The six "Ashcan" artists painted New York City with headlong ardor and limited subtlety starting around the turn of the century; George Bellows, Robert Henri, and John Sloan are the big names. They petered out gradually in the wake of the 1913 Armory show, which introduced Americans to the Fauves and Cubists and turned the six erstwhile American avant-gardists into fuddy- duddies overnight -- one of the meanest tricks in modern art history. Picture Hillary Clinton awakening one morning to discover that the entire country had moved left and she was now a Republican, utterly devoid of compassion ex hypothesi. I for one would want to make sure all White House lamps were battened down tight. The Ashcanners had little originality and merely adequate technique, but their passion and swagger make them interesting. " Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York," at the New-York Historical Society through August 4, underlines a strange fact: The conviction that you are an important painter doesn't make you one, but it helps. Given the necessary minimum of dexterity, vision, and heart, authority is the magic ingredient that separates Art from Noodling Around. The only way to get it is to take it; the Ashcan painters took it.

"Metropolitan Lives" is intriguing for another reason too. These artists were rock-ribbed leftists, but steadfastly refused to mix art and politics. " While I am a Socialist," John Sloan wrote, "I never allowed social propaganda to get into my paintings." It is a line so radically different from what most artists say today, so obviously germane to the ongoing political and cultural debate, you might have expected the press to descend like flies on " Metropolitan Lives." But somehow most journalists missed this story.

George Bellows lays out the Ashcanners' wares -- good and bad, fine and cheesy -- in a 1911 drawing called "Splinter Beach." Three horizontal stripes: Along the bottom, bantering boys strip to their shorts and dive into the East River; in the middle, a huge tug noses south; on top, Manhattan looms. Brooklyn Bridge slices into the picture like a bolt from heaven; it comes to ground amid the Manhattan clutter. "Splinter Beach" has the vibrant, packed- together feeling of a scene through a long telephoto lens, as if the river were two feet wide and you could reach across, and the tight composition keeps the chaos in hand. Yet it has a typical Ashcan weakness also: an unwelcome cartoonishness. The boys have comic-strip faces. Every Ashcanner but Henri worked at some point as a newspaper or magazine illustrator, and so cartooning is a natural influence on their art, and it's not bad in itself. But when it flares up as it does in "Splinter Beach" amid restrained-and- serious realism, like Ronald McDonald strolling onstage during Aida, you don't know what to make of it.

"New York is so different from here," Henri wrote from Philadelphia in 1897; "one feels alive there." The best Ashcan paintings give you (as "Splinter Beach" does) a feeling of swept-upness. The crowd is a dynamo, throwing off sparks. The Ashcanners never sentimentalized, but these crowds are as cheerfully resolute as ripping flags; they are made up of self-possessed people who know they are part of the mass and like it. William Glackens shows the dynamo crowd skating in Central Park, George Luks shows it crammed into the heart of the Lower East Side, John Sloan paints the crowd whooping and boisterous outside a newspaper office on election eve, or dining at a busy restaurant -- in a painting ("Renganeschi's Saturday Night," 1912) you might have mistaken for a loose-limbed proto-Hopper, except that the diners are having fun.

You won't find many higher-energy paintings than Sloan's "Six O'Clock, Winter" (1912). Presiding in the heavens is an elevated train paused at the platform (you feel it throbbing), ready to barrel forward out of the picture. At street level the rush-hour crowd boils and surges round the station. These 1912 New Yorkers are too preoccupied to pay you any attention, but they are alert and engaging, many of them smile, and the power of the electric train and the brilliant lights and the big, vibrant, roaring city is reflected in their faces, and you envy them. Although Ashcan paintings rarely have good colors, in "Six O'Clock, Winter" the dusk sky is transparent deep blue going to purple and the lit-up storefronts are glowing, beckoning gold. Cartoonish elements intrude here too: The perspective is unconvincing; for the tracks to veer off so radically upwards, you ought to be standing much closer than you are, and the train itself has the pumped-up look of a superhero (LocoMan!) about to fly off and rescue a damsel. Sloan could have settled for dramatic but insisted on histrionic. Still it is a fine, memorable, vitamin-packed picture of a brilliant blue-and-golden moment.

