The many masks of modern art
A friend who had recently seen a contemporary play that had moved him deeply -- that had, in fact, engaged his thoughts and sensibilities for days -- asked me why that type and level of experience were continually denied him when viewing 20th-century painting and sculpture.Skip to next paragraph
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He didn't ask it petulantly, or with a superior attitude. If anything, he seemed frustrated and a bit sad. What he obviously missed, and was fairly consistently able to find in the art of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Vermeer, El Greco, Goya, and Rodin, was the sort of experience that activated stimulating and crucial questions about man and his ultimate reason for being, and did so directly through the work itself without first demanding explanatory notes or the learned discourses of experts. Confronted by a good contemporary play, my friend's entire being was engaged in a complex series of interior and exterior dialogues which often continued on in his mind for days and even, in some instances, for weeks and months. On the other hand, confronted by a contemporary painting or sculpture, he was left pretty much to fend for himself in front of a few abstract shapes, some interesting color, possibly an exotic surreal image or a coldly realistic portrait -- or then again, what appeared to be a half acre of canvas filed with paint drippings.
Now my friend is neither a simpleton nor someone unfamiliar with pictorial realities. He is a highly intelligent and excellent photographer, whose interest in all the arts is sincere and open. Furthermore, his question is not new to me; it is one I have heard any number of times over the years, and often from bright and knowledgeable people.
I asked my friend about Kollwitz, Rouault, Beckmann, the early Picasso, and about Bacon and Giacometti. Didn't they move him and trigger the profound sort of interior involvement he found lacking in most modern art? Yes they did, he replied, but only in a very limited and essentially tragic or distorted way. With the possible exception of Kollwitz, these artists did not so much stimulate him to ponder life's deeper issues and realities as to demand that he share with them their more painful and difficult experiences.
But that was not the main problem. What really bothered him was that most modern paintings and scultpures were so thoroughly abstracted from everyday reality that trying to understand and identify with them was like trying to grasp the nature and significance of the ocean from a few grains of salt distilled from it. Or like trying to understand a code without knowing either the code or the language within which it was being sent.
I must admit he has a point -- though not as far as his complaint about the negativism of Rouault, Beckmann, or Bacon is concerned, nor in his wish to be moved in the same fashion by a painting as by a play. It is my opinion that these particular artists argue positively and successfully form life, integrity, and spiritual significance by their dedicated willingness to confront, reconcile , and thus transcend, symbolically, the destructive acids of defeat and despair. And I think that the experience of viewing a play is always different from the experience of viewing a painting, be it on the level of Shakespeare and Rembrandt -- or Albee and Johns.
No, where I think he is close to being on target is in his likening of much of modern art to a code whose key appearsm to be beyond the comprehension of many of us.And in his feeling that it is very difficult (if not impossible) to become as profoundly and totally involved in a modern work as in a Rembrandt or Michelangelo.
The reason for the latter is obvious. Rembrandt and Michelangelo are so very great that only a half-dozen or so other artists come close to being their equals -- and it already seems quite unlikely that this century will be credited with having produced anyone of their caliber. Even Picasso, certainly one of the most overwhelming talents of all time, will, I think, ultimately be seen as Western painting's most precociously gifted prodigy but hardly one of the truly greats. Comparisons, thus, between a modern painting and a work by any of these giants is rather beside the point. And lest the antimodernists gloat over that, it should be made very clear that if the moderns fall somewhat short in this comparison, the nonmoderns fall even more dramatically short.