MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Robert Hughes on the Impact of the American Revolution

Robert Hughes (1938-2012)

Robert Hughes (1938-2012)

The late, great Robert Hughes — one of my favorite critics — offers an art historian’s perspective on the American Revolution and its aftermath in his essay “The Decline of the City of Mahagonny” (from the anthology Nothing If Not Critical):

The American Revolution had held, deep in its heart, the vision of a corrupt Europe, a Europe whose hold was long and tenacious but which could be demystified by showing its moral obsoleteness. The idea that Europe was culturally exhausted was an important ingredient of American self-esteem. Its ancient craftiness, its subtlety, its strata of memory, its persistent embrace of elitist against “democratic” cultural values: these, in American eyes, were grounds for suspicion and even hostility…. Europe must be transcended, outdone.

Thus the power of Bernard Berenson’s appeal to the plutocrats of Chicago, New York and Boston at the turn of the century … was his promise of a new American Renaissance which would outdo the old, whose paintings and sculpture would nevertheless furnish indispensable refinement to the new.

Filed under: art history, book recs

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