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The many masks of modern art

By Theodore F. Wolff / December 16, 1982

The future, as I have written before, is calling from several directions, and will take various forms in art. Although we don't yet know precisely what they'll be, it already appears certain that a crisp and lean form of representational painting will be among them, and that Modernism will continue, if only in a modified form.

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Also present will be a type of art that would have been totally incomprehensible fifty years ago (except possibly to Picasso, Miro, and a few of the Surrealists) and is still considered ''beyond the pale'' by some members of the art community today.

I am referring to work that is defined neither by its resemblance to nature nor its adherence to a formal ideal. That seems formless, ''spineless,'' and painfully ''organic.'' And that, to the cynical eye, resembles nothing so much as shapeless ''doodles'' of clay, stumps of wood studded with rusty nails and hung with string, yards of dirty, drooping canvas, or huge roots pulled out of the earth and painted yellow or blue.

The kind of art, in other words, that traces its spiritual ancestry to the sculptural ideas of Eva Hesse and Joseph Bueys, to Jackson Pollock's compulsive eruptions, and beyond them to many of the primal impulses of Surrealism and Dada. An art that finds its identity totally through intuition and curiosity, not accepting the disciplines of geometry or pattern, and that emerges into being through a process that dramatically parallels the actual process of organic growth.

It's difficult for many to accept this kind of work as art because it seems so pointless and formless, so lacking in any evidence of skill or control. Where , they ask, is the proof that human intelligence and sensibility shaped these odd-looking things that look as though they had been picked up out of the street. They couldn't, they insist, have been ''created,'' they could only have ''happened.''

It's an interesting point. If these ''shapeless'' things are art, why wouldn't a pebble, found on a beach, or a piece of gnarled driftwood also be art? If a primary ingredient of art is evidence upon it of human intelligence or sensibility, isn't it crucial that all art bear at least some physical evidence of these qualities?

The answer lies in the type of ''evidence'' we demand, and the particular thematic or formal ideal against which the work is to be judged. For some of us, an incredible amount of ''evidence'' is required before we accept something as art. It must bear proof of extraordinary skill, and be executed in exquisite detail. Or it must magically resemble a real object, person, or place. Or, in the case of an abstraction, it must reflect the formal ideals of the movement to which its creator belongs.

But what if something genuinely new comes along? Something that looks like nothing on earth? How would we determine its legitimacy as art? Against what standards or ideals would we weigh it?

It would be a problem, but not as big a one as it would have been before the time of the Impressionists, when newness in art had a very limited meaning. We today have the ''advantage'' of a cultural prejudice toward the new rather than against it, and would almost certainly give the odd-looking thing before us the benefit of the doubt.

But how would this help us in the long run? Isn't a categorical acceptance of anything new just as bad as an automatic rejection of it? This is a serious matter - especially in a world and at a time that insists that subway graffiti are an important art form that cannot be compared negatively with other forms of art. And that tends to accept the word of every self-proclaimed ''artist'' that whatever he produces is art simply because he says it is.

We are tottering on a razor's edge as far as our perception of new art is concerned. On the one hand, we hate to say ''no'' to the new for fear of thwarting creativity. And, on the other, we hate to say ''yes'' too easily or quickly for fear it would cause our critical standards to erode.