From the Archives: Robert Hughes on the Twilight of American Art

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Robert Hughesa cultural critic of great intelligence and influencedied yesterday in a hospital in the Bronx. An outspoken adversary of all that was glib and derivative in late-twentieth century art, Hughes didn’t shy away from his reputation as an elitist. But he believed in the power of art, privileging its social import over any monetary valuation. In this 1990 essay about the decline of the New York art scene, Hughes comes to an unusually egalitarian conclusion: “Although art has always been a commodity, it loses its intrinsic value and its social use when it is treated only as a commodity. To lock it into a market circus is to lock people out of the contemplation of it. This inexorable process tends to collapse the nuances of meaning, and visual experience generally, under the brute weight of price. It is not a compliment to the work. If there were only one copy of each book in the world, fought over by multimillionaires and investment trusts and then hidden in storage, what would happen to one’s sense of literaturethe tissue of its meanings that sustain a common discourse?”

There are extreme differences between the values of painting and sculpture and the values of mass media. The work of art requires the long look. It is a physical object, with its own scale and density as a thing in the world. Its images do not pass. They can be contemplated, returned to, examined in the light of their own history. It is layered and webbed with references to inner and outer worlds that are not merely iconic. It can acquire (although it does not automatically have) a spiritual aspect, which rises from its power to evoke contemplation.

Fine art is infinitely more than an array of social signs awaiting deconstruction. Its social reach is smaller than that of the mass media, and it finds the grounds for its survival in being what the mass media are not. It now seems that if one opens “art” to include more and more of the dominant media that have no relation to art, the alien goo takes over; and the result is, at best, a hybrid form of short-impact conceptualism trying to be spectacle. Static, handmade visual art cannot furnish an answer to big media, or even an effective debunking of them. The working relation of most 1980s artists to them has been that of a fairly tough fly to flypaper.

One saw this in Robert Longo’s work in the early 1980san oversized melange of technical sophistication and sentimental blatancy, with more wallop than resonance. It came, in a different form, in Barbara Kruger’s knockoffs of John Heartfield, with their smugly “challenging” slogans about manipulated identity. It was even purer and duller in Jenny Holzer’s plaques and light-emitting-diode readoutsfailed epigrams that would be unpublishable as poetry, but that survived in the new art context, their prim didacticism so reminiscent of the virtuous sentiments that the daughters of a pre-electronic America used to embroider on samplers. The work that got into the American limelight after Neo-Expressionism prided itself on its political correctness, but most of its messages might as well have been sent by Western Union. Probably the only American artist of this generation who managed to introduce a real shudder of feeling into media-based work was Cindy Sherman, enacting her parade of gender caricatures, bad dreams, and grotesqueries for the camera.

Not much of the art that really seems to matter is being made in New York today. There is a haunting parallel with Paris at the end of the 1950s, when the French were busy persuading themselves that Soulages, Poliakoff, Hartung, Mathieu, and others formed a generation that could eventually step into the shoes of the patriarchs of the Paris School, most of whom (except Picasso and Braque) were dead. Several important younger artists were, of course, at work: Giacometti, Dubuffet, Balthus, Helion. One could certainly believe that the tanks were not emptying. Yet today, for the first time in 300 years, there is not one really great artist at work in Paris. And so it is with New York. The great city has gone on with frantic energy not as an art center but as a market center, an immense bourse on which every kind of art was traded for ever escalating prices. But amid the growing swarm of new galleries, the premature canonizations and record bids, and the conversion of much of its museum system into a promotional machine, the city’s cultural vitalityits ability to inspire significant new art and foster it sanelyhas been greatly reduced.

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