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.

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 No sooner have we begun to assimilate something new than it is superseded by something even ''newer'' or more extreme.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.

We live in a time and place, after all, whose artistic values are not determined by all-powerful and experienced patrons such as the state, church, or aristocracy. What patronage we have comes mainly through the competitive marketplace - with the result that all new art, from the profoundly original to the merely gimmicky, must in some fashion or other adapt itself to marketplace pressures and politics.

Such is the reality, and we must both accept it and beware of it. Above all, we must not assume that the art world's judgments are necessarily wise, sufficiently inclusive, or made with the highest ideals in mind. The art world consists of men and women with the same pressures to succeed and to survive as anyone else. And with the same tendency to occasionally make hasty decisions.

This is not to be seen as an attack upon art professionals. After all, I'm one of them. It is merely a warning not to depend too heavily upon what we say or write, and more upon individual intelligence, intuition, and sensibility when trying to determine the quality of something new - or whether it is art at all.

Or better still, let it be a suggestion that the reader respond to and enjoy whatever he will without the immediate need to judge or evaluate it. Let the work speak fully and on its own terms. Give it the benefit of the doubt. After all, a hasty or ill-advised judgment can be the kiss of death to a potentially beautiful experience. Dubuffet does it again Jean Dubuffet, France's best living painter, has done it again. And he's done it with such verve and passion that he makes most artists 50 and 60 years his junior look like tame and tidy stick-in-the-muds.

Even today's wild and woolly neo-expressionists - both American and European - must take a back seat to this remarkable contemporary ''old master.'' And what's more, they would do well to study and to learn from him.

They can do so at the Pace Gallery's current exhibition of works from Dubuffet's two recent series, ''Partitions'' (1980-81) and ''Psycho-Sites'' ( 1981). Both series are superb demonstrations of what can happen when painterly exuberance and a passion for color meet head-on. And of the fact that certain artists become creatively ''younger'' and more dynamic as they grow older.

The exhibition is a riot of color - but is not primarily about color. Nor is it primarily about the numerous stick and outline figures that people its various paintings, and which look as though any moderately talented four-year-old child could have done them. And neither is it really about painterly physicality, gestural procedures, or Dubuffet's iconoclastic attitude toward all high art. (Although all these traits and qualities are very much in evidence in these works.)

No, what these bold, beautiful, and utterly delightful paintings are really all about is life, vitality, energy, and passion. This is art that sings, that shouts its ''message'' that art actually can catch life ''on the wing,'' can enfold and ''package'' it momentarily as color, line, and form. And can then release and reanimate it to bloom fully and dynamically within and through the viewer's sensibilities.

The result is a wonderfully exciting show, the most youthful and life-enhancing of any I've seen during the 21/2 days this week I roamed New York looking at art. It is also the best possible argument for my thesis that an art critic, after ''introducing'' a work of art to his readers, should step aside and let it speak for itself. The best he can do is to point at something that particularly moved or enchanted him and recommend it to his readers. Anything else he might have to say would really be beside the point.

At the Pace Gallery, 32 East 57th Street, New York, through Jan. 8.

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