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The many masks of modern art

By Theodore F. Wolff / February 2, 1982

It's easy for art to remain on the surface of things. Easy for it to consist entirely of attractively arranged shapes, colors, lines, and textures - or sentimental, historical, or exotic themes dramatically presented. In other words , it is very easy for art to be merely decoration or illustration.

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There are, however, other, less obvious kinds of artistic superficiality that can seduce or confuse us into complying with their creator's claims for artistic importance. For example, we can be made to suspend judgment because of a work's novelty or sensationalism, its slavish mimicry of nature, or because its validity as art is insisted upon by complex and apparently learned rationalizations.

Thus we have been seduced into giving first-rate status to Pop Art on the basis of its iconoclasm, its derisive attacks upon sentiment and idealism, its superficial and narrow reading of recent art history, and its noncommittal attitude toward human, social, and spiritual values. All rather perverse reasons for attributing quality and importance to art - compared to investing money with a broker because he has consistently gone bankrupt.

We have also refused really to examine the extravagant claims made for various artists since the waning days of Pop. We have heard Kenneth Noland described as one of the three or four greatest colorists of the past two centuries - second only to Matisse. We have heard Carl Andre compared most favorably to Brancusi and Rodin, have listened to talk about the incredible genius of Warhol (I've been informed that to talk with Warhol is to ''talk with tomorrow'') or the crucial art-historical importance of Julian Schnabel and the profoundly significant originality of Sol Lewitt - all this without batting an eyelash or offering one word of caution.

We have, in other words, accepted the claims of these artists' advocates that they are not only good (and most of them are), but that they are also among the most original, the most profound, the most important, and the greatest artists who ever lived. In fact, if we accepted all the extravagant claims made in their behalf, we would have to concede that there has never before been such an artistic Golden Age as we have had since the end of World War II.

Now, that's sad, and a very real distortion of art. The same kind of uncritical and adulatory mentality that declared the Beatles as great as Beethoven, and Bob Dylan as great as Shelley and Keats, has been permitted to run rampant in recent art literature. The effect of such puffery has been disastrous, and has helped undermine the very notions of quality and value - which are, after all, pretty much what art is all about.

But how do we determine artistic quality and worth if we deny or ignore the very idea of long-range or universal standards, and if we uncritically accept every new declaration of genius and importance at face value? And judge every new style or movement on the basis of its physical impact upon us, on the basis of size, novelty, sensationalism, or garishness rather than on its relevance to larger issues, or its positive effect upon our vision or our knowledge of ourselves?

When judging overall quality of a work, I fully realize the importance of its sheer physicality and how difficult it often is to analyze that quality with any degree of objectivity. But we should at least try, and should stop seeing art as a series of circus performances with each new ''act'' announced by a critical or curatorial ''ringmaster'' as ''The World's Very Greatest!'' And we should stop listening to the shrill voices of individuals whose main critical standards are novelty and sensation, whose worst imaginable fate is being bored or out of fashion.

We also seem to have forgotten that fresh new talent full of bushy-tailed enthusiasm and vitality isn't everything in art. Art, like life, can mellow and improve with age.