The exhibition called “Zeitgeist,”1 which generated such heat and smoke in Berlin a year ago, still lingers in the mind as an event—even though the promised English version of its catalog has not yet materialized. It was a huge show in an overwhelming setting, a bombscarred and partially restored palazzo named the Martin-Gropius-Bau, built in the late nineteenth century as a venue for international trade-and-culture expositions. The Wall runs directly outside its abandoned portico; not far away are the ruins of Gestapo headquarters. Short of a De Mille set constructed on the lines of Piranesi’s Carceri, it would have been hard to find a more dramatic environment, or one which did more to make its contents more theatric: 237 paintings and sculptures, by some fortysix living artists. And theater was the order of the day: even the catalog preface bore the title “Achilles and Hector before the Walls of Troy.”
Its organizers were Christos M. Joachimides, a Greek art historian living in Berlin, and Norman Rosenthal, of the Royal Academy in London. They had collaborated before, on a much-discussed and somewhat incoherent potpourri at Burlington House, “A New Spirit in Painting.” But “Zeitgeist” was intended to be a much bigger affair: a blockbuster, in fact, one that would put the hotly discussed topic of figurative revival in perspective. It would be an epiphanic moment for post-modernism (or neo-expressionism, or la transavanguardia, the “trans-avant-garde,” as the Italian critic Achille Bonito Oliva, despairing of finding a better label, named the art he liked to promote). Not in a long time had a major show of contemporary art openly borne so many palm prints of the mafia. Though its curators did a lot of legwork, their selections in the end seemed to have been ordered directly from a menu presented by a few dealers: Bruno Bischofberger, Mary Boone, Leo Castelli, and Michael Werner. Thus of eight artists in the show, seven came from Castelli’s stable.
There was also a blatant sexual bias. Out of forty-six artists selected by Joachimides and Rosenthal, one was a woman; and that woman, Susan Rothenberg, was represented, to her indignation, with old work. The idea that responsible curators could put together a “survey” show that ignored women artists has become unthinkable in the US, but Joachimides pettishly dismissed objections. Women, he told an interviewer from the German magazine Kunstforum, had their place in performance, photography, video, and other non-malerisch activities—electronic knitting or media quilt making, as it were; in any case, “we were not looking primarily at the genitals of the artist.”
The profusion of work by such painters as Rainer Fetting, “Salomé” and Helmut Middendorf suggested that his glaucous curatorial stare had been riveted nowhere else; it seemed unlikely that a fair eye would find such squawking rubbish better, or culturally more revealing, than the work of Nancy Graves, Judy Pfaff, Elizabeth Murray, or Jennifer Bartlett. The attitude was perhaps best summed up by David Salle, a young painter whose late-Picabian mix of weepy alienation and cold sleaze was considered the essence of New Wave sensibility and had become popular on West Broadway. He was accordingly given four bays to fill. Each of his four paintings slyly contained a letter which, put together, read C-U-N-T.
Yet however pretentious the title of the show, however dubious its politics or tendentious its argument, however theatrical its presentation or subservient its casting directors to the influence of art dealers, it was a roaring popular success. Indeed, one could argue that its success happened because of, not in spite of, these qualities. The larger the art public gets, the more show biz it wants. It seeks generalizations. The art audience has a long-inculcated addiction to handles, isms, and trends. It has great difficulty spotting the merits of the isolated artist, but if it is told with enough confidence and coercive simplicity that something has preempted history and is the Wave of the Future—especially after the 1970s, a woolly time of pluralism and small gestures, when nobody knew and few cared where “history” was heading—then the audience will go along. In any case, the word “Zeitgeist,” cliché in English, still has a romantic resonance to the Germans.
The Spirit of the Age can be defined as fashion plus curatorial and market horsepower. It all depends on what people can be induced to look at—in short, on marketing, as any realist painter, perpetually relegated by abstractionist and figurative expressionist alike to the back burner of mere worthiness, can confirm.
