Professional Ideologies and Patterns of 'Gatekeeping': Evaluation and Judgment Within Two Art Worlds

by Liah Greenfeld

June 01, 1988


Abstract Decisions of "gatekeepers" in abstract avantgarde art are characterized by less independence than decisions made by their counterparts in different figurative styles. This difference is seen to be related to the character of professional ideologies within the framework of which the two sets of "gatekeepers" work. Specifically, the demand for the absolute freedom of artistic expression and the proscription of judgment in the philosophy of avantgarde create a situation in which decisions cannot be based on established criteria. Consequently, such decisions are sought after in the "social reality" of the inner circle of the avantgarde. None of the approaches underlying various figurative styles, in contrast, require absolute openness. The availability of specific criteria for evaluating figurative art renders a similar reliance on "social reality" unnecessary and, accordingly, individual judgment prevails in "gatekeeping" choices. In the Israeli art world, avantgarde and figurative art coexist in two exclusive subsystems and thus provide a unique opportunity to observe in high relief the patterns of judgment characteristic of each.

This paper examines the activity of art critics, curators, and dealers-the "gatekeepers" in the two subsystems of the Israeli art world. One sub-system consists of the press and of public art institutions such as museums, and supports avantgarde abstract art; art critics and curators belong to this subsystem. The other subsystem, in which art dealers perform the function of "gatekeepers," is a market comprised of private commercial art galleries; it supports non-avantgarde-figurative or "traditional" art.' Behavior of the gatekeepers-the criteria they use and choices they make affects the character of the art world, including artistic creation itself (Becker 1982; Peterson 1976; Wolff 1981).2 In figurative styles these criteria are related to spiritual or material interests and values of the gatekeepers and are more or less clearly formulated (Baxandall 1972; Haskell 1963; White & White 1965). Avantgarde abstract art, however, presents a special problem. The criteria for gatekeepers' choices in it cannot be easily ascertained, since the philosophy of avantgarde proscribes judgment according to established standards, and demands absolute openness toward new forms of artistic expression. No limits are to be set to the creative spirit of the artist, and works of art are not supposed to be judged by standards other than those they themselves create.3 Given this philosophy, one could expect a variety of choices by the gatekeepers resulting in the encouragement of a number of competing styles. Contrary to this expectation, the social structure of avantgarde styles usually has the character of an organized movement (Bergesen 1984; Wolfe 1976). Although there may be several competing avantgarde schools at a given time and place, the choices of the gatekeepers associated with each of them are uniform: only their own artistic school is accepted and considered to be true art. There is no such contradiction in figurative art. The many philosophies on which different figurative styles are based are oriented towards specific values, derive from them fairly clear criteria, and do not profess to be “open."

t is the purpose of this paper (a) to compare the patterns of decision-making characteristic of the gatekeepers in avantgarde and in figurative art, and (b) to explain the paradox of uniform choices made in the framework of a philosophy of openness toward any kind of art. In trying to do so it advances the hypothesis that the character of the professional ideologies of the gatekeepers affects the independence of their decisions. The ideology of absolute openness renders individual judgment unlikely, since it provides no criteria on which to base it and, in fact, views the use of such criteria as illegitimate. The decisions of gatekeepers in this case are likely to reflect the prevailing attitudes of a small solidary group. In con- trast, professional ideologies which provide and encourage the use of specific criteria for evaluating art increase the likelihood of individual judgment and render reliance on the group unnecessary. Thus, uniformity of choice combined with an ideology of absolute openness reflects a social reality very different from that reflected by a uniformity of choice resulting from adherence to a set of standards.4

Justification for the Choice of the Israeli Case: The Dual Structure of the Israeli Art World and the Monopolization of the Public Sector by the Supporters of Avantgarde Art

In modem societies art worlds are characterized by plurality of styles, publics, and institutions. Therefore, it is usually difficult to isolate and study mechanisms governing artistic choices in avantgarde art as opposed to those at work in other styles. Due to the peculiarity of its historic development, the Israeli art world provides a possibility of such isolation. In it two distinct subsystems coexist almost without overlap, one-affiliated solely with figurative painting, the other-exclusively supporting avant-garde abstract art.

The story of the bifurcation of the Israeli art scene is as follows. Like all other spheres of life in the young society, the art world of the country emerged piecemeal. The first significant group in it besides the artists themselves were the critics. Art columns in major newspapers existed long before supportive frameworks, such as museums or commercial galleries, where artists could exhibit or sell their works on a regular basis. In its early period (1906-48),6 however, there were no professional critics in Israel. Those who wrote on art in the press were amateurs: physicians, lawyers, or university professors in humanities, mostly immigrants from Europe with a broad general education and love for art. Their engagement in art criticism was in most cases purely accidental. In a country where everything was new, they happened to know an editor of a newspaper, who looked for someone capable to write about artistic matters, and this personal acquaintance served as a sufficient qualification for the position of an art critic. In time, some of these critics gained reputation and influence, and from among them were chosen the first directors of the Tel-Aviv Museum which was opened in 1932 and was for a long time the only important Israeli art museum.

