CHARLES Baudelaire, the 19th-century French poet and art critic, might not seem the obvious source of a title for an exhibition of art from the last 10 years. But ``l''epoque, la mode, la morale, la passion'' (translated, perhaps, as ``period, fashion, ethics, passion'') are his words. And they now serve as the name of a large show at the Pompidou Center devoted to ``aspects of the art of today, 1977-1987.''
The occasion for this display of recent work by some 60 painters and sculptors (as well as a number of video-artists and filmmakers) is the tenth anniversary of the center. The implication is that here are the artists whose work during the decade may be considered the most conspicuous. As with all such surveys, the choice is subjective - possibly even nationalistic - in viewpoint, and really impossible to justify. There are omissions on every side (if quality or internationalism are the criteria) and a number of inclusions that are puzzling for the same reasons. This is scarcely surprising.
Even so, the show achieves its own apparently comprehensive atmosphere and invites its own set of generalizations. It's stimulating, entertaining, infuriating, surprising, shocking, and funny by turns.
If this show is a true guide, we have just come to the end of a ten-year period in which almost the only taboo in art was boredom. This was the period when eclecticism ceased to be a dirty word - and when dirty words became a feasible tool for artists intent on making art as emotive as billboards or as commonplace as graffiti. This was the period when art might redo, or do in a new way, anything or everthing that art has done in the past: carry political messages, tell stories, make jokes, satirize, publicize, criticize, even (see Baudelaire) moralize; the period when the figurative and the abstract, the emotional and the impassive, the Expressionist and the minimal, the classical and the Romantic, the painterly and the linear, the primitive, popular, Surreal, improvized, mythical, and allegorical all rubbed shoulders. The potpourri period. This exhibition catches its spirit.
But there is another taboo - if that is the right word - that emerges with extraordinary insistence in this show. There is scarcely an artist in it who shows the slightest inkling of the potential privacy of art. In almost every case, art is seen and practiced as a public act, both in terms of size and motive. There is no shortage of rampageous color - Stella's sepentine structures have more glitter and clamor than fair-ground stalls; Morley's wildly painted confusions of history, fiction, and dream adopt the exaggerated spectrum of beachware in fierce sun or the cacophonous hues of a jungle parrot's plumage. Everywhere in the works in this large, two-floor presentation there are slogans: whether in the scrupulously placed graffiti-obscenities of those impassive English artists Gilbert and George; or the handwritten signals strewn around the war-desolated landscape of the mind by German painter Anselm Kiefer; or bold and declamatory captions in the works of American Barbara Kruger, shouting like accusatory billboards ``What big muscles you have,'' and ``You substantiate our horror.''
The art museum (or maybe the street) is almost unquestioned as the natural habitat for art. To opt above all for visibility and communication, often theatrical in expression, is to run the risk of losing subjectivity. The kind of mystery that engages the viewer in making quiet, intense discoveries has been largely sacrificed for the kind of mystery that confronts, attacks, subverts, excites or delights.
The show's title does actually work as more than an ear-catching slogan, though what its author was attempting to analyse was ``le beau'' - ``the beautiful'' - something that 20th-century art has not often considered of primary importance.
Baudelaire's argument was that ``the beautiful'' was made of two elements. The first, he wrote, was something ``invariable'' and ``eternal.'' The second was something ``relative'' and ``circumstantial.'' He defined this second element as having the ingredients of passion, ethics, period, and fashion. Without the ``aperitif'' of the second element, he wrote, the first element was ``indigestible'' to human nature. He concluded that ``le beau'' must always contain both elements.
As to the last 10 years, this exhibition suggests forcibly that while the second element of the beautiful has been energetically, almost nervously, uppermost, the first has been decidedly submerged.
It's as if we have felt the need for choices rather than for convictions.
(Through Aug. 17.)