The role of government and officials in this is crucial. Neither Joachimides nor Rosenthal commanded many legions as a writer, and for art historians their bibliography is short. Their function was that of culture brokers; the spectacle of art-world Cherubinos, thinking a cappella and shuttling between studio and court, is a familiar one on both sides of the Atlantic—a characteristic form of postmodernist bureaucracy. Such people can cast the unformed slurry of scuttlebutt into official concrete; can mold, less by argument than by the power of spectacle, what is “in” and what is “out.” These productions cost a lot of money, and the Berlin municipal authorities, who were naturally anxious to improve their city’s blurred image as a cultural center in the eyes of both the German and the foreign public, put up some $750,000 to underwrite “Zeitgeist.”
What they got, in return, was the sense of riding the spearhead. The early 1980s have turned out to be the moment when the current of transatlantic taste in the visual arts reversed itself. For more than thirty years, America—specifically, New York—had been the approved generator of new styles. In the 1970s the sense of a cultural imperium had disintegrated, although its external form was maintained by the market. Now a great deal of the energy was coming from, not to, Europe. Like the previous situation, this one could not be allowed to go uncommemorated. Thus, just as one aim of the Metropolitan Museum’s show of American painting from 1940 to 1970 had been to imply that all Europe’s recent art, thrown into the transatlantic scale, could hardly stir the balance against the weight of Manhattan, so “Zeitgeist” set out to assert the superior vitality of recent German art.
No bones were made about the bias: there were, for instance, eighteen German artists as against one Frenchman—and a mediocre Frenchman at that, Gérard Garouste—and eight Americans (seven, really, since one of them was Andy Warhol, who cranked out for the occasion a group of garish rehashes of Albert Speer’s architectural projects that reduced even his shrinking claque to embarrassed silence). As that quirkish oracle of the mimeograph Willy Bongard remarked in his newsletter Art Aktuell, “it is obvious that the selection can be considered an indication of the strength of the pressure groups now putting their shoulder to the wheel.” But in the sphere of art as in any other, pressure groups can push and shove as they please without much effect, unless there is a public broadly receptive to their message. The creation of that public—and its differences from earlier publics for modern art—is what makes the situation in the early 1980s so rich and incongruous.
In broad terms, there is no mystery about why figurative expressionism revived. Like any other unforeseen event it was, of course, inevitable. People want to look at images. If they cannot get them from painting, they will turn to photography—hence all the fuss in the mid-Seventies about whether photography was, or was not, a “fine” art. All the theory in the world will not substitute (though in the 1960s and 1970s it certainly tried) for the sense of empathy that comes from looking at a painted figure in a painted landscape. Perhaps, on some elementary level, many people resented abstract art because they felt it was snubbing their bodies. But there are no Gallup polls on this. In any case, no reductionist argument will convince a public, for long, that painting may not incorporate narrative, drama, and emotional description.
Naturally, the idea of a continuous reign of the abstract, achieved by relentless purging of undesirable elements from the surface of the picture—a kind of Trotskyite vision of the pictorial millennium—was born to fail; just as one may predict, with some confidence, that in the not too distant future (by 1990, perhaps) the art public will feel so clogged with anguish, narcissism, and irony, so tired of being boiled up by painters’ egos, that there will be an equally convulsive purge of the expressive. SoHo, if it is not all boutiques by then, will be full of mini-Mondrians doing West Broadway Boogie-Woogies: the art world never stays still for long.