The taste of these early critics was formed by the long tradition of European art, and they understood the function of art criticism as education, information, and guidance of the public. They judged works of art according to the beauty and originality of the visual expression of different values and experiences, and considered a high degree of technical skill as a necessary feature of any work of art. Assessment of the technical qualification of a painting preceded any further evaluation. In 1948 Abstract Expressionism was adopted by a group of Israeli artists.7 The artistic ideology on which this style was based, typical for avantgarde artists, denied the very legitimacy of expressing values or rendering objective reality in art. According to this ideology, true art was to deal only with its own internal problems and did not have to express anything but human creativity. The work of art had to be original, authentic, and had to fit the times. Works of art were not required to demonstrate technical skill on the part of the artist.

The majority of established art critics had little sympathy with Abstract Expressionism. But the new style was supported by a group of young critics who started to write at about the time when it appeared. This group differed from the earlier critics in a number of respects. Most of the second generation critics were Israeli born, with limited exposure to and no deep knowledge of European collections and traditions of art. Unlike their predecessors, for whom art criticism was a spare time en- gagement, these new critics, though not professionally trained in subjects like art history or philosophy of art, had no other occupation besides art. Adopting the cause of Abstract Expressionism provided them with an opportunity to present themselves as the promoters of contemporary trends, and the older, well-established critics as dated conservatives. They identified with the new style to the exclusion of all others, and their personal success became dependent not so much on their individual performance as critics, as on the success of this style.

For a certain time the two generations of critics coexisted in the Israeli press, but soon the new group replaced the older generation. This change in personnel expressed itself in the style of art criticism. The vocabulary of criticism changed drastically between 1950 and 1960. Appreciation of the adequacy and virtuosity of the techniques used in the expression of an artistic message, and appreciation of the originality and the meaning of the message, gave way to demands for "authenticity," "creativity," innovation and departure from tradition as ends in themselves, not defined in terms of either message or techniques.8 Partly due to the nature of these concepts themselves9 the language and argumentation in the new criticism became very vague. But the vagueness of argument did not lead to hesitancy in judgment: support for abstract art and rejection of all other styles by the new critics was definite and unequivocal.

In the middle of the 1960s the generational change repeated itself. Once again a situation occurred, in which younger critics competed with older and established ones for positions of influence. This new-third- generation of critics was professional in every sense of the word-not only were they full-time critics, but they were also educated in such fields as art history and museology. Most of them were Israeli born, several were im- migrants from the United States.

A parallel generational change occurred among the curators. The new curators appointed in the Tel-Aviv Museum and the newly founded (1965) Israel Museum in Jerusalem were recruited either from influential second-generation critics, who supported Abstract Expressionism in the fifties, or from young people, with a background similar to that of the third-generation critics. Thus the new curators, as well as the new critics, were interested in artistic innovation, the support of which would let them immediately influence the course of Israeli art and make their presence felt, and which would-in the case of the critics-facilitate the competition with the older, established critics.

The new gatekeepers offered their unreserved support to the style adopted by a group of young artists in the middle of the 1960s-Conceptualism. Its underlying ideology expressed most clearly the principles of abstract art which demanded complete freedom of art from any wider social commitments and professional restrictions. Following Duchamp, Israeli Conceptualists emphasized the personality of the artist, its primacy over the work of art, and claimed that art is anything produced by an artist.

This exclusive commitment of the new critics and curators to Conceptualism had several reasons. They were educated in art history and museology in a period which demanded openness toward the unconventional; when the view of art as a way of life of the "artists" rather than as a set of creations became the norm; and when "creativity" became regarded as one of the highest human values.'0 Consistent with these views, the new gatekeepers saw themselves as professionals, specialists in their own field and lacked commitments to or involvement in wider social interests. Those among the second generation of critics-formerly supporters of Abstract Expressionism-who became curators, quickly converted to Conceptualism, since there were no differences of principle between the avant-garde premises on which the two styles were based. Conceptualism was a welcome innovation which could be embraced on the same grounds as Abstract Expressionism before. Neither curators, nor the younger critics opposed Abstract Expressionism. While Conceptualism, considered the true art of today, was promoted in every possible way, Abstract Expressionism still commanded respect as a kind of classical style (Greenfeld 1984, 1985).

Figurative art, even if it was innovative, failed to fare so well. Public art institutions, as well as critics in the press became solely affiliated with abstract avant-garde art, while figurative styles were treated with undisguised hostility in the press and totally disregarded by museums." The public, however, was divided. There were people who preferred figurative art; and this demand supported private commercial galleries which sold it. First private galleries appeared in Israel in the 1930s and 1940s, yet for a long time there were very few of them (only 6 were active in the 1940s and 15 in the 1950s, and they did not exist simultaneously: some were closed, new ones were opened, only a handful continued their exigtence through- out the period).: These first galleries were unspecialized in the styles they carried and in their activities: they housed exhibitions, functioned as artists' coffee-houses, sold works of art and curiosities, and were minor centers of cultural life at a time when such centers were very few. As regards styles represented in the galleries at the time, there were differences between galleries, but there was no difference between private sector as a whole and the museums. Both supported all the styles successively adopted in Israel, and catered to the small public of connoisseurs.

