Today's challenge to art critics: be willing to sort out the 'junk'
To what extent is the art of the 1980s disposable art? Or junk art created for casual, nonnourishing consumption in the manner of junk food? It may still be a bit early to tell, although it is already clear that some of today's art is more trivial than any fashioned in recent years and that some of it is produced in an atmosphere so tinseled and superficial that even Andy Warhol would have a difficult time recognizing it as art.
It is also true, of course, that the beginning 1980s have produced new works by Anselm Kiefer, Enzo Cucchi, Gregory Amenoff, Susan Rothenberg, Tino Zago, Mark Tansey, Alan Magee, Louisa Chase, and others that promise to hold up well when the history of this century is written. And there are several even younger artists hard at work who possess at least several of the qualities required for the creation of significant art.
Even so, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the trivial and the trite are becoming respectable in the contemporary gallery world and that they have even begun to worm their way into some of our museums.
Proof can be found in such huge and otherwise excellent exhibitions as the recent Chicago International Art Exposition and the current ''An International Survey of Recent Painting And Sculpture'' at the Museum of Modern Art here, as well as in smaller gallery and museum shows presenting new talent or an overview of contemporary art. And if that isn't enough, there are the various gallery exhibitions featuring graffiti art.
One leaves such shows feeling that while today's art may be extraordinarily vital and varied, much of it seems content to remain on the surface of things, optically, emotionally, or philosophically. And that some of it actually delights in being trivial or trite.
Now, while I may not approve of trivialization in art, I can at least understand it - especially if there is little peer or professional opposition to it. What I cannot understand is the blanket of silence it tends to receive from the art-critical community. A reputable film, music, or literary critic will denounce whatever is cheap or bad in his or her respective field, but the most one will get from most major art critics in similar circumstances is silence or evasion. When questioned about this, the latter's response reflects the belief that if one pays no attention to bad art or non-art, it will go away and never bother anyone again.
Now, this is utter nonsense - as the continuing careers of several undeservedly well-known artists testify. Trivial or trashy work simply will not go away by itself, especially if it is colorful, highly technical, sentimental, simplistically ''modern'' or flashily executed. Or if it is sold by dealers with impressive galleries in fashionable locations. Even serious critical attack cannot guarantee riddance of such work, but it should at least help limit its public acceptance.
The problem lies in separating the trivial from the significant at a time when it's more than a full-time job just keeping up with what's going on in art - let alone judging it. Wisdom and experience do not necessarily help. Thirty, 40, even 50 years' experience can actually be an impediment when confronting something new that challenges long-held and cherished ideas and ideals. And yet such experience can also be exactly what's needed to see through the hokum of novelty and to perceive the work in question as fraudulent or trash.
It's the critic's responsibility to ''test'' new work, to determine whether it's live or a dud, even though he cannot be absolutely certain his reactions are correct. This uncertainty can have good and bad results. It can make the critic more sensitive to his own prejudices and inadequacies and thus less willing to leap to hasty conclusions. Or it can cause him to become evasive or dogmatic or to not commit himself until he has heard the opinions of his peers.
Either way, judgment is inconclusive. Distinctions between the good and the bad, between the promising and the pathetic, remain clouded, and mere cleverness , sensationalism, technical proficiency, or sentimentality are left unidentified and uncensured. This, of course, is unavoidable at times, but it is acceptable only if such fence-straddlings are followed as soon as possible by more considered conclusions.
I'm not calling for absolute and final judgments, only for a more open and dynamic dialogue between critic and viewing public in which the former is not afraid to commit himself, and the latter is willing to challenge reviews and criticisms when they do not seem relevant or are obviously evasive.
I am reminded of a flagrant example of critical pussyfooting - the published responses to the recent Willem de Kooning retrospective at the Whitney Museum here. I reported in my review of Jan. 4, 1984, that viewing this important exhibition was ''both a tremendously exhilarating experience and a slightly melancholy one, for it both totally vindicates his reputation as one of the most original and dynamic painters of the 1940-65 period and dramatically underscores the fact that the quality of his work has been in decline ever since.''
It was not an easy thing for me to write. My respect for de Kooning was such that the idea of writing about his decline appalled me. And yet I felt I had to, especially as it became increasingly clear almost everyong else was going to remain silent about it.
I have never before witnessed such a discrepancy between what art profes-sionals and artists said in private, and what they saw fit to express publicly or put into print. With very few exceptions, they were candid in their homes, offices, or studios about the lower quality of de Kooning's post-1965 work but full of praise for his entire exhibition once they had the public's attention. The discrepancy was so great that for a while I thought I was living in an Alice in Wonderland world, and only Hilton Kramer's short and to-the-point review in The New Criterion put things back into their proper perspective.
If de Kooning weren't a very major figure, and the retrospective a very important show, it might not have mattered so much. It certainly is understandable that old friends and colleagues would not want to hurt the artist in print, but the art critics and writers among them failed to understand that since this was a truly significant and highly publicized event, the public deserved to get as clear an insight into it as possible.
Critical avoidance or silence are not justified, whether they be directed at the work of one of the world's most important living artists or at the very new and strange-looking canvases of the totally unknown. In either case, the public deserves the critic's best opinions. If it doesn't receive them, we may all very well discover that the art of the 1980s will indeed become disposable, or junk, art.