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There’s No Geist like the Zeitgeist

This, like dropping a young hippo into a swimming pool, produced its ripple effect. If someone unknown could perform like that, it followed that anyone unknown might. Moreover, because the time between mere pupation at $3,000 a shot and the unfurling of the ephemerid’s rainbow wings at $20,000 had been telescoped to a year or so, the middle-range collector got less and less time to make up his mind (as distinct from the dozen or so American heavies, who were assiduously wooed with 50-percent discounts and plenty of lead time, so that the new work would get onto their walls and thence, it was hoped, into the museums whose curators were less interested in the New Wave). The faculty that enabled one to shoot from the hip and hit the future before its prices quintupled was described by one collector, Eugene Schwartz—in a term borrowed from the jargon of the stock exchange—as “apperceptive mass.” With hundreds, if not thousands, of aspirant connoisseurs diligently flexing their new-found apperceptive masses, SoHo by the end of the 1982-1983 season had begun to bear more than a passing likeness to Utrecht at the height of the tulip mania.


The profile of the preceding art boom, that of the 1960s, had by then reversed itself. Fifteen years before, amid the deafening clamor with which America discovered the culture of youth as an end in itself, and sought to identify late adolescence with existential truth and political decency, high art tended to be either decorative or ironically apolitical, or both. Whatever pigs and fascists might be denounced from the pulpit of the college barricade, whatever mutations the moral anguish of Vietnam might wreak on verbal discourse, the stained field and the minimal box retained their snootily Apollonian character; and youth, per se, was generally seen as one more technical problem the artist must deal with on the way to maturity. Today, the exact opposite holds true: in a political atmosphere characterized by reaction, extravagance, and gerontocracy, with the left in full retreat (at least in America), the art world has come to regard youth as a sign of merit: if a painter hasn’t made it by thirty, he is beset by nagging fears that he has missed the bus.

The cult of the young painter did not hit the art world until the Eighties, because it took ten years for the results of the Sixties to trickle down through art education. The distrust of “elitism,” the weakening of academic criteria, the fetishized view of “creativity,” the subservience to the whims or apathies of students—these affected art schools just as they affected all other schools. The number of art schools had swollen, whether they were adjuncts to universities or local showplaces. Lavishly endowed with studio space, spray booths, kilns, welding gear, and huge litho presses, these academies proliferated from Maine to Albuquerque, with especially heavy concentrations on the West Coast. Their entrance requirements were not stiff, and the intelligence of their students, as a rule, was not high.

Their concern was volume. They provided tenure to a large population of FFFAs—Formerly Fairly Famous Artists—who could not support themselves on sales alone and so regarded teaching as a survival chore, which should not consume the energies they needed to muster in their studios. Because the system of apprenticeship and assistanthood that had enabled teaching studios from Verrocchio’s to Thomas Couture’s to instruct by hard practice had gone the way of the dodo, they could not bring their own art-making into their teaching. A seminar, a bull session, a pat on the head—but not (or all too rarely) that harsh and fond engagement that distinguishes the true teacher, one of whose marks is the gumption to show an argumentative or narcissistic student that he, or she, is on a wrong track. There was no “right” or “wrong.” This was art; everyone did his own thing.

In any case, classes were getting too big for such engagements and administrators meant to keep them so. To defend space and budgets—here was the young computer science department scheming to take over the unused papermaking studio—the dean had to argue with gross numbers. So there was even less reason to fail students or to discourage them in any way, creativity being, in one of the cant phrases of the 1970s, “non-hierarchical.” A victim of this process was life drawing, which was ejected from the center of the curriculum and assigned a spot on the creative rim. Although nearly every major abstract artist from Mondrian and Brancusi to de Kooning was also a master of drawing on the motif, and this skill was plainly not irrelevant to their art, the hegemony of masking-tape-and-acrylic abstraction in America devalued such drawing in the eyes of many students and teachers: it was something to be skimped. Besides, several major American artists had been clearly inept as “formal” draftsmen—Morris Louis, for instance, or Barnett Newman. For every artist such as Philip Pearlstein or Neil Welliver pegging away at his motif, there were a hundred teachers and five thousand students who believed that such efforts, however worthy, were behind the times.

