Art: Careerism and Hype Amidst the Image Haze

American painters of the '80s are buffeted by cultural inflation

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The decade is half over, but already one begins to feel the peculiar sensation of looking back on the art of the '80s. How, in America, have its frequent miseries balanced out against its episodic splendors? The end of a century -- and even more, the end of a millennium -- brings anxiety with it: the unavoidable doubts and mannerisms of the fin de siecle, when every kind of stylistic bubble rises to the cultural surface, swells and bursts with a soft plop and a whiff, while marsh lights flicker and the cultural promoters croak their Aristophanic chorus. The SoHo Tar Pits: heaven for the market, purgatory (or limbo, anyway) for judgment.

Today more than ever, the buzz word among American collectors is "interesting." These four bland syllables are in fact highly coded.

The earlier word was "quality," whose utterance was meant to mark off a given artwork from the swarm of others and confirm the precision of a collector's taste. Interesting has the opposite effect. It suspends judgment, covers the rear, and defends the vacuum-cleaner habits of a cultural mass market without precedent in art history. It states, with a sort of coy defiance, that buying this, uh, thang may not be a mistake, even though its owner does not know what to say about it. It acknowledges that by the time thoughtful aesthetic judgment is passed -- a distant prospect, given the promotional state of too much American art criticism -- the price has trebled, the boat has sailed, the artist has turned 31, and it is now time to chatter about "contemporary masterpieces," meaning formerly "interesting" art that, after four years, carries a $20,000 to $50,000 price tag.

The temple of the "interesting," the crammed pantheon of the briefly new, is the Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the 1985 version of which closed on Sunday. The importance of the biennial lies in the absence of other exhibitions that do the same job. It is a salon, though a very biased one (it scants realist painting, for instance, in favor of more nominally "advanced" styles), and as such it is the one regular national survey of American art held by a major U.S. museum. It pretends to be plain reportage, but it is nothing of the sort -- art-world pressures on it run too deep for that. Still, it serves as an index to the current scene and holds a mirror of sorts up to American painting.

Despite a smattering of mature and serious work, this year's biennial was generally agreed to be the worst in living memory. The six curators seemed to have their neural nets patched directly into Manhattan's East Village, that journalists' playpen of urban gentrification, which in the '80s is replacing SoHo as the city's art-based boomtown, its Montmartre of the Neo. There is a small deposit of serious East Village art, but none was represented at the Whitney.

What finds favor here is young, loud and, except in its careerism, invincibly dumb. It wants to be winsomely outrageous as a form of ingratiation. Its mood is claustrophobic because its sense of history (i.e., anything that happened before Warhol, except for kitsch surrealism) is nil.

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