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The Decline of the City Mahagonny

Art, money, New York, the 1980s: a jeremiad.


IN THE EARLY 1960s, when I was a baby critic in Australia, it seemed that faraway New York had become a truly imperial culture, the heir to Rome and Paris, setting the norms of discourse for the rest of the world’s art. (This sense of imperial role, and the nervousness that it induced in the provinces, would later be summed up by Irving Sandier in the title of his fine book on Abstract Expressionism, The Triumph of American Painting.) Between 1945 and 1970, the quarter century that saw the rise and the flowering of the New York School, three generations of remarkable painters and sculptors seemed to have taken centrality away from Europe.

First there had been the Abstract Expressionists: Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Newman, David Smith, Gorky, Guston, Krasner, Motherwell. Then there were the slightly younger painters whom Clement Greenberg and his school had nominated as the continuers of art history, the ones on whom the future of painting as a high art was alleged (wrongly, as it turned out) to depend: Noland, Olitski, Frankenthaler, and especially Louis. And then the younger men—and a few women—who rose at tire beginning of the 1960s, Johns and Rauschenberg, followed by Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Warhol, Kelly, Stella, Judd, Smithson, Morris, diSuvero, Serra; and from there one could make one’s own list, which by the end of the 1970s might well have painters such as Susan Rothenberg and Brice Marden and sculptors such as Joel Shapiro. And of course Philip Guston again—reborn, since 1968, as a figurative artist of extraordinary power.

It would be foolish to claim that between 1945 and 1970 New York rivaled Paris between 1870 and 1914. America has never produced an artist to rival Picasso or Matisse, or an art movement with the immense resonance of Cubism. Still, marvelous work was done there, and it can certainly be said of the New York School that its artists often showed those “native” qualities listed by Frederick Jackson Turner in his history of the American frontier, qualities that seem inseparable from a younger America and are looked back on with nostalgia by Americans now: “That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients … that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism … and withal that buoyancy and exuberance.”

In Australia, again, one saw this triumph from afar, going down Fifty-seventh Street with its tramping legions and subjugated Gauls, its gold and purple and apotropaic cries. And one’s response came out as a sigh: resignation to one’s own cultural irrelevance. We were already used to that irrelevance, since for most of the 200-year history of white Australia the colonial experience had bitten deeply into us and caused the Cultural Cringe.

The Cultural Cringe is the assumption that whatever you do in the field of writing, painting, sculpture, architecture, film, dance, or theater is of unknown value until it is judged by people outside your own society. It is the reflex of the kid with low self-esteem hoping that his work will please the implacable father, but secretly despairing that it can. The essence of cultural colonialism is that you demand of yourself that your work measure up to standards that cannot be shared or debated where you live. By the manipulation of such standards, almost anything can be seen to fail, no matter what sense of finesse, awareness, and delight it may produce in its own setting.

Great art is seldom repressive, but there is no tyranny like the tyranny of the unseen masterpiece. That was our predicament. In Australia we had art schools teaching people how to make Cézannes, but our museums had no Cézannes to show us. The seen and fully experienced masterpiece tends to liberate; but reproduction is to aesthetic awareness what telephone sex is to sex. In Australia, without knowing it, we were anticipating that worthless “freedom” from the original art object, the sense of floating among its media clones, which would be so lauded in New York in the 1980s as a part of the postmodernist experience. It was stifling to independent judgment.There have been fine painters in Australia, at least since the rise of its Impressionist school in the 1880s. One can very well imagine an “alternative history” of twentieth-century art with an Australian artist in it, Arthur Boyd or Fred Williams. But we Australians tended to be afraid to claim our own qualities, for fear of looking gauche—not just to others, but to ourselves as well.

MUCH THE SAME thing had happened earlier, of course, in the United States. Few people today would dispute that Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer were among the greatest of nineteenth-century realists. Very few Americans wanted to believe that thirty years ago, for fear of being judged provincial by other, Francophile Americans. In Australia, for fear of seeming unsophisticated, we kept wondering, is this up to international standards? We had no answer, because we could not articulate these “standards” for ourselves.

Thirty years ago Abstract Expressionism was pretty well a mandatory world style. In Australia we looked at it with awe. The bottle in which its messages washed up on our shore (the paintings themselves did not cross the Pacific) was the magazine ARTnews. Its hagiographic tone was clear. Except for the titans of the history books, from Michelangelo and Leonardo down to Picasso and Matisse, whose work we hadn’t seen either, we had never read the kinds of claims made for any artist that Harold Rosenberg or Thomas Hess made for figures such as Barnett Newman and Willem de Kooning. They were grand enough to stifle aesthetic dissent. Only contact with the originals could have tested them, and we could not see the originals. Thus, although we did not know it, we were in the situation of many American artists outside New York in 1960—flat on our backs, waiting for the missionary.

This act of unwonted humility was made by thousands of people concerned with the making, distribution, teaching, and judgment of art, not only in places like Australia but throughout Europe and—not incidentally—in America in the mid-1960s. They resigned themselves to an imperial situation. Imperialism creates provincialism: it standardizes things, straightens out the edges. The periphery yearns for the reassurance of the center—to submerge its fragile and only partly definable identity in something manifestly strong. Just as late imperial Roman sculpture looks much the same all around the Mediterranean, and statues of Lenin vary little from the Finland Station to Tashkent (though the god’s features get more Asiatic as they travel east), so the modernist image tends toward standardization from the centers out.

The difference today is that we have, instead of an imperialism of place, an imperialism of the marketplace, and it operates internationally. From Basel to Canberra, from Minneapolis to Venice, late-modern collections are bought from essentially the same menu touristique. If Antarctica had a museum of modern art, the penguins would certainly contemplate an Ellsworth Kelly, a mock-Tantric watercolor by Francesco Clemente, a straw-and-mudscape by Anselm Kiefer, a nice lump of frozen fat by Joseph Beuys. So what has this done to the vision of Imperial Manhattan, at the end of what probably has been the worst decade in the history of American art?


IN AMERICA, nostalgia for things is apt to set in before they go. Perhaps some people already feel stirrings of nostalgia for the 1980s.Their feelings are premature.

If cultural cycles did not have their own momentum, their own life span, neither measured in decades, one would now murmur a small prayer of gratitude for release and reach for the Maalox. But we will not be out of the 1980s for years. Few of the social conditions that fostered the decade’s cultural traits have changed, or seem ready to change. The decade may be officially dead, but it won’t lie down yet.

