Wait a minute! Let's not applaud the new just because it's new
Today's artist is not a god - despite what some of our writers on art seem to think. Reading them, one gets the impression that the decision to become an artist transforms a normal, reasonably intelligent individual into a personage who can do no wrong, is subtle and profound beyond the capabilities of mere mortals to comprehend, and is to be accorded the kind of respect generally reserved for heads of state and rock musicians.
I just don't understand it. Why this uncritical adulation of certain artists? Or, for that matter, why this mad scramble to be the first to embrace the new in art, to tie the writer's critical or scholarly identity to a new artist's painterly, sculptural, or graphic one?
What is so wrong about facing the ''new'' with caution, and with the assumption that it and its creator must be the ones to prove themselves, at least to a degree, before being welcomed with open arms by the art community? Why this crazy assumption that the artist is inevitably right, and that the only way that anyone else involved with art can prove his worth is by wholeheartedly embracing whatever ''new'' thing comes along?
What's more, this uncritical acceptance also extends to whatever an ''in'' artist does, says, writes, or paints. No art form has as many ''sacred cows'' as painting and sculpture. In no other art form do we find so many professional writers and critics serving as flacks and flunkies for a few favorites, or so many scholars subverting their hard-earned professional objectivity in order to rally to one paper-thin artistic cause or other. It makes me wonder if the function of those who write about art is not really to try to separate the good and the lively from the bad and the deadly, but to serve as the footstools around the thrones certain artists sit on to be adored.
I bring this up because I've just finished reading the text of the catalog put out in conjunction with the Whitney Museum's current exhibition here of the works of Edward Ruscha - and because I've just returned from my second viewing of the show.
Both treat Ruscha as though he were close to a genius, with a profundity and subtlety of thought, and a skill of such exquisite quality, that we will probably not see his likes again in this century. Which all goes to demonstrate that an artist with a small, rather neat talent for drawing and design, an instinct for the mildly witty and satiric, and the capacity pictorially to manipulate the moods and the myths of his time can achieve considerable glory if he monotonously repeats certain simple ideas, insisting that what he is producing is indeed art.
True, there is some art in this exhibition, tracing Ruscha's evolution from 1959 to the present as a sort of West Coast cousin to the New York-based Pop Art giants Warhol and Lichtenstein. But it is, unfortunately, quite successfully hidden by Ruscha's persistent overextension of his talent, and by his continual insistence that we pay attention to numerous minuscule variations of his four or five central, but by no means particularly profound or interesting, ideas.
Ruscha is famous for his highly stylized and tightly designed paintings of gas stations, apartment buildings, the ''Hollywood'' sign atop Mt. Hollywood in Los Angeles, and his huge canvas of ''The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire.'' His greatest fame, however, has resulted from his many works emphasizing words or conversational statements, such as his 1979 pastel, ''I Don't Want No Retro Spective.'' (Many of the latter were ''painted'' with organic substances on various fabrics, including ketchup on canvas, egg yolk on satin, blackberry juice on moire, and blood on satin.)
All this is fully, even exhaustively, documented by the show's 143 paintings, works on paper, and books. For a fan of Ruscha's work, this must add up to a grand event, but for me (and, I suspect, for most of those I saw rushing through the show) it was little more than a mildly intriguing and far-from-rewarding experience.
The main problem with this exhibition is that it is overblown and much too ''thin.'' It left me feeling the way I would had I been invited to dinner at the home of a gourmet cook, and had been served nothing but crackers and cheese. Ruscha's art does not deserve a full floor at the Whitney Museum; a medium-size room would have done nicely. As a matter of fact, the small illustrations of his works in the exhibition catalog argue his case far more successfully than do the paintings themselves.
This exhibition was organized and originally shown at the San Francisco Museum of Art. After its close at the Whitney on Sept. 5, it will travel to the Vancouver (British Columbia) Art Gallery (Oct. 4-Nov. 28); the San Antonio Museum of Art (Dec. 27-Feb. 20); and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (March 17-May 15).