But why Expressionism, rather than some other type of figure painting—Realism, for instance? One must consult the temper of the public: the first mass public for the visual arts since the advent of Modernism, a hundred years ago. Though the audience for the avantgarde was certainly precipitated and distilled from the mass public for salon art in late nineteenth-century France, it was always a coteríe; at a rough guess, not more than 3,000 people in the world knew or cared about Georges Braque in 1930. The notion that Modernism was the specialist concern of small groups lasted, in America, until about 1945. After 1950 the pedagogical values of the Museum of Modern Art (an American invention, with no European equivalent) permeated American education; the middle-class preschooler, pudding tempera on brown paper, carried Miró’s baton in his lunch bag. The premium set on “creativity” in education combined with the booming growth of museums, cultural centers, art departments, and, of course, the art market itself, to produce a mass audience and an imperial vision of American culture. And the lead character in the drama of American cultural supremacy was, of course, the movement known as Abstract Expressionism—“The Triumph of American Painting,” in Irving Sandler’s somewhat injudicious phrase.
The legend of the Abstract Expressionists, as distinct from their actual work, provided the ever-growing art audience of the 1960s and 1970s with the same kind of romantic frisson that had once been furnished by the big romantic potboilers—Lust for Life, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Moulin Rouge. For here was the real stuff of fatal artisthood: from Pollock pissing in the Guggenheim fireplace to Rothko slitting his wrists in the lonely studio, nothing was trivial, everything was infused with suffering and moral determination. If the Nietzschean Clyfford Still had not existed, Ayn Rand would have had to invent him.
To virtually everyone in the American art audience who had been born after 1940, Abstract Expressionism was held up as a model of creative endeavor and moral probity. So it had been; but not in the fetishized, legend-encrusted form it acquired through cliché, gossip, and rumor. What the legend produced was a fear of missing the bus. Its lesson was clear: real art, the realest and most intense art, is torn with manifest travail (and, if possible, a bit of social wreckage too) from the center of the body and the cellars of the mind. It is hot, passionate, unconfined, personal, and chthonic. It is made by heroes with problems, who snarl at grace and are rumored to go through the mass of Bennington girls like runaway rototillers. It costs hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of dollars today; whereas thirty years ago you could get it for nothing. Those who got it for nothing then share the heroism today (if they hung onto it: nobody honors the Long Island dentist who sold Blue Poles too early). Those who get it for millions today also demonstrate “commitment,” and do fiscal penance for the ignorance of others. It leaves behind it disputed estates and bereft but powerful widows.
Such is the legenda aurea of AbEx engraved on the hearts of many collectors who started buying in the 1970s. Rarely had expectant patrons been so mismatched to the art available. Longing for heat, they got cool. Instead of the fervent and self-describing gesture, they were offered a “minimalist” box, a “site-specific” row of bricks, a “conceptual” sheet of quarto paper chastely imprinted with a proposition about symbolic logic, or a photograph of a designated boulder in some remote fold of Nevada. Seeking solace in the art magazines, once the home of muggy romantic prose, they received edifying discourses on the aesthetics of boredom and the virtues of difficulty. The art they bought was not particularly cheap, but it did not promise to get much more expensive. As the decade wore on, their hopes of latching onto “heroic” art were crimped by legions of feminist art historians extolling Pennsylvanian quilt makers and unjustly neglected women Precisionists from the Bay Area; and their sense of self-worth as patrons found itself under attack from every sort of Marxist, structuralist, and deconstructor. Not to get value for your investment dollar was one thing; but to be rebuked as an exploiter of the artworkers while not getting it was quite another.
Moreover, this retreat from the hot, the heavy, and the personal was taking place against a background of unbridled social narcissism: never had Americans erected the Self into such a sacred calf as they did in the 1970s, as every conceivable kind of sexual, athletic, and therapeutic fad was applied to sensibilities frazzled by post-Vietnam doubt. The art and the time, to put it mildly, were out of joint. It is hard, therefore, to overestimate the relief felt by American collectors around 1979 and 1980, when Expressionism, like MacArthur, returned.
