The shifting whims of fashion in art -- and 'old master' Dubuffet does it again
It's easy to be superficial about evaluating new art. To anyone bored and in search of novelty, anything different or outlandish could appear great. And to those who view all art in the light of a particular theory, anything new will support that theory - or else be beyond serious consideration.Skip to next paragraph
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Then there are those who view contemporary art as part of their cultural landscape, as something to be accepted as uncritically as they accept the daily news. And those who take one quick look and decide a work's merit (or its identity as art) strictly on its resemblance to something already officially acknowledged as art.
The issue is further complicated by the rapidity with which new ideas and forms appear today. No sooner have we begun to assimilate something new than it is superseded by something even ''newer'' or more extreme. In some cases, this ''newness'' can be followed step by step with some degree of logic. In others, however, the process is - or appears to be - quite arbitrary, and we must approach the work through intuition - or with the help of whatever private theories we may have about art.
It all depends, of course, on how much we care. Most of us have enough to do without concerning ourselves too deeply with the problems of evaluating new art and are perfectly willing to leave such matters to objective experts.
Unfortunately, such individuals are few and far between. Most art professionals - whether art historians, curators, critics, or dealers - are specialists with well-defined areas of expertise and, all too often, well-defined areas of prejudice. A world-renowned authority on Vermeer or Blake, for instance, could easily be oblivious to the virtues of Klee or Calder - and totally inept at determining the quality of something really new. And curators, critics, and dealers are not above making highly subjective or self-serving decisions - even in matters affecting the careers and reputations of others.
Art professionals are as vulnerable to fashion as anyone else and often as incapable of rising above its values and limitations as any collector eager to be and to remain ''up to date.'' As a matter of fact, artistic fashion is generally shaped and nurtured by those who write about, exhibit, and sell art - not by the artists themselves. I've seen dozens of fashions in art come and go, and seldom were the artists the determining factor.
It doesn't take much to sweep the decks clean for a new fashion or movement, especially if the art world is bored or looking for something new - and a cluster of talented and ambitious newcomers are ready to seize the opportunity to fill that void with something original.
Within months after such an occurrence there will be a noticeable change in the kind of art seen in many of the galleries, and within a year or two a major museum will almost certainly mount a show documenting the new movement's evolution.
Before long, the art magazines will include long articles analyzing it, art students from Maine to California will be trying to paint like it, and at least four young art historians will be writing dissertations on its greater cultural significance.
Now, I'm not saying that this is necessarily bad, only that this is generally the way it is. As a matter of fact, many of our most important art movements - from Impressionism to Conceptualism - began this way.