The many masks of modern art
For the first time in Western art, an artist can do exactly as he pleases. He can start from nothing and create his art out of two or three daubs of paint, a piece of tin suspended from a wire, or a triangular canvas painted blue. Or he can faithfully transcribe anything in the world around him into a flat or a three-dimensional work of art.Skip to next paragraph
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It's entirely up to him. Success may or may not come his way, but if it doesn't it won't be merely because he failed to follow a particular tradition, an approved style, or the rules of an official academy.
This is the way things are today, and I for one am all for it even though I know that, for some, this freedom is a booby trap and the quickest way to self-deception and creative chaos.
I'm all for it because I've seen the overall results of this increasing freedom, the way it has given artists of all ages, styles, and backgrounds the extraordinary opportunity to probe beyond the frontiers of our age without fear or inhibition, and to present the rest of us with evidence of that probing.
No, it's not freedom that concerns me -- even if its misapplication creates problems for some -- but the issue of creative responsibility.
To what extent do we understand what this means or implies? Do we, as a matter of fact, even acknowledge that such a thing exists? And, when we speak of creative responsibility, whom do we see as the ones obliged to uphold it? The artist, the art teacher, the critic, dealer, curator, collector? Who?
As in all things that have to do with art, it's the artist who must bear the brunt of this responsibility. It is he who is on the "front lines," he who must risk everything to create, and who must "return" with work that is all of a piece and comprehensible (immediately or ultimately) to the rest of society.
The rest of us who labor in the world of art might wish this to be otherwise, but we are merely on the fringes of creativity and must deal with its end products, not with its sources, must owe our professional identities to the fact that others produce what we discuss, applaud, condemn, sell, buy, or hang on museum walls.
And yet, the responsibility for art's obedience to its highest ideals ism partly up to us. We may not create art, but we can guide and encourage those who do. And, most particularly, we can give support to those artists who, gropingly or with genius, are committed to art's deepest levels of integrity and creativity.
Over the years I have met quite a few such artists. They have been of all ages, nationalities, and stylistic persuasions. There have been as many women as men -- though I've noticed that the balance has begun to shift and that there are now more promising women artists than men.
One of these artists is Barbara Valenta, a creator of constructions made of cloth, canvas, and wood, which are frequently painted various colors but often are left quite plain. They exist on walls, hang from ceilings, balance themselves precariously from the floor, or seem to take off and fly like birds.
They seem to, but they don't. And that is what first intrigued me about her work: the fact that its wonderfully freeing and expansive quality is kept in perfect balance with, and operated in exquisite counterpoint to, a profound sense of life's laws, realities, and moral implications.