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The many masks of modern art

By Theodore F. Wolff / September 22, 1981

Even the most elusive truths are capable of finding their voices through art. In fact, art has spent the better part of this past century preparing itself for them.

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Art can be counted on when all else fails, when reason, logic, common sense, and science can neither capture nor communicate those infinitely fugitive glimpses of truth, those subtle intuitions of the ineffable, those all too quickly neutralized aches for totality and harmony which we all see, sense, or feel from time to time.

And of all the vital art movements, Modernism has been the one most particularly concerned with giving form to the inexpressible, to things previously only sensed or felt, or to intimations of order, harmony, and perfection. It is also the only movement in the visual arts specifically designed to deal with what exists between the lines of human experience, or to begin with nothing but a subterranean impulse and a smear of paint, and to surface a bit later with a symbol of human truth or aspiration.

Modernism, in other words, has concerned itself not only with the big formal and thematic issues of its day, but also with the cracks and crevices, the nuances, hints, and intimations of life and of human feelings previous art movements were either too busy or too arrogant to care about.

Western art before our time thundered, ennobled, and entertained, made profound statements about the nature and purpose of man, scaled mountains and delighted in vast vistas, depicted gods, popes, kings, and peasants, described battles, cities, oceans, and the heavens -- did all it could to enchant and to uplift -- but never once did it try to portray anything as fugitive as a firefly , as heartbreakingly lyrical as a tiny bird singing away in the moonlight, as mysterious as sounds in the night, as achingly beautiful as the essence of a bird in flight, as complex as the movement of a nude descending a staircase, or as maddeningly impossible to portray as perfection itself.

And yet, all these and thousands of other "impossible" tasks have been attempted by 20th-century modernism. Of them all, however, none has been more difficult than its various attempts to give pictorial form to its intuitions of perfection.

The problem with attempting to depict perfection is that it seems too easy. Just draw a perfect circle, and that's it.

But it's not. Such a representation is static and cold, and totally devoid of the sense of both peace and exhilaration brought about by an intuition or an intimation of perfection. Perfection is dynamic, or it could not include life, and so any attempt to portray it as seamless and finished is to miss its point.

The human creature can catch only the most fleeting glimpse of perfection -- and then only in its most primitive and formative state. Our intuition takes the form of an increased awareness of order and harmony, of a greater clarification of our identity and role. It is always dynamic and forward-moving , a glimpse of something beyond -- but mostly it exists as a powerful feeling of imminent and inevitable integration, an irresistible sense that everything is finally about to fall into place.

The point I want to make -- and it's a crucial one -- is that our truest intuitions of perfection are more feelings of becomingm than they are visions of a static final state. Any static image purporting to represent perfection is, by the very nature of its frozen stillness, way off the mark.

All most, a work of art is a road sign pointing the way. It can never inform us that thism is perfection, only that perfection definitely, probably, or possibly (depending on the self-certainty of the artist) lies in this or that direction.