really does convey a good idea of the huge range of his career, life, and includes this useful bibliography:

Cover of "The Shock of the New"

Cover of The Shock of the New

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