The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes

My lending history tells me that I have renewed this book 5 times. It has been hard work on occasion. Not because of Hughes’s style – far from it. He’s a wonderfully elegant writer and guide through modern art (and the society that it reflected/tried to change) from the beginning of the twentieth century to the 1980s. I trot beside him quite happily in the first few chapters; I stumble a bit over Matisse, but I regain my balance and catch up.  It’s all about the colour and the emotion. OK, I get that.

And then I trip at Helen Frankenthaler’s “Mountains and Sea” and fall flat on my face. It’s not that it doesn’t look like mountains or sea: I can deal with that. But Hughes says it’s “exquisite”, when I just see something washed-out and blah. Is he leading me astray?

We continue on our journey; he takes me past Kandinsky and Mondrian and tells me that they were both into theosophy. Aha, I think, that explains it. I can bypass Mondrian, but I’m happy to linger at Kandinsky. It’s rather dismissive of me: after all, I can manage to remember some of the attributes of painted saints (eyes on a plate = St Lucy) or symbolism of flowers, so perhaps I should try harder with other notions? I admit it took a while before I developed a taste for early Netherlandish high-foreheaded madonnas . . . and when did I stop finding either of the Cranachs odd?

By the time we get to the finishing line (Frank Auerbach, David Hockney), I am dragging my feet a bit. I would have dug my heels in entirely had Hughes’s journey ever got as far as Damien Hirst and installation art.

I suppose the “problem” with modern art for me is that once you move away from a skilled representation of the world that we all think we see (and what was the point of that once photography usurped that particular aspect of painting?) and in the direction of conveying pure experience and emotion, then you leave behind anyone who doesn’t understand or care for what you are trying to communicate. And some of that communication does seem very esoteric or personal.

Hughes took art Very Seriously; he talks of “its essential role as an arena for free thought and unregimented feeling”. In the early years of the twentieth century it was really seen as a vehicle for revolution and for societal change; by the end of the book Hughes is pessimistic about the way, as he saw it, that the mass media – TV and print at the time he wrote – were pushing art aside in the 1980s. Art was a challenge to the status quo; the mass media reinforce it.

OK, I promise I will try harder with modern art.

Just one anecdote of my own about how shocking the new can be. In January I went to the Whitworth in Manchester for the first time. I had a coffee in the glass-box cafe amongst the bare trees and then wandered around. The first thing I saw was a large marble sculpture of a pregnant, naked woman. It was striking but not shocking; its modernity, its distortions of proportion, its mask-like features, and its in-your-face nakedness are all things that we take for granted now. I looked at the title: Jacob Epstein’s Genesis. A little light bulb went on in my head. I had recently read A Notable Woman: the Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt.  (One woman’s edited diaries from the 1920s to the 1960s. I was spellbound reading them.) I had my Kindle with me, so I checked . . . and yes, in March 1931 Jean saw Genesis at the Leicester Galleries, aware of the furore surrounding this shocking sculpture. At first sight she was “shocked but not repulsed”; the “more [she] looked, the more [she] marvelled”. She was aware that she was looking at something innovative and powerful, and she was entertained by the initial shock of her fellow gallery-goers before they put their sophisticated art-appreciation faces on.

And I almost passed by without a second look because I wanted to go into the exhibition room beyond it!

And that exhibition was of subversive textile art works. It included a crocheted womb room by Faith Wilding that was the size of a walk-in cupboard and a piece of embroidery by Tracey Emin of open legs, a vagina and a shower of appliqué-ed coins issuing therefrom.

Shocked? Nah. As Hughes and Grayson Perry have pointed out, if it’s in a museum or exhibition hall, it’s art.

Whether it’s interesting is another matter. What were memorable were that frisson of a link with Jean across the decades, and the sight of a real suffragette banner that used the daintiest feminine stitching to issue “unfeminine” demands in the service of a serious cause for which women were prepared to suffer.

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