In the rush to label new works, does the artist get trampled?

Every time I turn around these days, a new art ''ism'' seems to have sprung into being. If it isn't a brand new style, it's a modification, an offshoot, or a revival of an established one.

Thus we now have something called neo-expressionism, which is a partly native but mostly European variant of a style that goes back through abstract-expressionism, German expressionism, to its 19th-century sources in the art of Van Gogh, Munch, and Ensor.

We also, at this moment, have energism, new-imagism, post-imagism, neo-primitivism, new-realism, neo-modernism, post-minimalism, post-modernism, as well as the new pattern, narrative, and decorative painters - to name only those that immediately spring to mind.

The list is endless and often very minor, and I, for one, cannot keep track of them, let alone understand them all. For one thing, many of them disappear after a few months. For another, no one, not even the artists concerned, seems very clear about what they mean, or what values they represent.

That's not surprising, considering that these names are almost always assigned to the work by the critics rather than by the artists. They exist primarily as conveniences for the writers on art and the art historians who cannot bear the thought that even the most delicate and fugitive smear or smudge of paint might evade being verbally nailed down and categorized.

This tendency on the part of many art critics to remain uncomfortable with new work until it has been given verbal identity - and thus legitimacy - has begun to affect the artists as well. Upon several occasions I've been anxiously asked by a young painter or sculptor whether or not their work met the requirements of a particular ''ism.'' Not whether I liked what they had done, or whether it was any good, but whether it fitted the definitions of a ''new'' style set by a particular critic, curator, or dealer in need of a ''peg'' for an article, a theme for a show, or a new classification for his collectors.

Such intense concern for verbal categorizations does not bode well for art's future. It is, after all, the artist's responsibility, not the critic's, to call the shots, to set the direction and to define the goals of art. Art is an internal and intuitive process that demands total identification of the creator with his medium. Only someone whose entire identity can become one with paint, color, shape, texture, line, etc., during the creative act can activate and transpose those ingredients into art.

Creating art can be a long, complicated, and painful process very similar to ascending from murky ocean depths to the ocean's surface. To surface and to then find someone casually sitting there in judgment, searching for the definitive name to give the wondrous thing just brought up as art, can be maddening at best and creatively inhibiting or destructive at worst.

Art is a fragile thing at birth - especially in this day and age. Without a long tradition behind it, it often doesn't know its antecedents. In point of fact, it may not have any. Such a work ascending or erupting into actuality, may be too tenuous, too new to have anything to do immediately with verbal concepts or cultural categories. It should be given time and space to breathe before being saddled with verbal harness and driven to our command.

Art is freewheeling and dynamic -- a free-flying bird. But how does one verbally treat this living, breathing thing called art? By grasping it tightly and possessively and shouting, ''I've got you''? Or does one watch it carefully and lovingly, identify with it, try to understand it, and then try to put into words, not a mechanical description or definition of it, but a presentation of its qualities, a symbolic, verbal approximation of its effect upon us?

It is my carefully considered opinion that our contemporary critical literature on art will continue to be basically incapable of the latter as long as it remains in the hands of writers conditioned primarily by the disciplines and priorities of art history. I say that even though my own early perceptions of art were to a considerable extent fashioned by six years of art history in college, and despite my deep affection and respect for the field and most of those in it.

Art history is many things, but most particularly it is an historical cataloging of art's numerous mutations, influences, and derivations. While a particular masterpiece may receive attention for its unique characteristics, an art historian cannot legitimately rest until that work is neatly placed between what preceded it and what proceeds from it. Seen this way, a great artist holds the fate of his tradition in his hands for a brief moment, modifies it, enriches it, makes it a little bit his own - and then passes it on to his successor.

Now I'm not saying that an art historian doesn't pay attention to what is unique in a work, nor that he cannot view a painting as a thing unto itself. I'm only saying that he is conditioned to see art mainly within the context of a tradition, a continuity, and to see individual works as links of a cultural chain stretching backward for centuries, and, hopefully, forward for centuries as well.

This tendency judges a brand new work according to its pedigree and the degree to which the critic thinks it will fulfill a cultural need, or further a particular tradition. In other words, what matters is that it be a proper heir, not so much that it be a healthy and beautiful child.

Considering that an ever-increasing number of today's artists and almost all of today's writers on art are college or university trained, it is reasonable to assume that most of them have had a fair amount of academic art history. It is certainly true that a goodly number of our younger art critics and writers have advanced art history degrees.As a result, art-historical priorities are playing a vital role in determining how our artists see themselves and their work, and how our critics view and judge that work.

Now, that's fine and good. Art history, be it pre-modern or strictly 20th century, is a marvelous discipline and an excellent tool for finding our way among the dozens - possibly even hundreds - of ''isms'' that have had their moment of glory these past hundred years.

But we must always remember that it is only a tool, a method of comprehending and categorizing the art of particular periods or places. It is not the best way to approach a brand new work of art. To see new art largely through art-historical eyes is possibly to confuse something as peripheral as a work's adherence to a tradition, or the degree to which a painter of genius alters the direction of a tradition, for the quality of the work itself.

Art history should stay in its place as the final arbiter of quality and importance. It should not be dragged into the studios of young artists trying to give form to the myriad and complex things running around in their imagination. To do so is to deny them the right to make mistakes, to change their minds, to try things they will never dare try as long as they feel the mighty weight of art history on their shoulders, or its judgment hanging over their heads.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.