It was the economic prosperity of the late 1960s and much of the 1970s which for the first time gave rise to a large public willing to buy art and thus to a large private market. The growth of demand was reflected in the numbers of galleries: 48 of them were active in the 1960s and 128 in the 1970s. The art-buying public had little interest in modern art theory and nclearly favored figurative art. Accordingly, most of the galleries (about 90% of them) carried only figurative styles-though, of course, different figurative styles.'2 As a result, exactly when the public sector and the press became monopolized by the supporters of avantgarde art, a thriving art market emerged which provided income to figurative painters.

There were also substantial numbers of people with avantgardist artistic preferences: they read the criticism in newspapers, came to open- ings of experimental exhibitions in museums, watched Conceptualist "per- formances" and participated in various "artistic workshops" and "happen- ings." The social structure of the publics differed: the public of the figura- tive styles consisted of individuals who rarely knew each other, while the avantgarde public had a semi-organized character. Acting as an effective pressure group, this latter public legitimated the activity of avantgarde artists, critics, and curators by its collective support and ensured the con- tinuing economic support of avantgarde art by the government. Govern- ment officials responsible for the support of visual arts in Israel repre- sented a part of this avantgarde public. They shared its views about creativity and innovative modern art and regarded avantgarde artists as spiritual leaders who should be revered and supported in every possible way (Greenfeld 1984).

Thus a dual art world was created in Israel. One sector of it con- sisted of a private art market made up of commercial art galleries and a public of individual buyers; it was affiliated with figurative art. The other sector was dominated by avantgarde abstract art. It was comprised of pub- lic art institutions such as museums, art critics in the press, and a public of viewers, and was supported by public funds. There was virtually no over- lap between these sectors.

At the time when this research was conducted the population of active Israeli artists numbered 477 persons: 44 percent of them were "avant- garde" artists (either Abstract Expressionists or Conceptualists), while the remaining 56 percent were "figurative" painters (which included at least half a dozen different styles, from Realism through Expressionism and Surrealism to several varieties of Impressionism and Naive painting). Of these numerous styles, Conceptualism and Surrealism emerged in the pe- riod when the bifurcation of the Israeli art world was already evident, and thus became exclusively associated with either the public sector, or the art market. Each represented approximately 10 percent of the population of artists. The different preferences of the two sectors may be deduced from the following figures. Only about 7 percent of all the artists had the op- portunity to exhibit in one of the important art museums in the 1970s: 20 percent among the avantgarde artists and 6.7 percent among the figu- rative-which included the long since considered classic painters who started their careers in the 1920s. Among the young artists whose careers were from the beginning shaped by the bifurcated system, 26.7 percent of the Conceptualists had the possibility to exhibit in an important museum, an opportunity shared by not one of the Surrealists. A similar picture is presented by the purchases of these public institutions from local artists. In the course of their existence the three central Israeli museums made purchases from about 125 Israeli artists. Fifty-six percent of the purchases made by the Museum of Modem Art in Haifa, 57 percent of those made by the Tel-Aviv Museum, and almost 70 percent of those made by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem are from avantgarde artists (the majority of which are in all cases Conceptualists). The share of Surrealists in the over- all purchases is 8 percent for the Museum in Haifa, 6 percent for the Tel- Aviv Museum, and 2.7 percent (that is one painting) for the Israel Mu- seum.'3 At the same time, painting was the exclusive source of income for 52 percent of the figurative painters (and 80% of the Surrealists) as com- pared to 25 percent of avantgarde artists (18% of Conceptualists) which is one indication of the difference in popularity these styles enjoy with the general public of art lovers and with the commercial galleries.

Given this bifurcation, the Israeli art scene provides an opportunity to observe the mechanisms governing artistic choice, or decision-making, in a social system decisively committed to avantgarde art and its ideology of openness, as well as in a system committed to figurative traditional painting and yet existing in a modem cosmopolitan setting.

The following analysis is based on in-depth interviews with all the critics writing in major Israeli newspapers in Hebrew in the late 1970s and early 1980s, all the curators of Israeli art in major museums, and the owners of most of the commercial galleries-members of the Israeli As- sociation of Gallery Owners during the period of data collection for this study.

The "Gatekeepers" of an Ivory Tower

The Critics

The majority of the art critics active in Israel today belong to the third generation of critics; the critics of the second generation constitute a small minority. There are few differences between the two groups and on the whole the critics represent a more or less homogeneous group in their attitudes to art.

Their definition of art in general is open. They are willing to accept as art "anything which is presented in artistic context, in galleries, muse- ums, or is done by artists recognized as artists." This definition is a result of a good deal of thought and articulation and is justified as an ingenious way which might be of interest to social scientists. "I don't know what is art," says one critic,

“since from the moment Duchamp discovered that art is everything which an artist may do, the definition was broadened to such an extent, that it actually became closed. One of the possible definitions can be made in terms of Structuralism. This is a process in which an object passes from the category of nature to the category of culture. There is no argument about what is art, but about what is good or bad art. Since I am for the pluralism of the jargon, I would accept as legitimate a number of criteria; for a sociologist the criterion would be a number of people who are willing to have a painting at home and who would enjoy it. From the point of view of the history of art, the criterion is the opposite-since there art is created for the elite. A very limited product for a very limited circle. If you are an aesthetician, every harmonious object displaying qualities of equilibrium, values of beauty of a certain culture-is art. For a physician, psychiatrist, etc., the criterion of good art is a convulsion of the stomach. In a framework of a structuralist definition the quality does not matter; the definition is more elegant because the criteria are irrelevant. It is taken for granted, that if any object is considered art-whatever the criteria a society chooses for art are-this is a sign that the object is needed and this is the criterion. If a society names something art, it means that it consumes it as art, and I am content with this. Criteria are additional ramifications, and very personal ones.”

