It's time for a hard look at the state of art in the US

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I wish that we could convene a week-long national conference on ''The State of Art''--and that it would take place after as many as possible of our major cities, universities, and colleges had held preliminary conferences on that subject during the preceding year.

Now I know that must sound hopelessly impractical to most of my colleagues in the arts, and a waste of time and money to those fellow citizens for whom art is at best decoration or entertainment, and at worst, superfluous nonsense. Even so , I think it is high time we took a hard, soul-searching look at the state our arts are currently in, and that we do so from top to bottom, and without leaving out such crucial issues as art education at the primary and secondary school level, the value of creativity, the responsibilities of art, and the long-range effects distrust of art can have on a society.

In short, it would be a conference devoted more to grass-roots and fundamental questions about the nature, goals, and health of our arts, and less to the professionally top-heavy and often self-serving sort of get-togethers at which academic leaders, government officials, and corporate executives discuss the allocation of funds, the way commissions for art should be awarded, and various other ''socially redeeming'' and politically effective ways of helping art find its voice.

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The issue, it seems to me, is not so much one of helping art find its voice as of helping it find its fullest identity; not of bringing art into public places, but of supporting it in private homes and studios, and during the first few years of school.

Art, after all, will survive a lessening of federal or corporate support. It will not, however, survive to function at even half or one-third of capacity or quality if we persist in ''putting the cart before the horse'' by continuing to focus most of our attention upon art's public face--and little if any on bringing out its deepest potential.

I'm for any support the arts can receive--as long as there are no strings attached. But what I am very concerned about is our growing tendency to feel that merely because we fund orchestras and museums, commission public sculpture, and give grants to young artists, we have fulfilled our obligations to art--as if everything else about art is no concern of ours but of artists and a few critics, curators, and dealers.

We have, to put it mildly, come terribly close to abdicating our responsibilities and our rights toward helping our culture shape our art. Instead, we have become increasingly passive toward both those who create art and those who insist they and they alone know what art is and what kind is best for us.

It would be wrong, however, to lay the blame for this entirely on the public, for it is often awed and intimidated by the rhetoric and facade of the professional art community. For decades we have been telling the public that people can understand any new art if they will only open themselves up to it--while at the same time making it very clear that if they don't immediately respond favorably to it, they are dunces and dolts and deserve to be led around by the nose.

We have also done our children a great disservice by treating art education as though it were about as important as butterfly identification. As a whole, we have failed to understand that learning about and doing art as a child is an easy and pleasant way to learn about values, quality, self-expression--and how to enrich one's life.

But then such a misperception of art's roles should come as no surprise, considering how false have been our perceptions of its identity. From the time of the Pilgrim forefathers right up to the present, art has generally been seen as something external to reality, intrinsically trivial and superfluous--if not, at times, actually an agent of the devil.

Even large segments of the art community seem to share this opinion, or at least feel some element of despair at art's apparent inability to do today what it managed to do so magnificently for thousands of years. For all our brave words and noble sentiments about the art of our time, I've noticed that practically everyone involved with it seems somewhat tentative and defensive about it at times, but speaks with unabashed enthusiasm and awe of the great art and artists of the past (the exceptions, of course, being the few dedicated avant-gardists among us).

A great deal of this is unfair. How, after all, can the art of any 80-year period compare with all the great art of the past? And how do we really know what greatness this century has produced? Even so, I believe there is at least a kernel of perception at the heart of this ''despair,'' and I for one would like to see all of us confront this feeling in as many ways as possible and resolve it before it hardens completely into a sense of futility or indifference.

Now, I'm not so naive as to believe that a few conferences will solve everything. Far from it. But we must, I believe, start somewhere, and I don't see any great rush to tackle these issues anywhere else.

All this is very much on my mind because I have just returned from such a conference at Michigan State University. It lasted 21/2 days, was this university's first attempt in this direction, and while it may have been a bit rough around the edges, managed, all in all, to take a good, solid step toward outlining precisely what is needed in the arts today.

Although limited to the so-called ''visual arts,'' it covered a great deal of territory, from architecture and art criticism to video art and wood-fired ceramics. There were lectures, panel discussions, and media workshops--to say nothing of an art-student parade, a demonstration of public participatory art by sculptor Athena Tacha, and numerous private discussions among conference speakers and guests.

Visiting artists were more than willing to share their experience with student artists; art educators mingled with art historians; and even Michigan state Sen. William A. Sederburg got into the act by helping to clarify a few art-related political issues.

My overall impression was that the members of the art community who were present felt mildly optimistic about everything except the future of art education in this country. Here there were deep concern and frustration, even a touch of despair. As a matter of fact, the only anger I saw displayed during this conference came from elementary school teachers who felt their profession was in danger of being wiped out by this country's general feeling that the teaching of art and art appreciation to children is very close to being a waste of time and public money.

This, of course, dovetails altogether too neatly with my own perception that Americans don't really know what to do with art and with those who produce it. They seem confused about its place in their lives, most particularly the degree to which the art seen in museums and galleries truly represents them and their ongoing realities. they want art, in fact many need it, and yet feel alienated from much of what is being produced as art today.

That, at least, is my impression. There is a profound and, to my mind, growing hunger for art, most especially for its extraordinary ability to project feelings of wholeness, harmony, unity--as well as enchantment, exultation, and delight. This hunger is deep and will not be satisfied by art that is merely problem-solving or sensation-seeking--no matter how beautifully or brilliantly it is executed and packaged. The public at large wants art with roots and with human resonances. It doesn't matter so much what style or form it takes, as long as it isn't an artificially contrived ''hothouse'' product, or the result of self-serving and shortsighted sensationalism.

The problem lies in the fact that we all, general public and art professional alike, too frequently respond to art on superficial or non-art levels. In this respect, to take painting as an example, the public will often judge paintings on the basis of subject rather than on style or form, and the art professional will judge it on its conformity to a formal theory or dogma.

Thus the public, by and large, still feels more at home with the kind of representational art produced by Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield than with the abstract kind produced by Willem de Kooning and David Smith. On the other hand, dealers, curators, critics, and collectors will at times give high marks to a work simply because it looks ''up to date.''

I don't really know why that is still so, and I don't know if that can ever be changed, but I do think it time we looked into the matter a bit more than we have--and that we do so within any format at our disposal.

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