In the 1980s the scale of cultural feeding became gross, and its ailment coarse; bulimia, the neurotic cycle of gorge and puke, the driven consumption and regurgitation of images and reputations, became our main cultural metaphor. Never had there been so many artists, so much art, so many collectors, so many inflated claims, so little sense of measure. The inflation of the market, the victory of promotion over connoisseurship, the manufacture of art-related glamour, the poverty of art training, the embattled state of museums—these will not vanish, as at the touch of a wand, now that it is 1990. But at the same time few people outside the United States continue to believe in the New York imperium. Europe has risen again, and with a vengeance.

There is much to suggest that in the 1980s New York not only lost its primacy as an art center, but also began to go the way of its predecessors: Paris in the 1950s and Rome in the 1670s, over the hill into decline. The point is not that New York has been replaced by some other city as center. It has not been, it will not be. Instead, the idea of the single art center is now on the verge of disappearing. The decline of New York is only a prelude to that situation.

THE SENSE OF LOSS, which was rather more than a mere faltering of creative momentum, was not confined to New York. It may be that Picasso’s death in 1973 marked the end of a period in Western art as emphatically as the deaths of Sophocles and Euripides in the same year (406 B.C.) marked the end of high tragic drama in Greece. Tragedies continued to be written in Greek, and some quite good ones; but the age of tragedies was past, and the age of the histories had begun. We are all conditioned by the art market and the decadent myth of modernist progress into thinking that there is no such thing as a slump in cultural history. But slumps do happen. We are in one now.

When Americans in the 1950s and 1960s eagerly claimed that their art had superseded that of Europe, their eagerness was itself a period phenomenon. The American Revolution, deep in its heart, had held the vision of a corrupt Europe. The hold of Europe was long and tenacious, but it could be demystified by showing its moral obsoleteness. The idea that Europe was culturally exhausted was an important ingredient of American self-esteem. Its ancient craftiness, it’s subtlety, its strata of memory, its persistent embrace of elitist against “democratic” cultural values: these, in American eyes, were grounds for suspicion, even hostility. And if an artist openly espoused them, or seemed, for a moment, like Robert Motherwell, lost in admiration of them, then he had to acquit himself of charges of self-indulgence, as though he were claiming experiences that were not truly his.

Europe was to be transcended, outdone. Thus the power of Berenson’s appeal to the plutocrats of Chicago, New York, and Boston at the turn of the century—just as the art of the Italian Renaissance came pouring into America, under his guidance, at the start of its museum age—was his promise of a new Renaissance that would outdo the old one, an American one, whose paintings and sculpture would nevertheless furnish indispensable refinement to the new. It may be that Berenson actually believed this. His audiences certainly did. It was a desire that none too subliminally shaped the program of history presented by the most influential of all American museums, the Museum of Modern Art in New York: the passing of the torch from failing Europe to vigorous America.

But the “American Century,” whose arrival was eagerly proclaimed after 1945, is now at an end. It finished ignobly, amid the glitzy triumphalism of Reagan’s presidency, and its squandered resources cannot be willed back into being. New York’s loss of vitality as an art center runs parallel to events in the larger culture of politics, economics, and the mass media. It is part of a general aging of the United States: a stagnation, a willing surrender to media images and unargued persuasion. It is connected, not causally but by analogy, to the extraordinary decay of American public lift. But it has also been caused by a loss of talent in painting and sculpture, which is itself connected to a general decline in standards of artistic education.

The idea of the hegemony of American art in the 1950s and 1960s sprang from the narcissistic assumption that people everywhere aspired to the condition of Americans, so that aesthetic issues that filled the New York horizon could be transferred anywhere, regardless of local traditions, imagery, preoccupations. This reflected America’s larger political assumptions of the time: its belief in the country’s moral leadership in a Manichaean world divided between disinterested American light and devouring Russian darkness; the conviction of some of its leaders that, in Henry Luce’s words, “no nation in history, except ancient Israel, was so obviously designed for some special phase of God’s eternal purpose.” Nobody of any intelligence believes that kind of fustian today. In the visual arts, where New York lives in a state of continuous hype but diminished expectation, it is merely the echo of a lost time.

Nothing comes around again. Who could possibly compare the efforts of our fin de siècle in the visual arts with those of a hundred years ago? Merely to invite the comparison seems so unfairly loaded against the scale of our cultural expectations as to be, well, impolite. The nineteenth century went out in a blaze of glory. The period between 1885 and 1905 was one of striking cultural energy and confidence. It was not a decline, and not by any means a mere prelude to modernism. Europe then had, among others, Cézanne, Monet, Seurat, Degas, Matisse, van Gogh, Gauguin, Munch, Rodin. We, the pessimist might say, have network television and the pallid ghost of Warhol.

The more hopeful, or the less dismissive, can readily name twenty or so painters and sculptors of real merit who are at work today, some in Britain, some in Europe, some in New York: from senior figures such as Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Motherwell, Antoni Tapirs, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Arthur Boyd, Lucian Freud, and Francis Bacon, through the middle generation (Ilya Kabakov in Moscow; Avigdor Arikha in Paris; sculptors Magda lena Abakanowicz, Nancy Graves, William Tucker, and Joel Shapiro; in England, Frank Auerbach, Howard Hodgkin, and R.B. Kitaj), to such younger artists as Anselm Kiefer, Susan Rothenberg, Neil Jenney, Sean Scully, Elizabeth Murray, Martin Puryear, Tony Cragg, and maybe one or two hopeful group events such as the collaboration of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival). Still, they are not likely to seem as consequential as those of a century ago, and the good ones will look like raisins bedded, very far apart, in the swollen duff of mediocrity that constitutes most late twentieth-century art. Whether the bad museum art of our own day—David Salle, Gilbert & George, and other deliciae—is better or worse than its late nineteenth-century equivalents, than the stuff that Cézanne and van Gogh had to slog their way past, is no longer an open question. Because of the overpopulation of the art world, there is tar more of it; and thanks to the lack of discrimination on the market museum axis, it is, if anything, somewhat worse.