Similar openness characterizes the critics' definition of "good" art. "You must understand," says one of them, "there are no good artists and bad artists." It may be the fault of the public if certain works of art do not receive due recognition, which can happen because the public is primitive and lacks the skills necessary for the appreciation of art. Still, it is the critics' job to write critical reviews and to pass judgment on the works of art they write about. What are the criteria they base these judgments on? Professional technical skills do not enter their deliberations; they refer to these as "all that nonsense." This, however, leaves the critics in a some- what embarrassing situation, because they seem unable to find much else to justify their judgment. "Let us say, we take art as language," says one critic, 'means of communication; we would not say that English is more beautiful than Hebrew. Before Abstractionism, art really was a lan- guage.... People until today view art as a means of communication, but I don't know whether it is a language or a pseudo-language. Art ceased to function as a language. It has a new function, and we don't know what it is. If art were a language-what criteria would you apply to a language? If it is a pseudo-language, if we don't know what it is, how can I know the criteria for evaluating this thing at all?"

The only criterion mentioned in connection with the evaluation of contemporary art-which is these critics' daily activity-is innovation. They justify the demand for it in the following way: "Art created now cannot resemble art created in the past, in another society ... I expect a contemporary artist to react to the fact that he lives in a consumer, techno- logical, permissive, democratic society, a society the distress of which, economic, security and political-represents its main characteristic.16 For example: if there appeared a young artist painting like Rembrandt, I would not accept his works as relevant art, even if the historical Rem- brandt had never existed." The character of the innovation, though, is left undefined, which makes it a less than helpful means of discrimination between objects of which the critics approve and those which they reject.

There is a consensus that there are no intra-artistic criteria (qualities of a work of art qua work of art) which would make it possible to distin- guish between art and not-art and between good and bad works of art. In spite of that, critics constantly face the necessity to make such distinc- tions. To escape this paradoxical situation, they resort to a highly articu- lated contextual definition. Contextual definition is a definition of an ob- ject by other objects that surround it. Not the object itself, but its context enables critics to refer to it as a work of art and justifies such attitudes on their part. In Israel, this attitude finds its best expression in a book by an influential art critic, Gideon Efrat, The Definition of Art (1975). According to Efrat,

“Things are designated 'art' independently of the qualities of a work and, in fact, in an absolutely arbitrary fashion.... In my opinion, the term 'art' does not refer to any quality intrinsic to an object. Its source is in an attitude, in a certain approach to the object, which we shall call 'the artistic approach.' This approach depends upon the circumstances in which an object designated 'art' appears.... In this interpretation I see the only possible answer to the situation in the realm of mod- ern art during the last decades, when we witness the rejection of all absolute laws ... the abolition of a border between what is art and what is not art.”

The circumstances which necessitate "artistic approach" are defined as "exactly those circumstances in which an object named 'art' appears-a museum, a gallery, a collection. (A pair of pants, says Efrat, will turn into art from the moment it is presented as art, because it is the circumstances and nothing else that allow for the application of this title.)

“... these are the circumstances in which we are told by the artist himself, or by a catalogue to an exhibition, or by a collector or an 'expert' (the one we decided to consider an expert), that an object x is art-that is, a certain person in a casual way applied the word 'art' to a thing pointed at, directly or indirectly, by people whom we consider connoisseurs. And who are these 'connoissuers?' First of all, the artist himself. We shall call a person 'an artist,' if we indeed know him to be an artist (or others know him to be an artist), namely if his works have already appeared or are appearing in the circumstances of artistic intention …"

Since there are no inherent qualities which would enable one to' classify anything as art or not art, there are no grounds for preferring one thing over another. At the same time, we are constantly presented with objects which are defined as "good" art by various "connoisseurs." We, the public and the critics, have no choice but to trust the judgment of these "connoisseurs," believes Efrat, because they are supposed to have theories as to what is art and to make their choices on the basis of criteria they derive from these theories. Yet, what about the possibility that a "connoisseur," say, a curator, chooses to act irresponsibly and instead of conscientiously selecting objects which answer the requirements of his theory, presents randomly selected objects and makes us believe this is good art? This problem, posed by Efrat, is solved in the following fashion:

“The existence of a fraudulent curator is impossible. Even if it were possible, we must remember that the possibility of a fraudulent curator will exist even if we adopt traditional definitions of art. On the other hand, how can a fraudulent cura- tor exist in the framework of the definition proposed here? If everything a curator presents as works of art necessarily turns into art, it is not possible for him to exhibit something as art without its being art. That is, a fraudulent curator is not possible by our definition.”

