Chicago — For $320,000, an alert collector could have bought a tiny but superb Picasso oil; for roughly one-tenth of that, a small canvas by one of West Germany's latest art-world favorites; and for one-tenth of that, a lithograph by Thomas Hart Benton.
Actually, the collector could have spent much more or considerably less on individual works of art. But buying was probably not the primary reason he or she had come to the Navy Pier here last month for the fifth annual Chicago International Art Exposition (CIAE). The attractions were more likely to have been the show's excellent reputation for showing only better-class art, and the promise that its 157 participating galleries would provide a good insight into what is currently being produced and exhibited around the world.
This year's CIAE featured 6,000 works from 15 nations. American galleries, however, dominated the exposition -- at least numerically -- with dealers from 19 states showing their wares.
The show attracted some 36,000 visitors. What they saw was a good cross section of today's more ''advanced'' art; a sprinkling of works by older artists working in more ''conservative'' styles; a fairly large selection of good to excellent paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by modernism's acknowledged masters; and generally superb examples (primarily prints) by such old masters as Durer, Rembrandt, Goya, and Delacroix. On the other hand, there was little if any evidence of contemporary Western American art, the New Realism, or Academic Art.
I cannot say I missed the first or third categories, although I was somewhat disturbed to find so few of the better, younger American realists on view. It's no one's fault. Most of the better galleries handling such work weren't represented here, a situation that one hopes will be rectified in time for next year's CIAE.
Also absent were the really huge canvases and three-dimensional pieces generally associated with today's more aggressive forms of art, as well as important examples of such work. What was on display, however, was sufficiently broad and deep to illuminate the nature and quality of these forms of art -- especially if viewed in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art's current exhibition, ''An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture.'' What one show lacks, the other can provide for gaining an insight into today's more innovative art.
Even so, it's a confusing situation. After nearly two decades during which art solemnly and persistently sought a formal common denominator, it now has totally reversed itself in favor of diversity, idiosyncratic expression, and myth-seeking imagery. Anything goes, as long as it's expansive, impulsive, or appears to represent primal levels of feeling and experience.
A number of distinguished art professionals, with whom I discussed this matter at the CIAE, see today's gallery world as increasingly corrupt. Listening to them, I received the impression that frivolity and opportunism are the order of the day, and that an idealistic attitude toward art is the shortest route to failure.
It's an easy assumption to make, considering the wild and woolly, ''fun and games'' nature of so much of today's art. I am not convinced, however, that it is a valid one. There are as many serious and dedicated artists and dealers today as there were one, two, or three decades ago. And just as many shrewd and purely pragmatic individuals with a talent for anticipating and following the latest styles.
What is changing -- and at an increasingly rapid rate -- is our overall attitude toward contemporary art. We have so much of it, and in so many different shapes, colors, sizes, and themes, that no matter where we turn, a new gallery, museum, or book devoted to our latest art hero pops up. And if that isn't enough, we can attend an event such as the CIAE and overwhelm our sensibilities by attempting to respond to more than 6,000 items designed to shape and to communicate what roughly 1,700 artists considered fun, interesting, moving, or important.
It simply cannot be done -- except on the most general level. Increasingly, viewing art today means looking at a great deal of it and in a very short period of time. And we often prefer to see it ''on the go,'' rather than while in a meditative frame of mind, and generally opt for what is large, colorful, and dynamic over what is small, muted, and subtle.
Paradoxically, art today is assuming a new and much more important role. For the first time in almost a century, art in the United States is being taken at least somewhat seriously. What takes place in an artist's studio or in an exhibition of contemporary art is much more apt to be seen as central rather than as peripheral to our culture's ongoing debate on what is significant and important. And artists are much more likely to be seen as contributing members of society than as the clowns and unrealistic dreamers they were assumed to be only a few short years ago.
A great deal of this is due to the fact that our schools, especially our colleges, take art much more seriously as a significant part of everyday life than before. Students are taught to learn about their world and their time from the art created by their contemporaries, and not to see such art merely as ''beautiful'' or full of unattainable ideals.
Equally important has been the impact of museum and gallery exhibitions focusing on the depth and range of today's art. These have been instrumental in informing our younger citizens that art is a living, dynamic language, one-half of an exciting cultural dialogue in which they are more than welcome to participate.
It is precisely here that such exhibitions as the CIAE achieve their greatest value and importance. By bringing large quantities of good to excellent art from around the world to a centrally located American city, they not only create a pleasurable event, but a rare opportunity for thousands of Americans and a few Europeans to see what others are trying to express and communicate through art.