In Europe, and especially in Germany, the feelings provoked by neo-Expressionism ran thicker and touched on deeper nerves. There, postwar American painting in general, and Abstract Expressionism in particular, had come by the end of the 1970s to be seen by the left as colonizing art, largely backed by foreign entrepreneurs, intended (whatever its original aims had been) to apply in the field of aesthetics something akin to the rule of the multinationals. Figural expressionism had been a German and Austrian invention. Hitler had borne down on it as Entartete Kunst, “Degenerate Art,” the German metastasis of a general modernist cancer. Some prominent Nazis, led by Albert Speer, had tried to persuade him in the 1930s that at least some aspects of Expressionism—its imagery of primordial landscape or rural simplicity, its fondness for peasant motifs and animistic visions of Nature—might serve the Party quite well, if they could be purged of the urban jitters represented by Kirchner or Kokoschka.
Speer went so far as to propose Emil Nolde, who held an early Nazi party card, as an official artist. But Hitler, whose taste was fixated on German salon painters of the nineteenth century like Makart, would not hear of it; so the Expressionists were driven into exile or sent to the camps. But this did not mean that German artists, after the war, gladly embraced Expressionism. By then, its “Germanic” qualities, its celebration of the instinctive, the irrational and the Volkisch, had become almost as thoroughly contaminated by the cultural fallout from Nazism as Wagner’s music or the neoclassical architecture of Speer’s teacher, Troost. Abstraction was now identified with progress, freedom, and democracy; like the corporate glass box, it was part of the imagery of postwar reconstruction, even though it—being saturated in the ideology of art informel—made a point of its own instinctiveness and irrationality.
The contorted Expressionist figure was abolished by the photographs of what Germans had done, in the camps, to real bodies. It seemed to mock catastrophe. To paint in a realist manner, however, exposed an artist to the charge of flirting with what lay on the other side of the Wall: Stalinist “socialist realism,” another voice of tyranny. With a vast tract of German art history closed to them—for Expressionism was not simply a twentieth-century art movement, but the modern prolongation of a vein of imagery that extended from Bavarian folk-carvings and the work of Matthias Grünewald to the ecstatic Nature-worship of Philipp Otto Runge—most German artists took to an international style, and wore abstraction as the virtuous uniform of deNazification.
The man who broke this bind was Joseph Beuys. One does not need to be a Green, or have a taste for Beuys’s rambling performance as a students’ Messiah promising world salvation through universal creativity, to acknowledge the wide and stimulating effect he had on German culture in the 1960s and 1970s. With his performances and constructions, deploying an imagery of dead animals, antlers, precious metals, fat, felt, wands, rust, and detritus, he managed to integrate German longings for a mythic past back into the stream of modern German culture, enabling Germans—for the first time, in the visual arts, since 1933—to move with an easy conscience among their inherited imagery of Romanticism, once so fatally appropriated by Hitler. Beuys’s extraordinary gift for taking conventionally repellent materials and socially abhorrent memories and converting them, as by a shamanistic act, into angular visions of history is what touched off the expressionist revival of the late 1970s.2 It is no accident that the most talented German artist of the present generation, Anselm Kiefer, studied with him in the early 1970s.
For foreign visitors who did not know his work at first hand, the room showing Kiefer’s work was the hub of “Zeitgeist”; it made the journey to Berlin worthwhile. His landscapes of northern German plains, clotted and gray, the paint plowed inches thick and mixed with straw, had an extraordinary, bleak, and (given their obsessive references to frontier, no-man’s land, and battlefield) political intensity. His Monument to the Unknown Artist—a vast hall in the architectural style of Speer’s Chancellery, square Doric columns and all, with an emblematic palette borne up on a pillar above a pool—reflected, simultaneously, on the catastrophic cultural losses of the war, the unusable heritage of German official art, and the inflated careers of modern artist-heroes. Compared to Kiefer’s gloomy yet precisely judged work, the much-vaunted ironies of the American New Wave were like the twittering of distant sparrows.