As to the possible opposition to the judgment of a curator, Efrat dismisses it as immaterial and futile: ". . . history has already proved on numerous occasions that this opposition does not change the fact of the addition of the new artistic manifestations to the widening realm of the concept of art.... This opposition is only temporary. An example is the opposition of the directors of the Academy in Paris to Impressionism, which looks ridiculous or worse to us today." (pp. 115-20).

he critics do not want to be ridiculous. They are not "primitive," but open. They are extremely aware of the relativity of the definitions of art and their being dependent on society. The professional criteria, which allowed to distinguish unequivocally between art and not-art, and be- tween good and bad art, before the modern period, are rejected in most cases. In the opinion of these critics, these criteria reflected other periods and are not relevant today. This rejection of professional criteria and paint- ing which stands up to them, actually contradicts the critics' view of art, which proscribes judgment according to any standards-including nega- tive ones, such as the necessary lack of correspondence to professional criteria-and demands them to grant unlimited freedom to the artist. It is this demand which precludes the critics from creating new relevant crite- ria, which would reflect our times and society. (The only criterion they do mention is innovation, which, however, is left entirely undefined itself.) The critics do not readily accept the lack of criteria, and look for solu- tions to this uneasy situation. They produce a contextual definition of art, which in reality releases them from the necessity to define art and to distinguish between good and bad art, and transfers the responsibility for this to others, such as artists and curators.

The difficulty of making judgments without the criteria on which they may be based leads the critics to redefine their function in the follow- ing way which eliminates the necessity of judging. Traditionally, the critic was expected to help the public understand art. But, in this case, it is the critics' unanimous opinion, that true art should have no concern for any extra-artistic values. It does not have to appeal to society. "Art is elitist. Any attempt to talk about the connection between art created today and the wide public is wrong. Art is made by individuals belonging to the art circles, influenced by them, creating first and foremost for them. Art cir- cles consist of artists, art critics, museum curators, collectors, gallery own- ers, students of art, but not all of them, only those involved, those who know what's going on." Therefore, they say, their responsibility is towards art, not towards the public. But the main duty of a critic is his duty toward himself. Criticism is a creative work, a critic has to create, this is the ulti- mate end and justification of his activity. "I perceive the work of the critic as a creative work," says one critic, "To bring to a communication between the public and the artist, is not my ideal. To show everyone how smart I am, is one. It is an ego trip …"

The creativity of the critics is expressed in the construction of an aesthetic theory, which is supposed to play an independent role in the development of art. "No doubt," believes a critic, "the need to engage in art theory is a creative need par excellence . .. it is also a need to influence the development of art, a belief in inculcating art relevant for one in the artistic world." By means of constructing a theory the critic takes up a place equal in importance to the place of the artist. However, while the critics view themselves as creators who greatly influence the development of art, the relationship between the theory and artists' production is logi- cally ambiguous. Theory is supposed to condition works of art, yet it also derives from them. "The greater the extent to which an artist fulfills the requirements of a theory, the better artist he is," they say; yet, "the key to art theory is to be found in the analysis of works of art"; "the theory stems from art; the raw material of the theory is works of art, that is, what is already produced." The necessarily derivative in the case of the lack of criteria character of the art theory contradicts the critics' desire to see it as an influential contribution to the development of art. As a result, in some cases they disengage it from the works of art to which it refers and present theorizing as a self-contained activity, a different art in its own right. An important critic describes her work: "I work on a semantic problem, try to create a new language, a new jargon. It is not possible to reach the thing itself (art), since were it possible to explain the whole painting verbally, it would not have the right to exist as plastic art . . ."

Thus the critics' view about what their role should be corresponds only in part to what it is in fact. They do not perceive themselves as obliged to transmit the message of works of art to the public, or to aid it in distinguishing good art from bad. And indeed, they do not do this. They define their role as a creative one, comparable to that of artists; moreover, they want to guide the artists, to influence the course of development in art by means of the aesthetic theory-which'is the creation of the critics. However, in spite of the importance assigned to the creation of an original aesthetic theory, no such theory, that is no articulated body of coherent notions, was actually developed by these critics.18 The reason for this and for the unwillingness of the critics to act as judges of art (namely accord- ing to the traditional definition of the critic's function) is the same. The critics do not want to commit themselves to standards or criteria, they want to remain open. They cannot lead the artists because the philosophy they profess does not allow them to have in mind a direction in which to lead. Art criticism in this context becomes a totally self-contained ac- tivity-artistic theoretization for the sake of artistic theoretization-exer- cises which may be performed with a greater or lesser degree of virtuosity.

The critics, however, still fulfill an important function for the artistic avantgarde; though no longer servants of the public they remain the ser- vants of their professional community. The critics' exclusive connection with Conceptualist artists, which guarantees them a respectable social po- sition, obliges them to be the spokesmen of this artistic school, to defend it and to attack its alternatives. Ultimately, they become the loudspeakers of the artistic community. While their task is to articulate the decisions of the group, it is the curators who have to bear the responsibility for making these decisions.

The attitudes of the Israeli critics are not unique. They seem to share them with their counterparts elsewhere (Battcock 1966, 1968, 1973, Lippard 1971,' Olson 1980, Petruck 1981), which makes the social implica- tions of these attitudes particularly worthy of serious consideration.

The Curators

Though the situation of the curators is different, their views are similar to those of the critics.'9 Like the latter, the curators are unwilling to define art. They feel they are obliged to "accept anything which is material cul- ture and is interesting." "It is impossible to define art," they say, "there were always temporary definitions of certain societies. We do not have a definition. We must be exposed and open to the developments in the realm of creation without restricting ourselves by a concept, since such a use is restrictive, and not broadening ... Everyone has the right to think that what he does is art.”

