The many masks of modern art-IX
The question of identity in 20th-century art There is a tendency on the part of certain artists to sweep the darker side of life under the rug -- and then decorate the rug with beautiful designs.Skip to next paragraph
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Not so Alberto Giacometti, whose subject matter is human existence painted and sculpted as simply, starkly, and fully as he himself experienced it.
Unlike Edvard Munch, who cried out to the heavens in dread over his deepening awareness of human frailty, Giacometti calmly accepts this.
Munch asked, "Without God, can there be man?"
Giacometti asks, "Without God, who is man?"
And asks it without anger, petulance, or fear. Asks it simply as the primary question in his search for self.
Giacometti is one of the very small handful of major 20th-century artists whose art is predicted on the question "Who am I, and where am I going?"
And who risks everything to find out.
I must admit that I am heavily prejudiced in favor of this kind of artist, the kind who not only doesn't sweep the dark side of life under the rug -- but who pulls the rug back to see what lies hidden underneath, and then tosses it aside to get to the business of cleaning it up.
But these artists are hard to find. And for the simple reason that altogether too many artists, once they have peeked under the rug, spend the rest of their lives playing with what they find rahter than confronting it and turning it into art.
In many ways this is understandable. Freudian theory and dogma made it very clear in the early decades of this century that what was under the rug should be brought out into the open. And Surrealism, coming on the scene about the same time, insisted that painting this material as it was exposed to the light was the new and primary mission of art.
It was a doctrine hard to resist, for it gave license to the idiosyncratic and gave birth to the notion that the artist who had direct symbolic access to his unconcious was in many ways semi-divine.
Viewed in this light, the artist who attempted to impose rational values upon this raw material, or tried to shape it according to reasonable goals, was guilty of trying to subvert the truth unconscious inspiration. Hadn't human will, the argument went, already done enough to stifle genuine creativity?
Small wonder, then, that so many artists were perfectly content to play with -- or at most rearrange attractively -- what they found under the rug. The assumed near-sanctity of the unconscious made any tampering with its symbols, forms, or environments something very close to sacrilege.
The trouble with this uncritical compliance with Surrealist theory was that it tended to create a formal universe hermetically sealed off from human reality. A universe within which everything was everlastingly still, arid, and alien -- and where art tended more toward the visually exotic than to the emotionally and spiritually relevant.
What Surrealism ddi have going for it was a profound sense of what this century had lost when it turned its back upon the past. Its aching voids and endless spaces are reflected our cultural homesickness for greater and more monumental times. Surrealism, of all the major art movements of the 20 th-century, remembered what it was like to be great. Its tragedy was that its monuments were artificial ones constructed from the rubble of what had been torn down -- and that its space was the void previously occupied by powerful beliefs and powerful gods.