I can just imagine how Raphael would have reacted to the paintings of Mir'o, or what Vermeer would have thought of Paul Klee. In both instances, the verdict would have been ``thumbs down'' -- although it's quite possible that Vermeer might have appreciated Klee's color and Raphael the elegance of Mir'o's line. That wouldn't have been enough, however. Both Old Masters would have laughed at the notion that such trivial things could be considered art. Pretty, perhaps, and maybe even charming. But art? No, never!
From the vantage point of their own time and place, of course, they'd be quite correct. Renaissance and Baroque art cared only for what was ennobling or humanistic, and then only if it was embodied in a style that respected nature and the artistic traditions of Greece and Rome.
That attitude extended toward the creations of other cultures as well. The work produced by many older civilizations and by all the primitive peoples of the world was adjudged exotic at best, but never quite important art, no matter how beautifully executed and sophisticated it was on its own terms.
Raphael and Vermeer would probably have had the same difficulty with the paintings of Mir'o and Klee as they might have had with an African mask or an Indian totem pole. And for similar reasons.
Beginning with the Impressionists and with C'ezanne, Western painting and sculpture changed so drastically, and in so genuinely revolutionary a manner, that it is as impossible to judge a Cubist still life by the standards of Chardin as it is to determine the quality of an Eskimo carving on the basis of one by Michelangelo. Before a modernist work is better or worse than something painted in the 17th century or carved in the 18th, it is different.
If we forget that, and insist that there are such things as absolute standards, then we will continually get into trouble by demanding that canvases by such modernists as Matisse and Rothko give us what only certain of the Old Masters can give -- or by rejecting painters of the past because they aren't ``modern'' enough.
The art of the present is unlike that of the Old Masters, because it is largely concerned with different things. Picasso, Mondrian, and Calder, after all, reflected a society whose priorities had shifted as a result of severe upheavals in politics, religion, science, and psychology. What had seemed secure only a few decades before became uncertain and even chaotic.
Edvard Munch's haunting image ``The Cry,'' which so perfectly embodies the darkest dimensions of the 20th century, could not have been generally accepted as art before the end of World War I. And the provocative and profoundly disturbing pictorial ``morality plays'' of Max Beckmann and George Grosz would quickly have been rejected, had not the world as a whole begun to realize that the insights and premonitions of these artists did indeed represent truths as well as warnings of what might still happen.
With that realization, however, came new problems. Having accepted modernism's wisdom and genius, we went ahead after World War II and, for the first time, permitted art to run full speed in whatever direction it wished. The result was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it produced some excellent paintings and energized the visual arts as a whole, and a curse because it helped create an art-world monster with an insatiable appetite for the new and controversial, and an ev er-increasing need to top itself at its own game.
In certain quarters, notoriety and a six-figure-plus annual income are fast emerging as the dominant critical criteria in art. There, trendiness and pop-star status are most eagerly sought. Whatever is new, glittery, and outrageous is good. All else is neither good nor bad -- it simply doesn't exist.
Miraculously, all this glitz and hype have done nothing so much as to throw the ridiculousness of certain portions of the art world into sharp relief. Talented younger artists are increasingly setting themselves up in opposition to the merely clever and fashionable, proving thereby that integrity and talent are as essential to the real art of the 1980s as they were to the Cubists, C'ezanne, and Vermeer.
One of the most outstanding, imaginative, and versatile of these artists -- as well as one of the most fortunate, since she is accepted by the fashionable and the not-so-fashionable crowds alike -- is Jennifer Bartlett. No one else today is more popular or is treated with more respect. Her gallery shows and museum exhibitions are minor public events, and she has been written about almost as extensively as the major media darlings. But, most important, she has kept her head. Her art may dash off in
several directions at once, but it always refers back to a central creative goal: to see things whole and to remain positive -- objectives of which both Raphael and Vermeer would certainly have approved.