Tag Archives: Robert Hughes

The Shock of the New: To Define is to Limit


Robert Hughes’ pundit series The Shock of the New (1980) takes a thematic approach to modern art, examining key social and cultural trends throughout history that have influenced its production.  Although the pundit style of the programme seems to be heavily influenced by Clark’s Civilisation, there is also the critical analysis that echoes Berger’s Ways of Seeing.


The programme predominantly presents information through video and images with Hughes providing accompanying narration. Although there are pieces to camera that echo the style of Civilisation, they usually just serve as short linking sequences between clips. The rich array of clips and images used throughout the programme takes full advantage of television as a medium to be used to show as well as tell.

However, The Shock of the New does highlight a couple of issues that can arise when taking thematic approach to arts programming.

Firstly, viewers not somewhat familiar with the development of the artistic movements being examined may be a bit confused and put off with the constant shifting back and forth through time and geographical space. With many arts programmes, most notably Civilisation, being chronological in their approach, this divergence from the usual format can make it quite hard to follow. Although The Shock of the New was designed to be a popular series with its heavily edited presentation that seeks to entertain as well as inform, the information illustrated by a multitude of clips and images throughout each programme is not clearly bound in a way that lends itself to clear interpretation by mainstream audiences.

Secondly, the thematic approach used by The Shock of the New also creates limitations in terms of how art is interpreted. Having programmes dedicated to certain social themes such as politics or technological advancement gives the impression that these are separate social contexts in which art is either a product of one or the other. If one programme in the series is dedicated to how politics influence art, is that to say that the art examined in other episodes is created within a political vacuum? Although Ways of Seeing also takes a thematic approach, it had an underlying discussion throughout (the mass media reproduction of art), which not only made it easier to follow, but also presents each thematic episode as being part of a larger argument that is constituted through the series as a whole.

It would seem that the issue does not lay in the thematic approach itself, but rather the way it is executed. When taking a thematic approach, there still needs to be either an underlying argument, as in Ways of Seeing, or a sense of a journey or discovering something, as demonstrated in Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness, throughout the series. What The Shock of the New does is present a series of mini essays around art in which it attempts to be thematic in both its approach to art and the social context in which it was produced, thereby creating a rather narrow reading which does not situate art within a dynamic social world.

This format also alienates mainstream audiences. Without an understanding of the development of modern art throughout history, audiences may be lost by the shifts back and forth through time, and the numerous changes in geographical location. When producing a series that informs as well as entertains it is important to still provide a linear narrative to follow. As discussed, the illustrated essay presented by The Shock of the New does not lend itself well to mainstream audiences. Although television provides the means to seamlessly jump between time and place, there still needs to be a sense of linearity for viewers to follow and make sense of the information being delivered.