NORMALLY by mid-August any art critic worth his salt has a fair notion of what to expect in the upcoming season - and a pretty good idea of anything spectacular, shocking, or dramatically new that might take the art world by storm. Press releases, telephone calls to and from artists and dealers, rumors, and gossip see to that. This year, however, by early September only two things are certain: The 1989-90 art season will include a few excellent shows and at least one great museum exhibition; and a handful of talented newcomers will get their first real taste of success.
What appears to be the show of the coming year is the Metropolitan Museum's exhibition of more than 35 masterworks by Diego Vel'azquez. It will include 17 major paintings from Madrid's Prado Museum, and will run from Oct. 3 through Jan. 7, 1990. In addition, the Metropolitan is mounting a first-ever American show of the art of Canaletto (Nov. 2-Jan. 21, 1990).
The Guggenheim is presenting a major retrospective of the work of Mario Merz, one of Italy's best-known contemporary artists (Sept. 29-Nov. 26). The Whitney is presenting two important shows: ``Thomas Hart Benton'' (Nov. 17-Feb. 11, 1990) and ``Post-Minimalism'' (March 2-May 20, 1990). And the Museum of Modern Art will feature ``Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism'' (Sept. 24-Jan. 16, 1990).
Beyond that, everything's unclear. For the first time in at least two decades, New York's art world is becalmed. Nothing significant or outrageous seems about to happen. No artist or group appears ready to push art in a different direction. And no vital new idea or theory is on the verge of surfacing.
All of which puts a critic scanning the horizon in a peculiar position. One has to ask: Is art lying fallow just now, or has it blundered into a maze? Is this current period of inactivity the calm before the storm or the beginning of a long period of stagnation?
Know one really knows. But I suspect the answers to all but the last question are ``yes'': Art's greatness is lying fallow. Intellectually, art has blundered into a maze. And as far as art's creative passions are concerned, we can only hope that this is the calm before the storm. (Thanks to the energy and talent of today's younger artists, stagnation seems unlikely.)
Compounding the questions are the problems of critical irresponsibility and outright hype. Misrepresented by the former and grossly distorted by the latter, art has been gradually forced into a corner. And now it is entangled in a web of contradictory and false evidence as to its identity and role.
OF course, puffery, no matter how well intentioned, can only distort. And even unsophisticated art lovers are beginning to realize that they've occasionally been ``had.'' They understand that much of what they've read about the great wonders of recent art was cranked out on demand, to fill newspaper and magazine columns and to keep alive the dream that an ever-greater and more profitable art season was just around the corner.
Unfortunately, for the keepers of this dream, everything depended on hope, on tomorrow, on who and what showed promise - but seldom on what had already been accomplished. To be an ``emerging'' artist was ideal, for who could tell what great things still lay ahead. To have ``arrived,'' on the other hand, was tricky, for it meant one was a known commodity and perhaps a poor investment for a collector with dreams of buying for a pittance and selling for a fortune.
Thanks, however, to today's many excellent television documentaries on art, to informative museum installations, improved art education, and greater gallery attendance, the American public no longer accepts the pronouncements of art pundits as gospel truth. The public takes a considerably more skeptical attitude toward everything the art world does, and shows a growing unwillingness to tolerate excesses or irresponsibility.
Senator Jesse Helms's recent attack on two arts organizations for using public funds to exhibit the ``indecent'' photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, and the forced removal of Robert Serra's outdoor sculpture, ``Tilted Arc,'' from a public square here in Manhattan because pedestrians were always bumping into it indicate an erosion in the position of the specialist. Neither the attack nor the removal could have occurred a decade ago. The very notion that an artist - particularly one perceived as almost beyond criticism by much of the art establishment - should be held accountable to the public would have been dismissed as ridiculous. No longer.
Everything considered, it appears that art is turning a corner. If so, and if it repeats the patterns established earlier in this century, it will soon enter a dramatically new phase, just as Pop Art diverged from Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism diverged from Pop. In short, it will once again go from one extreme to another. Writers will announce that it has done so, and will proclaim the new movement or direction or style as something truly new and significant.
How soon it happens and what that ``something'' might be, however, won't be clear for a while.