Art calls for more than originality and talent: it builds on a living tradition

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Eight days in the Netherlands and London looking at art, then three more days visiting roughly 90 galleries in New York, may be exhausting, but it is also very illuminating.

It tends to put things into proper perspective, and to make one deeply appreciative of artistic quality wherever one finds it.

I found it in the explosive figurative paintings of the young Dutch artist Peter Wehrens in his exhibition at Amsterdam's Nieuw Perspectief gallery; in the stained-glass windows of Gouda's St. Jan's Cathedral; and in an exhibition of Canadian landscapes in London's Canada House Cultural Center.

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Back in New York, I also found it in Terence La Noue's vivid abstract paintings at Siegel Contemporary Art, Michael Lekakis's drawings at the Kouros Gallery, and Valentina Dubasky's paintings at Oscarsson Hood. But mostly, I found it in Holland's and London's major museums, in their Leonardos, Rembrandts , Vermeers, della Francescas, Van Goghs, Mondrians, and numerous other older and more recent masterpieces.

Now, that's understandable, since great art is particularly effective and memorable. But it's also very rare, and represents only the tiniest fraction of the art produced by any culture. To compare a few towering masterpieces with the everyday art of another period is both unfair and naive. It makes no sense, after all, to compare the art produced in 1983 with the best created during the 17th or 19th centuries.

Even so, I do have a few observations about certain contemporary attitudes toward art that I find disturbing and distorting, and that place our ability to create truly great art in considerable jeopardy.

For one thing, we've put too great an emphasis on ''individuality'' and ''originality'' in art, on style and manner, and not enough on substance. And for another, we've developed the most peculiar notions about the function and purpose of tradition in art.

Because of this emphasis on individuality, our artists have little choice but to hurl themselves increasingly toward ever-greater and more ludicrous extremes in their search for the ''new.'' And because of our distorted view of tradition, we tend to view tradition as primarily restrictive and counterproductive.

We've forgotten, it seems to me, that it takes more than genius or a vivid imagination to create great art - that artistic greatness demands profound cultural and individual interaction, and that great art can no more be merely willed into existence than a match can burst into flame in a vacuum.

Art is the result of a dynamic process that demands both cultural ''soil'' and individual talent or genius. It has both private and collective significance.

Art such as Michelangelo's encapsulates, advances, and caps a several-thousand-year tradition rooted in the art of the Greeks and Romans and enriched and modified by pre- and early-Renaissance formal and thematic ideas. To stand before a Michelangelo sculpture or fresco is to stand before history in dramatic and dynamic dialogue with one of the most profound geniuses of all time.

Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin, Cezanne, Picasso - the art of all of them is drenched with personal and cultural distillations of the great works of the even more distant past. At the same time, their art exists partly as the cornerstones for much of the art of the future. Cezanne wanted nothing so much as to paint as grandly as Poussin, and indeed, his canvases set beside those of Poussin do reveal a profound similarity of structure and a remarkable sense of continuity.

One can stand totally absorbed before a Leonardo, a Rembrandt, or a Cezanne, because so many dimensions and layers of meaning and suggestiveness lie beneath their surface images. We don't merely perceive a simple representation of an object or a person, but find ourselves locked into a complex of ideas, forms, and emotions that seem endless in their implications. A Picasso painting that looks abstract may reverberate with echoes of primitive Greek, African, and Etruscan forms and images. And a Henry Moore sculpture may evoke vague memories of primal forms, of Stonehenge, or of ancient Near Eastern artifacts.

That is what a true and living tradition is all about. And this tradition in no way restricts or cramps an artist's style, but rather, enriches and ennobles it. Tradition is only destructive if certain older styles become the absolute ideals against which all new work is judged - if, for instance, the late paintings of Raphael or Matisse are adjudged perfect and are then designated as the strict models for all future work.

This sense of continuity and tradition has, however, been violently disrupted in this century. Most artists today stand very much alone in their creative endeavors, and must madly improvise or invent new forms or ideas in order to survive.

This becomes increasingly true as one generation replaces the previous one and believes it must actually discredit its predecessor to achieve artistic validity. The movement is thus against tradition rather than toward it. As a result, an increasing number of younger artists have only two choices: to keep searching for ever more extreme and outrageous forms and devices so as to attract attention, or to do just the opposite, to copy nature as slavishly and mechanically as possible.

Both approaches result in relatively superficial work of little more cultural significance than a passionate doodle or a pretty snapshot. And yet that is where we, to a large extent, stand today. We have the utterly naive notion that an individual can whip up, will, or imagine a great work of art into existence all by himself. Well, it cannot be done! Even the greatest geniuses needed help from the past - witness Rubens and Picasso.

Even so, I'd much rather see the results of excessive ''individuality'' seeking ''originality'' than the deadening effects of a misused or artificially imposed tradition. Tradition must be integrated and organic. If true, it will serve as a stimulant and as an ideal, will function in the manner of a Socratic dialogue with the artist.

Without a tradition, an artist cannot do much more than splash a few pretty colors or copy the appearance of a few objects. With it, he can ''plug himself into'' the best of what mankind has done and thought, and can, if he has it in him, contribute significantly to that vast storehouse of knowledge, wisdom, and beauty.

Failing that, however, we must still keep the human spirit alive, keep it pushing forward and upward. Without that we can easily cease to be. In the absence of greatness, I will always opt for the human spirit expressing itself as a splash of paint or as a merry combination of colors. And I will always turn against any effort to impose the heavy hand of a dead tradition.

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