A critic's musings. When art-world stars come and go as quickly as rock stars and movie idols, critics and art professionals need to go beyond a concern for what's `hot,' and focus on qualities basic to art itself
New York — AS every New York art lover knows, Labor Day marks the end of summer and the beginning of another brand new gallery season. Of course, everything doesn't happen at once. Most galleries won't open until mid-September, and a few will hold off until early October before mounting their first big show.
Gradually, however, the art world will shake itself free of its summertime lethargy. Rumors will once again fill the air, and dramatic new things will be hinted at and eagerly awaited.
Expectancy will run high - even for someone like me who has seen 31 such seasons come and go and who knows from experience that much of what will be enthusiastically embraced as significant in October will have been rejected as trivial by the following June.
It's amazing how much can happen in one art season these days, and how dramatically the art world's perceptions and judgments can change over a few short months. When I moved here in 1956, reputations evolved more slowly and as a result of a much broader-based art world consensus. Ideas and attitudes also took longer to develop - and to diminish or disappear - than they do today. The sequence from discovery to critical acclaim to museum acceptance (or back to oblivion), that may have taken from three to five years in the 1950s (and considerably longer in earlier decades), is often completed now within a six-month period. ``Hot'' new art-world stars, as a result, come and go as quickly as most of today's rock and movie stars.
All this, of course, has little to do with artistic quality or creative integrity. And yet, it seems to reflect what an increasing number of people throughout the United States want to hear or read about. No matter where I go, for every person who asks me substantive questions about the art of the 1980s there are three or four who only want to know who's ``in'' and who's ``out,'' and what new trends are emerging.
I find this perception of the New York art world as almost exclusively a place of fashion and intrigue both unfortunate and disheartening - especially since it doesn't accurately reflect the nature of what is being produced or exhibited here. Contrary to public opinion (which is largely based on what can be found in the art periodicals), the art of the 1980s is every bit as serious and committed as that of the 1930-55 period. It's not art that has changed so much as our understanding of what it is and why it is of vital importance. And for anyone who believes otherwise, who insists that the age-old notions of quality and integrity have disappeared from the New York art scene, let me categorically state that there are at least as many dedicated creative individuals here today who scratch and starve for their art - and who are extraordinarily good at what they do - as there were when such strugglings and devotion were expected of every American artist.
The only difference is that it is now considered somewhat shameful not to be a smashing success by the time one is 30 - or 35 at the latest. To be committed, in fact, to an ``unsuccessful'' ideal is fast becoming the major social sin among a growing number of younger artists. For them, the only worthwhile goal is art world stardom, not the production of meaningful art. Anything that leads to success, therefore, must be right and good, and anything that fails to produce it must be false and bad.
Unfortunately, this distortion of art's true nature and purpose has also led a number of critics and curators to misperceive their functions and objectives. Rather than concentrating on matters of quality and significance, they focus their attention on spotting trends and fashions, on being the first to predict what will be ``in'' a few months hence, or who will be the next darling of the smart art set.
These art professionals become, as a result, the art world's ``weather vanes'' indicating the direction from which the winds of fashion are blowing, rather than the individuals whose primary responsibility it is to see that art isn't trivialized or blown off course.
I'm concerned about this because such a passive critical approach weakens the system of checks and balances that helps give art much of its depth and range, and because it has led the art community at large to become increasingly compulsive in its search for instant gratification, and obsessive in its demands that today's artists supply the viewer with ever newer and more total pictorial stimulation.
But how sad, especially in the light of how much more the artist has to give! Art, after all, isn't a game played by a few for themselves with the public permitted to watch at a worshipful distance, but the individual and collective expression of mankind. It is created by men and women to serve humanity's purposes, and its heart, soul, and very reason for being are tied up with human needs, values, aspirations, dreams, realities, and ideals.
To be truly significant, art must engage and attempt to represent humanity in its entirety, not only that portion of it that wants to play, be entertained, or bedazzled, escape into fantasy, or solve esoteric aesthetic puzzles. This is not always easy for us to accept, especially as we have come increasingly to respond to art on the basis of its initial impact upon us, and less and less on the basis of the significance of that impact in the light of the values and ideals of art or the realities of the human condition. If it excites and stimulates us, it must be good. If, on the other hand, it challenges us to think or feel more deeply than we are used to, or if it is more subtle and introspective than we prefer, we are apt to dismiss it as a bore - or even to reject it as art at all.
It is in these areas of perception and judgment that the general viewer needs support and advice and where, all too often, he or she fails to receive it. Rather than helping us put art back into proper perspective, too many of today's art professionals, by their casual backing of the trendy and ephemeral, lead us in the opposite direction, toward an art increasingly defined by surface enticements and novel effects.
The gallery world itself, however, appears gradually to be mending some of its ways. In 1956, any artist who wasn't painting in either an Abstract Expressionist or Hard-Edge mode was doomed to a kind of limbo existence as a nonartist. The art world simply ignored anything he or she produced. Today, at least, any number of good, reputable galleries handle a wide variety of styles and approaches. An artist can be ``non-mainstream,'' can even be startlingly idiosyncratic, and not be embarrassed to show his face in public. That, as anyone knows who's been involved with the New York gallery world as long as I have, is quite an improvement.