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The challenges of assessing new art

A friend from the Midwest asked a provocative question after a three-day visit to New York's art galleries. Where, she wanted to know, was all the art? She had seen thousands of paintings, sculptures, prints, and whatnots, but claimed she could count the real art on the fingers of both hands. She was particularly disturbed by the ever-widening gap between the various art styles, and by the fact that so much of the work she saw was, in her words, ''obscure, precious, or badly painted.''

The realists, she said, were more baldly and unimaginatively realistic than ever, the abstract painters were chasing their own little formalist visions down deeper and deeper holes, and the imagists, neo- and pop-expressionists, street painters, and what-have-yous were whipping up ever-bigger tempests in their respective teapots.

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Everywhere she looked, the new art struck her as crude, vulgar, sloppy, glittery, and 10 times larger than it had any right to be.

I was quite taken aback by her accusations, because my friend has always been open to new modes of expression and has, in fact, occasionally argued for new work I myself was inclined to dismiss.

She is not, however, the only person to have voiced this complaint recently. An excellent younger painter after his monthly trip to New York, during which he toured SoHo and paid a visit to a major museum's ''New Talent'' show, remarked that if what he had just seen was what art really was all about, he would quit painting immediately. And at a party attended largely by art professionals, I heard several art historians comment on the generally low level of art on view in our galleries. Now, I've heard all this before. In fact, I've heard it every year since moving to New York more than 27 years ago. And I heard it even earlier, from my art teachers, for example, who regularly returned to class after visits to New York with horrendous tales of the depths to which painting was sinking. This complaint is something I've gotten used to, and to which I try to pay as little attention as possible.

I have discovered that even the best-intentioned and most open-minded art lover can reach a saturation point with the new, and can simply refuse to open himself up even one more time to the most ''advanced'' kinds of art. The temptation to say ''so far and no further'' can be great, even for the art critic who must not only respond openly to the new in order to comprehend it, but must then also attempt some form of objective judgment on it. The strain on the imagination, sensibilities, and critical faculties can be considerable and also somewhat self-defeating, for such judgments too often resemble critical comparisons between seedlings and fully grown trees.

It's difficult and generally unfair to judge something still brand new and tentative in the light of the great accomplishments of the past, to declare such work bad or non-art simply because it doesn't match the level of quality or resemble the kind of work found in our museums.

It's also altogether too tempting to dismiss something new merely because it violates attitudes we hold dear, or because it runs counter to traditional values or ideas.

And yet, neither can we wholeheartedly and uncritically embrace everything new just because it is new. Art, after all, is much more than novelty or a new sensation. At its truest and best, it belongs to all mankind, and for it even to come close to that level, it must accomplish a great deal more than excite interest or relieve boredom.

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Even on its simplest and most everyday level, art must contribute something beyond momentary sense-gratification or entertainment. It must resonate with qualities that extend beyond those of a work's subject, form, or technique.

As an art critic I am professionally obliged to be as open as possible to the new regardless of how outrageous or regressive it may at first appear to be. But I'm even more obligated to attempt to see beyond immediate effects and changes, and to weigh what appears daily in the galleries against my perception of art's larger goals and realities. I delight in the challenge, for it forces me to engage the values and ideals of the past - and most particularly those of my own generation - with those of the generation just coming into view.

These confrontations can be somewhat unsettling, however, especially if what I see was partly designed to contradict or deride ideas and values my generation and later ones hold dear. And yet, there can be no stepping back. There's too much to be learned on both sides, and if a genuine critical dialogue doesn't ensue, we are doomed to have each new generation's art replace and erase what came before.

Should that happen, we would lose one of art's most valuable qualities, its ability to maintain a critical dialogue between generations, centuries, and civilizations, and to create a viable, dynamic tradition that both nourishes and challenges each new artist as he or she appears.

On the other hand, what does an art critic do when confronted by a dramatically ''advanced'' work by A. R. Penck, Keith Milow, or Jon Borofsky an hour or two after standing deeply absorbed before a Vermeer or Cezanne? Or when he views an excellent exhibition of very realistic paintings by Akira Arita, Frederick Brosen, or James Valerio after a stimulating morning in the studio of one of the major Abstract Expressionists or Neo-Expressionists? What critical common denominator or ''universal'' criteria can he call upon in order to evaluate them all fairly? Or should he even attempt an evaluation at all?

I believe that he should, not in the final and absolute sense so many orthodox critics seem to prefer, but as his contribution to the art world's ongoing and dynamic critical dialogue. An artist produces work, and the critics, curators, dealers, and collectors - as well as the general public - respond to it. The artist, in turn, reacts, at least to a degree, to the effect his art has had. And so, rather than existing as a series of individual and isolated acts, the actions and responses of everyone concerned become part of an overall cultural continuum.

The criticism that results is broader and, I believe, of greater value than the kind of criticism that makes only absolute judgments. It's more dynamic, and it judges the artist's work within a larger and more open-ended context. It's as pointless, after all, to condemn the work of a talented artist of 20 as it is to criticize a tiny seedling just out of the ground for not being a mighty oak.

There are standards, and ultimately every artist must be weighed against them. But first, the individual artist and the collective artistic idea must be given a chance to grow and to discover their weaknesses and strengths. In that the critic can be of great help. But at the same time, until a ''new'' artist's work is sufficiently committed and mature, the artist must simply be treated a bit more gently than the one whose work is solid enough to risk comparison with the old or more recent masters.

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