The ever voluble Hughes tackles 350 years of history with irony and gusto in this eminently readable handbook on American art. We live in a country shaped by colonization and immigration. This means, Hughes argues, that America will always bear a troubled relationship to its history, striving to sublimate alien feelings (and guilt) by fixating on ""identity, origins, and the past, or by the faith in newness as a value in itself."" The roots of this faith, and of America's cultural production, remain wrapped around a Puritan bedrock, laid with the zealous intention of turning New England into the New Israel. This sense of a spiritual quest, of a constant attempt to transcend the past, surfaces repeatedly in America's great landscape painting, as well as in Jackson Pollock's action paintings, while the Puritanical distrust of the craven image haunts the spartan nature of Minimalism. But after centuries of rich, varied, and fruitful history, Hughes holds, Ronald Reagan's reign had a unique (and calamitous) impact, transforming the world of art into ""the artworld"" as trillions of fictive dollars circulated, producing as an offshoot numbers of status-seeking collectors. The rarity of old pictures, matched with a demand for art, prompted greedy dealers to mine the slew of students being churned out of the art schools, inflating and discarding premature talents. On the heels of that circus, Hughes sees American art on the decline, a thin, wheezing steam pump desperately trying to recycle past successes in order to make a buck. His readings of three centuries of both art works and trends are lively, detailed, and persuasive (though perhaps a bit too harsh regarding recent art), and his ultimately pessimistic take is expressed with great clarity. A meaty and illuminating excavation, full of vigor and punch, to accompany a spring PBS series.