What humanity can do if we insist upon it

There is very little warmth in today's art. Very little evidence of gentleness, intimacy, or affection. And hardly any evidence at all of love. There isn't even much celebration, which is odd, since art is ideally suited for it and art has traditionally gloried in its ability to lift and to stir human spirits and sensibilities.

Art certainly doesn't function in that fashion today, and neither do many of us want or expect it to. Some suspect that those who persist in viewing the world joyously or gratefully are mad or naive. They argue that life is full of pitfalls, that it is dangerously simplistic to count on a future as long as nuclear warfare hangs over our heads. There are those of us who even take perverse delight in omens of doom and insist it is only realistic to sit back and await humanity's inevitable extinction.

Humanity actually has a great deal to say about its future - but only if we insist upon it. Art in all its forms can be of great help, both by countering the present erosion of hope and by representing human values and realities more fully and truthfully than it has of late.

Art does not speak the whole truth if it concentrates on fearful, violent, or hysterical traits and ignores evidence of human bravery, dedication, and love.

In human terms, art has evaded its responsibilities for a very long time. In fact it has accepted them upon only a dozen or so occasions during the past century. Without Van Gogh, Eakins, Munch, Modersohn-Becker, Picasso, Rouault, Kokoschka, Orozco, Beckmann, Bacon, and a few others, modern art would have been largely devoid of significant human content.

No recent artist has portrayed human dignity, courage, and devotion more effectively than Kathe Kollwitz. And none has made the subject of human love so central to his or her art. In hundreds of magnificent prints and thousands of drawings, as well as in a few pieces of sculpture, she gave the modern world its truest and fullest accounting of what it is to be human - even under the worst of circumstances.

Her subjects were the ''ordinary'' people of the world, and her themes the manner in which they survived, expressed love, coped with fear, resisted oppression, protected one another, and faced death with equanimity. In her world , anguish and despair are overcome by courage, social injustices are tolerated only until something can be done about them, people treat one another with compassion, and everyone does everything he or she can to retain at least some measure of self-respect.

For Kollwitz, love, compassion, courage, and dignity defined the human condition and gave it meaning. She was adamant about that, as she was about doing all she could to aid the poor and the politically oppressed in Nazi Germany. This, of course, angered Hitler, who saw to it that her work was withdrawn from public view and who made it clear she would be placed in a concentration camp if she committed even the smallest offense against the state.

Such threats did not deter her from working, however. She produced some of her finest lithographs between 1934 and 1942 and continued to draw until roughly a year before her death in 1945. Her friend, Otto Nagel, in his book on her life and art, quotes an eye-witness account of her last attempt to make a drawing. ''It was a moving moment when they gave the great artist a stick of charcoal and placed the paper in front of her. After a slight hesitation her fingers tightened round the charcoal and she sat there looking down pensively at the white drawing paper. Then she put the stick down again and said in her brusque, determined way: 'No, I shan't work again. I'll not do anything second-rate.' ''

''Thou Shalt Not Grind the Seed-Corn'' was her very last print. It depicts a mother shielding her children from all who would harm them, and it was made in response to dangers she saw threatening the youth of Germany. Although it is not one of her major prints, it is a truly representative one, for in it we find everything she considered essential to her art. It is profoundly human and life-affirming, makes its point simply and directly, and places form and technique at the service of communication.

There is no one in 20th-century art I admire more than Kathe Kollwitz. A handful of recent masters may have made greater ''contributions,'' and a few others may have been more ''important'' art-historically. None, however, has demonstrated the true meaning of greatness as well as she. And none has given the word ''artist'' more dignity and luster.

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