Tides of style flow fast; To be fashionable or not be fashionable - the artist's quandary

A reader asks why styles in art change so frequently - and what an artist can do to protect himself from suddenly going out of fashion. His father, it seems, after a little over a decade of moderate success as a painter of lyrical abstractions, is now unable to find a major gallery to represent him and has not made a significant sale in almost a year. Every dealer he's spoken to has told him it's difficult to sell his kind of work now, that times and styles change.

The reader adds that his father now is painting better than ever in his usual style, but those close to him wonder how long he can keep it up without ''serious professional support.''

It's an unhappy story, but far from an unusual one. I've heard it frequently since shortly after World War II. At that time, dozens of solid careers in art were cut short by the advent of Abstract Expressionism. It suddenly was no longer fashionable to paint farm, small-town, or city life - or neat, geometric abstractions. To succeed, one now had to paint huge, bold, dramatically ''expressive'' abstractions that echoed the work of such artists as Pollock, Kline, or Still.

To refuse was to risk becoming an art-world nonperson. Most established artists did refuse - and faded away professionally. Only a few major figures such as Hopper, Burchfield, Wyeth, and Soyer refused and got away with it, but even they went through a very rocky time.

But that was only the beginning. When Pop Art replaced Abstract Expressionism a few years later, another large group of artists had to change styles or risk professional oblivion. Those that switched - they described their change as ''evolving'' in a new direction - often survived. Those that continued in their old style did not survive - except, of course, for a few major figures such as Rothko, Motherwell, and de Kooning.

Since then, changes in style have become increasingly frequent and dramatic - to the point where it's now almost impossible to keep up with them, let alone know what to do if one is an artist who does not have a reputation or a following big enough to ride out each of these changes.

This is true even though the art world now is more diverse than ever before, with hundreds of galleries handling every type of art. Unfortunately, while most of these galleries sell art, all but a tiny minority lack the clout to demand top prices or to help confer true art-world status on their artists. For that, the artists must sell through one of the ''important'' or ''in'' galleries. But the chances of acceptance by any of them are incredibly small, unless an artist's work represents a currently fashionable style or reflects the point of view of the gallery director.

It's unlikely this situation will soon change. Indeed, there's much to be said for dealers setting high standards and representing only the art they believe in. Every previous generation had a few far-sighted dealers who helped determine the direction and standards of their period's art. Still, it's a pity so many less-imaginative and -dedicated dealers treat art as though it were merely a matter of fashion, as something to be judged on its conformity to current tastes and only minimally on the basis of quality.

Of course, there are those who claim the issue of quality is beside the point in contemporary art, that such art can only be judged by its relevance to current realities or its ability to encapsulate and extend one or another of modernism's central tenets. The charge has been made that it is elitist to stress quality. That exceptional quality in art has generally only been found in societies with a powerful and long-lasting ruling class that could afford to support a few artists in their search for perfection. And that, in a dynamic and open society such as ours, artistic quality as it was known by a Holbein or a Rubens has been replaced by an emphasis on ''relevance'' and ''truth.''

But art has always focused on what was relevant and true - even though the perception of both varied from age to age. Art's main purpose - to give voice and form to a culture's vision of, and dreams for, itself - has remained constant. Only in one area do we differ from previous periods: We have no single , cohesive artistic style that shapes and gives meaning to our collective modern experience.

We have done our best to find one. Modernism is strewn with the noble efforts of numerous artists who sought to find one or to will one into being. From Impressionism and Cezanne's formal vision, through Cubism, Constructivism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and on to Minimalism and Neo-Expressionism, modern artists have searched desperately for a style capable of speaking for us all.

All have failed - albeit nobly. And because they have, the art world senses a void that it tries to fill with novelty, sensation, excitement - and frequent, genuine attempts to create such a style.

Depending on one's point of view, the result is either chaos or evidence of a new beginning in art. Those who insist that a culture must be represented by one dominant style will, of course, find today's art world chaotic. Those, however, who have a more pluralistic vision of art will be much more optimistic.

But even if it isn't chaotic, it certainly is confusing. Perhaps the problem lies in the artificiality of the art world, in its mad insistence that America's significant art can only be produced and understood within New York's hothouse atmosphere.

Or perhaps it's just that we're still hanging onto outmoded ways of perceiving art. And that, in the absence of a true creative vision, we still insist that our art be as big, brassy, impressive, and compelling as the great art of the past - even if it means we have to whip up false emotions, sensationalize color and form, and concoct outrageously artificial images in order to do so.

In the midst of all this near-hysteria, the talented and well-meaning artist is bound to be confused. He will not know where to turn, and he can easily find himself on the fashion treadmill, forced every few years to decide if he should change his style in order to conform - or risk losing most if not all of his professional identity.

The only ''defense'' an artist has is to be himself, to follow his own vision in art, difficult as that may be in an art world so competitive, insecure, ruthless, demanding, and (all too often) shallow. But he really has no other choice. He must decide between art or success, self-fulfillment or fame. If he puts art first, success and fame may follow - but it won't really matter. But if the artist puts success first - and truly puts it first - the chances are good success will come. It may, however, be extremely short-lived - and disappear once a new fashion in art takes over.

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