The many masks of modern art

Give respectful initial exposure to almost anything in the way of painting and sculpture, keep on presenting such work year in and year out in gallery and museum exhibitions. Then get the press cover these shows as newsworthy events, and before long the work and its maker will be so firmly entrenched in the public's consciousness that to question the importance of either the artist or the work will seem petty, naive, and critically beside the point.

"After all," the argument will run, "this artist is now so firmly established , is so much a part of our future, our society, our times, that he or she can no longer be judged on matters of artistic quality alone, but must be viewed as a celebrity, an event, a superstar whose fame and notoriety transcend more criticism."

Of course that is not easy as I've made it seem. No amount of money or influence can create a reputation out of nothing. Something tangible must be provided by an individual -- if not something of quality and substance, then at least something of a more transitory nature. If the artist and his work don't respond to the profound and persistent questions of his time, then at least they must cater to some of its more fashionable whims and fantasies.

Andy Warhol, in this respect, is probably the most fascinating art phenomenon of our period. Commercial artist, painter, filmmaker, portraitist, stylistic trend-setter, social celebrity, Warhol has made it a point to be in the public eye ever since his first moments of fame as a pop artist in the very early 1960 s. Success, fame, and celebrity, as a matter of fact, so crucial to him, are so much a part of his creative identity and formal equipment, that to imagine a failed Andy Warhol is to imagine a contradiction in terms.

The roots of the Andy Warhol phenomenon lie deep in our contemporary willingness to accept the notion that art can be both an active and a passive act. They derive from our belief that an artist can as legitimately claim the title of creator for detecting, unearthing, and reshaping symptoms of decline and decay as he can for reactivating and regenerating subtle indications of life and growth.

In other words, we want to believe that art is not necessarily and by definition life- obsessed and passionate but can function just as well as a coolly diagnostic and morally neutral recorder of events, attitudes, and foibles -- as a mirror and nothing more.

Now that's all well and good. But what, in the midst of all this broadening of the definition of art, do we do with the word that has always been, and I think always will be, central to art: the word "create"?

All dictionary definitions of the word insist upon its highly active and positive nature: "Bring into being," "Cause to exist," "Give rise to," "Originate."

Nowhere do I see it defined as "mirroring," "reflecting," or "passively accepting."

That art is dynamic and life-oriented befor all else is so fundamental to my personal feelings and to may considered judgment that to accept listlessness, boredom, languor, redundancy, banality, even decadence, as legitimate themes for art strikes me as one of the most perverse positions ever held in art's long, adventurous history.

Such a position contradicts art's primary reason for being, its pulsating need to connect with life and to give it form and symbolic actuality.

One might as well say that a fish doesn't need water to swim or that a kite doesn't need air to fly as to say that art doesn't need creative passion and direction to survive.

And yet that is precisely what Warhol's art is trying to tell us. In a world dynamically alive to the passions and potentials of life, his paintings, prints, and films insist, that man is little more than an accident, a freak of nature, and that it is pointless to think that anything can be done about it -- so why make a fool of oneself by trying?

To honor Warhol and to give him superstar status for art that clearly articulates a philosophy of resignation, indifference, even creative helpless, suggests that the contemporary art world needs to examine its priorities a bit more thoroughly than it has of late.

I don't suggest there's no room for Warhol. Far from it. We need him as a choice -- one that can remind us how dangerous the sterile and the banal can be to art. What I object to is the disproportionate amount of attention given his work from the moment it first appeared, the piles of laudatory words written about it, the critical attempts to prove that it represents one of the great geniuses of our age.

Such desperate efforts to assure him and ourselves that his voice is a profound one worthy of the greatest attention is an awful indictment of the turn modernism has taken these past 20 years. That this great and varied movement which has always advocated life, passion, clarity, directness, simplicity, should be willing to associate itself with a hyped-up mediocrity causes one to wonder if modernism hasn't possibly run its course.

Perhaps it has. But art itself hasn't, as the hundreds of new exhibitions, opening every month throughout this country and abroad, testify. I am continually amazed at the seemingly endless supply of imagination and vitality that our youngster artist are pouring into the mainstream of contemporary art. It is very comforting to see how life and art go on -- regardless; comforting to see that creative passion and persistence have survived after all. Our youngster artists, by and large, have the insight and the plain common use to see through some of the false gods created by their elders for themselves.

The next in this series appears on November 25.m

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