It's been over a week now since I finished this and I'm still arguing, or at least discussing, with Hughes in my head, many of the issues arising directly and indirectly from my reading. I am very familiar with many of the reproductions in this book from my University days, when this was a set text for my then Girlfriend's Art History course. I have a vague recollection of seeing some of the TV programmes too, which lamentably do not appear to be released on DVD.
Recent animated discussions on the Amazon classical music forum have awakened an interest in general 20th Century Cultural History, one aspect of which is consideration of the visual arts. Browsing for a general book to bring me up to speed on these matters I found that this was still, over twenty years later, the book to go for.
Before all else I have to praise Hughes' prose which is poetic and poetically informed without being remotely limp-wristed or pretentious as so much writing on art is. It is vigorously intelligent without being elitist or esoteric, and has a robust common-sense quality even when discussing the most abstract considerations, bringing the issues vividly to life.
Hughes does not attempt to present a unified narrative of the subject but rather identifies a selection of broad themes, which he then pursues more or less chronologically, and and with each of which he associates a group of more or less representative artists, some well known but a few less well known. In general more text is devoted to the early half of the century than thw latter.
Thus, for instance, the theme of the first chapter is the impact of burgeoning technology on society and the response of artists to it. This is a cue for a discussion of the fascinating dialectical exchange between Cubism and Futurism, which burned so fiercely, only to become moot with the advent of WWI. The second chapter examines the fraught relationship between art and politics, and the story of the belief that art could be a lever for constructive social change. Such ideals wereso strong after WWI yet now seen as entirely naive and redundant, at least in intellectual circles, by our own more cynical or perhaps just wiser day. And so on. Chapter 3 examines the modern reduction of nature to a venue for bourgeois leisure, while 4 charts the rise and collapse of hopes for modernist architecture as a path to utopian social engineering. Chapters 5 and 6 look at the psychological aspect of modern art - how psychoanalysis gave birth surrealism, and the quest for alternate realities, how madness manifested through such exemplars as Van Gogh and Munch, and attempts to express religio-mystical insights by such as the theosophically inclined Kandinsky (a worldview Hughes has little time for whilst still admiring the artworks).
As I read through the book I found myself thinking that these multiple naratives are all very well, but what are the unifying characteristics that make all these different types of activity Art, and how did we arrive at an epoch where, after centuries of art having a handful of easily identifiable social functions, it should suddenly mutate into all these different modes of expression, and start to operate on so many new and diverse areas of social significance. The other question raised was that pretty well all these narratives ended in failure and intellectual bankrupty. Where then was art, and also architecture, left at the end of these stories? It should be borne in mind that this second edition was published in 91.
He answers these questions to some extent, but by no means exhaustively, in the eigth and final chapter. His conclusion is more or less that in the post eighties, post Reagan, post yuppie era art has resumed one of its original functions. Namely, as a repository of financial value for the wealthy, and that the huge inflation of the art market in those decades had seriously spannered the public significance of a 'great work of art' in society.
So, since completing this book I find myself brimming with questions about the nature of art, visual art that is, today. Clearly art is alive and well. Our society abounds ever more abundantly with images created with all levels of skill, and with a multitude of meanings and intents. But, one finds oneself asking, will we ever again know the shock of the new?