It's preachy, it's predictable, it's confrontational, it's chic. If you wonder what's emerging as the hot new art world fashion, the answer is now clear. Postmodernism's dead (its obituary already ran in the New York Times), media art's a yawn and appropriation's over. Issue Art is in.

Issue Art is everywhere. It's big in all the art schools, it's discussed in all the magazines. It's driven critic Hilton Kramer to yet another jeremiad. "Our culture," he laments in this month's New Criterion, "is in deep and terrible trouble." Kramer blames what he describes as the "standard practice" of the "new barbarians": the "imposition of politics -- above all, the politics of race, gender and multiculturalism -- as the only acceptable criterion of value in every realm of culture and life."

The practitioners of Issue Art welcome such attacks. They take pride in their enemies. Sen. Jesse Helms, of course, is their Enemy No. 1. But if you're straight, white and male, or should happen to believe that quality in art matters more than message, you're on the list as well. Issue Art has causes. Issue Art is hostile to sexism, racism, homelessness, big business, the spread of AIDS etc. Issue Art is angry. It's out to change the world -- or at least the world of art.

Out there in the real world -- with Eastern Europe's leftists rushing to the right, and secular Baathist parties in Syria and Iraq at each other's throats -- ideological disputes seem to matter less than ever. But not since the 1930s -- when nearly every artist felt a need to hymn the masses -- have they been so front-and-center in contemporary art.

Grand, thrilling art and political propaganda can, of course, be blended. It's not easy, but it's possible. The great Italian painters of the Counter-Reformation proved it could be done. So did Picasso with his "Guernica," so did Goya and David. Even in our own day, that blend has been achieved. Think of Neil Jenney's paintings of ecological disasters, of Leon Golub's portraits of torturers and tyrants, of Ed Love's searing lynchings, of Ed Keinholz's war memorials or of Anselm Kiefer's brooding meditations on the fascist history of his native Germany.

But far too much new Issue Art takes a lower path. It wags its finger at the viewer. It takes the easy option. It's self-congratulatory, smug.

"Trouble in Paradise," the 14-artist show arranged by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's List Visual Art Center that is now at the Art Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, is an Issue Art exhibit. So is "The Great American Fax Attack" ("Striking a blow against artistic repression! An exhibition of internationally recognized artists' work transmitted via fax celebrating artistic freedom"), which will be previewed at the Andrea Ruggieri Gallery, 2030 R St. NW., on Wednesday. So is "Shooting Back: Photography by and About the Homeless," now on exhibition at the Washington Project for the Arts.

The art in "Trouble in Paradise" is mostly meretricious. The photographs by the homeless at the WPA are often deeply moving. These two displays show Issue Art at its worst and at its best.

"Trouble in Paradise" includes photographs, scrawled paintings, architectural constructions, maps, press releases, documents and allegorical figurines. The smell of imitation surrounds many of its objects. It's a show that looks, at first glance, like a hundred other group shows seen in recent years.

But by the rules of Issue Art, looks are unimportant. It is guilt-provoking, cause-promoting righteousness that counts.

Issue Art draws heavily from a variety of sources. The conceptualists of the '60s, who used their documents and photographs to battle art's commodification, have inspired David T. Hanson. But art is not his theme. His subject is pollution. Each of his triptychs includes a map, an aerial photograph and a page of text published by the Environmental Protection Agency. He writes: "My concern is to create not a simplistic or didactic polemic but rather a complex body of work that is challenging visually, intellectually and conceptually." But the didactic and polemical objects he is showing are far too thin in spirit to support such weighty claims.

Issue Art is often as belligerent as a raised-fist protest poster. Karin F. Giusti's "Justice in the Balance" includes a figurine of Justice holding up a coat hanger instead of a scale. Frequently it borrows the vocabulary of assemblage. The "Hierarchical Bookcase" of Janet Zweig is one book wide and nine shelves high. Plato's on the top shelf, Shakespeare on the second, Dante on the third. The bottom shelves are given to Black Elk, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Zora Neale Hurston -- the implication being that sexist-racist powers dominate our libraries and wrongly promulgate dead white guys so that Indians, feminists and blacks do not get their due.

Issue Artists think it's neat to ridicule big business. Joshua Pearson and Gardner Post, who call themselves Pearson Post Industries (PPI), are showing their "Telepodium Launcher," a presidential-lectern-cum-rocket-launcher armed with TV monitors that makes George Bush appear to be an empty-headed, stuttering, explosion-loving fool. Jay Critchley has also founded a mock company, the Old Glory Condom Corp., whose logo is a hybrid of a condom and the flag. He's selling condoms in this show. He claims he's fighting AIDS.

The most offensive work on view is that of photographer Carrie Mae Weems. "What are the three things you can't give a black man?" is a question that she poses beneath one of her pictures. Her answer is "A black eye, a fat lip, and a job!" But Weems does not accept that she's a stereotyping racist -- she's excused because she's black. Her work, she writes, "deals exclusively with the stereotypes of Afro-Americans by Whites." If you're white and you recoil, she knows what you really feel. She writes: "Confronted (that's what these images do, confront) with questions of racism we sense our own integrity called into question. The fact is there are more racists disguised as non-racists than you can shake a stick at."

