The many masks of modern art-II

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For a brief moment when I first saw the painting reproduced on this page, I thought it was of an abstract painting. But then, in a flash, I recognized a ladder, the top of a second ladder, a section of rope, and a patch of sky. It all fell into place. What appeared to be an abstract image suddenly became the inside of an old building -- probably a steeple -- with ladders running up to a skylight.

Over the next few weeks I showed the photograph to several friends. With one exception they all saw it first as an abstraction. Those whose tastes ran toward nonfigurative and abstract art tossed the photograph aside as of no interest once they realized it had an identifiable subject, and those who preferred their art to resemble the world around them sat up and took notice only after realizing the image in the photograph was not abstract.

How odd! The picture remained exactly the same, and yet our willingness to take it seriously changed dramatically with our perception of its pictorial frame of reference. It was of interest and possibly good only if it belonged to the category of visualization we accepted as art.

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What happened in the split-second we realized the image was not abstract, that it was actually a rough pictorial transcription of something an artist had seen?

For one thing, we broke the picture's code. We grasped the point of its shapes and tones and recognized the specific reality from which the image derived. For another, our personal memory bank raced to see if this kind of image corresponded to our definitions and feelings about art. If it did, machinery was activated, buttons were pushed, and we responded with approval and acceptance. If not, the image was rejected and discarded as irrelevant.

For a split-second we were exactly like a computer being asked a question. Depending on our programming, we responded with a "yes" or a "no." It's that programming which concerns me. Too few of us -- art professionals included -- are careful about how we organize what we put into that portion of our "computer" labelled" Art." Possibly we don't care and haven't questioned our attitudes toward art in years, or perhaps we have built philosophies and theories of art upon such narrow premises -- traditional or modern -- that we can only react positively to something which fits very precise and narrow specifications.

Of these two positions, the second disturbs me more because it often results in the arrogant dismissal of everything not in line with a particular style or point of view.

We must break ourselves of this age-old notion that a culture or society can find expression in only one artistic style. The days of neat national and stylistic distinctions are over. In this open and increasingly interconnected age, it is more appropriate that a Wyeth watercolor, a Shahn painting, an Albers print, and a piece of conceptual art share space than that any one be held true and the others false.

I can't help but feel that Andrew Wyeth and Jasper Johns have more in common than Wyeth has with his uncritical followers or Johns has with his. Art is art, and it comes about when highly sensitive and alert creative spirits engage totally in the realities, issues, ideas, and forms of their time. Art is unique human identity given symbolic form. And that form, by its very nature, cannot be predicted. Art can be large or small, major or minor, but it cannot be better or worse. Do we despise flowers because they are not as tall as trees? Or trees because they are not as colorful as flowers?

Neither should we judge art by one standard. Art is as diverse as the plant and animal kingdoms, and has its own rare orchids and common garden grasses, its exotic jungle beasts and domesticated household pets. All we can really do is perceive how true and consistent a work is to its own species. Beyond that we enter the area of the imponderables: how do we compare, let alone judge, the relative qualities of a moose and a rabbit, a pine tree and a weeping-willow?

Art pops up wherever and whenever it is needed or wanted. But it follows its own laws. Just as one would not expect moss to grow in a desert, or cactus in a rain forest, one cannot expect the indigenous art of one region or culture to resemble that of another. And yet we persist in the notion that there must be one true style of art for all.

It's not that simple.

20th century art is like a huge tree. It grows, and so must push beyond itself. That is a creative act. But is the twig that extends the highest necessarily the most creative? Or the truest? What would we think of the person who claimed that only the highest twigs and the deepest roots of a tree were important?

I would think about him as I do about the person who tells me that only the most advanced and experimental art of our day is important, that all the rest is irrelevant. Or as I would about the person who tells me that something can only be art if it makes a mountain look like a mountain on canvas, or grandpa look like himself in stone.

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