I've been taken to task by several readers who have questioned my advocacy of certain nonrepresentational and abstract artists, in particular those whose works -- like Robert Motherwell's -- appear to lack any evidence of skill or human relevancy because they look more like splashes of ink or smudges of color than the art we've been accustomed to for thousands of years.
The argument goes that, unlike writers, dancers, engineers, musicians, lawyers, etc, who must first show evidence of skill and technical knowledge before they are taken seriously, painters and sculptors today often achieve fame and glory on what seems to be nothing but their own say so. And that the public is intimidated into acknowledging their reputations by art critics and impressive museum and gallery exhibitions.
The dictionary defines skill as "great ability and proficiency." Fine and good, but how does one determine that a particular activity, especially one that is breaking new ground by breaking old rules, actually represents ability and proficiency?
To begin with, aren't there really two basic kinds of skill? The temporal kind, like that of the violin virtuoso, which creates an accrued set of impressions, vaulting over hurdle after hurdle before our eyes for an ultimate cumulative effect -- and that of the archer, in essence a nontemporal phenomenon , as he shoots once and once only, and either hits or misses his target. The painter is like the archer, relying on a one-time effect for his assessment.
I'm going to ask you to visualize the history of painting as a succession of archers lined up before a target. Imagine all these archers as dressed differently. Those, for instance, representing the art of middle-18th century France wear feathers and lace and put as much time and effort into drawing an arrow gracefully from its quiver as in aiming it. And the early-17th century Dutch are sensibly but comfortably attired and handle their equipment with assurance and ease.
However, as your eye proceeds forward toward our time, you notice that elegance and self-assurance give way to a stripped- down atitude and a crackling sense of urgency. There is a general questioning about the role and nature of archery itself. Some archers take their bows apart to see how they are constructed, others run forward to examine the target and to see if there isn't something beyond it more worthy of their aim. A dynamic, open, restless feeling pervades the air. A few archers seem confused and mill about. Some call for order and look back to previous times for advice or for more fancy attire. Others cry and beat their chests, others wander off toward the horizon.
A few archers step forward. They are simply dressed, serious and intense. They raise their bows, aim high over the target, draw the strings as far as they will go, and send clusters of arrows winging deep into space. There is dead silence, and then a cry of outrage. "Don't those fools know that the nature of the game is to hit the target in front of them? What is this business of shooting beyond?"
The archers don't respond but keep right on sending arrow after arrow into the area beyond the target. No one can see where they land, but all can sense that the arrows are zeroing in on something further back and possibly bigger than the original target.
I hope this metaphor for 20th century painting makes my point: that painting has increasingly, over the last century or more, been concerned with redefining its roles and its goals in the light of developments in every other field of human activity. This century has suffered profound traumas and there is no point in pretending that they never happened. We have been jolted, and the only way we can find a new stability is by facing the facts of our time.
Art is always in dialogue with its age, and it makes no sense to call for a Raphael or a Rubens in a time when we have neither the formal nor the thematic traditions upon which such art is based. But we have the insight, passion, and concern today for the creation of art every bit as important as any the world has seen. What disturbs some whose notions of art were formulated either by pre-Impressionist art or by reference to natural phenomenon is that the priorities of today's art differ from those of yesterday. They call out to the creators of today that their art is not as profound as Rembrandt's, as lyrical as Raphael's or even as realistically based as Cezanne's, without realizing that such complaints are totally beside the point. One might as well condemn a sunflower for not being as tall as an oak tree.
The art of a century which has seen two world wars, the calculated extermination of six million humans, the hydrogen bomb, and a man on the moon, is not going to resemble the art of earlier times. Nor is it going to be easy to comprehend or to follow. That much of it is gloriously alive and exultant is a tribute to the profoundly life-enhancing nature of the creative spirit. But there is another side to todays's art and that side is profoundly concerned with our more somber spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic realities.
I cannot see the "target" toward which Motherwell and some others are aiming -- I doubt that even they can see it very clearly -- but whenever their "arrows" find their mark I can feel it in my core. And, in the case of Motherwell, since that happens so frequently and consistently, I must consider him as skilled as any renowned surgeon or high-wire acrobat. But I don't really care if he has "skill" or not, or if his art looks as though a child could have done it. What I do care about is that he is one of the small handful of artists creatively profound enough to be zeroing-in on ideas, issues, and forms crucial to our survival in the times ahead.
We need all the art we can get. We need the revolutionary art of Motherwell, Beuys, and Johns as we need the conservative art of Wyeth, Burchfield, and Hopper. We don't have to condemn anything which is alive and which grapples with basic issues or reflects the joys of living. Art, beauty, and meaning are highly complex things, and we harm only ourselves if we limit our sources of information about any of them.