The best works on display -- Nancy Jenner's feminist nudes, Bread & Puppet Theater's visions of a world at war and Peggy Diggs's flags in mourning -- are not strong enough to overcome the holier-than-thou conceit and juvenile humor of this self-righteous show.

Issue Art, in theory, is in many ways attractive. The modernist imperative -- that art should be about art -- is not so sacred and noble that it cannot be attacked. What curator Dana Friis-Hansen calls "the elitist art world" and the "high, yet functionless, status of Art" also are fair game. Issue Artists have a right to strike out as they please. It's not their mission that's at fault, it's the way they go about it.

Too many of them fail in an old, familiar way. The average Issue Artist, like the average painter of Wyethesque weathered barns, fails by confusing the virtue of his subject -- the horridness of AIDS, the nobility of barns -- with the value of his art.

Art that is political may try the viewer's patience, but that is not to say its issues do not matter. How homelessness, for instance, affects children's lives is made movingly apparent by the vastly more successful Issue Art show at the WPA.

"Shooting Back: Photography by and About the Homeless," as its title indicates, is a divided exhibition. Four of its photographers -- Jim Hubbard, Jim Goldberg, Liliana Nieto del Rio and Mark Peterson -- are professionals. The others are local homeless kids. The professionals exhibiting tend to show us Issue Art. The children show us something else -- personal and heartfelt records of their lives.

The kids' pictures were made under the auspices of "weekly photography workshops in homeless shelters" conducted by Hubbard and his colleagues in the Shooting Back Education and Media Center, in collaboration with the WPA. Professional photographers, many rounded up by Hubbard, the center's executive director, worked with the kids for 18 months, lending them their Leicas and their Nikons, and their encouragement and skills.

The pictures that resulted are the strong soul of this show.

Hubbard used to work for United Press International. "When I went to the White House for press briefings," he writes, "I heard these denials {that homelessness was a problem}. "Walking out the gate I encountered homeless people everywhere." He is not just an observer. Hubbard is an activist. His documents in black-and-white feel like manifestos. They are works of Issue Art.

He pulls out all the stops. Heavy irony, for instance: A homeless man sleeps beneath a window; in the window is a book: "Class: What It Is and How to Acquire It -- A Guide to Living Well." He uses pathos too. An eviction in Alexandria: A small boy screams in grief as his cat is caged and taken off while the child's family is thrown into the street.

Hubbard's chief theme is eviction. Peterson's is the plight of the mentally disturbed. Nieto del Rio is a staff photographer for New York Newsday whose subject is Mexican and Latino illegal immigration. All three editorialize, they do not just report. Goldberg, who photographs California runaways and street kids, is an Issue Artist too, but an Issue Artist of a superior sort. He's a superior Issue Artist because he's a superior artist. His every shot is stunning.

All four of these grown-ups are committed to their mission. They often nag you with their pictures. They insist that you care.

The homeless folk they photograph are never scolded for their joblessness, their hustling or their failure to pay rent. That would be to blame the victims. Instead, the finger points at us, at society at large.

Homelessness is awful. Homelessness is also as American as apple pie. It is not a new phenomenon. The Pilgrims and the pioneers and the Okies depicted in "The Grapes of Wrath" were often homeless too. There used to be hobo jungles and skid rows in every major city. Catching a freight, riding the rods, being on the bum used to be the stuff of poignant songs and fiction. Nor are the homeless now more numerous than they were 60 years ago. In 1931, the bulls of the Southern Pacific Railroad evicted 638,000 "vagrants" from their freight trains and their yards. But Issue Art is rarely interested in context. Context cuts our anger, mitigates our guilt, diminishes our pain.

When confronted by the homeless, Hubbard and his colleagues hurt. They want us to hurt too.

The children they have taught have something else in mind. They do not ask us for our outrage or our pity. They show us how they live their lives.

Though they often live in squalor, in coarse welfare hotels, they still do what children do. They play basketball and hopscotch, they hurl water at each other, they peer intently at dead rats, they boastfully compare their running shoes.

Monique Howard shows kids scuffling. Yolanda Mitchell, who understands its import, sees an eviction notice tucked into a door and photographs the document. Clarissa Etheridge sees a beautiful woman and portrays her in a beautiful photograph, silhouetted against light. Calvin Stewart shoots a family of seven seated on a bed. Kevin (no last name given) photographs a gun being pointed out a window. Daniel Hall portrays the desk clerk -- at her desk, but fast asleep -- at the late and unlamented Capitol City Inn.

"The idea," says Philip Brookman, the WPA's director of programs, "was to use the camera as a tool to help the kids -- to help them understand their world, develop self-esteem and maybe even learn the discipline of a craft and the poetry of an art."

"Shooting Back" is not a show about propaganda. It's a show about process. Its children may be victims, they may be poor, abused, or homeless, but that's not how they see themselves.

Most Issue Art insistently and brazenly manipulates our feelings. That's not how these children work. They receive our sympathy and guilt, our admiration and concern. But they do not demand it. Our empathy is earned.

"Trouble in Paradise" will remain at the Art Gallery of the University of Maryland through Oct. 26. "Shooting Back" will close at the WPA, 400 Seventh St. NW, Nov. 3.