The future cannot be relied on to value what is most fashionable in one’s own day, and the remembered figures in 2090 may not be those who were popular in 1990. Who, in 1890, would have predicted that the obscure and clumsy Cézanne would cause a revolution in values that would oust the masterly, “impeccable” diction of Bouguereau from the history books? (But then who, in 1960, would have bet on Bouguereau’s return to our museums in the eclectic revivalism of the 1980s?) The most famous painter in northern Europe in the 1890s was not Gustave Klimt, not Egon Schiele, not Edvard Munch, but an Austrian named Hans Makart. His studio in Vienna, a huge hangar of a place full of antlers, Persian rugs, and palms, was a shrine of pilgrimage for collectors from all over Europe. There he hung his enormous paintings—battle scenes, varied with bits of mythology for gentlemen who preferred nymphs. Public belief in Makart’s genius was second only to his own. Journalists hung on his table talk. Sentimental and bombastic, he was the Julian Schnabel of the Ringstrasse, with the difference that Makart could draw. And today he is almost wholly forgotten—except in Vienna, where he remains a curiosity of its Belle Epoque.

THE LAST fin de siècle was greeted by the middle classes of Western Europe and America as a time of inordinate hope, although its hopes were not the ones we have today. Imperial thinking—French, German, British, and in the form of “manifest destiny,” American-was at its peak. The presiding metaphors were of conquest and development: of oceans, air, mineral strata, jungles, and foreign peoples—Kipling’s “lesser breeds without the Law.” No limit to the promise of technological development was apparent to the men who ran this world, and the idea that the globe was itself a finite resource would have struck them as absurd—largely because they did not have the industrial capacity, as we do, to exploit it to the limit, or the range of markets to support such an exploitation. Their world was much less crowded than ours. It was not on the edge of being used up. We think of preservation, they thought of expansion.

If established power was hopeful, so was radical dissent. A hundred years ago the promise of radicalism was young, and, before its ruin at the hands of Lenin, Stalin, and their heirs, it was relatively innocent. For instance, the political relations of some French artists and writers with the radical life—first Courbet with his friend Proudhon, then Signac, Feneon, Mallarme, and the editors of La Revue Blanche with anarchists of the 1880s and 1890s—proceeded in a spirit of hope for betterment of the world through universal brotherhood. They may have been wrong, but they were decently wrong. They did not have the flippant, reamed-out cynicism that passes for “radicality” in the art industry’s embrace of Jean Baudrillard. And no politically inclined artist in those years faced what his modern counterpart must contend with, and in a mass-media environment lose to: the draining away of art’s power as a witness.

In the visual arts, the confidence of the last fin de siècle had its echoes. They made themselves heard subliminally, in the belief that Nature was still an unfailing regulator of thought and an inexhaustible storehouse of forms for the artist or the architect, while “exotic” cultural traditions—Japanese, for van Gogh, Whistler, or Monet; Breton or Polynesian, for Gauguin; African, for the young Picasso—could be raided at will. (The desire to be primitive was very much a function of fin-de-siècle imperialism; it appealed to strong egos and domineering minds.)

MOREOVER, the excellence of fin-de-siècle painting and sculpture rested on a firm belief in the artist’s ability to consult and to use the past of his own culture, freely and without prophylactic irony—as summarized in Cézanne’s belief that “the way to Nature lies through the Louvre, and the way to the Louvre through Nature.” Michelangelo was available to Rodin in a way that he may be available to no sculptor now. No living architect in the West today can bring to inherited motifs and crafts the sublime freedom with which Luis Domenech y Montaner deployed his Catalan traditions of ironwork, glass, and ceramics in the Palau de la Musica Catalana (1905-08) in Barcelona.

This was partly because no myth of cultural repudiation (as enshrined in Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism) had yet arisen, although there was certainly an emphasis on the renewal of art’s language; and partly because the training of artists had changed little, in its essential emphases, since the sixteenth century. Thus the Belle Epoque’s legacy to later artists, to Miró, Picasso, and Matisse, was fecund and continuous. If Jacopo Pontormo had walked into the life class of one of the big teaching ateliers of Paris in 1890, he would have recognized immediately what was going on. If the same time machine were to deposit him in Walt Disney’s Academy for the Briefly New, in the California Institute of Arts, in 1990, he might not recognize it as an art school at all. Who could blame him?

For nearly a quarter century, late-modernist art teaching (especially in America) has increasingly succumbed to the fiction that the values of the so-called academy—meaning, in essence, the transmission of disciplined skills based on drawing from the live model and the natural motif—were hostile to “creativity.” This fiction enabled Americans to ignore the inconvenient fact that virtually all the artists who created and extended the modernist enterprise between 1890 and 1950, Beckmann no less than Picasso, Miró and de Kooning as well as Degas or Matisse, were formed by the atelier system, and could no more have done without the particular skill it inculcated than an aircraft can fly without a runway.

The philosophical beauty of Mondrian’s squares and grids begins with the empirical beauty of his apple trees. Whereas, thanks to its tedious obsession with the therapeutic, America’s art schools in the 1960s and 1970s tended to become crèches, whose aim was less to transmit the difficult skills of painting and sculpture than to produce “fulfilled” personalities. At this, no one could fail. Besides, it was easier on the teachers if they left their students to do their own thing. It meant they could do their own thing, and not teach; and many of them could not draw either. A few schools, such as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, held out, and tried to give their students a solid grounding. They were very few.

OTHER FACTORS contributed to the decay of the fine-arts tradition in American schools in the 1960s and 1970s. One was the increased attachment of art teaching to universities, which meant that theory tended to be raised above practice. Thinking deep thoughts about histories and strategies was more noble than handwork, and it produced an exaggerated drift toward the conceptual. And this interlocked in a damaging way with the reliance on reproduction of works of art, instead of direct contact with the originals.

Few people now remember a time when the thirty-five-millimeter color slide was not the main fodder of art teaching, for artists and for art historians. For the last quarter century, the major source of most students’ contact with art has been slides, not originals, and this has relentlessly nudged their experience toward the disembodied, the conceptual, the not there. The size and the number of art classes have made the didactic museum visit obsolete, and most art schools are out of convenient reach of great museums. As Cleve Gray recently pointed out, slides and reproductions have reduced, and for some all but destroyed, the sense of uniqueness of works of art, the physical presence that Walter Benjamin called their “aura.”

