From Pop to Populism

The '70s and '80s

It seems to me that the biggest change that occurred in the 1970s was the massive, widespread public interest in the arts fostered by two endowments--the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities--which provided tax money for individual artists and institutions. JFK started impetus for arts and galleries which was given birth under LBJ and now has been functioning for about ten years. The amount of money allotted by Congress has grown dramatically and increasingly every congressman from every district, no matter how small, wants to get involved. At one time the arts were frowned upon and now it's ready political issue: who can be against art? It's become a good way to bring glamor and money back to the home district.

On Public Interest

The other major outgrowth of federal support for the arts has been an increase of interest in what has come to be called "blockbuster" exhibitions. The feeling that if the taxpayers' money goes into exhibitions, they should somehow be rewarded. The most obvious example that we've seen of this was the King Tut show. This notion has put tremendous pressure on small museums as well as large museums to have exhibitions that will show returns at the gate in terms of receipts of people coming to the museum.

For people like me, this is a very troubling aspect. On the one hand, it's wonderful that many more people are becoming interested in museums and the arts; yet it raises the serious question of whether they are really interested in art or simply participating in a phenomenon. Do they really go and look at and understand what's going on in these exhibitions? Are they attracted to other collections in the museum that have been sitting there for years and the same people didn't go to see them? Is it art that the public is interested in or is it a spectator sport? I think these are serious concerns because while some exhibitions have been able to pull in such huge audiences, curators are having trouble raising the funds to put on more "scholarly" exhibitions...If people just go to museums because Tut is highly publicized on television and radio, whether that then makes them a regular museum goer I think is highly questionable.

On Localism

One of the things we saw happening in the '70s was a growth of local art centers all over the country. In a sense, it was a conscious reaction against the idea that New York, Chicago and Los Angeles were the only places for artists. Artists in many cities and towns across the country were becoming adamant in the best sense of the word hat good art could be produced any where. Whether that's actually the case, I don't think we know. But both artists and museums scatter all over the place are feeling the pressure of localism while collectors and dealers are becoming more actively interested in what's going on in their own areas.

The raises the questions of whether people are turning to localism for its own sake or whether they are really responding to high quality art that was being overlooked in the major art centers. In order to determine that you simply have to go place by place and artist by artist and see what it looks like. I still tend to hold a somewhat conservative view that there's something to be said for the stimulating environment that a place like New York or Chicago provides.

On Style

There was very definitely a move from formal painting in the '70s. I think a couple of exhibitions trying to re-evaluate the abstract expressionist painting of the '50s brought to a whole new generation of painters the personal, frequently psycho-autobiographical, tenure or their art. In contrast to the cold quality of much of op art and the abstract art of Frank Stella which these young artist--now in their late '20s and early '30s--grew up with, the artists of the '70s turned back to the ideas of the abstract expressionists s models for a more personal art. For example, critic Barbara Rose put on a show in New York of young artists she thinks may be major figures in the '80s and the one common denominator of this exhibition was that most of the artists were working in a much more painterly, more personal abstract mode.

Some of the art that doesn't appear to be autobiographical is frequently very much laced with personal associations and responses to nature and to childhood experiences...It's clear that some of the artists are as involved with the image as with the intensity of the application of the paint to the canvas and that the image is loaded but one that everybody recognizes--an image that's readily accessible but painted in a way that's very personal and very subjective. This contrasts with the '60s where one of the most famous recognizable images was Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup Cans--a cold, commercial and very impersonal image.

No Labels

There was a great frustration at the end of the '70s; one couldn't easily capsulize what went on. The '60s seemed so neat and why couldn't w neatly summarize what had gone in the '70s? Why was there no focus? Why do we seem to be all of a sudden lacking major critical voices who can define for us what happened? Whether such clarity was ever good and whether or not it will return, I just don't think anybody knows...I grew up at a time when things did seem clear and there were sides to take. That clearly does not exist now, and it almost never existed before. The '60s set up expectations that the '70s did not fulfill, and it may well be that the '70s is a much healthier attitude.

The pluralism--the idea that many things are possible and that there is no one main direction and that artists should pursue their own independent visions with great sincerity and dedication and not be lumped into generic categories (characterizes the '70s). In the '60s it was possible to talk about Pop Art and know a whole group of artists that could be kept under that title...Or colorfield painting, which seemed to be a school. The were no schools in the '70s--it was anything is possible and lots of things are possible at the same time. Whether we'll see that trend continue I don't know and I wouldn't want to know. I think what the art is going to be like in the '80s belongs in the hands or the artists, and it's for us to follow their visions and attempt to understand it.

Diane Headley is assistant professor of Fine Arts specializing in contemporary art. This interview was conducted by Nell Scovell.