A cluster of concepts that, before the seventies, had together formed the received idea of art and artists came under intense criticism in that decade. It included the concepts of the Great Artist and of artistic genius generally, but also the concepts of quality–an “idea whose time has gone,” according to an influential article by Michael Brenson in the New York Times–and of the artistic masterpiece. It was commonly supposed that various pathologies were the price of possessing artistic genius, and that the Great Artist, more frequently than not, was neglected and misunderstood until after his–let us emphasize the gender–death. These still form part of the heroic narrative of the Great Artist’s life to which popular films are devoted–Michelangelo, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Jean-Michel Basquiat, with Jackson Pollock awaiting his formulaic portrayal. Since more or less all the Great Artists–more or less all the artists of Western art history–were males, critiques of the conceptual cluster came initially from feminist theorists, who wondered what these concepts had to do with women artists. Moreover, since the Great Artist was nearly always a painter, painting itself became heavily suspect. The concept of sculpture, by contrast, was greatly enlarged so as to include a great deal of art made of nonstandard materials, while painting–sharply politicized–became increasingly marginalized. Essays appeared on the death of painting and even the death of the museum, construed as an institution primarily dedicated to the display of paintings. Easel painting almost always comes under attack in revolutionary times. Soviet artists dismissed it as belonging to a historically superseded society–not because painting was dead so much as because it was irrelevant to the aspirations of a Communist society.
The entire cluster was anchored to the concept of the Great Work–the kind of work that became an object of aesthetic pilgrimage, like Mona Lisa or the Sistine vault–and all Great Works were thought to form part of a canon. Since the advent of Modernism, it had been already recognized that the canon was elastic enough to accommodate Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse, as well as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Titian and the like. But the idea of the canon also became heavily contested in the seventies, either because of its exclusionary character or because it failed to include sufficient art from non-Western cultures. Artistic practice through the decade was not entirely consistent with the idea of a canon either, inasmuch as the core cluster of concepts could not easily apply to it. In an important show of mainstream art by women–“Making Their Mark: Women Artists Move Into the Mainstream, 1970-1985”–there was, for example, a work that looked exactly like a rose-colored gown, titled Inaugural Ball (1980), by the artist Judith Shea. Obviously, the criteria by which dresses are judged from the perspective of couture had no bearing on an artwork in the form of a dress. Inaugural Ball could have been a fairly casual piece of dressmaking and still be strong as a piece of art. It would have been commonplace for men to design women’s dresses–but given the lingering machismo of the art world, it was highly unlikely that a male artist would have produced a dress. So, in addition to the complex of metaphoric associations the piece evoked, it also made important claims about art and gender. It was difficult, certainly on the basis of looking at it, to decide whether it was a great work, or even if a work consisting entirely of a woman’s dress could be a great work. The problem was altogether general, since, under the pluralistic spirit of the art of the seventies, art could be made out of anything. It was difficult to apply to such works the aesthetic rules, which had mainly to do with the appreciation of paintings. Almost by default, it was a time when it was enough to acknowledge the pieces as art and let it go at that.
There was a moment in the early eighties when painting all at once was back, as if the history of art had jumped back on track and everyone–critics, collectors, curators and dealers–rejoiced in the large Expressionist and even figural canvases that began to appear in epidemic proportions. But by the mid-eighties, Neo-Expressionism had subsided. And, in practice if not in ideology, the seventies have been with us ever since. We are still diffident about using the discredited concepts, though we have nothing to put in their place. So except for those critics who define artistic excellence through the aesthetics of painting and are in consequence intolerant of much of the art of the past quarter-century, most of us wander in the dark. “But is it art?” has, I think, been settled, at least as a philosophical question. And few are eager to return to the question the seventies put on ice–“Is it any good?”