One of the dangers of art criticism is the tendency to address what should be rather than what is, to discuss what the artist could have done rather than what he or she actually did. This is especially true during a period when dramatically new ideas and forms come into view. At such times, the critic is often compelled to insist that what was just brought into being by the artist should not have been so bright and colorful or so rigidly abstract.
It's an understandable reaction, but pretty much beside the point - just as it would be were a friend to say to a very recent mother, ''It's a beautiful baby, but I really think it should have been a boy.''
Keeping that in mind might make it somewhat easier to understand why many art critics have had so much trouble with the highly emotional and often informally structured art that has erupted over the past five years. It was so totally unexpected, so unimaginably different from what had preceded it, that hardly anyone knew what to make of it.
To be fair, that reaction was shared by most of the art world and by many artists - which was not surprising, considering how disruptive this new approach was to all they held dear. After roughly two decades of formal purity and thematic restraint, all was cast aside in favor of violent emotionalism and exotic imagery.
Particularly disturbing was this new art's commitment to laying bare mankind's most stark and primal emotions in a manner that paid little if any attention to the niceties observed by earlier painters in exposing these emotions. What the West German and Italian Neo-Expressionists - to say nothing of the younger Americans - were producing seemed more like a slap in the face than like genuine, civilized art.
In some ways it was intended to be precisely that. A new, younger generation was flexing its muscles and telling the older generation to move over. It was also doing much more than that, however - although what that was didn't become clear until the younger artists had settled in a bit and become a little less raw and explosive.
Once established and fairly respectable, such painters as Baselitz, Chia, Cucchi, Garet, Fetting, Kiefer, Paladino, and Salle began to consolidate their gains and to reveal that they did indeed have a philosophy, that they weren't merely out to achieve success and notoriety at the older generation's expense. What they believed might not have been particularly profound or original, but at least it was relatively cohesive and gave some degree of significance to what they produced.
Life, they believed, was a profound mystery whose meaning could only occasionally be glimpsed through the symbols shaped by the great artists, poets, and philosophers. And art was a constantly renewable medium devised to reshape and reanimate those symbols according to each generation's needs and perceptions. Should the vitality and truth of these symbolic forms and images ever diminish significantly, it became doubly imperative that the period's major creative figures reenergize them in any way they could. The '70s, these younger artists believed, was such a ''diminished'' time, and the passion and intensity of their work, its exotic, mythological, and often primal imagery, was nothing more than the means they had chosen to awaken art and the culture to their primary obligations.
They attacked the problem with a vengeance, and, as was to be expected, they overdid it. But they did stir things up. No one can deny that the art of the '80 s is much more challenging and dynamic than that of the two previous decades.
At the same time, it must be admitted that most of these artists were attempting to work beyond their capabilities, and that they used the great symbols and images of the past in ways that would have made their originators wince. Figures from Greek and Roman mythology were jumbled together with more ancient and modern symbols to fashion allegorical pastiches that signified little if anything and were momentarily effective only because they were so startling. And any number of painters and sculptors, Clemente and Schnabel most particularly, confused the issue even more by striking pompous poses and trying to convert every molehill they encountered into a mountain.
The effect on even younger artists, however, was generally highly beneficial. Large numbers of them took advantage of the new spirit of greater personal expression to produce works of considerable daring and originality, including paintings that celebrated romanticism, nature, animals, and the various aspects of human love.
Of particular interest were several who focused on the more primal aspects of nature as it was before men and women attempted to tame it. Of these, Tod Wizon is one of the most promising. His disquieting landscapes have the harsh but profoundly moving impact of African ''primitive'' art. In them, nature's deepest forces do battle - or settle into an uneasy calm - and the viewer feels caught up in these clashes, these tensions. It's an extraordinarily original art that almost certainly would not now be on view had certain restless creative spirits of the late '70s not decided to stir things up a bit.