Similarly to the critics, curators believe that professional technical criteria are absolutely irrelevant in contemporary art, and that the only true criterion of the artist's creativity is innovation. The success of a cura- tor, therefore, depends on the ability to discover and promote innovations, "to build something which will be good according to one or another criterion." The direct involvement of museums in the contemporary devel- opments enhances the curators' feeling of self-importance: "the develop- ment which happens together with me, with my help."

At the same time, since there are no established criteria to distin- guish between significant and insignificant innovations, curators are con- stantly in danger of taking upon themselves a responsibility for the inclu- sion in the framework of art something that is not really important and, thus, may expose them to criticism and ridicule in the future. They are aware, that "the news of today will look as yesterday's news tomorrow," and they do not feel comfortable in this situation. "It is embarrassing to come across a work of art which is not similar to anything done before," says one of the curators. Therefore, though the discovery and promotion of innovations carries in itself high rewards for them, the curators are reluctant to accept the exclusive responsibility for such discoveries. "No curator will take upon himself the responsibility [for defining something as art] and commit himself by saying that this is forever, or for a hundred years," they believe, "it is history which makes the final decision."

The curators try to support their decisions by referring to experi- ence or professional intuition; they also rely on their mastery of informa- tion about the latest developments in international art centers and their knowledge of the history of modern art. This information and knowledge, they say, protects them from taking imitations for originals, enables them to identify innovations, and helps them to understand works of art. Infor- mation, which helps the curators to recognize innovations, helps them further to establish their "authenticity," and, therefore, significance. "Au- thenticity" here refers to the degree of embeddedness of a certain work of art in a more or less broad artistic framework. As a result, in reality, though curators demand that there be no limits to the creative freedom of the artist, they accept only those innovations which are already defined as art. Art has no definition, they claim, and, therefore, there exist no prior criteria for the judgment of art; however, "art is a result of the works of art that have been created already," and this, of course, creates a framework for the selection of new works of art. Thus, contrary to the expectations of the critics, who believe that curators make their decisions according to personal theories of each of them, curators, like the critics themselves, actually accept the decisions made by other agents and also rely on the circumstances that necessitate the "artistic approach."

The other agents, on whose views and practices the curators base their decisions, are the artists, and other colleagues and experts in the field. "The artist is the one who determines the framework of the definition," says one curator. Who is defined as artist, according to this curator, is also "determined first and foremost by the artist himself." The final arbiter, though, is consensus among experts. "There is always a certain consensus with respect to what is art and what is not art. This unformulated consensus gives a backing, some feeling that, after all, I do under- stand." But consensus in matters of taste can only be found in small and closed societies, or in large authoritarian ones in which it is created by coercion. It certainly does not exist in Israel, since the Israeli art world includes figurative painters whose work is disparaged by the curators. The consensus they speak of is the one which exists in a small group consist- ing of the self-recruiting circle of avant-garde artists, professional critics, fellow curators, and that part of the public which follows the avant-garde leadership (Greenfeld 1984). The solidarity and agreement within this small world of the avant-garde becomes extremely important.

Similarly to the critics, the curators do not view themselves as the servants of the art "consuming" public. Instead, they believe that their duty is to serve their professional community, and mainly the artists, its kernel. Consistent with their demand for solidarity, they divide the public into two types: passive and active public. The vast majority belongs, in their opinion, to the former category. This is, to quote a curator, "a public which does not visit the museum with definite expectations, a public that does not look at the works of art actively." However, curators do not attri- bute definite expectations to the so called "active" public either. That pub- lic is described by an important curator as follows: "This is a public charac- terized by reaction patterns which are not dependent upon a system of prejudices dictating to them what to see, and closing before them every- thing else.... Every artist, in fact has a certain circle, from the family framework and friends to people who work in the same spirit with him." A colleague of his believes that "on the artistic plane there is a specific public which understands what the wide public does not understand. This is the artistic family-artists, and hopefully the critics also." In other words, this active public is not a clientele of consumers, distinct from the producers, but the producing artists themselves, other members of the inner circle of the avantgarde (critics, curators) and a small number of others tied to them by close personal bonds.

The activity of curators which involves decisions as to which artists are to exhibit their works in a museum and which works of art are to be purchased, is oriented towards a small closed group and offers no crite- ria with which these decisions can be evaluated, besides the agreement within this group. This creates a feeling of insecurity among the curators and leads them to attempts, similar to those of the critics, to transfer the authority of judgment to and share the responsibility with somebody else. This feeling of insecurity is expressed in the relative lack of independence in making decisions on the part of the curators (as compared with owners of commercial galleries). As Table 1 indicates, only in a small minority of cases (11%) do curators decide to exhibit the works of a totally unknown artist, and thus assume full responsibility for their choice.

