The art world, in its current state, largely promotes the wrong ambitions and discourages the right ones. This problem began in the late 19th Century and its cause boils down to this: official, status-granting institutions have done a poor job identifying quality amidst a diversity of artistic production. As that diversity has widened, their track record has worsened. Over the last two decades, the very idea of quality has come under attack, and the surest way to progress in this environment involves values that de-emphasize artistic excellence.
Institutionalized taste produced the glory of the Renaissance and many later artistic triumphs, but started to get it wrong about the time of the Impressionism, which represented a radical expansion of range in the Western tradition; Hals looks rather unlike Rembrandt, but Monet looks nothing whatsoever like Gerôme. Brave players in the art market who stood behind their own judgments finally caused their work to prevail, but only after the artists suffered for years in an atmosphere of rejection and meager living. Something similar happened to the masters of postwar abstraction. Shortly after, though, the corrective mechanism stopped working in the way that it used to. Bay Area Figuration didn't prevail over the contemporaneous Pop movement even though the work was far superior, largely because of the music-star-like career of Andy Warhol. As the art world became more and more pluralist, the very notion of quality began to degrade, as intellectuals of various stripes started to attack the notion as elitist and colonial. Connoiseurship in such an atmosphere became a challenging, perhaps antithetical exercise.
A remarkable similarity exists between the French salons of the last part of the 1800s and the current climate in New York City: the apologists of both milieux latch on to mythology as a driving force in the work. Bouguereau had his nymphs; Elizabeth Peyton is a nymph, whose lackadaisical affect was recently trotted out as genius by fashion writer Dodie Kazanjian for the October 2004 issue of Vogue. In fact, the art world is going the way of the music world, insofar as critical attention now focuses on increasingly young people with increasingly facile talent - for ever shorter durations. (In a distinctly 21st Century development, writers have become prone to discussing the artists' clothes.) This situation promotes career ambitions and compromises artistic ones, because now the two no longer correlate like they did at the time of Leonardo. Because they no longer correlate, the career ambitions have become increasingly personality-driven.
As a writer I have fought this self-inflicted dumbing down of the art world, and considered pursuing a PhD in Art History in order to do so with beefier credentials. But I concluded that too much corruption has taken place in the art and humanities systems for yet another unemployable academic to have any effect - particularly if he only has critique as a method of interaction.
Instead, I think it may be better to pursue projects in the marketplace. Again, the marketplace tended to balance the excesses of the academy during the last century, and could be made to do so again on a smaller scale. A lot of attractive ideas exist within social capitalism, an effort to implement sound, profitable business practices in pursuit of a non-materialistic, social good - in our case, quality in art. The universality of the art experience and plenty of anecdotal evidence indicates to me that there are a lot of people who would like to trade their money for good art, but getting in on the mainstream art market obliges them to deal with lumpen Dadaism and its Pop-tinged antecedents. They represent an underserved market, although my art training leaves me at a loss as to how to tap it.
But even with my limited business skills, I can envision a visual arts equivalent of Sub Pop Records. While most of the rest of the music industry invests in easy-to-like, youth-oriented, superficially sexy music in hopes of getting rich off of it, Sub Pop commits to serious talents that promise more modest returns but longer careers making high-quality music. Switch "art" for "music" above and it's not hard to imagine a business entity that could make a living, if not a killing, promoting mature, solid work.
As the art world begins to resemble the music world in the above-mentioned respects, communities are going to form within the art community. These sub-communities will develop their own styles, jargons, and priorities. Just as the rap people don't generally interact with the bluegrass people, the various art communities will operate on localized values and otherwise develop themselves while ignoring each other. Since hegemonically successful art styles have disappeared from the creative landscape, the landscape is Balkanizing.
That Balkanization indicates that a single ascendant style will not appear again for a long time, but it simultaneously indicates that styles that advocate quality may become free to advance within their own parameters and find support among like-minded people. Just last weekend here in Miami, developer Tony Goldman opened an exhibition by Jules Olitski that was museum-quality - in fact, given what often appears in our contemporary museums, it was above-museum-quality. Goldman, I think, represents the future, or at least an important aspect of it - someone with an eye who promotes work he loves, institutions be damned.
Art institutions and galleries have been able to make hay of it thus far, but massive pluralism coupled with new technologies have been bad for big organizations in music and literature. An ever-increasing variety of tastes among the creators and consumers on the one hand, and blogging, peer-to-peer file-sharing, podcasting, print-on-demand, and other forms of self-publishing on the other, have put the future of these industries and their related nonprofits into question. Creators have had to generate their own criteria for success in this fractured landscape, and it's not out of the question that visual art may not be far behind in this respect. In any case, if the mainstream isn't going to throw its weight behind quality, we need to be forming those criteria for ourselves and figuring out how to accomplish them. The old dialectic between academy and marketplace has gone from mutually reinforcing to mutually correcting, and from that to mutually deluding. But the fractured landscape seems ripe with opportunities to create new models of economic support, and with it, new methods for correction.