The '80s: High Prices and A Need for New Direction


THE art world entered the 1980s with a bang. The first explosion came from the New Imagists with their militant rejection of all formalist ideals and their wild and woolly painterly ways. And right behind, storming in from Italy and West Germany, came the Neo-Expressionists, determined not only to bring passion and exotic imagery back to art, but to wrest art-world leadership from the Americans once and for all. Both movements failed. America retained its leadership, and the art world soon tired of what it concluded was an excess of painterly enthusiasm and self-indulgence.

One thing couldn't be denied, however: the large number of challenging artists spawned by these movements. They range from Jonathan Borofsky, Susan Rothenberg, and Julian Schnabel, to Anselm Kiefer and Enzo Cucchi. Individually and collectively, they would leave their mark on the art of the 1980s.

Before that could happen, however, the term ``Post-Modern'' entered the art-critical vocabulary. Everyone used it, even though no one knew exactly what it meant. Many thought it described the more pragmatic or cynical attitude toward art that resulted from the erosion of modernist ideals during the late 1970s. Whatever its meaning, it rapidly came to signify anything in art that reacted against or went beyond the modernist position, whether Michael Graves's architecture, Jeff Koons's sculpture, Jenny Holzer's electronic displays, or the paintings of Sherrie Levine.

It defined itself more by what it was not than by what it was and failed to come up with a creative agenda. So not surprisingly,``Post-Modern,'' both as a term and as a ``movement,'' also gradually fell out of favor.

The art world, without a movement to champion or a major dogma to disseminate, soon found itself lacking focus. As the 1980s came to a close, the gallery world, for the first time in decades, began to lose momentum. No artist or group appeared ready to push art in a different direction. And no vital new theory was on the verge of surfacing.

Only in matters of fame and fortune were things as good as ever: Witness the 1989 Andy Warhol retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, its accompanying catalog that treated Warhol more like a saint than an artist, and the art auctions at which a second-rate Van Gogh went for $53.9 million and a third-rate Picasso for $51.3 million.

Several things were at issue as the 1990s approached: the difficulty of achieving critical objectivity in the face of art's rapidly increasing diversity; the growing importance of hype as a substitute for genuine critical inquiry; and the rise to prominence of a group of wealthy, socially ambitious, and independent-minded collectors who cared little or nothing for aesthetics but very much for what struck them as dramatically ``new'' or a good investment.

These collectors, by dealing directly with artists and giving special attention to auctions, took control of a significant portion of the art market and became the real power-brokers of late '80s art. To a certain extent that was good. Thanks to their open attitude and unconventional approach to collecting, the gallery world of the 1980s was considerably less stuffy than that of the 1960s and '70s. Imagination and idiosyncrasy were once again given serious consideration.

Overall, however, this trend created problems, primarily because of the ``anything goes'' philosophy these collectors championed. That, together with the art world's lack of direction and growing disinterest in responsible art criticism, only aggravated the already confused condition of late '80s art.

The talent and the energy, everyone agreed, were there. Only the substance and the commitment were missing.

BUT then, what was one to expect? Hadn't extravagance and unfettered enthusiasm in art been celebrated for most of the decade with little concern for their significance?

Hadn't critic after critic flip-flopped time and again trying to decide whether the latest style or talent from Rome, Berlin, or New York's SoHo represented art or mere self-indulgence?

Wasn't money, especially in the form of multimillion-dollar auction sales, threatening to become the principal standard by which art itself would henceforth be judged?

Hadn't unprecedented fame and fortune been showered on an artist whose chief stock in trade was banality and who had admitted that ``If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it''?

And hadn't the art establishment, by and large, put greater stock in fashion and conformity than in even-handed treatment of the non-trendy?

Confronted by these and other contradictions and distortions, the art world, not surprisingly, starts the new decade in a state of frustration and confusion. On the surface, of course, everything appears normal. Exhibitions open and close as usual, and prices for paintings continued to climb. But underneath, the art world has been at a standstill, and the nature of its future remains an open question.

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