CRASH COURSE in Modern Masters
The public continues to be perplexed by modern art; a backward glance at forces producing it may help
When 200 realist painters protested outside New York's Whitney Museum of American Art recently, the event underlined both a reversal in museum policy toward contemporary art and continued public perplexity.Skip to next paragraph
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Forty-five years ago, it was abstract painters, dubbed the ''Irascibles'' in a famous Life magazine photograph, who protested their exclusion from exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now it seems that museums favor avant-garde art and, according to the protesters, exclude traditional painting.
Certainly museums have enshrined the works of modernist masters. Nevertheless, an ongoing feeling of dismay characterizes public response to modern art.
Ever since the Armory show in 1913 when European innovators like Picasso and Matisse first received broad attention in this country, modern art has caused confusion. Back then, critics ridiculed modernists as ''lunatics,'' calling the room of Cubist paintings a ''Chamber of Horrors.'' Although these works are now icons of Art History 101, public skepticism persists.
To understand modern art requires a backward glance at the forces that produced it. For about a century, roughly 1880 to 1970, modernism was the prevailing philosophy of art. Modernism is an attitude more than a movement - a gung-ho zest to cultivate the new and disparage the old.
This rejection of the past was an about-face after centuries of reverence for tradition. It resulted from profound changes due to industrialization and urbanization. Within the space of one century, life probably changed more than in all preceding centuries. Describing the reaction to a burst of inventions - from radium to radio - before World War I, the novelist Ford Madox Ford said, ''It was - truly - like an opening world.'' Artists' response to the scientific advances was overwhelmingly positive. They, too, wanted to explore new horizons and develop art for the new age.
The demise of the patronage system reinforced the break with the past. The state, church, or aristocracy no longer commissioned art to glorify the status quo. Avant-garde artists created for themselves, experimenting with new forms and subjects. The camera assumed the task of documenting appearances.
The upshot for art was that, instead of representing the visual world objectively, art became subjective. The novelist and art critic mile Zola defended the new art, saying it portrayed ''nature seen through a temperament.''
Color no longer described a scene accurately. Matisse painted a green stripe down his wife's face to energize a composition, saying, ''Above all, I did not create a woman, I made a picture.'' Cubism threw out perspective and the illusion of three-dimensional reality.
Here's where the difficulty arose for the audience. Matisse dreamed of creating, he said, ''an art comfortable as an armchair after a hard day's work.'' Yet his simplified figures occasioned outrage.
With the demise of the perspective system practiced since the Renaissance, the picture was no longer like a window into ''deep'' space. The viewer responded solely to the surface of the painting, an arrangement of line, shape, and color. The spectator, according to the late formalist critic Clement Greenberg, felt a sense of loss because ''Pictorial space has lost its inside and become all outside.'' We no longer escape into a fantasy scene through art. We also no longer have an easy way to judge the worth of a painting, that is, by whether it creates an illusion of reality.
Appreciating modern art is not an instant transaction, but the reward for careful examination is new insight into the world.
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