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The debate in the big-time galleries

MOST artists don't understand the basic nature of the big-time gallery world. They assume it exists primarily for the display and sale of work by talented painters, sculptors, and printmakers and that, if the quality is there, the art world will immediately recognize and honor it. That is far from the case. It is true, of course, that the galleries, especially those in New York and other cultural centers, are the exposure points and marketplaces for the art produced around the country and that, for many, the gallery world is almost exclusively a place of business. And it would be foolish to deny that it is also an entertainment center, a place where thousands of viewers are introduced daily to the fact that painting and sculpture can be fun as well as intellectually and spiritual ly rewarding.

The gallery world's real function, however, is to serve as the cutting edge of the art world's continuing investigation into the nature of artistic quality and truth, and to provide a dynamic and open-ended forum for the testing of new theories, form, and techniques. If that sounds a trifle grand for what actually takes place, perhaps we could say it is a no-holds-barred, wild and woolly debating society in which a relatively small number of artists and art professionals participate, and to

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which everyone else pays fascinated attention.

In this world, whatever furthers or illuminates the substance or direction of the ``debate'' is considered relevant and worthy of consideration as art. Anything else, no matter how good or interesting it may be in its own right, is viewed as of peripheral interest at best, and as irrelevant or non-art at worst. In a pluralistic period such as the one we are in at present, the debate can become extremely lively and wide-ranging. When, however, the powers that be insist that only one stylistic approach tr uly engages the culture's crucial issues (as happened during Abstract Expressionism's heyday), then most of the focus will be on defining what is orthodox and in rooting out heresy.

Even today, there are subtle guidelines as to what is to be taken seriously and what is not. The fact that they are not spelled out in detail and posted for all to see makes very little difference. Anyone who visits the galleries regularly, talks to dealers and curators, and reads even half of what's printed in the art magazines knows very well what is acceptable and what is barely tolerated or taboo. What does confuse the issue is that every once in a while everything is turned

upside down, and what was denounced a year or two before is suddenly declared worthy of the highest esteem.

When that happens, the debate continues anew but with different critical objectives, and with a new perception of what is and is not worthy to be called art.

Fascinating things occur at such a time. Art professionals whose careers depend on always being on the ``right'' side of the debate are extraordinarily alert. For them to hail a new talent or theory, and then to have the critical consensus decide otherwise, would be disastrous. And yet, if they wait too long, someone else may reap the credit for being the first to support what emerges.

One can almost hear the thought processes of these individuals as they await the artists' next move. When it comes, they are on it in a flash, eager to be the first critic, curator, dealer, or collector to ``correctly'' assess, include in a museum show, handle, or buy the very latest ``hot off the press'' art of the day.

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The artists, of course, are aware of what's going on. Some pay little attention to how their work is received, others respond only to what strikes them as reasonable. A handful, however, and their number swells dramatically after a few weeks, will wait just long enough to test the wind before modifying their own work to bring it more in line with the new fashion.

From then on, the debate becomes increasingly passionate. Because of the critics' rush to be the first in print with their evaluations, very little of what is written during the first months of such a period makes any sense. It takes a while for the dust to settle, for reason and judgment to gain ascendancy, and for the dangers of misjudgment to subside. Then, and only then, will the debate be able to take the broader view.

When change has been particularly dramatic, however, as was the case around 1980 with the abrupt rejection of the purely formal for the wildly idiosyncratic, several years must pass before a solid assessment. Even then it is no easy matter, owing largely to the puffery and hype that have beclouded the issues and to the huge sums of money that have been invested in the new art.

It has taken us almost five years, for instance, to achieve even a slight degree of critical objectivity in regard to the German and Italian Neo-Expressionists. And even so, the debate as to their merit goes on.

At the moment, Anselm Kiefer of the Germans and Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi of the Italians seem the most likely of this group to survive with respect into the 21st century. But no one really knows, which is why the gallery world debate must and will continue. Fallible as it is, it's the only process we have for separating the wheat from the chaff until such a time as the art historians take over and make their more carefully considered academic pronouncements.

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