The many masks of modern art
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The problem stems largely from the fact that we have been conditioned to believe that art is a special commodity requiring special skills and training to be understood. Well, that just isn't so. It may require patience and study, as well as an open and unprejudiced attitude, but that's about it. We don't, after all, have to be agricultural experts to know when a head of lettuce is wilted. And we don't have to be art experts to sense whan an art and its ideas are stale or dying. All we need do is ''sniff the air.'' Such things are fairly easy to determine - provided we keep a sense of proportion, and don't fall victim to a fast-talking stranger's insistence that staleness, limpness, and even decay are precisely what make something good and important. And that crispness and freshness are definitely now ''old hat.''Skip to next paragraph
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I, for one, have grown very tired of hearing that something new is important because it is ugly, misshapen, to be viewed upside-down, offensive, or impossible to respond to with feeling. And that, if I can only accept it, I'll go on to discover untold beauties and significances within it. Well, I seldom have. What I have generally discovered is that someone with little or nothing to say has managed to catch my attention and to waste my time, for I'm under a professional obligation to give anything described as art the benefit of the doubt.
We mustn't forget, after all, that Calder was not a significant artist because he used wire and tin, but because of what he could communicate with them. And the same applies to Nolde's painterly slashings, Klee's doodles and smudges, Mondrian's right angles, Pollock's dribblings, and Guston's ''vulgarities.'' Anything goes - as long as it communicates something beyond itself. But if it continues to call attention only to itself because of its novelty, shock value, or ugliness, then it is merely novel, shocking, or ugly. And it most certainly is not art.
There is an intriguing Kafkaesque quality to much of the art world today that makes it almost as fascinating as the art it produces and shows. And yet, no ''serious'' artist has emerged to give that quality pictorial form - unless we accept Saul Steinberg as such an artist, and Eugene Mihaesco, by extension, as another.
I do so accept them both, even though Mihaesco addresses himself less specifically than Steinberg to the world of art, and more generally to the realities of the world at large.
Mihaesco is that rare creature, an imaginative and wildly inventive cartoonist who is also, at various times, an artist; a social, political, and cultural analyst; a philosopher, wit, and satirist; and an all-around poker-of-fun at human foibles.
And yet there is nothing innocent about his work. The very worst this century has been able to do to itself lurks deep under the calm although eccentric exteriors of his line drawings, watercolors, and pastels. What we see is merely the top layer of a highly complex reality descending in geological fashion to depths incorporating a multitude of experiences. He has a remarkable insight into this century's Zeitgeist, and an extraordinary grasp of our culture's crucial images, symbols, and metaphors.
''Stairway'' is a good case in point. The stairs come from nowhere and lead nowhere. Their design, construction, and placement serve no purpose; thus, they have neither real identity nor a solid reason for being. In addition, the two wall openings (from the past and toward the future?) are not joined. And all we have of man is a faint, totally ambiguous shadow of a human being on a wall.
It's a simple image, but a haunting one. And, although I'm certain it's not what Mihaesco had in mind when he drew it, one that quite accurately portrays that portion of the art world I discussed above.