Thus the early 1980s presented American art with the exquisite paradox of a revival of figure painting done by the worst generation of draftsmen to graduate from American art schools in living memory. Because its distortions are arbitrary, expressionism is taken to be a very forgiving style, especially when it makes use of pastiche. The pell-mell rush of urgent feeling is meant to excuse every defect: what does “mere” formalism count for when each painting, in the bombinating phrase of a German critic, is “thrown breathlessly against the end, against Death”? (The drama is not always so fatal; the artist pitches, but it is the dealer who catches, and der Tod stays in the bleachers.) American artists, being more “media-conscious,” tend to lay quotation of “bad” art over the pattern of feeling; thus if they draw badly critics can claim they are ironically quoting ineptitude or vulgarity—a loophole which, so far, has saved the reputation of David Salle more than once.

Yet there are degrees. Confronted by a Max Beckmann triptych one sees the linear frequency, the balance between the slashing line—metaphor of urgency—and the modulation of detail, that proclaims great drawing. In Susan Rothenberg, the bluntness of the signs for the human figure—gnawed down almost to the limit of legibility by her doubts about representation—reveal the unsentimental condition of true draftsmanship. But in the work of Schnabel or Mike Glier, drawing sags into rhetoric, embroidery, and illustration; one knows that Schnabel, whose ineptitude in life class was remarkable even by the mild standards of his Houston art school a few years ago, is stuck with those clotted outlines and lumpish carroty shapes because he can do no better. No fluency is being abjured, and there is no range. The difference from the tone of Anselm Kiefer, Frank Auerbach, or—in his less repetitious moments—Georg Baselitz could not be more obvious.

The look of much new American work was shaped by secondhand experience; in the art schools, the main veins of information about other art were slides and magazines, which meant that students found their prototypes in vivid, flattened clichés which could be indifferently shuffled. Only concentration on originals arms the mind with skepticism about the packaging of art history as a sort of convenience food. What is dropped from the slide or the color plate? Scale, which Americans confuse with mere size; nuances of tone and drawing; the life of the surface. Things look flatter, more “iconic” than they are, and their power to fix attention is lost. They become Images d’Epinal of cultural overload. In this way, by a truly morose irony, the student’s experience of other art becomes almost indistinguishable from his passive experience of America’s main cultural fluid, TV.

And so, bathed in image-haze from infancy, used to a constant, muttering collage of disconnected emotion or cool disaster leaking from the box, a new generation of American artists has arrived: the post-Warholians. Whereas painting once claimed it could go deeper than mass media, the distinction now was wearing out. Mass media now enfolded art, and tended to dictate the way art looked at the world. More and more, young artists accepted this as a donnée and gave up seeing it as something to struggle against. Hence the much-discussed “irony” of New Wave painting, its air of quoting but not altogether believing its sources. From David Salle to Robert Longo, it offered a mildly haunting knowingness wrapped up in the vogue word “appropriation”—not plagiarism, but a wan display of complicity.

The excessively mannered New Wave tone has a lot in common with the mannerism of recent films by Francis Coppola (One from the Heart) or Jacques Beineix (Diva, Moon in the Gutter). It wants artificiality to relieve it of the burden of intrinsic sentimentality, and tries to be cool enough to freeze style into styling. It likes to quote degraded fine-art sources, while remaining quite cynical about their merits—this, presumably, is why the vulgar, inert late paintings of Picabia have now been dragged back into the limelight by the art market, and why Italian artists like Sandro Chia play with late de Chirico. But the defensive shorthand of New Wave art, its eclecticism and discontinuity, its obsession with finding a precocious “look,” did not come out of past painting, however bad or good. It was born in the cathode tube and reared in that depleted crèche, the late modernist American art school.

