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The many masks of modern art

By Theodore F. Wolff / March 3, 1983

To anyone born and raised within a sealed and windowless room, the sudden appearance of a window, and then a glimpse of a landscape beyond, would be a shattering experience. Not everyone would respond in the same way, however. Some would welcome the window, while others would panic and nail it shut.

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Much the same thing happens in art whenever a radically new form or idea jolts and provokes us. We either respond with enthusiasm to the possibility of new dimensions of experience and new insights, or rear up and declare that anything so different and strange could never be art.

Our reactions depend on what we want of art. On whether we see it as a challenge or a comfort, as something that opens up our world, or encloses it and makes it neat and tidy.

We don't, however, have to make that distinction, for art can be almost anything we ask. It can leap toward the stars, or provide peace. It can celebrate human greatness, or express delight in a grasshopper on a leaf. It can thunder, monumentalize, enchant, or poke fun. It can probe or elevate, transfigure, transcend, or transmute. All this and much more is in its power, and we can choose according to our personal inclinations, or our culture's values and ideals.

We shouldn't, however, insist that our choice is the only form art can take, for that would mean we've confused truth with art. And have forgotten that art, while it may speak of and symbolize truth, is not truth itself.

It's best not to be dogmatic about art, nor to jump to hasty conclusions, even when trying to distinguish between the superficial and the profound. In art , things aren't always as they seem. Our museums are full of impressive but empty works, and of modest works that move us deeply.

Judgment is difficult, and not always necessary. There are times when art should be enjoyed as simply and wholeheartedly as we would a bouquet of beautiful flowers. And others when we should temporarily suspend the question, ''Is this art?''

What, after all, do we have to lose? Will the sky fall down, or the world end , if we don't immediately classify everything new as art or non-art? Will we lose our souls if we permit even one piece of non-art to pass as art?

I simply do not understand such suspicion of the new in art. I'd much rather be ''fooled'' a hundred times than miss out on even one work of art I've been able to love because I originally gave it the benefit of the doubt. What matters , after all, is what enriches our lives, not what might make us appear fools.

Doesn't it make sense that a fresh, new artist should see and express himself a bit differently than anyone before him? And that a young artist with extraordinary talent and sensibility should create something very much out of the ordinary? If not, of what interest or importance is the work of such an artist? Without that fresh and original quality, wouldn't his art merely be the rehashing of old styles and ideas? The repetition of what we already know?

Art is more than static images, icons of perfection, or near sacred relics of great, past, art-historical victories. It is also a mirror reflecting whatever stands before it, or an open window facing truth. Art is incredibly complex. It yearns for the eternal at the same time it treats the most fleeting moment or action with respect. It is ephemeral, and can no more be nailed down and defined than can faith, hope, compassion, or love. And it is just as impossible to judge absolutely.