On the need for more individuality in today's art world
I suggest we brace ourselves for the new art season. In addition to thousands of one-person and group gallery shows, there will be hundreds of museum exhibitions, dozens of outdoor art events, and at least as many dedications of art in public places.
We can also expect a barrage of words that will spread over the art world like a dense fog and at least partly obscure it. Words will come from every direction, from books, from magazine and newspaper reviews, and from publicity fliers. By mid-December, viewing art in the galleries without reading or hearing about it first will be extremely difficult. And by mid-January, the most important thing about the art season will be what has been said or written about it.
This wouldn't be so bad if it didn't prevent the general viewer from seeing art with a clear and unprejudiced eye, and the younger, less experienced critics from coming to their own conclusions about what they've seen. To go against the published consensus on what is good or bad is difficult for beginning critics - especially since most of them work on a free-lance basis and cannot step too far out of line if they wish to see their future work published.
Conformity still rules the roost in art. Its influence may at times be subtle and positive, but it does still dominate the gallery - and, all too frequently, the museum world.
Integrity and an independent spirit have not disappeared, however; witness the dedicated artists, teachers, curators and other leaders of the art community who constitute the heart and soul of American art. No one deserves more respect than they; but on the other hand, no one deserves it less than those other art professionals who peddle, teach, exhibit, write about, or buy art as though it were merely an entertaining or fashionable commodity. Thanks to them, art is too often trivialized and demeaned, and its potential and significance diminished.
Both the public and the art community, as a result, develop an inability or an unwillingness to judge art on its own terms. The rapid rise, fall, and rise once again of the reputation of Max Beckmann (1884-1950) is a good case in point. A major Expressionist, and one of the outstanding artists of the century, Beckmann's fame was at its peak when he came to the United States in 1947. His bold, slashing style was in line with then-current practices, and he was welcomed and honored as one of those who had helped pave the way for the new American painting.
With the advent of Pop Art, however, things changed dramatically. His important 1964 retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art met with more silence than applause, and what little critical respect his work still had, dwindled even further when Minimalism took center stage.
All that changed yet again with the emergence three or four years ago of Neo-Expressionism, which triggered still another reversal of Beckmann's status. He is now once again seen as a major figure, as a precursor of much of what is good in today's art. A huge Beckmann restropective that opened originally in Germany is currently on view at the St. Louis Art Museum, and his name is beginning to regain the respect it so recently lost.
He is, in short, a hero once again. And yet his work hasn't changed in the slightest. What did change were the preferences and prejudices of the art community, which had insisted on judging him not so much on the basis of his art as on whether or not his style conformed to varying formal ideals.
I am particularly disturbed by the effect such superficial critical attitudes can have on younger artists and on those who paint or sculpture without regard to art-world politics. Instead of being treated fairly, they are often ignored for insignificant reasons: because they do not exhibit in ''correct'' galleries, or because they refuse to give their art the proper aura of Angst or ambiguity deemed appropriate for serious nuclear-age work. Serenity is suspect in art at this time, as are classical detachment, affectionate depictions of people, places, or events, and a frank espousal of nature's beauties. I would suggest to any youngster aching for instant success in art that he or she draw ''primitively,'' paint passionately, mix together as many exotic and mythological figures as possible, and keep everyone guessing as to the work's true meaning.
To those, however, who want, above all, to be artists, I would say: ''Be yourself. Bring out and give form to what most truly represents who and what you are. Success may or may not follow - it will depend, at any rate, on many other things besides quality - but you and a few others whose opinions matter will know the quality of your work.''
To many, that will seem simplistic - and an insufficient reward for a lifetime of dedication and hard work. But then, they don't know what it means to have a ''vision'' and an absolute necessity to create. And others will insist there is no place in today's world for such romantic nonsense as remaining true to oneself regardless of cost. I couldn't disagree more. The vast majority of good-to-great artists need never suffer for their art, but there will always be a few who run counter to the temper and standards of their time while pursuing a truth or an ideal. They may rub society the wrong way, and they may have to pay the price for it.
These are the artists I'm primarily concerned about here, not only because I know a few of them, but also because they have the potential to deepen and enrich our art. All they need is a chance to have their work viewed fairly and objectively - simply to have it really looked at. But most of all, they need to have it judged by standards and values that do not contradict their own.