The many masks of modern art-IV

Edvard Munch's "The Cry" is the soul-cry of our age, its cry of alienation, anxiety, dread, and horror. The cry heard in no-man's land in World War I, in Guernica, Buchenwald, Hiroshima, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In Harlem and Siberia, in our prisons, hospitals, and mental institutions. In "me first" and indifference to others. In despair in the middle of the night and casual theft and destruction.

It is the cry of an age desperate to be born -- but dreading where that birth might lead . . .

What an extraordinary age this has been! And what extraordinary art it has produced! In sheer complexity, innovation, and profusion no previous age can match it.

And yet there is something odd and unsettling about it. It is restless and self-absorbed. Instead of looking outward, it looks inward. It seems unsure of its identity, even, at times, uncertain what makes it tick.

Today's art is multifaceted and hard to define. A great deal of it is diagnostic. It pokes and probes. It X-rays. It schematizes and improvises. At times it bubbles over with laughter, at others it is calm and serious.

But whatever from it takes or mood it expresses, all the art of our time has one thing in common: a profound awareness of Munch's reverberating cry.

I don't mean that all artists took their cue from this work; rather that its emotional content is so central and crucial to our time that anyone truly aware of this century's realities has heard and responded to it.

I can't help but feel that what differentiates our age from those of the past is that in this one we have been rudely awakened in the darkest hour of the night, and are sitting up with a wildly beating heart listening intently for something both within ourselves and without. It is that awakening to something sensed rather than heard which tempts some to seek refuge in absolutism, totalitarianism, indifference, sensationalism, and even oblivion.

This anxiety and disquiet will not go away until we understand and face up to what causes it, until we establish a more positive attitude in the face of this erosion of identity. Art, because of its intuitive and prescient nature, and because it is now free to probe into the deepest recesses of human consciousness , is ideally suited for this process of self recognition and reaffirmation.

Every work of art is a symbol, a metaphor, something drawn from and yet running parallel to our everyday reality. Like a dream, art both reveals and conceals -- and leaves it up to us to decipher its clues. But of what earthly good -- except for diversion, entertainment, or decoration -- is art if it doesn't grasp the nature of our age? If it doesn't attend to the dilemmas which threaten to tear us apart? Or try at least symbolically to resolve our yearnings and our feelings of impermanence?

Many are so caught up in our daily routines that they gloss over the void that exists at the center of our culture. They improvise from day to day hoping that no crisis will erupt to upset our neatly balanced house of cards.

But the art of today will have none of that. Brutally or gently, it presents us with symbols reflecting the full range of human experience. It may tease like Klee and Miro, tantalize like Matisse and Calder, challenge like Orozco and Kline, confront like Picasso, Nolde, Dix, or Kollwitz, exult like Pollock and Still, monumentalize like Braque and Moore, or schematize like Albers or Mondrian. It may present us with a bittersweet evocation of a simpler life like Wyeth, or project a subjective vision of the improbable like Ernst, but whatever its form, it exists in direct response to the heartbeat, hopes, and drams of 20 th-century man.

Munch was the first to sense and to give voice to this cry for 20th-century identity. My first glimpse of "The Cry" many years ago was one of recognition. Here indeed was a voice of the age. And the more I considered it, the more convinced I became that it was the dividing line between 19th- and 20th-century art.

Just as one doesn't need to swim until one is in the water, so art did not have to open itself up, try so hard to define itself, improvise so desperately, push so hard against its technical and conceptual frontiers -- all and everything the 20th-century has done -- until that cry informed the universe that the rawest of demands had been touched; that man was once again in desperate need to know who he was and where he was going.

Munch's cry announced man's awakening to a deeper consciousness, and gave voice to the amazement that followed that awakening. Once that cry was heard, the 19th- century was no more.

He also gave voice to our dismay at discovering that our snug little boat of perpetual progress was adrift. And that, sink or swim, drift or find a destination, it was up to us to accept our dilemma and to chart a fresh course.

Art is a language, a highly oblique one I'll admit, but a language nevertheless. And so we should look first for its "message," the quality, idea, or attitude it was created to articulate and project before we check it out for orthodoxy of style, faithfulness to tradition, or brilliance of technique.

I, for one, would rather have a clumsy messenger who stammers, but who has something of value to impart, than an elegantly dressed courier with lovely manners and beautiful speech who has little or nothing to say. Some centuries are fortunate enough to have both. We apparently are not. But the point is that we are living in thism century and not another.

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