JED PERL IS RIGHT about some things. Opportunities for artists are diminishing, eroding in the market economy as galleries become more expensive to run, grant budgets are tightened, and public interest wanes. No one disputes that it is hard to be an artist, hard to keep body and soul together, perhaps hard to keep body and soul interested in a world whose regard seems trained so consistently elsewhere.

But in his new book, Perl (art critic for The New Republic) wants to move the argument further along the dogmatic continuum on which slightly unpleasant cocktail-party chatter is made. Perl slides a wrongheaded argument in on the coattails of a basic truth. He wants you to believe that the artists who are making a living in this distressed state aren't fundamentally artists. "Their exhibitions don't give public expression to private feelings," he writes, "as much as they offer canny responses to market pressures." Such artists "are sucking the life and energy out of the other art world." Certainly some artists who get attention and money are not terribly good, or interesting, and certainly some artists who are good and sincere and perhaps even saintly are ignored. But Perl would have the art world divided neatly in two. There are the art stars, "destroying the visual arts," and then there are those who "are working consistently, evolving in boom times and bust times" -- that is, the serious artists.

What threatens the careers of such artists is what Perl calls "contextualism," a word that he fairly spits out each time he uses it. Contextualism means that we, the poor stupid public, are more impressed by what surrounds a work than the work itself, as in the buzz, for example, around Sensation or Piss Christ.

"Context," Perl writes, "is in danger of swamping content."

There is a much more complicated set of reasons for the sad state of art in this country -- including a cultural failure to make art critical to everyday life -- but Jed Perl would rather simplify matters, and I think he does so to hide the fact that he doesn't really like, or understand, a lot of contemporary art. He cannot seem to delight in the variety of new media, in knotty conceptual art, in the sheer mind-fuck of a good installation. He dislikes minimalism and, on the other hand, disdains any whiff of visual culture reaching out into life -- into fashion, for example, or graphic design. His very stingy view of what kind of work has "freestanding value" (his highest mark of praise) benefits no one -- not the artists he champions, and not the public he claims to speak for.

Perl likes a specific kind of painting -- representational, heavily worked canvases with expressive lines, virtuoso painthandling, and some kind of allusion working through it, either art-historical or allegorical. He hides his preferences very cannily, but he tips his hand in an account of Jeff Wall's often (in my opinion) excellent work. Wall, a Vancouver artist who works in photography, can only succeed up to a point, because " becomes a wannabe form: painting for people who can't paint.... I question whether he can ever compete with the dynamism of a magnificently painted surface." This, plus an early and mindless rant against Cindy Sherman (and the usual suspects: Salle, Schnabel, Basquiat), makes me think that Jed Perl is simply the worst kind of art snob, and moreover has fallen prey to another kind of contextualism. He has mistaken the sad state of the unknown painter for the unearthly glow of higher purpose.

His view of such artists is oddly romantic -- toiling away in the studio, outside of time, trying not to give a damn about the world. They are somehow holier for existing outside of the market structure. I grant that there is a remarkable integrity in doing so, but this doesn't make other kinds of work not-art, and it doesn't make other kinds of work not good. Artists respond to the times; that's what they do. Some respond by ignoring them, and others respond by reflecting them. It's a basic choice -- the work will be contemplative unto itself, or unto the culture (and in some lovely cases, both).

Perl's selective generosity is a shame, really, because some of his writing is good. When he loves a work, or an artist, his writing blooms, occasionally even into a kind of sentimentality that is rather touching. But the book fails because he has set up the terms of his argument so that as soon as you disagree, you become part of the problem, a smug philistine who can't recognize real art.

I imagine Jed Perl sitting in his book-lined office, rubbing his bony hands together, waiting for the onslaught of attack from the pious knee-jerk left. What fun -- watch the liberals get their knickers in a twist, watch them dance around and make little yelps of protest. Fun it may be, but it doesn't make him right.