In the slide or reproduction, no work of art appears in its true size, or with its vital qualities of texture, color, and the recorded movement of the shaping hand intact. A Klee, a Pollock, or a lunette of the Sistine Chapel—all undergo the same abstraction, the same loss of presence. Impartially, they lose one of the essential factors of aesthetic experience, the size of the artwork relative to our sense of our own bodies: its scale. There were reasons why Picasso painted Three Women (1908) on a canvas six-and-a-half by six feet, and Still Life with Chair Caning (1912) on a surface one-fortieth that size. He meant the former to stand up before the eye sculpturally, like the Michelangelo Slaves, which are its distant ancestors, figures locked sleepily in their red stony space, their slow torsion speaking kinesthetically to one’s own sense of bodily weight and size; the latter accepts one’s gaze more intimately, like a view through a little window. When both come out the same apparent size in a plate or a slide, the penumbra of meaning inherent in their actual scale as paintings cannot survive. Does this lie behind the peculiar confusion of size with scale that afflicted so much American painting in the 1980s—the inflation of the artwork in its pursuit of a factitious “importance”?

A slide gives you the subject, the nominal image of the work, without conveying a true idea of its pictorial essence. You cannot, by looking at a slide, think and feel your way back into the manner in which something was made; only by studying the real thing. And no tradition of making can be transmitted without such empathy. Did this help to foster the dull blatancy of so much recent American painting, all impact and no resonance? Have the falsifications of the reproduced image fed back into the new originals, cutting out those very qualities that cannot survive reproduction—subtleties of drawing, touch, and brushwork, of color and tone, that slow up the eye and, beyond the quick look, encourage a slow absorption?


BUT THE REAL disjuncture between the fins de siècle lies deeper than this. A hundred years ago, painting and sculpture were still socially dominant forms. They continued to supply, to an extent now all but lost to us, the visual codes by which one interpreted the world. Mass media, except for print, did not exist. Photography had begun to fill the gap between fantasy and reality, reducing the effort of firsthand experience, but it was not yet a democratic medium: few could take their own pictures (that would begin in 1888, with George Eastman’s preloaded cameras), and halftone reproduction, which put photographs on the pages of the daily press, was still uncommon. Cinema was not quite born (Louis Lumière invented the cinematograph in 1894), and the vast popular reach of movies lay far in the future, outside social imagination. Not until 1925 were recognizable human features transmitted by television. Nor did television become a mass hypnotic in the United States until after 1945. Elsewhere in the West its advent was even longer delayed; if you were born before 1940 in Australia, you could reach college-graduate age without watching, let alone having, a television set.

Because mass visual media hardly existed in the world of our grandparents and great-grandparents, painting and sculpture carried more weight: the weight of tradition, dreams, and social commemoration. The very idea of “radical” change in painting and sculpture gained its impetus from their primacy, and lost it when that primacy was lost. The political leader in 1890 might crave a bronze figure of himself in the square, but that kind of propaganda is now archaic, replaced by the forty-five-second attack commercial, as public oratory has been replaced by the sound bite and the managed press conference.

WHEN PARISIAN gallery-goers in the 1870s recoiled in horror from the “leprous” blue shadows in a Monet, it was because they felt an important contract had been broken—the agreement between painting, as a primary form of social discourse, and reality. No painting can offend anyone in this way today, because painting is no longer our index of the real. Instead, photography enrages the moralist, as in the imbroglio between Jesse Helms and the National Endowment for the Arts over the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. If that overrated photographer, instead of sticking a bullwhip up his ass and pretending to be the devil in front of his Hasselblad, had done it on network television, the fuss would have been even greater. If the image had been painted, however, who would have much cared?

In 1989 the average American spent nearly half of his or her conscious life watching television. Two generations of Americans (including American artists) have now grown up in front of the TV, their consciousness permeated by its shuttle of bright images, their attention span shrunken by its manipulative speed, their idea of success dictated by its collapse of fame into celebrity, their anxiety level (at least among smarter ones, again including artists) raised by its sheer pervasive power.

This has not been a matter of choice, let alone fault. The power of television goes beyond anything that the fine arts have ever wanted or achieved. Nothing like this Niagara of visual gabble was even imagined a hundred years ago. American network television drains the world of meaning; it makes reality seem dull, slow, avoidable. It is our “floating world.” It tends to abort the imagination by leaving the kids nothing to imagine: every hero and demon is there, raucously explicit, pre-cut, in a world of stereotypes too authoritative for imagination to develop or to change. No wonder American artists have been disposed toward stereotypes. Television is stupidly compelling, in a way that painting and sculpture, even in their worst moments of propaganda or sentimentality, are not.

FROM EDGAR DEGAS with his Kodak to Robert Rauschenberg with his silk screens, from Hanne Hoch with her clipped collages of news photos to the use of television and ads by the Fluxus group, modern artists have long been fascinated by the mass media. Rauschenberg or Lichtenstein could play with this fascination but still keep their balance inside the fine-arts tradition. Warhol, a commercial artist to the core, took the step (gingerly, at first) outside it, in his acolyte’s embrace of the value-free apparitions of the Tube. The next generation of American artists, Andy’s children, followed him en masse. They could not imagine a fine-arts tradition that was not overshadowed by television. Accordingly, a peculiarly slack form of thinking (whose institutional site, in New York, was the Whitney Museum of American Art) arose about art and media. Nature is dead, culture is all, everything is mediated (mediation, indeed!) to the point where nothing can be seen in its true quality, representation determines all meaning, and the only way that “so-called high art” can engage with general perception is to step out of its old “elitist” traditions and follow the Yellow Brick Road of the “cutting edge” that leads through Deconstruction Flats and the Forest of Signs to Jeff Koon’s porcelain pigs.

The trip turns out not to be worth taking. It has produced a clever novelty art of diminishing returns. Far from affording artists continuous inspiration, mass media sources for art have become a dead end. They have combined with the abstractness of institutional art teaching to produce a fine-arts culture given over to information, not to experience. This faithfully echoes the general drain of concreteness from modern existence—the reign of unassimilated data, in place of events that gain meaning by being absorbed into the fabric of imaginative life. The numbed eclecticism of 1980s art, its fondness for pastiche and historical deck-shuffling, its vision of art history as a mere box of samples—these were the signs of a culture given over to surfaces. Their imaginative drought reminds one of a sad Russian joke: today you can order a steak by telephone—and get it by television.

THERE ARE extreme differences between the values of painting and sculpture and the values of mass media. The work of art requires the long look. It is a physical object, with its own scale and density as a thing in the world. Its images do not pass. They can be contemplated, returned to, examined in the light of their own history. It is layered and webbed with references to inner and outer worlds that are not merely iconic. It can acquire (although it does not automatically have) a spiritual aspect, which rises from its power to evoke contemplation.

