A brush too broad for dogma

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PERHAPS it's time we stopped looking to art for miracles, for the perfect combination of subject, form, and technique that defines and embodies truth and beauty once and for all. A century of failures to accomplish this should convince us that that simply isn't possible, that life is far too subtle and immense ever to be so neatly and finally packaged.

Even knowing this, however, we continue to expect miracles. We prove it by pursuing the novel and unexpected in art as though they represented the Holy Grail, and by applauding the appearance of ever more sensational techniques and gimmicks as though our very lives depended on our belief in the efficacy of such devices.

Altogether too much of what takes place in the world of art today, as a result, is predicated on promise, on what might be, on the wonder that will unfold the moment some bright young genius stumbles upon the perfect combination of idea and form, and the sky lights up with the news that someone has finally put it ``all'' into a work of art.

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There are those, I realize, who disagree with this perception of today's art world. But consider. Why else do we welcome novelty and ``originality'' with such passion and open our arms to anyone whose work appears to present evidence that Utopia is just around the corner or that some of life's crucial problems will be resolved by the very manner in which that work is shaped? And why, on the other hand, do we drop an artist the second it becomes clear he or she cannot or will not promise us such things?

And why else do we become so dogmatic and defensive about a particular style and so blind to the value of work that doesn't represent that style's qualities and characteristics?

Only because, I suspect, we believe that that style, and that one alone, engages the issues and ideas that will ultimately lead to the yearned-for miraculous event. And that everything else, committed as it is to the artistically ``irrelevent,'' is unworthy of serious attention and so can legitimately be ignored - or attacked if it persists.

Thus, at least at certain times during the 20th century, art has come perilously close to falling victim to a totalitarian state of mind. This was not the case, fortunately, with most of its major figures. Picasso, Matisse, and Klee, for instance, had too broad a vision of art to function in so dogmatic a fashion. But there were others, most particularly the Futurists, Constructivists, Surrealists, Abstract Expressionists, and, closer to our own day, the Minimalists, who felt otherwise, who insisted that their vision of art was the only true and legitimate one for our age.

Although a number of the more doctrinaire artists such as Mondrian, Kan-dinsky, and Pollock were themselves relatively open-minded, their followers and apologists most emphatically were not. No matter in what capacity the latter served, as painters, critics, curators, or dealers, their loyalty to master or movement was usually undeviating and total. They were modernism's true believers, its zealots, those who were totally convinced that, thanks to their particular artist or movement, art was finally and gloriously entering its Golden Age.

How wonderful it must have been to have believed - but how disheartening gradually to have realized that no miracles would occur, that art was no closer to a final perception of truth than it had been in the days of the ancient Greeks, Michelangelo, or C'ezanne.

No wonder bitterness often set in, not against these individuals' beloved masters, but against the art world for its ``betrayal'' of their vision, its blind insistence on moving on to other ideas and values, and its failure to aspire to the creation of ``genuine'' art.

This was especially true in the late 1940s, when Regionalism was abruptly superseded by Abstract Expressionism. But much the same thing occurred when the latter was supplanted by Pop Art - and it, in turn, had to give way to a series of other ``isms'' and movements.

In every case there was frustration and bitterness - from Thomas Hart Benton's refusal to forgive his ex-student Jackson Pollock for what he had ``done'' to American art, to the Minimalists' insistence that almost everything produced by the youthful iconoclasts of the 1980s is junk or kitsch.

The art world, as a result, often resembles an armed camp in which at least as much time and energy are spent attacking opposing points of view and defending one's own as creating or advancing the cause of art.

More's the pity, especially in the light of art's extraordinary ability to transcend national, racial, and ideological differences and to make contact with what is universal in human nature. That it has this ability is accepted by almost everyone - although almost everyone disagrees on how best to give it form.

Waiting for miracles obviously is not the answer. And neither is the academic route, overly devoted as it is to the past. Even the free-spirited, romantic approach, with its wildly intuitive leaps into the unknown, fails much more often than it succeeds.

Which leaves only hard work, discipline, dedication, a deep trust in one's intuition, imagination and sensibilities, and a profound love for, and understanding of, what art is and can do. But that should be enough, as the art of everyone from Phidias to Paul Klee so beautifully demonstrates.

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