NEW YORK — THERE are those who insist that art's great days are over. That it has renounced its genius, its unique and historic ties to the eternal and the sublime - even its soul - for the transient delights of easy money and overnight fame. For proof, they point to the shallow, overblown ambitions and stunted achievements of much late 20th-century art. To the apparent erosion of its identity and purpose; its all too frequent inability to differentiate between reality and hype; its obsession with success and sensationalism; and its pathetic eagerness to confer the mantle of greatness on any new artist who demands it. But most of all, they point to art's diminishing ability to challenge and inspire. And to the public's perception of it as the plaything of the trendy and the rich.
It's easy to understand why these individuals feel as they do. Even those who disagree with their conclusions must admit that a number of their points are well taken. The main question, however, is: Even if everything they claim is true, does that prove that art has failed? That it should no longer be considered important?
The only possible answer is a resounding ``No!'' Art has always been important, and it is no less so in the 1980s - no matter what certain fringe elements of the art world may say or do. The nature and degree of that importance varies, however, from culture to culture and from period to period. Art's function in classical Greece was very different, for instance, from what it was in 9th-century China. And its role in Renaissance Rome can hardly be compared with what it is in 20th-century America.
Art in the 16th-century Rome represented not only a powerful international religion, but a dynamic artisitic tradition as well. Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo embodied both in their art. Whatever individuality and self-assertiveness they brought to their work was ultimately of less significance to them than the manner in which they could advance and enrich the tradition to which they were, each in his own way, so wholeheartedly committed.
Things couldn't be more different in America today. Here, art - both modernist and independent - represents neither a religion nor a tradition. Instead, it is predicated on the fiercely-held belief that creativity must always be unrestricted and unfettered, and that absolute freedom of expression is the inalienable right of even the most humble of artists.
NOW, while that may sound reasonable, it has been only a relatively short time since total creative freedom was perceived as an absurd idea. Roughly a century ago, C'ezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin suffered ridicule for insisting on giving form and expression to their inner visions in any manner they pleased. And they weren't the only ones. Shortly after 1900, a group of innovative young artists were labeled ``Wild Beasts'' for painting their canvases with the brightest colors they could find. And then, a decade or two later, Kandinsky, Klee and Mir'o threw caution - and all traditional modes of expression - to the winds and invented their own highly idiosyncratic pictorial ``languages'' to accommodate what they wanted to say.
This spirit of creative independence has set the tone of most 20th-century art, and has permeated almost every nook and cranny of it. It's been responsible for modernism's enthusiasms and innovations, and for representational art's ability to break away from academic formulas and regimens. But most of all, it's been the key element in the art world's resistance to orthodoxy and dogma, and to its growing relization that art is not based on rules and categories, but on richness and diversity of spirit.
BUT how to define that spirit? Or to enumerate art's qualities and the reasons for its importance? Perhaps by beginning with this reminder, that without art the human spirit would lose much of its ability to communicate, and mankind would remain even more locked within itself than it is already. Why? Because art is one of mankind's deepest and most effective ways of sharing both what is unique to any of us and common to all of us. To respond fully to art, therefore, is to exist for a moment through the eyes and sensibilities of another, and to be both enriched and reminded that none of us is ever truly alone.
But art also is and does much more. It points the way toward greater harmony and grace. It projects a vision of wholeness and actuates a desire for quality and peace. It seeks out and celebrates the laws of life, translates insights, feelings, and ideas into delightful and provocative colors and shapes, and sings of the quality of life while doing so.
It also heals and nourishes, entertains, tantalizes and teases, and, at its finest, reminds us of the possibility and importance of human greatness. But most significantly, by giving voice to mankind's common experiences and aspirations, art creates a worldwide network of understanding and respect.