The many masks of modern art
Eccentricity has played a considerable role in 20th-century art. In addition to the work of the Dadaists, Surrealists, Expressionists, Pop artists, etc., we have had the highly idiosyncratic art of Stanley Spencer, Francis Bacon, Ernst Fuchs, Jean Tinguely, Red Grooms, and Paul Wunderlich, the visual trickery of M. C. Escher and Victor Vasarely, and the dense and convoluted worlds of Ivan Albright and Jean Dubuffet. Throughout this century and on every level of achievement, there have been artists more concerned about dramatizing their individuality than about conforming to an ideal or a fashion, and those who preferred to probe and given form to the odd, the exotic, the idiosyncratic, rather than to the ordinary, the safe, and the typical.Skip to next paragraph
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Personally, I'm all for it even though eccentricity has a way of making pictorial mountains out of artistic molehills -- of causing tiny talents to believe themselves giants. For eccentricity in art to be valid, however, it must be deep-seated and indigenous to the creator, not something worn externally like a purple cape or a mask. It must derive from the artist's character, from his commitment to his humanity and his vsion. And, while it may sometimes take on an air of frivolity and of abandon, it cannot of itself be frivolous or abandoned, but rather, utilize these qualities to illuminate deeper and more inaccessible realities.
If truth be told, eccentricity, in the long runs, is more of a liability than an asset to an artist, for it is something to be taken into account and "forgiven" before the art itself can be accepted. El Greco's eccentricities as an artist were, after all, not really "forgiven" until the very early years of this century, and Blake's are still unforgiven in certain quarters.
The main reason for this is that we generally recognize that eccentricity in art can be an excellent cover for lack of talent or originality. It's much too easy to invent and to concoct (often with brilliant technique) pictorial extravanganzas whose real reason for being is to impress and to call attention to themselves and to their creators. I am particularly aware of this whenever I view large numbers of one-person exhibitions by, ambitious but not-as-yet-established artists, and find myself confronted by an occasional work that is the pictorial equivalent of someone wearing a clown suit while thumbing his nose, pointing to himself, and standing on his head.
And this kind of thing isn't helped any by the circus atmosphere generated and upheld by certain portions of the art press -- and by some of the museum curators who assemble the increasing number of "new talent" shows confronting us every year.
If I didn't know better I could easily begin to share the opinion of those opposed to any form of "modern" or nonrepresentational art that there is a strong tendency today to turn art into a carnival act, into a sideshow of freaks. And to agree with them that the age-old virtues of discretion, balance, taste, harmony, are being shoved aside by grossness, vulgarity, and calculated eccentricity.
But I don't agree, because I know from personal experience that the eccentric and often vulgar works that tend to dominate these "new talent" museum shows are the exception rather than the rule as far as the art world as a whole is concerned. However, there is much excellent innovation and "conservative" art all around us which isn't given equal prominence because it is either too modest or too discreet -- or because it isn't supported by impressive critical verbiage. It simply boggles the mind to see show after show of highly talented artists -- and then to see none of these artists (or at most two or three) represented in the museum shows -- to see instead (among otherwise excellent pieces) things of such crudity and vulgarity, of such calculated artificiality, that it requires the wildest sort of imagination to label them as art.