The many masks of modern art
Some works of art cease to exist for us the minute we leave their presence. One minute we're engrossed and enchanted by their color, technique, design, subject, and the next they're forgotten.Skip to next paragraph
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Unlike other works which linger with us, and still others which stay with us and grow to become a profoundly important part of our inner reality, these leave nothing behind except possibly a memory of their surface charm or brilliance, and an aftertaste of shallowness and artistic triviality.
This quality is shared alike by famous paintings and by works of unknowns. Tiepolo's huge and dramatic eighteenth-century canvases are always terribly impressive - until I move away, at which point their impact upon me evaporates. The same is true for me with the paintings of Boucher and Fragonard, and with those of most of the other eighteenth-century French, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch painters. And it is also true of a goodly number of the works of my contemporaries which I see every day in the galleries.
It's not that these works aren't often beautifully, even at times brilliantly , executed, or that they aren't excellent works of art by certain standards. It's just that almost everything about them has been directed toward surface effectiveness, was designed to enchant, overwhelm, impress, even to ravish, our visual sensibilities. Everything else in the work, its subject, theme, formal structure, was subordinated (usually quite dramatically) to sensational or decorative effectiveness, or to evidence of the artist's technical virtuosity.
In very new or supposedly very ''advanced'' work, on the other hand, the artist may, in the search for novelty (or out of sheer desperation), try a totally outlandish gimmick or device, or push his work into areas never before explored. Thus, Georg Baselitz, one of the current crop of German Neo-Expressionists, exhibits his roughly executed paintings of people upside down. And Julian Schnabel, America's darling of what would at one time have been called the avant-garde, saw fit for a while to attach clusters of broken crockery to his huge and boldly painted canvases.
We are, of course, totally familiar by now with the tactics of the Pop-Artists, the Photo-Realists, the New-Imagists, and any number of other artists whose work is classified as ''neo'' something-or-other. In some cases, these artists have talent and significance, in others not. But what they all have in common is a passionate need to stun or shock the viewer into paying attention.
There are also painters who have stumbled upon and perfected dramatic or lyrical painterly effects that give the appearance of art to the unwary or unsophisticated, but which are actually only clever gimmicks. These painters manipulate the styles and surface characteristics of modernism without in any way touching upon its substance, and create chic and empty facades signifying little or nothing.
Such ''art'' exists in considerable profusion, because not everyone can distinguish between a few splashes and shapes of paint that are just that, and a few splashes and shapes of paint that are art. But then, neither can everyone perceive why a painting of a house by Edward Hopper is art, while one painted by another artist may not be. And this is particularly true if the second artist's house looks more ''real'' than Hopper's.
In the case of the abstraction, the viewer may be fooled into thinking it is art because it resembles certain well-known or famous abstract paintings hanging in the local museum. And in the case of the painting of a house, the viewer might be confused because art to him is predicated entirely upon how closely a painted object resembles the original from which it was drawn. In both instances , judgment is made on resemblances, not on what is intrinsic to each kind of painting - or to each specific work of art.
If there is one thing I'd like to accomplish before leaving this planet, it is to convince those people who still don't realize it that art should be chosen and judged on the basis of what it is and not on the basis of the style or object it resembles. That the first thing we must do when confronted by something that is claimed to be art is to search for what lies within the attractive, dramatic, or shocking ''package'' in which it is presented. If we cannot do that, and accept or reject the work entirely on the basis of its technique or subject, we will no more benefit from what that work has to offer than if we accepted or rejected a fellow human entirely on the basis of race, sex, age, or social standing.