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Today's challenge to art critics: be willing to sort out the 'junk'

By Theodore F. Wolff / June 18, 1984

New York

To what extent is the art of the 1980s disposable art? Or junk art created for casual, nonnourishing consumption in the manner of junk food? It may still be a bit early to tell, although it is already clear that some of today's art is more trivial than any fashioned in recent years and that some of it is produced in an atmosphere so tinseled and superficial that even Andy Warhol would have a difficult time recognizing it as art.

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It is also true, of course, that the beginning 1980s have produced new works by Anselm Kiefer, Enzo Cucchi, Gregory Amenoff, Susan Rothenberg, Tino Zago, Mark Tansey, Alan Magee, Louisa Chase, and others that promise to hold up well when the history of this century is written. And there are several even younger artists hard at work who possess at least several of the qualities required for the creation of significant art.

Even so, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the trivial and the trite are becoming respectable in the contemporary gallery world and that they have even begun to worm their way into some of our museums.

Proof can be found in such huge and otherwise excellent exhibitions as the recent Chicago International Art Exposition and the current ''An International Survey of Recent Painting And Sculpture'' at the Museum of Modern Art here, as well as in smaller gallery and museum shows presenting new talent or an overview of contemporary art. And if that isn't enough, there are the various gallery exhibitions featuring graffiti art.

One leaves such shows feeling that while today's art may be extraordinarily vital and varied, much of it seems content to remain on the surface of things, optically, emotionally, or philosophically. And that some of it actually delights in being trivial or trite.

Now, while I may not approve of trivialization in art, I can at least understand it - especially if there is little peer or professional opposition to it. What I cannot understand is the blanket of silence it tends to receive from the art-critical community. A reputable film, music, or literary critic will denounce whatever is cheap or bad in his or her respective field, but the most one will get from most major art critics in similar circumstances is silence or evasion. When questioned about this, the latter's response reflects the belief that if one pays no attention to bad art or non-art, it will go away and never bother anyone again.

Now, this is utter nonsense - as the continuing careers of several undeservedly well-known artists testify. Trivial or trashy work simply will not go away by itself, especially if it is colorful, highly technical, sentimental, simplistically ''modern'' or flashily executed. Or if it is sold by dealers with impressive galleries in fashionable locations. Even serious critical attack cannot guarantee riddance of such work, but it should at least help limit its public acceptance.

The problem lies in separating the trivial from the significant at a time when it's more than a full-time job just keeping up with what's going on in art - let alone judging it. Wisdom and experience do not necessarily help. Thirty, 40, even 50 years' experience can actually be an impediment when confronting something new that challenges long-held and cherished ideas and ideals. And yet such experience can also be exactly what's needed to see through the hokum of novelty and to perceive the work in question as fraudulent or trash.