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The many masks of modern art

By Theodore F. Wolff / July 7, 1983

It is with a strange sense of deja vu that I read in today's art magazines that abstraction is now old-fashioned, that Modernism is dead, and that painting is losing its effectiveness and will soon be replaced by photography.

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I've heard all that so many times before, most particularly in the late 1930s , early '40s, and late '60s. Time, however, has proven otherwise. Abstraction and Modernism have ruled the roost from 1950 until the present, and painting has very much held its own against photography - and against film and video art, for that matter. In fact, if anything is really old-fashioned today, it's the notion that the ''new'' will automatically replace the ''old'' in art, and that contemporary art must continue to be viewed within an ''either/or'' context.

We simply must stop thinking that way, and start adjusting to the fact that art, for quite a while to come, will be more diverse, expansive, and open than ever. And that the ''old'' can coexist legitimately with the dramatically ''new.''

To begin with, we must understand that our post-World War II theories about what art is and what it can do are no longer fully relevant to the kind of work emerging in the 1980s. And that our current, popular perceptions of art as a quick means to fame, glory, big money, and successful investment are not only destructive but art-denying.

We must reexamine the way we think and write about art. It is time for the profession to start tearing down the verbal monuments and the obfuscating verbal veils we have created to glorify our art and to rationalize it. It is time to start writing about art as simply as we speak of it, to stop worrying about the orthodoxy of our critical opinions. The belief, for instance, that only one style is logical for any historical period is utter nonsense in a time as fragmented and violently at odds with itself as ours. And yet, quite a few influential art professionals are still trying to determine which of our dozens of viable contemporary styles is the most ''logical'' for us, and thus the most deserving to receive the official seal of approval.

We must realize that we at present are merely groping toward some form of cultural unanimity, and that only when and if we find it will a universal style be possible. We must understand that to mandate such a style here and now is to short-circuit this searching process, and to turn art back to the days of dogma or state and religious control. But most of all, we must perceive that we cannot legislate or dictate art, for it represents life itself; that it cannot be controlled and ''packaged'' in one form or another for various periods of time, depending on the indifference of the public or the power of those in control. It will inevitably spring free, and if it didn't it would cease to be.

A good example of art ''springing free'' has taken place during the past few years in West Germany, Italy, and the United States. The face of the art world has changed dramatically, thanks largely to the emergence of a group of West Germans led by Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, A. R. Penck, and Rainer Fetting, and three young Italians, Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, and Francesco Clemente.