The Market: The "Gatekeepers" of the Figurative Subsystem

This picture contrasts with the one presented by commercial galleries of comparable prestige.20 (Artists supported by the market are launched into their careers by gallery owners, who have nothing but their independent judgment on which to base their decisions to exhibit absolutely unknown artists, in almost half-47%-of the cases.) And, indeed, the process of decision-making among the art dealers in the private market which, in Israel, is committed to the support of figurative art, is quite different. Figurative galleries act in a variety of ways. Consignment is the most frequent form of transaction: a gallery accepts works of art, exhibits them as a part of its collection and receives a certain percentage (usually a third) of the price when a work is sold. Certain galleries, more respectable and well-established, purchase works from an artist and sell them after- wards as their own property (this means, of course, that their decisions involve greater risk). Most of the galleries owning collections organize special exhibitions. Established galleries do so more often than less estab- lished ones. In some cases a dealer signs contracts with artists, pays them something similar to a monthly salary, promotes them by means available to the gallery, and receives all their production in return. Usually, in the beginning a gallery exhibits a few of an artist's works in its collection and determines their initial price (which is done in consultation with the art- ist). If the works are well received by the public and are sold, the price rises and in certain cases the artist is granted an exhibition. Another form of business is renting a place to artists for periods of two to three weeks. Sometimes, on very rare occasions, a gallery owner asks an artist (in such cases not a novice) to exhibit in the gallery. In all cases gallery owners announce the opening dates of the exhibition and send invitations to the clientele of the gallery. This clientele includes all those who visit the gal- lery regularly as well as those who occasionally purchase a work of art in it.

In contrast to curators and critics who function as gatekeepers in the system affiliated with public art institutions, owners of private figura- tive galleries do not engage in construction of theories and, not being public officers, are not obliged to provide the public with the reasons for the decisions they make by nature of their trade. They do not excel in formulation of definitions. But, unlike their counterparts in the avant- garde sector of the art world, in answering a question "What is good art?" they do not claim "there is no definition" or "it is impossible to define art," but answer: "I never thought of it" or "I don't know, I don't understand, I am not a professor."

However, within this undefined realm gallery owners have a clear scale of preferences, an established taste and permanent criteria which help them to make their choices. They demand art in which "it is impossi- ble to cheat." "Art has to be made well," they say, and this, in their opin- ion, is a result of learning. "Professional knowledge is what is important for me," says one dealer. For another one "the criteria (in selecting works for exhibitions and sales) is the quality of art works from the technical point of view."

The meaning embodied in a work of art is also important, and it must be intelligible to the spectator. "An artist must have a message," claims one of the dealers; they ask for an explanation behind the details of a painting. The message has to be expressed in a defined subject and provide the spectator with the possibility of interpreting it. This explains the preference of the gallery owners for the figurative over abstract styles. There are different figurative styles, however, and within each of them there are many artists to choose from. When it comes to these choices, the decisions are based, first of all, on the personal attitude of a dealer. "My personal taste is the only consideration. I have enough self-confidence to say what I like," they say, or: "The gallery is my own. I do not pretend to be a connoisseur or a great expert in art. But because the gallery is mine, I feel I must make my own decisions."

However, this is not the only important consideration; the decisions of gallery owners are also based on commercial considerations. They em- phasize this point: "A gallery is a store in which people buy and sell. I think that a painting above a certain price has to be also evaluated by its investment potential. A realistic person, with both feet on the ground, would not behave wisely without taking into account the investment value of an artist." Usually the two considerations coexist. There is always at least one thing common to a work of figurative art and a clever invest- ment, say the dealers, a certain immanent value independent of the pe- riod and lacking in the non-figurative art: "Good art is always an invest- ment, but not temporary, period-dependent art." Something the value of which, by definition, diminishes with time, cannot be an investment. This is also one of the reasons for the characteristic of this group lack of interest towards avantgarde art.

The importance of commercial considerations may be one of the reasons for the self-confidence of gallery owners: the proof of this pud- ding is in the eating. Sales in themselves provide a convincing proof of a correct judgment, and in most cases they also reinforce the personal taste of a gallery owner. The self-confidence of the dealers is reflected in their indifference towards experts. Unlike critics and curators, they are not at all interested in the developments in the acclaimed centers of art abroad. Their attitude towards museum curators and critics is also rather reserved. "We do not care what goes on in the museums," they say, and as to the critics, one dealer summarizes the common position: "I don't read news- papers. Don't want the critics to fool me."

In contrast, commercial considerations necessitate taking into ac- count the taste of the public. The dealers' regard for it is expressed in a twofold fashion: the composition of the public to which this group appeals and its feeling of respect for it. The public of figurative galleries is rather wide. It is described by the dealers as "liberal professionals, aged from 25 to 45, journalists, physicians, lawyers, industrialists, politicians ... high school graiduates and up . .. people of European origin. .. the majority with high education, some of them people with money, many young peo- ple, young couples." People composing this wide public are usually classi- fied according to the amount of money they are able and willing to spend on a painting (including those who do not spend anything, but more or less regularly visit the gallery). However, the respect gallery owners feel for their public does not depend on money-they respect all their public, irrespective of its purchasing potential. The reasons for this respect are different: important collectors able to afford very expensive works of art are respected for this, too; but, in general, the public is respected by gal- lery owners for the independence of its judgment. "People usually know what they want to buy," says one dealer, "they understand what they buy." The public is characterized as "intelligent, sensitive people . . . a very cultured, educated public." Because of this feeling of respect for the public, among the considerations that guide gallery owners in selecting works of art, they mention the consideration whether something "is wor- thy of being shown to the public."