Fine art is infinitely more than an array of social signs awaiting deconstruction. Its social reach is smaller than that of the mass media, and it finds the grounds for its survival in being what the mass media are not. It now seems that if one opens “art” to include more and more of the dominant media that have no relation to art, the alien goo takes over; and the result is, at best, a hybrid form of short-impact conceptualism trying to be spectacle. Static, handmade visual art cannot furnish an answer to big media, or even an effective debunking of them. The working relation of most 1980s artists to them has been that of a fairly tough fly to flypaper.

One saw this in Robert Longo’s work in the early 1980s—an oversized melange of technical sophistication and sentimental blatancy, with more wallop than resonance. It came, in a different form, in Barbara Kruger’s knockoffs of John Heartfield, with their smugly “challenging” slogans about manipulated identity. It was even purer and duller in Jenny Holzer’s plaques and light-emitting-diode readouts—failed epigrams that would be unpublishable as poetry, but that survived in the new art context, their prim didacticism so reminiscent of the virtuous sentiments that the daughters of a pre-electronic America used to embroider on samplers. The work that got into the American limelight after Neo-Expressionism prided itself on its political correctness, but most of its messages might as well have been sent by Western Union. Probably the only American artist of this generation who managed to introduce a real shudder of feeling into media-based work was Cindy Sherman, enacting her parade of gender caricatures, bad dreams, and grotesqueries for the camera.

Not much of the art that really seems to matter is being made in New York today. There is a haunting parallel with Paris at the end of the 1950s, when the French were busy persuading themselves that Soulages, Poliakoff, Hartung, Mathieu, and others formed a generation that could eventually step into the shoes of the patriarchs of the Paris School, most of whom (except Picasso and Braque) were dead. Several important younger artists were, of course, at work: Giacometti, Dubuffet, Balthus, Helion. One could certainly believe that the tanks were not emptying. Yet today, for the first time in 300 years, there is not one really great artist at work in Paris. And so it is with New York. The great city has gone on with frantic energy not as an art center but as a market center, an immense bourse on which every kind of art was traded for ever escalating prices. But amid the growing swarm of new galleries, the premature canonizations and record bids, and the conversion of much of its museum system into a promotional machine, the city’s cultural vitality—its ability to inspire significant new art and foster it sanely—has been greatly reduced.

IN PART this was due to economic pressures, notably from the real estate market. These deprived younger artists—along with small theater companies, dance groups, and the rest—of working space in Manhattan. Complaints about this are an old part of New York life, of course: even in the 1920s people were complaining that Greenwich Village bohemia was dying on its feet, made homeless by what later journalists would call gentrification. But in the 1980s the supply of affordable workspace for artists in Manhattan finally ran out.

The idea of the New York painter in a big white downtown loft--bohemia with industrial spaces—is about as real as the notion that French painters wear berets and live in high studios in Montparnasse. The working bohemia of New York artists made its last stand in the very early 1970s, when SoHo had no name, two galleries (Paula Cooper and Max Hutchinson), and two bars (Fanelli’s and the long-defunct Luizzi’s). All the ground-floor spaces of West Broadway now occupied by fashion boutiques and art galleries then held small, tenacious businesses—hardwood-flooring companies, knife grinders, plastic injection molders, fabric offcut warehouses: survivors of an industrial past that went back to the Civil War, whose pragmatism seemed to underwrite the kind of art that was being made by semilegal tenants with Murphy beds and industrial leases (no heat after 5:30) in the lofts above. The annals of this last American bohemia remain largely unwritten. But the loft on Prince Street that rented for $150 a month in 1971 and sold as a co-op floor for $25,000 in 1974 carried a price tag of $750,000 by 1987.

So artists cross the river to find workspace in Bayonne or Hoboken, and commute to see the shows—at which point they may as well stop calling themselves “New York artists” at all, for they are part of no community. Where a young painter thinking of moving to Manhattan in 1970 might have armed herself for the struggle of life in New York, by the mid-1980s she was more likely to give up the idea altogether and stay in Chicago.

Thus, although Manhattan at the end of the 1980s is rivaled by no other American city as a culture market, its ability to draw in new talent, and to foster it in ways that make sense, has almost gone. This is a poor omen. It was always the work of living artists, made in the belief that their work could grow best there and nowhere else, that fueled New York. The critical mass of talent emits the energies that proclaim the center; its gravitational field keeps drawing in more talent, as in the combustion of a star, to sustain the reaction. This process is now dying. And the sense of entropy is compounded by the decay of civic life in New York. Up to a point, the grit, the dirt, the struggle of Manhattan were a stimulus to artists. All kinds of special poetries and particular looks arose from its aggressive materialism—until the late 1980s, when the sheer inequality of New York became overpowering. Doubt arose. Could a city with such extremes of Sardanapalian wealth and Calcutta-like misery foster a sane culture? Did it take more out of an artist than it put in? Why not stay in San Francisco or Chicago (or Barcelona, or Berlin, or Sydney), visit New York occasionally for its museums and its galleries, and otherwise ignore its pull?

NEW YORK had never been paradise, and living there, below the kind of income level enjoyed by only one American in forty, had never been easy. (Those who complain about the street squalor of Manhattan as though it were something new should consult the chronicles of New York in the 1840s, when such garbage collection as existed on Broadway was done by packs of half-wild pigs.) But it was in New York that the essence of the Reagan years, of its private affluence and public squalor, cavorted in the limelight. Half of the public officials of the Koch administration in New York, like half of those of the Reagan administration in Washington, seemed to be involved in some kind of criminal scam or shameless conflict of interest. Manhattan’s middle class, the protein of urban life, felt squeezed between a small, repellently ostentatious crust of the newly rich and an increasingly demoralized mass of the hopelessly poor, and stepped up its rate of migration to the boroughs across the bridges. Reality shortage, induced by an inflated cult of promotion and celebrity, was acute.The sense of civic space began to collapse under the pressure of real estate greed, the fear of crime, the exploding drug market. And then there was AIDS.

Not one of these woes was confined to Sodom-on-the-Hudson, although New Yorkers (with their appetite for disaster scenarios) were apt to talk as though Manhattan were their special laboratory, a sort of Island of Dr. Moreau in which every kind of deformity was breeding.But social tensions, even plagues, do not in themselves guarantee the decline of a great art center. Delacroix’s Paris was no Utopia, except for the few, and many Londoners 200 years ago experienced their city as New Yorkers do today, as money-mad and dangerous to live in, threatened by a large “criminal class” and sapped by proletarian addiction.

