It’s just as well that the appetite of this enlarged public is not for new art, but for new personalities, because finally there is little to differentiate one conceptual artist’s work from another. One pale grid on the wall is pretty much like any other; one page of compulsive calligraphy is hardly distinguishable from another. Thus the shift in focus from art work to the persona of the artist is necessary in a greatly expanded art world. in an overcrowded and undercapitalized milieu, only the media attention can single out the happy free from the madding crowd. Because communications media are by definition fickle, there is little loyalty to these overnight sensations. New personalities must be constantly created to satisfy not only the artist’s ego, but also the critic’s equivalent need to distinguish him or herself through the discovery of a definitive new talent. Parallel to the substitution of “stardom” – instant prominence as opposed to a steadily growing reputation evolving over a long period – for artists is the redefinition of the critic, not as the judge of quality but as the artist’s impresario. The disbelief that art has any intrinsic quality quickly leads to the conclusion that all an artist needs needs to succeed is a press agent who can write Art-Forumese. This cynicism is supported by attitudes toward success inculcated in art schools and promulgated by a new type of literature devoted to advising artists how to market their careers, manage there images, find galleries, collectors, etc., which along with books by accountants and lawyers about art, is the largest new category of art literature. [Barbara Rose on Twilight of the Superstars]
The rhetoric which accompanies this resurrection of painting is almost exclusively reactionary: it reacts specifically against all those art practices of the sixties and seventies which abandoned painting and coherently placed in question the ideological supports of painting, and the ideology which painting, in turn, supports. And thus, while almost no one agreed with the choices Barbara Rose made to demonstrate painting’s renaissance, almost everyone agrees with the substance, if not the details, of her rhetoric. Rose’s catalogue text for American Painting: The Eighties is a dazzling collection of received ideas about the art of painting, and I would submit that it is only such ideas that painting today knows.
Here, then, is a litany of excerpts from Rose’s essay, which I think we may take as provisional answers to the question: To what end painting in the l980s?
… painting [is] a transcendental, high art, a major art, and an art of universal as opposed to topical significance.
… only painting [is] genuinely liberal, in the sense of free.
[painting is] an expressive human activity … our only present hope for preserving high art.
[painting] is the product exclusively of the individual imagination rather than a mirror of the ephemeral external world of objective reality.
… illusion … is the essence of painting.
Today, the essence of painting is being redefined not as a narrow, arid and reductive anti-illusionisrn, but as a rich, varied capacity to birth new images into an old world.
[painting’s] capacity [is] to materialize an image … behind the proverbial looking-glass of consciousness, where the depth of the imagination knows no bounds.
Not innovation, but originality, individuality and synthesis are the marks of quality in art today, as they always have been.
… art is labor, physical human labor, the labor of birth, reflected in the many images that appear as in a process of emergence, as if taking form before us.
The liberating potential of art is … a catharsis of the imagination.
… these paintings are clearly the works of rational adult humans, not a monkey, not a child, or a lunatic.
“Now something’s gone terribly awry with that artistic morphology. An inversion has occurred. In today’s greatly expanded art world and art market, artists making diluted art have the upper hand. A large swath of the art being made today is being driven by the market, and specifically by not very sophisticated speculator-collectors who prey on their wealthy friends and their friends’ wealthy friends, getting them to buy the same look-alike art… Galleries everywhere are awash in these brand-name reductivist canvases, all more or less handsome, harmless, supposedly metacritical, and just “new” or “dangerous”-looking enough not to violate anyone’s sense of what “new” or “dangerous” really is, all of it impersonal, mimicking a set of preapproved influences. (It’s also a global presence: I saw scads of it in Berlin a few weeks back, and art fairs are inundated.) These artists are acting like industrious junior postmodernist worker bees, trying to crawl into the body of and imitate the good old days of abstraction, deploying visual signals of Suprematism, color-field painting, minimalism, post-minimalism, Italian Arte Povera, Japanese Mono-ha, process art, modified action painting, all gesturing toward guys like Polke, Richter, Warhol, Wool, Prince, Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, Wade Guyton, Rudolf Stingel, Sergej Jensen, and Michael Krebber. I’ve photographed hundreds of examples this year, at galleries and art fairs, and a sampling appears on these pages.” [Jerry Saltz on contemporary abstraction]