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The many masks of modern art

By Theodore Wolff / February 23, 1982

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

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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.

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.