The difference between then and now is that the pattern of world cultural activity has made the very idea of the single, imperial center obsolete. New York, in other words, remains a center, but not, as its art world used to imagine, the center. Its centrality is based mainly on the market, and the market has nothing to do with cultural vitality.

A few years ago a popular neo-Marxist argument held that finesse of taste and connoisseurship were only masks for market activity, genteel ways in which a ravenous commercialism could spin euphemisms about itself. Anyone who believed that should look at the art market today. It is now run almost entirely by finance manipulators, fashion victims, and rich ignoramuses. The collector as connoisseur has been squeezed out of it. Connoisseurship is an impediment to its progress—mere dust on the road down which the inflationary march proceeds. Under the market’s malignant sway, genuine expertise will soon be entirely redundant: the market’s object is to erase all values that might impede anything at all from becoming a “masterpiece.” In this situation, whose epicenter is New York, the role of the museum, like that of the critic, is attenuated. And because it has never paid more than lip service to the idea of state patronage of the arts, the United States has no dominant cultural institutions that are not tied into the market.


IN THE 1980s more paper wealth was generated in New York than in any other city at any other time in human history. Greenmail, junk bonds, leverage, and the precarious liquidity of an overgeared credit economy transformed the art world into the Art Industry, turnover immense, regulations none. What was a picture worth? One bid below what someone would pay for it. And what would that person pay for it? Basically what he or she could borrow. And how much art could dance for how long on that particular pinhead? Nobody had the slightest idea. What is certain is that nobody foresaw the hyperinflation of the market; and that when the bubble bursts, or softly deflates, as bubbles do, nobody will have foreseen that either.

Twenty years ago the idea that any work of art made in the past century would sell for a million dollars seemed like science fiction to most people. In 1972, when the National Gallery of Canberra paid about $2 million for Pollock’s Blue Poles, the price made headlines and contributed marginally to the Australian public’s acceptance of the fall of the Whitlam government soon afterward. Today, when someone pays 5 or 10 million for a modern painting, the event rates no more than a sentence or two in the auction reports of The New York Times. We have come to take it for granted that art should be alienatingly expensive: it seems normal that its price should violate our sense of decency.

ALTHOUGH ART has always been a commodity, it loses its intrinsic value and its social use when it is treated only as a commodity. To lock it into a market circus is to lock people out of the contemplation of it. This inexorable process tends to collapse the nuances of meaning, and visual experience generally, under the brute weight of price. It is not a compliment to the work. If there were only one copy of each book in the world, fought over by multimillionaires and investment trusts and then hidden in storage, what would happen to one’s sense of literature—the tissue of its meanings that sustain a common discourse? “Where works of art are rare,” young Goethe wrote on first visiting Naples, “rarity itself is a value; it is only when they are common … that one can learn their intrinsic worth.” The truth of these words is nearly lost to us, in a culture wrecked by its own commercialization. What strip-mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture.

At the end of the 1980s there may have been 500 people in the world who could pay more than $25 million for a work of art, and tens of thousands who could pay a million: a situation with no historical precedents. Never before have the impulses of art appreciation and collecting been so nakedly harnessed to gratuitous, philistine social display as in the late 1980s, and nowhere more so than in the United States, especially when the Japanese are buying. The new relations between “price” and “value” were epitomized at Sotheby’s New York auction of Andy Warhol’s collection in 1988, when necrophiles and relic hunters competed to pay $20,000 a piece for the dead artist’s cookie jars.

Yet the game had losers as well as winners, and by the late 1980s the losers, interestingly enough, were American. They were chiefly the American museums, and through the museums the American public. The art market boom has been an unmitigated disaster for the public life of art. It has distorted the ground of people’s reaction to painting and sculpture. Thirty (even twenty) years ago anyone, amateur or expert, could spend an hour or two in a museum without wondering what this Tiepolo, this Rembrandt, this de Kooning might cost at auction. Thanks to the unrelenting propaganda of the art market, this is no longer quite the case; and the imagery of money has been so crudely riveted onto the face of museum-quality art by events outside the museum that its unhappy confusion between price and value may never be resolved. It is like the bind in the fairy tale: at the bottom of the meadow a treasure lies buried, and it can be dug up under one condition, that while digging, you do not think of a white horse.

There are many areas, moreover, in which American museums can no longer buy. (British museums are worse off: as a result of the malignant policies of Margaret Thatcher, they cannot repair their own roofs.) They voice a litany of complaints, a wrenching sense of disfranchisement and weakness, as their once adequate annual buying budgets of $2 million to $5 million are turned to chicken feed by art inflation. The symbol of the plight of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is an annual booklet that used to be titled Notable Acquisitions. In 1986 it was renamed Recent Acquisitions. As the museum’s director wrote in its preface, the rise of art prices “has limited the quantity and quality of acquisitions to the point where we can no longer expect to match the standards of just a few years ago.”

AS THE museum’s buying power fades, public experience of art is impoverished, and the brain drain of gifted young people from curatorship into art dealing accelerates. American museums have been hit, in fact, by a double whammy: art inflation and a punitive rewriting, in 1986, of American tax laws, which destroyed most incentives for the rich to give art away. Tax exemption through donations was the basis on which American museums grew, and it is all but gone, with predictably catastrophic results for the future. Thus, in a historic fit of legislative folly, the government began to starve its museums just at the moment when the art market began to paralyze them.

The inflated market is also eroding the other main function of museums: the loan exhibition. New York’s position as art center of the West was based partly on the range, the scholarship, and the aesthetic importance of its museum shows. There is no question that the last fifteen years in the United States have been the golden age of the retrospective, bringing a sequence of remarkable and (for this generation of museums and the public) definitive exhibitions, done at the highest pitch of curatorial effort: late and early Cézanne, Picasso, Manet, van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Watteau, Courbet, Goya, Velázquez, Poussin—and, in 1989, the greatest Cubist show ever held, “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism” at MOMA. Most of these trans-Atlantic efforts, if not all, were seen in New York.