Warning: The New York Historical Society installation is among the worst I have ever seen. It concludes (by way of illustration) with a series of out-of- focus black-and-white slides projected onto a mustard wall, the bleary images over-running a molding strip towards the ceiling, as if the curators were eagerly pursuing the 1996 World's Deadliest Anticlimax award.

That was New York art then; what about now? Where do things stand as we prepare for the next turn-of-the-century? I visited some fashionable SoHo galleries to find out. SoHo (which is not far from the once-Jewish Lower East Side that intrigued the Ashcanners) is the center of New York's gallery scene and, therefore, of the world's.

The Ashcan artists were parochial and SoHo's are cosmopolitan. But the Ashcanners spoke with authority; in SoHo you can smell the slackness and drift the instant you step out of the cab. The best Ashcan paintings give you that swept-up feeling; in today's art, the individual stands bedraggled and alone, whining. ("When I was a girl," writes mournful-but-perspicacious Squeak Carnwath, one of the artists whose shows I visited, "being good brought no entitlement, no privilege. A girl was still a girl. Good or bad.") Americans at large inspired tolerant amusement among the Ashcanners; today's artists tend to look on their fellow citizens with undisguised contempt.

Yet the story isn't all bad.

Installation Art is a major factor today, so I went first to Gallery 303 to admire Kristin Oppenheim's "Hey Joe." You step off the elevator into a bare high-ceilinged room where two searchlights (warm white and cold white) roam the floor. The droning soundtrack issues from small corner speakers: a sweet, fruity woman's voice chanting a song by Jimi Hendrix ("Hey Joe") about a man with a gun.

I have nothing against the idea of installation art; it's just that I have never seen an example that's any good. Often an installation will try to be evocative and only succeed (as this one does) in being inanely literal. One way to suggest "prison courtyard" is with an actual concrete floor and actual searchlights and a soundtrack about guns, but it's neither an evocative nor an interesting way. The piece is so threadbare that the thoughts it induces aren't about violence or menace or poignancy at all; they are more like "what an odd way to fill a room. Do they sell this sort of thing?" (Yes; you can buy the whole shmear for $ 7,500.) "How can people work in this gallery without the endless singsong driving them insane?" (That I don't know.)

The strange thing is, Oppenheim is an artist of real talent. Off in a back room are two modest but memorable drawings of slips or nightgowns (no one in 'em) in lipstick-red felt marker. Markers are no good for art, ordinarily: The color sags (it is saturated at the stroke's edges, weak in the middle) and offers no dynamic range. Press hard or press soft, nothing changes. But Oppenheim turns these weaknesses to advantage. She uses the watery center- strokes to create a liquid, rippling effect, and the monotonous color makes the drawn objects seem (just enough to interest, not to deceive you) like real cloth under glass. The red shapes on white paper in plain black frames are the sort of vision that comes whole in a flash, and they are lovely.

(In the schools, by the way, felt markers have all but displaced cheaper- and-better wax crayons because they are easier to use and showier. That trivial fact speaks volumes about modern America.)

The Jay Gorney gallery is showing bad paintings by David Deutsch and a bad sculpture by Haim Steinbach. It is notable, however, that this work isn't bad because it is tasteless or political. It's just bad. Break out the champagne! Squeak Carnwath at the David Beitzel gallery, on the other hand, is a fine painter. Her work at its best has a mesmerizing comehither intensity, engaging color, and rare decorative richness. One small square painting, for example, shows a second square made up of nine smaller squares each in a different color (peaches and oranges, reds and yellows, greens and blues), superimposed on a richly textured blue ground with a line drawing of a drinking glass in front. The square-of-nine-colors draws you from across the room; when you look at it, it feels as though you are peering into a window right through the painting, through the wall behind to a magic color-world beyond.