Television, and Warhol, also taught artists to think a lot about being stars. Like everyone else in America, they were saturated in a mass culture fixated on celebrity. Naturally, with tens of thousands of graduates pouring from the art schools every year, not everyone could be famous, not even for fifteen minutes. The idea of the art world as a loose community bound, however imperfectly, by residual guild loyalties was vaporized by this: the competition became too fierce, especially in New York, where more than 100,000 people are on the tax rolls as painters, sculptors, and other types of “fine” artist. The pressure to find a stylistic trademark, something that will quickly attract the eye of dealer and collector, is now intense; a young artist needs reserves of patience and detachment worthy of Buddha himself to ignore it.

By 1980 SoHo had become the capital of burnout. The room at the top was fairly porous, because new collectors, most of whom had deep pockets but the fine discrimination of vacuum cleaners, were primed to buy almost anything if it sounded “hot.” In this context, most criticism sank into passivity. Dealers and collectors bake the cake; critics ice it. The increase of dealers—two in SoHo in 1970, perhaps eighty today—meant that the onus of discovering new talent was lifted from critics, which was, perhaps, not a bad thing; at least it meant critics had fewer illusions about their power in the art world. On the other hand, no critic wanted to feel superfluous, or have his role as advocate entirely taken over by the sales staff. Hence the two trades grew closer, and by now the traditional adversary relationship between the critic, whose job is to weigh and discuss, and the dealer, whose task is to sell, is fading from the American art world—its passing marked by the growing number of critics and art historians who deal in new art on the side, and by the suspicious quantity of catalog essays, or fancy puffs, that galleries commission from them.

In this maelstrom of instant reputations and short memories, bizarre transformations occur. The trade in graffitiart is one example. In 1974 a failed “radical” Armenian painter named Tony Shafrazi walked into the Museum of Modern Art and, whipping out an aerosol can, wrote KILL LIES ALL in red letters across the surface of Guernica before the guards grabbed him and bore him squawking away. Instead of lopping off his hand and tarring the stump—an equitable rebuke, one might have thought—the museum gave him a slap on the wrist, did not prosecute, and sent him home. It was rumored that a major dealer had come to his aid: for Shafrazi spoke Farsi, and the Shahbanou was setting up a new museum of modern, mainly American, art in Teheran. Before long this squat vandal was commuting to Iran and back as a dealer’s runner.

Then came the Ayatollah, and the prestige of the Great Satan’s surplus art plummeted among the Iranians. Shafrazi took thought, considered his own proclivities, and emerged with a scheme for selling graffiti to New Yorkers. One might have thought this as doomed an enterprise as selling ice to penguins; but to do so would be to underrate the herd instinct, not to say the masochism, of new American collectors. It was not hard to persuade some of the more astute graffitists to bound up the subway stairs and do their stuff on canvas. Keith Haring, an artist in his early twenties who combined the perky volubility of Peter Max with a neat, monotonous cartoonist’s line, soon found that his larger dinkuses were fetching $10,000 or more. In the hands of other dealers, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s puerile, street-smart parodies of art brut did just as well.

Out they flew in scores, to settle on the duplex walls of collectors whose jealously nurtured sense of upward mobility forbade them, in real life, ever to ride the IND again. These patrons felt they were sucking raw energy from the very pulse of the street, but through a clean straw. “My feelings tell me,” Shafrazi told a reporter from Art News, “that what is taking place now is a renaissance akin to that of the early twentieth century.” And, as Dorothy Parker once remarked, I am Marie of Rumania. Perhaps, in this coming season, the circle will close; some ambitious postulant will pull out his can and write KILL LIES ALL or an equivalent phrase on the work of some established graffitist; amid the gasps of sacrilege, a new reputation will bloom as the day lily, and give birth to yet another dealer. In these times of rich variety, there is always room for one more.

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