The 41st Venice Biennale (June 10-Sept. 9) has brought the quiet Giardini di Castello, where the international art exposition is held every other year, to life. Artists, curators, critics, collectors, dealers, and the merely curious from the world over have converged upon the 37 pavilions to scrutinize what the art world concocted these last two years.
The results are banal indeed. The 34 national pavilions, usually selected by government-appointed committees, are strewn with tediously conservative works. But this is nothing new. In recent years, the appalling mediocrity at Venice has become a sad tradition of its own.
To look at the Spanish retrospective of Antoni Clave's quasi-abstract paintings and collages in light of these surroundings is immensely satisfying. Clave, born in 1913, continues to press at the boundaries of the abstract and the plainly representational. His images are full of the lush surfaces, delicate calligraphy, and masterly paint handling, which is apparent in ''Triptych'' ( 1983-84).
Here the two outer panels of the work play with silhouettes of a loosely human form that are painted with elegantly abstract abandon. The central panel is a lifelike image of crumpled fabric slightly spattered with paint - a representation of the ''real'' canvas on which the artist's work is created. Questions of what is abstract and what is realistic are confounded by Clave's assertion that the painting is itself real: an object that contains within it both the illusion of this world's reality and the freedom from this world that abstract art offers.
Howard Hodgkin's show in the British pavilion is the most striking for its outlandishly correct presentation. Against walls of a sunlit green, the reds, blues, and greens of his paintings look cleverly pumped up - as if they were records playing at top volume.
The paintings, ranging over the years 1973-84, have an outlandishness of their own: a wit and exaggerated emotional intensity that vibrate in his high-colored awkward, brush strokes. In the work entitled ''In the Bay of Naples'' (1980-82), we see his stippled passages of color break up in areas that hover on the surface, seem to rush against each other, and shatter our perception of a continuous space.
Almost without exception the art seen in the pavilions relies upon modernist artmaking developments - either breaking up a continuous sense of space, flattening out the picture plane, exploiting imagery of the unconscious, using collage techniques, painting with an expressionistic bravura, and so on. Contrary to this, there would seem to be something daring about ''Arte Allo Specchio'' (''Art in the Mirror''), the theme exhibition at the heart of the Biennale that in reality bewildered and depressed most people.
''Art in the Mirror'' practices that particularly self-conscious relation to history now being called ''postmodernism.'' In this expression of it, these artists reflect on their medium (painting, sculpture) in light of what they see behind it (art history). Historical pictures are appropriated for the ironic power of their images when they are introduced into a new, seemingly arbitrary environment. This process of historical disorientation is intended to free the picture from its historical constrictions. Its cultural origins are dislocated, suggesting the ultimately unmoored condition of any image.
There is the implication that our society has actually perpetrated this condition by cramming the world with an unending flux of pictures. Advertisements, film and television images, and fine art are all run togther in the collapse of distinctions between time, place, and the hierarchical values of society. In the eyes of Maurizio Calvesi, the curator of the show, this upheaval has become a creative strength. The avant-garde's notion that artists must continually break new ground is dead. New and old have lost their categorical separation. Instead we find in the ecstatic confusion of ''Art in the Mirror'' Renaissance images painted in the expressionist style or in the neo-neoclassicism of Michelangelo Pistoletto's ''Il genio'' (1981-83): an ultimately obvious sculpture on the theme of history repeating itself, showing a classical figure out of whose torso a near duplicate figure grows.
In response to Calvesi's sensibility, John Roberts, the English art critic who co-curated ''Aperto '84'' (the ''open'' show of 47 younger artists on the international scene) argued: ''Art is concerned with a discourse on public morality. That is where the value of art still lies. Yet the majority of art is recanting of the moral profile. And 'Art in the Mirror' would seem to be a celebration of that moral recanting.''
This avalanche of painted deities, old master courtiers, satyrs, and punk Ingres is a lesson in stasis. Only when the artists' attentions played upon both an aesthetic challenge and the ideas communicated did the art truly excite the imagination. Some works where this happened: Christopher Lebrun's richly complex paintings; Anne and Patrick Poirer's monumental icon of collapsed history ''La Morte di Encelade'' (1983); and the ''historical'' section of works by de Chirico, Duchamp, Picabia, Picasso, Man Ray, Carra, et al.
Another high mark is the exhibit ''The Arts in Vienna from the Secession to the Fall of the Hapsburg Empire,'' installed in the Palazzo Grassi. An exhaustive survey, it includes some 1,200 paintings, sculptures, drawing, architectural projects, graphics, and ornaments. Though padded with second-rate work, the completeness of the cultural picture is remarkable. The 160 artists were on the track between art nouveau and Expressionism, a movement combining decorativeness and increasing emotional agitation in their works. Their relentless search for an elevated civilization is a fascinating if not ironic introduction to the ''Art in the Mirror'' degradation of the new.
The Secession show was a beacon brightening the dreariness of this year's Zeitgeist. But perhaps that is the point of ''Art in the Mirror.'' We seem only able to look to the past these days to find anything of interest at all. At least that was the case amid the shallowness and mediocrity exhibited in the visual arts at Venice, 1984.