The many masks of modern art

Is Jasper Johns' painting ''Three Flags'' really art? Most art critics and writers on art seem to think so - to say nothing of a large number of painters, collectors, art students, dealers, and art lovers. As well as, most certainly, the Whitney Museum of American Art which now owns it.

The general public, however, still has doubts. At least that is my impression from having asked a few of them about it, and from having overheard the remarks of others standing in front of it.

Most of them know this painting cost $1 million when it was bought last year. And they know that Johns is generally considered one of the small handful of major painters alive today, that he is even, in certain quarters, considered a great artist, one of the few significant shapers of art since World War II. They are also impressed by the fact that the Whitney treats this work as one of its star attractions, very much the way the Metropolitan Museum treated its new and very expensive Rembrandt and Velazquez paintings when they joined its permanent collection a few years ago.

What they don't understand, however, is why this medium-sized, three-layered painting of three American flags should even be considered art let alone be worth $1 million, or be considered worthy of hanging so prominently in a major museum.

It's a good question, and an important one, for this painting, executed in 1958, stands somewhat like a door between immediate post-World War II painting and the painting of more recent date. Understand and accept this work as art, and much of what follows makes sense. Deny that it is art, and a great deal of what happened in painting between 1960 and 1975 won't - or at least won't make sense as art.

The problem is that the literature on this painting is generally as difficult to grasp as the painting itself. Underneath all its verbiage, it adds up to little more than an explanation of what Johns did within the context of his time and place, and why. That's about it. There is no real attempt to get down to the issue of why it is art, to get down to the nitty-gritty of what art is and is not, and then to determine whether or not this work falls in line with those criteria.

We have become so accustomed to evasion in this area that we accept without hesitation any and all explanations as to why something was produced as a waiver of, and a substitution for, the question of whether or not something is art. Thus, to the question of whether something is art, the contemporary critic will very likely launch into an analysis of how remarkable it was that at such and such a time the creator of this work could overthrow all conventions in order to paint such an image - something, we are assured, that wouldn't occur again for a full 17 years.

Or he will inform us that a particular drawing is indeed a perfect articulation of the angst experienced by the German intelligentsia of the early 1920s.

Now this is all fine and good, but it doesn't answer our basic question: ''Is this art?'' Such a response would be very much like picking up a fruit and asking, ''Is this an apple?'' and being told, ''I saw it fall from that tree at precisely half-past two.'' Or, ''It is round, and red in color.''

Such half answers are very typical of what we get in most discussions of Johns' ''Three Flags.'' We are told that it is an extremely beautiful painting by a very gifted painter; that it is of great art-historical importance because it helped tilt American art from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art; that it was of pivotal importance in helping to take an entire generation's mind off the Romantic emotionalism of Pollock, Still, Rothko, and turning it toward the cooler and more detached concreteness of the art that was to follow (Pop, Hard-Edge, Minimal, Conceptual, etc.), we are also told that it represents the nonmetaphoric and nonillusionistic usage of the most common and everyday objects as the explicit content of painting. And finally, that it heralds the return of geometry to painting.

We also read about Johns' ambiguity, skepticism, delight in apparent contradictions, his paintings' determined flatness, as well as his thematic absurdity and creative cunning. Around and around go the words and verbal concepts, but all that comes out is the what and why of his paintings and sculptures, never any real consideration of how it all fits into a larger vision , idea, ideal, or concept of art.

A large part of the reason for this uncertainty derives from the continual widening of our perception of the nature of art. Our notion that art must reflect a particular reality or ideal - or fail as art - has crumbled before our realization that art has indeed existed in one form or another for as long as man. And that even such ''exotic'' objects as New Guinea masks or African fetish figures are art in the fullest sense, and not merely fascinating evidences of a ''lesser'' people's pathetic attempts to create the genuine product, as was the belief less than a century ago.

This broadening of art's identity continues unabated. The small plot of land that was called art in 1850 is now a gigantic field with various revolutionary and innovative creative figures working full-time to push the boundaries back even further. From Cezanne, Gauguin, Munch, Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, to the ''originals'' of our own day, the job of redefining art has moved ahead at a great pace. And Jasper Johns, coming when and where he did, did as much as anyone else in this postwar era to block out and to indicate the direction and speed of this probing process.

Fine and good, but that still does not tell us if what he produced is art. After all, art ultimately represents values larger and more universal than those of one particular time and place. Our conception of the nature of art has broadened, but certain truths about it remain constant.

Or do they? It seems that every time we come to a point beyond which we insist art cannot go, someone comes along and proves (or seems to prove) that it can. Who, for instance, would have thought 75 years ago that sculpture could consist of moving pieces of wire and tin? Or that painting could consist of large areas of dribbled paint? Or that both would be highly regarded as art by most of the major museums of the world?

Where, really, do we take our final stand and say, ''These things are art but those aren't''? And on what do we base that stand? What, in other words, do the works of Giotto, Sesshu, Hui-Tsung, El Greco, Monet, and Calder have in common? And, to be more specific, does Johns' ''Three Flags'' share these attributes?

In addition to the usual evidence of necessary skills, I personally demand four things of art: that it have formal integrity, i.e., that it be all of a piece; that it represent an individual's incisive perception of, and engagement with, crucial issues, realities, ideals, or attitudes of his time and place; that it represent a successful symbolic encapsulation of that perception and that engagement; and that it can cause me to feel more unified, whole, and focused for having seen and experienced it.

It is symbolic or empathetic proof, great or small, of that ultimate totality of which we are all a part. That it be ''a universe in a grain of sand,'' a moment's experience of the wholeness of life.

Does Jasper Johns' ''Three Flags,'' then, meet these requirements? To me it does - to a degree, though not as much as do some of his later works. To me it is art because it meets, at least to a degree, my personal criteria for art, but no more so than do the best works of Hopper, Wyeth, Marin, Rauschenberg, and not to the degree of the art of Klee, Calder, Pollock, Braque, Miro, or Mondrian.

To me, this work doesn't quite stand on its own, doesn't quite transcend its social, historical, and aesthetic reasons for being. As a result, it is a bit more art history than art.

Yet, that is not its fault, but ours, for so overloading it with importance. What it actually is, is a good painting by one of the best painters alive today. A painter who can and who has painted rings around all the theories advanced to ''explain'' his work. I have yet to see a Johns' painting I haven't liked to at least some degree. He's a ''natural'' - and we should be able to accept him as such.

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