It was a pity that the other indisputably major Expressionist artist at work today, Frank Auerbach, was not shown in Berlin too. But Auerbach’s sin, in the eyes of the curators, seems to have been premature neo-Expressionism—he is fifty-two, and has been at it since he was an art student; so his recognition, at least in Germany and America, remains delayed.
From Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz, and the better paintings of Georg Baselitz (whose mannerism of painting his subjects upside down seemed a fraudulent attention-getting gimmick at first, but now looks more like a way of subverting the “sincerity” of the Expressionist code), there is a fairly steep fall to the general run of heftige Malerei, a phrase whose meaning hovers between “earnest painting” and “heavy-duty art.” Apart from the fact that one becomes deafened by its relentless fortissimo, most of it is badly drawn, hastily painted, and banal in conception. In the end, art history gives no points for sincerity: performance is what matters. And even the “sincerity” of painters like Fetting, Middendorf, or Siegfried Anzinger—let alone the trivial Salomé—is called into question by the sheer volume of their output. This market may not be here tomorrow; indeed it is likely that the peripheral work of such Wilden ohne Eien or “ball-less Fauves,” as one prominent German critic called them, will sink without a trace within five years. For the moment, however, it provides a large stratum of German collectors with the kind of art that appeals to them: heavily coded with conventional signs for emotional rawness and impending crisis; making few demands on connoisseurship, it is perfect promotional material.
Much the same is true of Julian Schnabel, the American artist whose brief career has made such a vivid impact. In Schnabel, collectors nourished on the legend of Abstract Expressionism have found a temporary surrogate for the Pollocks they cannot buy. The interesting thing about his career is not the paintings. They are, almost without exception, ridiculously bombastic and illdrawn: to look at Schnabel’s crusts of broken saucers, staring masks, antlers, and other quasi-symbolic impedimenta is to be reminded of the lines in Sheridan’s The Critic: “Your occasional tropes and flowers suit the general coarseness of your style, as tambour sprigs would a ground of linseywoolsey…so that they lie on the surface like lumps of marl on a barren moor, encumbering what it is not in their power to fertilize.” But the strategies by which Schnabel was installed as a “major” figure had much to say about the workings of the art world.
Schnabel believed, and fulsomely announced to anyone within range, that he was a genius. When someone makes such claims there are only three broad choices: that he is a fool, a fraud, or the real thing. Under the right circumstances, such conviction tends to snowball; and the conditions were certainly right, since American collectors were bored, restless, and haunted by legends of the past. They wanted a pseudo-Pollock—the art world equivalent of Rocky Balboa.
Schnabel played this part to perfection; there turned out to be a more than accidental relationship between his come-on and Sylvester Stallone’s, since both, in their respective media, were based on kitsch parodies of heroic will. Dealers supported him boldly, feeding the pot with heavily hyped price estimates; these, after a lag, became real (at least to peripheral collectors). The climax of this process came with an auction at Sotheby’s last spring, when one of Schnabel’s plate-paintings sold for $85,000. It was suspected in the art world that this sale had been rigged with planted underbidders; by then, too much money had been invested in Schnabel’s career to allow his prices to fall, at least for the while. Schnabel’s dealers strongly denied that any such rigging had taken place.
It was the construction of Schnabel’s career as a cultural artifact that impressed art consumers. It showed how much power dealers could muster and how effectively a hard sell could short-circuit the hitherto gradual growth of a painter’s prices along with his, or her, reputation. If a critic pointed to the gross and transparent promotional mechanisms behind this career, that only meant that he or she was “avoiding” engagement with the work. If he or she disliked the work, that was a symptom of blindness or retrogression. Thus the tiresome myth of the misunderstood hero became a solvent to argument. Moreover, since what counts in criticism these days (from the market’s point of view) is less the penetration than the length, any mention, favorable or unfavorable, became grist to the mill. Not since the media blitz that accompanied Bernard Buffet’s rise thirty years before had the old show biz maxim that they can say what they like as long as they get the name right applied so forcibly to a painter’s career.
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.
October 27, 1983