This type of serious and argued show must be distinguished from the blockbuster that was so much a feature of American cultural life in the 1970s. Nobody—nobody responsible, anyway—believes anymore that great works of past art should be sent around the world for frivolous or merely political reasons. The blockbuster, that curse of American museology, began with two events: André Malraux’s loan of the Mona Lisa to the United States in 1963 (so that Mona and Jackie could be in the same room at the same time) and the appearance of Michelangelo’s Pieta at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow in 1964, looking like a replica of itself in margarine, the viewers carried past it on a moving walkway. It produced, at its height, frenetic events like Tut, and clunkers like the Metropolitan Museum’s 1983 Vatican show. And it ended with that saturnalia of “heritage” nostalgia, “Treasure Houses of Great Britain,” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1988.

THE TIME of the blockbuster is gone, and it is no loss. Yet the loss, or even the winding down, of the great monographic exhibitions will prove very serious. That is what the art market threatens. It is difficult for museums even to contemplate larger retrospectives now, and the 1991 Seurat exhibition arranged for Chicago, New York, London, and Paris may be remembered—if it comes off—was one of the last of its kind. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Van Gogh at Aries” was being planned in the early 1980s, it was assigned a global insurance value of $1 billion. Today it would be $5 billion, and the show could never be done. In the wake of the sale of Portrait of Dr. Gachet, every owner of a van Gogh wants to believe that his or her painting is worth $82 million, and will not let it off the wall insured for less. So the circulation of pictures is slowing down, and the chances are that museums will again have to rely, as they did forty years ago, more on their permanent collections than on temporary shows—with the difference that these collections, too, will be relatively static. What effect this will have on the American museum audience, conditioned to expect the ever changing stimulus of new art events, remains to be seen.

The 1980s showed how the fear of contraction could lead institutions (the Whitney Museum, notoriously) to lower standards of curatorial judgment in the scramble for corporate underwriting and audience pull. The museum’s immersion in the art world as a promotional system reduces its independence of taste; it chooses to mirror “what’s happening” for fear that it might seem obsolete. It must take its cues from the market, the main determinant of New York’s visual culture in the 1980s. But to invoke “what’s happening,” as though the museum were just a mirror, is an evasion. There are about 200,000 artists in the United States, each making (at a conservative guess) fifty or so objects a year. From the homeless proletariat of these 10 million works almost anything may be designated as “happening,” but it is not likely to have any more significance in the long historical run than, say, Charles Jencks’s classification of a previously uncataloged subgroup of Japanese neo-Palladians does in architectural history.

Trends can be condensed at will, and young artists, with careers such as those of Jean-Michel Basquiat or (parody of parodies) Jeff Koons held up before them, are less disposed to accept an ideal of slow maturation. This makes them vulnerable to fashion, prone to seize whatever eye-catching stylistic device they can, no matter how sterile it may be in the long run. The moral economy of the American art world has been so distorted by the hype and the premature careerism of the 1980s that a serious painter in New York must face the same unreality and weightlessness as a serious actor in Los Angeles. The idea of the “cutting edge”—the phrase is still used by some curators—is fatuous, a fossil relic of a belief in artistic “progress” that no one, at the agitated and directionless end of the twentieth century, will defend under its own name.


IN THINKING of centers, we remain fixed on the ancient Roman model of cultural imperium, and tend to overlook the possibility that things can work differently. For centuries, they did—as in medieval and early Renaissance Italy. The slow growth of its city-states tended to emphasize what was native, local, and patriotic. They fought wars, but none of them had the size, the military reach, or the wealth to subjugate the rest. Hence no Italian state at the end of the quattrocento, not even Rome, had the gravitational field of an imperial center of culture.

At the height of Donatello’s career, there were perhaps 65,000 people in Florence. There was a modest international art market. Artists did work in cities other than their own, as Leonardo did for the Sforzas in Milan; but travel was difficult, no image could be mechanically reproduced with accuracy, and museums did not yet exist. (The idea of the traveling show was centuries away.) Hence art tended to focus on specific acts of commemoration and propaganda—this fresco of the Last Judgment for our local church, that statue of the hired general who saved us from the baleful Pisans.

The results were regional in the best sense, in the sense that matters. To this day the ancient cities of Italy, big ones such as Florence or little ones such as Todi, convey a satisfying sense of cultural wholeness—of the full use of culture in the interest of local resources. Strictly speaking, this is a relic; they live in the late twentieth century, like us, and can only preserve what remains of the past without significantly adding to it. But at least one can still see the work there within the frame of the landscape, the vernacular architecture, the roots of its meaning.

WHAT ALTERED this regional ecology of the arts of Italy, and throughout Europe, was the rebirth of ancient Rome. The bones of the empire rose from the soil and reconstituted themselves as an aesthetic imperium. When Italian artists began to take a systematic interest in the relics of antiquity, the classical past was seen to contain whole systems of norms and forms for the present, of an authority not apparent in the Gothic. Very soon the rediscovery of Vitruvius’s writings and the digs in the Forum made the journey to Rome a necessary part of an artist’s education. The Florentine, however much he felt that his city was the best of cities, could no longer believe that its aesthetic resources were going to give him all the language he could use. So he went to Rome—like Alberti, like Donatello, like Piero della Francesca, like Michelangelo.

As soon as artists recognize that a place embodies cultural resources whose truth and efficacy exceed the merely local, no matter how fond they are of their own paese, the idea of the cultural capital is born. Once the stuff of this cultural stimulus is seen, systems of interpretation will form around it—the academies, the art schools. Their monopoly of technique adds to the gravitational field of the capital. And so do the works that the visitors leave. Michelangelo’s Sistine and Paoline frescoes, Raphael’s Stanze, became fused with the antique as part of the whole authoritative pattern that later artists come to Rome to experience. Only in the capital could schools of art and bodies of art theory make themselves felt. One of the great benefits of the center is centralized argument.

What could Michelangelo Merisi, growing up in the little northern town of Caravaggio, expect to learn about painting? He had to get to Rome; only Rome could open to him the scale of work and the technical proficiency that he sought. Capitals rejuvenate themselves by this pull. They draw their nourishment from the provinces. Caravaggio, Pietro de Cortona, and the Carracci came to Rome more for its dead artists than its uninspired living ones; most Roman painting in the early seventeenth century was as sunk in affectation as the much-touted transavanguardia of the early 1980s. But in the process they transformed Roman painting, and added to the sense of the center for centuries to come. They also changed the work of other foreigners in Rome, so that the Caravaggian style spread all over Europe.

