The many masks of modern art

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Some artists don't put all their eggs in one basket. They spread their talents around in various art forms and activities, and manage to achieve success and fame in several of them.

These artists tend to be highly individualistic - in their lives and beliefs, if not always in their art - and unwilling to conform uncritically to the goals and values of the society in which they live.

They are seldom true believers in a pure and formalist vision of art, and view it more as a pictorial language to be approached pragmatically, and for a variety of purposes.

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They can be serious painters, sculptors, illustrators, designers, and teachers at one and the same time, and still have enough creative energy left over to write books, design jewelry, and enter into active correspondence with world leaders. Since their primary objective is not the creation of art for museums, but the full realization of their creative potentials, they approach life restlessly and with passion. And they tend to be critical of those who create more delicately or with narrower ideals.

I have known a dozen or so of these artists, and have enjoyed every one of them, although I haven't always liked their art. But this never mattered. They themselves were so challenging and fascinating that what they painted seemed of lesser importance. I respected them for what they were, not for what they did.

I've always regretted not having known Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), a prime example of an artist with multiple talents. During his almost ninety years, Kent was a successful painter, printmaker, author, illustrator, muralist, textile and jewelry designer, lecturer, political activist, and letter-writer. In addition, he owned and operated a successful dairy, ran unsuccessfully for Congress, traveled a great deal, and ended up with the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967.

He was particularly successful as an illustrator and printmaker. His highly stylized and dramatic illustrations for Moby Dick, The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf , and The Complete Works of Shakespeare established him as the most important American book illustrator during the 1920s and '30s. And his numerous lithographs and wood engravings secured him a special niche among the major American printmakers of the 1920-50 period.

Although we tend today to discount his paintings as melodramatic and overly stylized, he did produce a few truly outstanding paintings of the sea, Greenland , and the Maine coast. The best of these were painted while he was still in his twenties. Toilers of the Sea, Winter, Monhegan Island, and Rocks, Monhegan are among the most powerful of all American landscape images, and more than make up for such later embarrassments as Lone Woman of 1966.

Although very popular as an illustrator, he refused to cater to either popular or fashionable professional tastes in his paintings and prints. In this he was adamant. He might have to bend a bit in his commercial work, but would never do so in his ''serious'' art. As things turned out, however, he had little control over the matter. His powerful and frequently used illustrational and designing skills gradually eroded his more deeply expressive talents, with the result that most of his later oils look like so many calendar illustrations. They are pretty, neat, and often embarrassingly sentimental.

He fared better with his prints, although here too his propensity for dramatic contrasts and streamlined design occasionally led him astray. When his prints did work, as in Mala and Over the Ultimate, it was usually because his compositional and storytelling skills had found their match in a particularly interesting subject.

He also had the tendency to overstate his ideas. Subtlety was not his forte, and it was apt to fly out the window entirely whenever he saw any form of injustice rearing its ugly head. Caught up in the dynamics of a cause, he could use his art like a sledgehammer to pound away at the opposition.

And yet, that was precisely what made him special. He cared, deeply and genuinely, for his fellowman, and was willing to go to almost any lengths to defend and champion him - and that most emphatically meant using his art to further his ideals.

In this, he was very much a part of his time. From Picasso down to the most humble American WPA muralist, art was seen - during these times in the 1930s - as a way of combating evil and injustice. Where Kent differed, however, was in the depth of his commitment to this idea. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who jumped on the formalist bandwagon once it became obvious that Abstract Expressionism was winning the day, Kent stuck to his guns, and if anything, became more adamant than ever that art must espouse social ideals.

He paid a considerable price for his position, from governmental snubs to personal insults. He was denied permission to travel abroad, and had at least one important exhibition canceled because of his ''leftist'' sympathies. But he carried on. His autobiography, It's Me O Lord, was published in 1955. And in 1958, the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, ruled in Kent's favor in the suit he had brought to regain his passport.

Things became a bit easier after that. But even so, it was another decade before any significant thawing toward Kent's person or art took place. And it took another decade before any real interest was again shown in his art.

I think Kent deserves the last word. In It's Me O Lord, he wrote, ''Fundamental to all considerations of art, is its purpose. To be entitled to the honor that society bestows upon it, it must unquestionably have a social value; that is, as a potential means of communication it must be addressed, and in comprehensible terms, to the understanding of mankind. . . . Art as a social force has grave responsibilities and will be judged by its discharge of them. . . . By awakening us to the beauty of our world and to the dignity of man, it can be a powerful factor in human progress; or it can lure us apart from this world into the sterile, loveless solitude of never-never land.''

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