Carnwath's whimsical drawing and the childlike scrawl in which she adds words to her designs make her paintings seem, at times, like a cross between Dubuffet and New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. The unsuccessful ones are dominated by her text, which runs to platitudes. ("Reasons to get up in the morning . . ."; "Love," "Sunlight," "Friendship," etc.) Leftist politics is no big issue here; it is merely a thin gray scrim, like the dust on your computer screen: You wish you could grab a rag and wipe it off. One painting centers on a list of male-words on blue versus female-words on pink ("man, him, master, male . . . "versus "woman, her, missus, female . . ."). Is she parodying Serious Statements about gender stereotypes, or making a Serious Statement about gender stereotypes? More likely the latter, unfortunately. Another painting gives a list of "Worries," prominently featuring "bad air," "ozone hole," "linear science." Still, Carnwath is the real thing, and if you visit the Beitzel gallery and buy some of her paintings (go for the smaller ones), you won't regret it. You will even make money in the long term. They are good; I only wish they were better.

Who says today's art scene is balkanized into idiot categories having everything to do with politics and nothing with art? True, the Mimi Ferzt gallery is showing "Women painting women," consisting of pictures of girls and ladies by four female artists who are aged around 40 and come from Latvia. Of the four, Iltnere is an engaging painter whose pictures don't quite work but are intriguing anyway. In "Danae and Computer," a girl lies on a chaise holding a keyboard and contemplating the monitor. Over her head is a flock of white O's floating in a speech-balloon on a black ground; the rest of the painting is burlapy-gold. This image has the dream quality of being neither happy nor sad but ambiguously troubling. It's intriguing, but would work better if the drawing were less lackadaisical.

"Danae and Computer" raises the interesting question of why computers appear so rarely in modern paintings -- after all they are ubiquitous, and artists of an earlier day loved high-tech objects. The problem is, I suppose, that the mere box reveals so little about the machine's capacities. Whatever the ultimate cause, the inclination not to depict computers is strong. (I've never felt the least urge to draw one myself; have felt positive repulsion on the few occasions when I tried to make myself do it.) A landscape that is dominated by objects no one wants to paint is unprecedented in modern times, and sad.

SoHo, in sum, could have been a lot worse. After all, today's art bosses are enthralled with the Geraldo School, which passes itself off as the latest thing but in fact merely confirms (in the grand tradition of Barnum, Liberace, and Phil Donahue) that, just as there is no "world's biggest number," there is no "world's biggest twit." Our capacity for vulgarity is unlimited. Of this year's SoHo exhibits, the one that has attracted the most attention by far is the work of an English individual who doesn't deserve to have his name in the papers; his specialty is animal corpses preserved in formaldehyde. Another boffo attention-getter on the English scene (eagerly awaited at the Whitney Museum, no doubt) is a partnership whose art is dedicated to human excrement. I could go on.

But at the galleries I visited, you see the raw material for a vibrant art scene. If only Oppenheim didn't feel she had to make installations to get attention; if only someone would notify Carnwath that she gets full credit for being a right proper Democrat even if her paintings don't constantly remind us of the fact; if only the good people at the Ferzt gallery (I chatted with an exceptionally knowledgeable and charming staffer) would train their discerning eyes on the art and not the artist, we would be in fine shape.

In recent years conservative political thinkers have turned the intellectual world upside down by drawing readers in droves to their books and magazines. The same thing is aching to happen in the art world. Any day now, some venture-some New York gallery will run a standard up the pole -- the standard of Aesthetic Absolutism, not pallid "conservative" realism but bold, confident, technically sound -- and you will be amazed at the talent that rallies round.

With this issue, David Gelernter assumes the duties of art critic of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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