Tuesday, 21 May 2002

Shock of the new and From N to Z

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 7 in C major, op. 60 ‘Leningrad’.

Just read:

Robert Hughes, Shock of the new.

Like Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, which preceded it, this is a book based on a TV series. Where Civilisation was all about all sorts of art (principally painting, but also with nods to music and architecture) up to 1900, Shock of the new is almost exclusively about modern (after the late 1800s) painting, with a little on architecture and sculpture.

It gains a lot from this narrower focus. Hughes has an interesting story to tell, and though he admits that he is giving the reader a selective overview, you finish it feeling you understand modern art a lot better than when you started. He provides more than just a whirlwind tour of paintings and dates; instead, he tries to explain how painters were influenced by their predecessors. For example, he's good on how exiled French surrealists influenced the American scene in New York in the 30s and 40s.

Hughes also has a great chapter on architecture, dissecting the ideals of Bauhaus and le Corbusier, and discussing what actually got built. I'm quite a believer in the idea that the nature of one's built surroundings influences how one behaves, and that it's worth spending time and effort on, if not actually designing, then guiding the development of urban spaces. Hughes doesn't have any real answers himself, but discusses (and illustrates) the issues well.

The final chapter of Shock of the new is an attempt to sum up the state of modern art now. (This revised edition was written in about 1990 I think, so “now” is ten years out-of-date.) He's interesting. I think part of the problem has to be the “cult of the original”, which mocks the buying of prints and encourages people to buy originals instead. How are artists ever going to reach any sort of wide audience if the (expensive) original is the only thing accepted as genuine?

Carl V. Smith, From N to Z.

This book is a humorous book that the author kept updating after its first version just after WW2, until the early 60s. I read the 1956 edition. It's a “light-hearted” look at New Zealand, and is even occasionally funny. I found it more interesting as a window onto a country that has changed a great deal since then. For example, the only broadcast medium in that period was radio. I was also slightly surprised to learn that the Milford Track existed then; somehow I imagined it to be a recent innovation.

Inevitably, the book reflects its period, and is pretty patronising about wives, and women in general. When the Maori are noticed at all, the book is similarly condescending. Some things remain true to modern New Zealand and retain their humour: the obsession with the All Blacks, and the fact that Aucklanders are all stuck up and live in a noxious city.

To read next:

Vikram Seth, A suitable boy. I've heard this described as the longest novel originally written in English. The paperback edition I have is over 1400 pages long. I think it will keep me busy for quite a while.