The many masks of modern art

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Can art lie? Or is it truth-speaking by definition?

I've posed this question to several artist friends, and their answers are as varied as their art and their personalities. The majority of them, however, feel that art is at least truth-seeking, that its basic impulse is toward clarity, and that its ultimate purpose is to illuminate man's path toward greater self-realization.

Now I know this sounds grandiose and a little pompous. And it would probably seem even more so if these artists' work were reproduced upon this page, for what they believe about art and what their art seems to represent, would appear to be two different things entirely.

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One of them paints little ''squiggles'' of pure color that hop and prance about on canvases roughly one foot square; another creates complex figure compositions in which every detail interlocks as precisely with every other detail as pieces in a jigsaw puzzle; a third erects severely ''abstract'' structures out of steel which he then balances upon chunks of rough hewn wood; a fourth makes huge drawings consisting entirely of gradations of black and gray; another draws tiny rectangles in the middle of otherwise empty canvases; and a sixth does incredibly precise renderings of tiny ''incidental'' things in nature: twigs, leaves, feathers, pebbles, or dried tufts of grass.

Each of them works in a style totally unlike that of the others -- and doesn't particularly care for what any of the others is doing. And yet each one believes that his own work is, at the very least, truth-seeking, if not actually truth-speaking.

The wonderful thing, as far as I'm concerned, is that all of them speak the truth through their art.

Now, how can that be? How can six artists representing six widely divergent philosophies and styles all speak the truth? Is there no such thing as a truth in art? Or at least a hierarchy of ''relative'' truths with one, more ''perfect'' than the others, at the top?

There are those who insist that there is indeed only one ''truth'' in art for every time and place, and that it assumes a traditional or otherwise agreed-upon imagery and style that is best suited to it. Thus, Greek, Assyrian, Egyptian, Chinese, 13th-century Italian art is immediately recognizable for what it is. And any art historian who cannot differentiate between a drawing made in Florence in 1520 and one made in Nuremberg at the same time just isn't worth his salt.

These individuals, looking for what is most significant about 20th-century art, see it divided into a half-dozen or so basic categories, but most specifically into representational and nonrepresentational camps - with ''realistic'' art fundamentally and totally at war with ''abstract'' art. It is interesting that this view is still held eighty-two years into the century, and that it appears to represent a profound rift in our perception of the visual arts. Be that as it may, this split only focuses attention upon the position held by the individuals mentioned above. And that is that, since art history indicates that all previous cultures had one dominant (and often only one) artistic style, it must be true that only one of these contemporary trends can be the ''true'' one for us today.

The problem with this position is that it represents a perception of art that places the main emphasis on its appearance rather than on its function. It sees art as a succession of attractive, interesting, and impressive things rather than as devices created to illuminate and to bring into focus hitherto unexpressed or even unsuspected dimensions of experience and truth. It sees art, in other words, as existing largely for its own sake, as an end in itself, and not as a window permitting access to the unknown and to the as yet unformulated.

If there is one thing this century's experience with art should have taught us it is that art is a transmitting device, not a collection of things. And that to judge a work of art on the basis of its style is as silly and beside the point as judging the truth of a message on how fashionably the messenger bringing it is dressed, or on the richness of the paper upon which it is written.

Now, I do believe there are dimensions of reality that are so fugitive and ephemeral that they can best be brought to our awareness by the most intuitively sensed and projected of ''abstract'' forms. And that, confronted by such forms, we sense their truth by their resonances, their formal integrity, and the way they burrow into and remain a vital part of our most inner and private values and feelings.

But I also believe that there are aspects of reality that demand more specific and more physically identifiable images and forms in order to achieve actuality as art. Certain feelings and attitudes toward human experience, for instance, demand the use of human forms in order to make their point. To insist that the early Picasso, or Rouault, Nolde, Beckmann, Kollwitz, Moore, Hopper are any the less artists because they are not ''abstract,'' is like saying that an apple is not a fruit because it is not a pear.

It is utterly simplistic to insist that anything as rich, complex, and multifaceted as reality can take only one form or style as art. Once again, to think so, is to see art as a thing rather than as a reflector, a mirror, a transmitter of truth, and to misunderstand its nature and function just as we would fail to understand the nature and function of a telescope if we studied only its form and didn't use it to examine the stars.

The search for artistic truth has dominated this century's art. It was a matter of particular importance to very early 20th-century American painters since their world was dramatically divided among the academic, the ''modern,'' and those who saw painting in starkly realistic ''everyday'' terms.

Among the latter was an ex-newspaper illustrator named John Sloan who had been one of the original members of ''The Eight'' -- better known in later years as ''The Ash Can School'' for its unswerving devotion to the most mundane of subjects. Sloan was a painter and etcher for whom artistic truth consisted of giving pictorial form to the everyday world around him. In his case this meant the streets, backyards, stores, apartments, and rooftops of New York City.

Although very concerned with formal matters, and a great believer in pictorial order, Sloan focused most of his attention upon capturing the precise flavor and texture of everything he painted -- be it a person, a crowd, a street scene, or the activities in someone's home. In the process, he investigated and recorded as much of New York life as anyone ever has and left us an authentic account of what life was like in that city during those years.

What impresses me most about these early works of his, however, is their starkly authentic atmosphere and mood, their remarkable sense of the actuality of life and of living. We know, looking at these works, that the man who created them really lived, and that what we see before us, dressed up in the guise of a New York street scene, or a snow covered backyard, is how he felt about life, and what it meant to him.

At the bottom of all theories and philosophies about art, what any artist wants most passionately is one other person on the face of this globe who will be able to share what is most precious and real to him through his art. This can be an ideal, a belief, a faith, a sense of fun, a tragic vision of life, a particular delight - or it can be his or her sense of the reality and texture of life.

John Sloan belonged to the last category. He was a painter who created art in order to share his sense of life -- not as he would have preferred it, but as he actually felt and experienced it. Nothing was as real to him as the life he lived, as it was -- and that is what he chose to paint. It was his truth, the crux and ''message'' of his art.

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