Revisiting The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes was a most engaging fellow.

Image result for Robert Hughes

And he had quite a lot to say about modernity. He did not like all that he saw. And in his book “The Shock of the New”, distilled from a TV series by the same name, he laid out his way of thinking. It is one of the more interesting books I have read. It came out in 1980, just as I was starting to practice law.

The first chapter is “The Mechanical paradise”. It starts off this way

In 1913, the French writer Charles Péguy remarked that ” the world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years.” He was speaking of all the conditions of Western capitalist society: its idea of itself, its sense of history, its beliefs, pieties, and modes of production – and its art. In Péguy’s time, the time of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, the visual arts had a kind of social importance they can no longer claim today, and they seemed to be in a state of utter convulsion. Did cultural turmoil predict social tumult? Many people thought so then; today we are not so sure, but that is because we live at the end of modernism, whereas they were alive at its beginning. Between 1880 and 1930, one of the supreme cultural experiments in the history of the world was enacted in Europe and America. After 1940 it was refined upon, developed here and explained there, and finally turned into a kind of entropic, institutionalized parody of its old self.  Many think that the modernist laboratory is now vacant. It has become less an arena for significant experiment and more like a period room in a museum, a historical space that we can enter, look at, but no longer be part of. In art, we are at the end of the modernist era, but this is not  – but this is not – as some critics apparently think a matter for self-congratulation. What has our culture lost in 1980 that the avant-garde had in 1890? Ebullience, idealism, confidence, the belief that there was plenty of territory to explore, and above all, the sense that art, in the most disinterested and noble way, could find the necessary metaphors by which a radically changing culture could be explained to its inhabitants.

It is a paragraph that is not for the faint of heart. Was Hughes right? Was modernism essentially over?  Did art lose its stature? And if so, what has replaced it? Interesting questions I will be thinking of these as I re-read Hughes tome. BTW, Huges wrote these words more than 35 years ago. Have things changed so much since then?



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