BY 1670, however, Rome’s decline as a center for living art had begun. It was still obligatory for a serious painter or sculptor to study in this great hive of time, and several more generations of foreigners, from Fragonard and Hubert Robert to the German Nazarenes, did so. But papal patronage slowed after the death of Urban VIII Barberini. There would be no more fresco cycles like Pietro de Cortona’s ceilings for the Barberini Palace; no more architectural projects like Bernini’s colonnades. Perhaps the outstanding work of visual art produced in Rome in the eighteenth century was the huge corpus of etchings by the Venetian architect Giambattista Piranesi, whose obsessive subject is nostalgia: from the scale of those tiny figures picking their way over fallen pediments or dwarfed by the immense vaults of the thermae, we infer an acute sense of lost cultural potency.

When power declines and the center cannot hold, its works of art move into the eddy of the market and wash up where power is great, where money is plentiful, where order reigns. Although the image of Rome as cultural capital survived for centuries, its reality was enacted in Paris. This transfer was the work of Cardinal Mazarin, who took effective control of the French administration in the 1640s and began to move huge quantities of Italian art into France, thereby forming the basis of the state collections centralized in the Louvre.The aesthetic rise of Paris in the seventeenth century had the same epic quality as its political and military rebirth. Before long, a cultivated Parisian could congratulate himself on living in a new Rome, a capital of the arts whose destiny was to be fed by whatever was best in the provinces—the talents of a magistrate’s son from Rouen who became Pierre Corneille, of a boy from Valenciennes named Antoine Watteau.

This confidence in the uniqueness and the supremacy of the capital was reinforced by Napoleon, and by the whole imagery and style of French neoclassicism. It continued to be ratified right through the nineteenth century, up to World War I. The drift of economic history, and the drift of population, fed it, too. France was changing from a nation of countrymen to one of city-dwellers. By 1851 the urban population outnumbered the rural for the first time in France and England. By the 1860s this scheme of opposites—the superiority of the city to the provinces, the hostility of the provinces to the city—was set to become one of the axioms of the modernist creed, and hence of culture itself.

THE IDEA of an avant-garde was born in the nineteenth century, and it was linked to city life. Cities inflicted rapid change on human life. The country stood for slow change, or none at all. The provinces, la France profonde, were inherently conservative; Paris, inherently radical. This image of the dynamic capital set against the torpid provinces was tied into all the main cities of modernism—Moscow and Leningrad, Vienna and Berlin, Milan, Barcelona, New York. But Paris was the place where it was first seen as a great issue. “The interior is going to die,” complained Edmond de Goncourt in 1891, looking at the demolition crews. “Life threatens to become public. I am a stranger to what is coming, to these new boulevards, implacable in their straight lines, which no longer evoke the world of Balzac, which make one think of some American Babylon of the future.”

In this new Babylon, private life gets turned inside out by a new sense of public space. The café and the boulevard are stages that turn life into spectacle. Old social rankings weaken and new ones have to be named by artists—by Degas and Manet, for instance, connoisseurs of the gesture and the passing moment, tracing the fabric of slippages and pretensions. The art of the new Paris, capital of modernism, is fascinated by social ambiguity, with the freedom to make up one’s own life.

The idea of the capital city helped to breed two of the most durable elements in the artistic avant-garde: the sense of not having a fixed self, of being free to invent; and the idea of the artist as subversive. These combined to raise two chief themes of modernist self-awareness in art: disconnection and loss, on the one hand—the loss of a secure social past, of a parental tradition; but on the other hand, artistic self-emancipation. Exchange of information was to the modernist capital what the contemplation of nature was to the eighteenth century. By the end of the 1920s the capital had become a machine designed to contemplate itself, to fill the world with images of itself.

Likewise, modern painting and sculpture were hugely affected by the crowding of resources in the great city. Art has to feed on art. The center would not send things to you—you had to go to it, like Picasso going to Paris from Barcelona in 1900. The forms of fin-de-siècle Paris were to modernism what the marbles of Rome had been to classicism: think only of the Eiffel Tower, or of what Picasso and Braque, in their Cubist paintings, did with the texture of signs and reflections seen in the new Paris street, the billboards, the ads, the newspapers, all the mass-produced imagery of an industrial world. There was no such thing as rural Constructivism or pastoral Futurism. And Paris was the dream city of Surrealism, too.

This fixation on the idea of the capital was carried over to New York City. Forty years ago Manhattan was the capital of change—the Rome of instability. “Tomorrow’s world—today!” The motto of the 1939 New York World’s Fair was also that of America’s growing new-culture industry. Europe, with its more fixed orders, might resist change, thereby creating one kind of avantgardism, in opposition to authoritative culture. But America embraced the new, because its enshrined social and technological myth was one of progress. With a little prodding, it was willing to embrace almost any “radical” cultural change as therapeutic. Its cultural industry was announcing fresh, temporarily unnerving aesthetic changes and telescoping the future into the present. What American was really going to want an academy? Who was afraid of the future? In America the new was strong, tradition (relatively) weak.

Much European modernism, notably Constructivism, had taken its stand on millenarian hope. Abstract art was imagined as the final style, the end of history, in which all tensions and contradictions would be resolved—a religious fantasy at root, like Marx’s fantasy of the withering away of the state after the dictatorship of the proletariat. The tyranny of the past could be counteracted by an equal and opposite reign of the future, by an avant-garde forever gazing ahead to utopian prospects that always recede. But this was not congenial to Americans. Here, avant-gardism embraced a more businesslike model of novelty and diversity, the fast obsolescence of products, the conquest of new markets.

IN THE overcrowded art scene of the 1980s, this would accelerate to the point of hysteria. In the 1950s and 1960s, when there were fewer artists, collectors, and museums, the differences between New York’s new-art environment and the “classical” European avant-garde circa 1900-30 were perhaps not obvious, although they certainly became obvious with Pop art. The American idea of avant-garde activity became competitive and inflationary, swollen with excess claims for itself. It still is; but the claims are largely hollow, and the reaction against them, once the false euphoria of the 1980s wears off, will be harsh. In the main, it was a low, dishonest decade for art, American art especially, and part of its dishonesty lay in the pretense that the idea of the “vanguard” still had some relation to aesthetic and ethical values.

Perhaps one of the positive results of the 1980s will be finally to clear our minds of the cant of cultural empire, of nostalgia for the lost imperial center. Under the present circumstances, a great artist can just as easily—and unexpectedly—emerge in Hungary or Australia as in New York. One may bet that in the 1990s the necessary reconstruction work on the strip-mined sites of late modernism will be done in Britain and in Europe, not in the United States. And even there one should not expect too much, or expect it too soon.