MORE than a quarter century ago the painter Ad Reinhardt declared that his new black-on-black canvases were the "last pictures which anyone can make." The critics raved, and many agreed with the "Black Monk" that his masterpieces would be history's "ultimate" paintings. Unfortunately, other artists refused to hand in their brushes, so art continued. Ever since, modern art has resembled a doomsday cult on the day after the deadline for the end of the world. The true believers awoke one day to find that the sun had risen, the mad prophet had disappeared, and they all had to find something to do with the rest of their lives.
This predicament is now called Postmodernism, and if you're confused about it, that's probably because you're beginning to understand it. If you're an artist, what follows will be old hat. But as a service to the layman I can define a few of the basic terms.
Modern Art: In the future "modern art" will mean "the kind of art they did in the twentieth century." Like "Baroque"or "Romanesque," "modern" will be a term used to date something.
Cubism: A movement started by Picasso and Braque to distinguish their work from what Cézanne had already done. Critics named it Cubism. In modern art, naming your art movement is a must. Cubism is still the most important modern-art movement, for the same reason that John D. is still the most important Rockefeller. All the other movements are like downtown Rockefellers, and you can forget about them unless you expect to encounter an art category on Jeopardy.
Futurism: This was a movement of intellectuals who wanted to replace tradition with the modern world of machinery, speed, violence, and public relations. It proves that we should be careful what intellectuals wish for, because we might get it.
Dada: Dada artists were ironists. Duchamp was their star, and his masterpiece was a urinal. He ended his life playing chess. He claimed he was making an art statement. My grandfather was a prankster too, and he ended his life playing chess. But since he did it to keep from being bored, no one thought it proved anything. This suggests that Dada artists are exempt from the general rule that ironists are the biggest victims of their own irony.
Surrealism: An archaic term. Formerly an art movement, no longer distinguishable from everyday life.
Abstract Expressionism: After the Second World War the United States emerged as the world's superpower. American companies like Cities Service and Esso, which had once been regional businesses, became international corporations. They adopted abstract names like Citgo and Exxon to give themselves world-class status. Since multinational giants couldn't have little pictures of red barns or weeping clowns in the lobbies of their Bauhaus buildings, Abstract Expressionism emerged as the world's most prized form of interior decoration.
Pop Art: In aristocratic societies rich people used to commission exquisite paintings for their walls. Years later cheap imitations would filter down to calendars in gas stations. In our democratic society this works backward. Here art begins as the kind of picture you'd find on a matchbook cover. Then in a few years expensive imitations of it wind up on the walls of plastic surgeons and Hollywood agents.
New Wave Art: Modern art as it would have been done by the Big Bopper, the Del-Vikings, or Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. New Wave art was the rage of the eighties. Now it's exhibited in oldies-but-goodies museums, usually in black-and-pink frames.
Graffiti Art: Many people decorate their homes with designer graffiti, even though most of them would probably have real graffiti scoured off the walls of their buildings. Personally, I think that graffiti artists should go to the homes of their patrons with spray cans and make their living rooms look like subway cars. This would separate serious lovers of graffiti from uptowners spelunking for art thrills.
Realism: Currently, realistic paintings are valued for their craftsmanship. In the next century, when art will be packaged as virtual-reality software, realistic paintings will sell the way Shaker furniture does now. Shaker furniture will sell the way Van Gogh paintings do. Pop-It Beads owned by Jackie Onassis will come to market only occasionally.
Commercial Art: Anything done by an artist with a cash register by the door. Commercial art is traditionally delivered to a client in a brown-paper bag with an invoice stapled to the outside.
Fine Art: With commercial art you find out how much they're going to pay you, and you do the work. With fine art it's the other way around.
"That's Not Art, That's Illustration": Almost everybody is an artist these days. Rock-and-roll singers are artists. So are movie directors, performance artists, makeup artists, tattoo artists, con artists, and rap artists. Movie stars are artists. Madonna is an artist because she explores her own sexuality. Snoop Doggy Dogg is an artist because he explores other people's sexuality. Victims who express their pain are artists. So are guys in prison who express themselves on shirt cardboard. Even consumers are artists when they express themselves in their selection of commodities. The only people left in America who seem not to be artists are illustrators.