ART DECO, cowboy boots, Photo-Realism, Neo-Geo, blackened fish, loft living, neo-realism - there are so many fads, ``isms,'' and trends going around that it's hard to keep up. It's easier to keep one's checkbook balanced than to answer the question, ``What's hot?'' How do these fads start? Did we vote them in somehow, or does everyone's thinking, party talk, media coverage, and hype just coincidentally converge at certain key moments in history? The art world has long had auction houses, collectors, critics, and dealers, as well as a certain amount of media coverage, but one increasingly feels that some unseen hand is guiding events.
Of course, the true movers and shakers in the art world are the artists themselves, without whom all the peripheral people would have nothing to talk about. Artists get together in salons, studios, lofts, schools, and bars to talk over ideas. Those with similar ideas tend to stick together, and their work begins to take on a certain character distinguishing it from work being done by others. Years later, so one assumes, art historians make connections between the works, and track the relationships of the artists.
The aging Michelangelo didn't call his later work and that of his followers ``mannerism'' - Giorgio Vasari first used the word and subsequent historians have used it to describe and denigrate the art of the first half of the 16th century.
In this style-conscious century, artists have had a hand in giving their names to their ``styles.'' No artist would ever think up ``Post-Impressionist'' as a description, but ``DADA'' is a term only an artistic mind could create: Tristan Tzara (a poet) to be specific. While the French poet Apollonaire is credited as the first to use the word ``Surrealist'' to describe a particular strain of art, Andr'e Breton was happy to take the term and create an entire ideology out of it. It wasn't that Breton wanted to package himself in a ready-made ``ism'' for the consumption of dealers and collectors; he was defining what he thought was a revolutionary approach to art and society under a political heading.
THE packaging of artists and their work is a newer phenomenon, and artists generally don't take much part in it. It's not so easy any more to get together and talk as there are so many artists now, spread out around the country at the art schools and universities in which many find their sole source of income. Increasingly, artists have come to work independently with their dealers on certain works, and their dealers have taken on the role of distinguishing trends which they then promote.
``Up until the 1920s, Paris art movements were created by artists, and these artists established common goals and manifestos,'' says Louis K. Meisel, a dealer who credits himself for giving Photo-Realism its legitimacy as a painterly movement. ``But now, movements are put together by dealers. Dealers can see, as most artists cannot, what is happening around the country. In the past, dealers would just select the artists they liked and show them. Now, they put artists with similar ideas and interests together.''
Meisel says that in the late 1960s he ``sensed something happening to realism,'' and he assembled in his New York City gallery those artists who were involved in a Pop Art offshoot - a very exact realism that gave a detail-conscious rendering of the solid and the effluvia in daily life.
To give a validation to this ``movement,'' he convinced an art collector, Stewart Speiser, to commission 22 works from his artists on the theme of aeronautics, which he persuaded him to donate to the Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. With museum validation and the term ``Photo-Realism'' that Meisel claims to have invented for the occasion, the movement won public acclaim.
Other dealers and critics are credited with establishing particular artists or movements. The growing number of contemporary art museums exhibiting the work of young and newly heard-of artists also seems to skew the process. Curators, who are supposed to take a longer view of art, find themselves competing with contemporary galleries. This lessens the authority of museums while trying to give these institutions contemporary relevance.
Such trade-offs become more common. Clearly, the art market has become addicted to hype, to big eye-popping (if not necessarily weighty) events. For collectors, anyway, there is some justice - not everything sells just because someone says to buy it.