The many masks of modern art

To see art as a public event is as old as the hills. From the earliest cave paintings and rock carvings to the most recent of Christo's outdoor projects or Oldenburg's monumental sculptures, art has served in the performance and celebration of religious rites and rituals, formal state and festive social occasions, and large-scale public recreations.

Evidence of the grandeur and the mystery created and evoked by our ancestors through public art lies scattered throughout the world. Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Sphinx, the stone images of Easter Island, the monuments of ancient Greece, Persia, Rome, and China - the list seems endless and is unbelievably rich and varied. And yet, dramatically dissimilar as these works may be, they all have one thing in common, they were conceived and designed to serve the public good.

Art created for communal purposes can also be found in any museum of ''primitive'' art, or anywhere in the world where age-old customs and traditions have remained largely untouched for dozens of generations. Works as diverse as wooden figures from New Guinea, masks from the African Ivory Coast, or Navajo sand paintings all represent an attitude toward art that is primarily social and public rather than individual and private.

This attitude is difficult for most of us today to understand, accustomed as we are to the notion that art is primarily a matter of an artist's ''self-expression'' or of private contemplation and enjoyment by the rest of us. The idea of a communal style serving the entire community rather appalls us. We prefer to shop around in art history and among the dozens of contemporary art movements for the one style that best suits our purposes. As a result, the cultural landscape is cluttered with bits and pieces of older and more recent styles, all mixed together and indiscriminately admired.

The few attempts made in this century to create a universal modern style have all proved too narrow, too ideal, or too impractical - or too dependent upon the genius of one or more individuals. Russian Constructivism was destroyed by Stalin, Neo-Plasticism remained pretty much Mondrian's private vision. De Stijl wandered off into other areas including design and architecture - and modern architecture itself, the showplace for stylistic internationalism, has recently found itself boxed in by its own 1920s theories and vision.

Even so, certain ideas and attitudes derived from one or another of the above have remained alive, and have continued to exert a subtle (and at times considerable) influence. Constructivism, especially, has proved to be a particularly rich source for stylistic ideas and forms, and has been ''quoted'' or has been subtly transformed any number of times since its official demise in the early 1920s.

In addition there have also been the high-minded and persistent attempts, continually made during this century, to establish a dominant style, school, or movement that would encapsulate both the essence of modernism and the drives, ideals, and goals of twentieth-century man. Each one has, to one degree or another, failed to establish its primacy - although almost every one produced a few excellent works of art.

All this, of course, makes the creation of public art something of a problem. By its very nature, public art must be of interest to, and significance for, the entire community - not merely for a small handful of devoted advocates of one style or another. But how can this be accomplished if there is no universally agreed-upon style? Even if the community is sharply divided about what constitutes art?

The decision to commission one type of art over another is generally made by a committee, an agency, or by one or two wealthy individuals acting upon the advice of local or national experts in the field, unless it is the result of an open or limited competititon. Whatever form the decision takes, however, it is almost always made from the top down, with little opinion from the public at large.

This form of paternalism is not, of course, new. (And neither is it necessarily a bad way of doing things.) From the early Egyptians and Greeks, through the Medici family in the Renaissance, up to our modern era, public art has almost always been commissioned by the elite of the community, and not by the general public.

In those days, however, cultural and artistic values and ideals were common property, and everyone, from top to bottom of the social scale, could identify with the central ideas and forms of the art created in the name of his society or his religion. So it made sense that those who were the most experienced, or who represented the state or its religion, should decide the works of art to be commissioned.

Things, however, are different today. Because of our profusion of artistic styles, it has become extremely difficult to choose public art that is both of value and of interest to the entire community, or of sufficient quality not to appear embarrassingly trite and old-fashioned in a decade or two.

Judging from some public art I've seen, however, such results, while difficult, are by no means impossible to achieve.Michigan State University president Clifton R. Wharton Jr., for instance, knew precisely what he was doing in 1975 when he commissioned Mel Leiserowitz to create a very large piece of sculpture for the grounds of MSU's new Wharton Center for the Performing Arts. Not only was the artist a highly accomplished sculptor, he was also, as a longtime member of that school's art faculty, fully aware of the particular problems and potentials of such a major on-campus project.Right from the start, Leiserowitz was recognized as a member of the overall design team. He was invited to see and discuss the original drawings and models for the center with the architects, and was alerted to any design changes as they occurred. Since the work was to be an environmental piece that could be walked through and around, the choice of site was crucial. Here again he received full cooperation, and was permitted to choose what he felt was the most appropriate site.

Orpheus was intended to reflect qualities of both the visual and the performing arts, to serve as an introduction to the center, and to function as a sculptural entity in and of itself. Like the design of the center, it has space to spread out, but finds its formal identity by means of several large connecting geometric shapes. The design is extremely simple and follows Constructivist principles - but by no means dogmatically. If anything, this piece is wholeheartedly twentieth-century American, and encapsulates much of the best of what American sculpture has been trying to do these past thirty to forty years.

It is not, however, an academic set-piece, nor one of those ubiquitous works that follows all the rules, avoids all the pitfalls, but manages to remain totally anonymous without a life or personality of its own.Orpheus has character , as well as a clear formal identity. It is intact and whole, and projects a quality that is much more than just the sum of all its parts. Standing next to or within it, one is aware of its strong presence, of the fact that it is a human statement, and not just a handsome grouping of large pieces of steel.

Its identity actually extends beyond the physical dimensions of the work itself, for its forms and tensions interact with those of the center proper in numerous visually intriguing ways. There are several framing elements in the piece through which the buildings and their surroundings can be glimpsed, and the stainless steel elements serve as ''mirrors'' to the immediate environment or to any social activity taking place near them. (I was also quite charmed, the day I viewed this piece, to find two students sunning themselves within the curved form at the bottom-left-center of the photograph, something which the artist said occurred frequently, and which he found totally appropriate to the work.)

Orpheus is an impressive piece of public art that beautifully holds its own within a wide-open architectural environment and gives one the impression that it absolutely belongs where it is. What pleases me most about it, however, is not only that it represents a very personal statement by the artist, but that it also stands as a sensitive and subtle distillation of the best of a particular modern ''tradition.'' While I am by no means an apologist for Constructivism, I am impressed by any successful fusion of rugged individualism and tradition - especially if it takes place in a major piece of public art.

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