Most of the galleries (and every established gallery) have a circle of more or less permanent clients. Established galleries guarantee to take back any work purchased in them in the event the client is no longer interested in the purchase. Owners of such galleries say that the public trusts their opinions. Indeed, sometimes prospective buyers unsure in their choice ask for the opinion of and in the end purchase the work suggested by the gallery owner. Yet, gallery owners do not force their opinions on the public, the opposite is true: it seems that they make every possible effort to know what are the public's preferences. Gallery owners perform the role of opinion leaders for their public only in the sense that, being exceptionally sensitive to changes in its taste, they are always found half a step ahead of it. In fact, though, they go in the direction desired and chosen by the public itself. As a result, the importance of the dealers as gatekeepers for artists increases for they serve as a reliable barometer of the public's disposition and taste.

However, though the dealers go to great lengths to learn about the preferences of the public, the only way they can learn about them is by repeatedly putting to test their own independent decisions. An estab- lished gallery is always a gallery which in the eyes of its public has suc- cessfully passed many tests. From the moment a gallery becomes estab- lished, its activity gains a momentum of its own: its success gives it credit which induces the public to trust the owner's independent judgment.

The dealers, therefore, may be characterized as self-confident and possessing definite (though not necessarily refined according to certain definitions) taste and clear criteria for the selection of works of art. Since this group makes a living by selling art, its behavior constantly undergoes a concrete and immediate test. The test is the commercial success of a gallery, and thereby of the artists it selects, among a certain public. Be- cause of its dependence on the public, this group respects it and feels responsible in relation to it.


Successful Israeli artists who entered the system at any time in the past 15 years are never supported by the local art world as a whole. If they work in an avantgarde style (which in the vast majority of cases is Concep- tualism), they exhibit in museums and enjoy the attention of the press. If they work in any one of the variety of figurative styles, they are supported exclusively by the market. Conceptualist artists have as little chance of becoming a commercial success, as their figurative colleagues have of ex- hibiting in a museum or having their work praised by a critic. Yet, while such uniformity of choice is only to be expected from the dealers commit- ted to a well-defined view of art, who make their choices on the basis of clear expectations and requirements, it contradicts the professional ide- ology of the curators and critics. According to the views which curators and critics express in writings and interviews, all styles should have an equal chance to be accepted as good art, because there are no limits to the possible forms of artistic innovation. These views imply a good deal of tolerance of, and sympathy for, a plurality of styles and approaches, a tolerance and sympathy which the decisions of the curators and critics certainly do not display. In addition, although the definitions of their func- tions demand initiative, perhaps even the construction of new systems of criteria on the basis of which it would be possible to select innovations in art, the critics and curators lack initiative, and accept only that which closely corresponds to the practices of the artists they support. Their ar- tistic choices follow, consciously and deliberately, the consensus among these artists and other experts

The uniformity of choice expresses entirely different realities in the case of the two groups. When combined with the existence of clearly de- fined preferences and criteria, it is but a result of a consistent adherence to one's values which enable one to discriminate between what one likes and what one does not like, and to form independent judgments. It is indeed as a result of their professional ideologies that Israeli art dealers can and do make independent decisions. When combined with a philosophy of an absolute openness which leaves one with no criteria to use in making decisions, a similar uniformity of choice is a reflection of a susceptibility to social pressure and an inability to judge independently. The relative inde- pendence of judgment is the main difference between the gatekeepers of the avantgarde and figurative art worlds in Israel.

Given the philosophy the critics and curators profess, their behav- ior is perplexing. Yet, it appears to be but another case of a phenomenon frequently observed in other fields of sociology, particularly that of collec- tive behavior. Its general causes were surmised by Weber (1979) when he suggested cognitive confusion as a necessary condition for the suscepti- bility to charismatic leadership. The unreflective acceptance of someone else's judgment, characteristic of the followers of a charismatic leader, pre- supposes a lack of standards (however defined) on which a reflection, and one's own judgment, can be based. The seemingly paradoxical behavior of the critics and curators is actually a direct consequence of the philosophy of the avantgarde. This philosophy of absolute openness and attribution of exclusive importance to free creativity cannot provide criteria for actual aesthetic decisions and choices. Therefore, decisions cannot be based on anything intrinsic to art and are sought after in the practices and opinions of the group chosen to represent art, namely the inner circle of artists, critics, curators, and other members of the "active" public. This situation is also analogous to some well-known experiments in social psychology (Allen 1965, Crutchfield 1955, Jacobs & Campbell 1961, Sherif 1936) in which, due to deliberately created confusion, experimental subjects can no longer trust their senses, and accept group consensus (even if it contra- dicts their sense perceptions) as their sole guide for judgment. Reality as perceived by the senses and evaluated according to measureable criteria is replaced by "social reality" (Festinger 1950). By constantly denying all le- gitimacy to intrinsic criteria in art, avantgarde philosophy creates a situa- tion in which the "social reality" of an artistic school replaces the reality of aesthetic experience.

Such behavior on the part of the avantgarde gatekeepers represents a clear case of unintended consequences of intentional action, in which an ideology of unlimited freedom (here, of artistic creativity) carried to its logical conclusion leads to an increased susceptibility of its advocates to social pressure, and thereby creates a situation characterized by a high degree of conformity. This is a conclusion which may have relevance not only for the sociology of art, but also for the exploration of the effects of ideologies on social behavior in general.