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Isn't it time to start letting art grow up?

By Theodore F. Wolff / August 26, 1985



If our information on today's art came exclusively from art magazines and newspapers, we could easily assume that no contemporary artist of interest or importance is much older than 30, and that the search for new styles and images is the primary purpose of art. So much emphasis is placed on the ``new'' that one quickly gets the impression that the art world is a huge produce market in which art is judged strictly on its ``freshness'' and ``crispness.''

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All this wouldn't be so bad, of course, if it didn't constitute a tragic waste -- a stupid, shortsighted dismissal of creativity at the very point when it first becomes capable of confronting deeper and more significant issues than self-expression or novelty. And the problem is not merely the artists', difficult as it may be for them to accept the reality of professional limbo just as they are beginning to understand the real nature of art. No, disturbing and wasteful as that is, the social and cultural

implications of this uncritical pursuit of the ever more youthful and new are even more serious and damaging.

Admiring the vitality of the young and welcoming the challenges of the new is one thing; giving these qualities primary or almost exclusive emphasis is quite another. Art, after all, is a reflection of mankind as a whole, not merely of that portion of it barely out of its second or third decade. It is complex, difficult, and profound as well as simple, free-spirited, and casual, and it consists of much more than joyful exuberances and talented high jinks -- no matter how original, delightful, or life-en hancing they may be.

A society that worships youth above all and prefers its cultural heroes to be brash, iconoclastic, and immature is in danger of never progressing beyond brashness and immaturity itself. And one that defines art in terms of fashion, pyrotechnics, and never being bored is unlikely ever to produce anything of genuine significance.

The danger of that happening to us is not inconsequential -- witness the fact that it increasingly does not occur to us to look for depth, dignity, and maturity in our galleries today. For those qualities we go to museums and to the works of such figures as Rembrandt, Vermeer, C'ezanne, Braque, and Morandi. When we want to be entertained, titillated, challenged, and seen in the right places, on the other hand, we take ourselves off to the galleries.

Now, I know I'm being a bit extreme, as well as unfair to some dealers who do remarkably well in a difficult situation. Galleries, after all, deal mainly with what is fresh from the artists' studios, whereas museums exhibit the masterpieces of the distant and recent past. Even so, the situation is pretty much as I've described it. Most of the space and attention goes to what is ``new'' -- meaning, in altogether too many instances, work that is trendy and poorly conceived and executed -- and very little goes to the less flashy and novel, but considerably more accomplished creations of the older generations of artists.

We seem to believe that youth, and only youth, can bulldoze its way through the complexities surrounding the creation of art and come out on the other side with the Holy Grail of artistic truth in its hands. Or that Alexander the Great with his Gordian knot was the premier example of what an artist should be.

We've become so enamored of the eruptive methods of Picasso, Pollock, and Schnabel that we've largely forgotten the lessons taught by, among others, Rembrandt and C'ezanne: that art is also a matter of slow maturation over a period of time, and that great art demands the kind of richness and multidimensionality that only comes with wisdom and experience.

I'm certain we would welcome more of that rich human resonance and depth in our art today if it were given a chance to develop. If we would not, why are Rembrandt and Van Gogh so meaningful to so many? And why does the name of Kollwitz evoke such gratitude, love, and respect almost every time it is mentioned?

There is, of course, always a price to pay for more emphasis on humanism in art, and the art world in general prefers not to pay it. Who can really blame it, however, considering how exciting, entertaining, and financially rewarding today's art has become? In the midst of a fireworks display, who wants to discuss Plato, read Shakespeare, or study the drawings of Matisse? And today's art world is a fireworks display, with each new generation of artists trying desperately -- and in some cases , almost exclusively -- to top the preceding one's most dramatic and novel effects.

The problem lies in the fact that a society gets precisely the art it deserves -- if not by choice, then certainly by not caring enough to change it. And we appear not to. We may love and need what Vermeer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Rodin, and Kollwitz give us, but as long as they are shown in the museums, we are perfectly content to let our own art go its mad and merry way.

We read and accept the opinions of our art pundits as though they were holy script, especially those by the apologists for every trivial, self-serving painter or sculptor who comes along. We descend into fashionable galleries by the chartered busloads to listen spellbound to lectures on the awesome significance of a few splashes of paint. And we make fools of ourselves in our eagerness to applaud and to buy the very latest in art -- as well as to rid ourselves of the embarrassment of owning something by

one of last year's heroes.

If that's all we want, so be it. But if we want more, if we want our art to be less like a circus and more representative of what really matters, then we had better do something about it. And we can begin by taking the words of art professionals with a grain of salt, and by not demanding something newer and brighter every few months. But most of all, we can give our artists a real chance to deepen and grow by trusting them when, at the age of 30, 40, 50, or maybe even 85, they decide to drop some of the

sparkle from their art, and to aim for something a bit deeper and more carefully considered.