The many masks of modern art

It has become fashionable these days to claim that art cannot change mankind for the better. Central to this argument has been modernism's inability to alter or even to modify the course of 20th-century history by even the slightest degree, despite the fact that several of its major movements have tried desperately to do so -- or at least have tried to warn the world of what was about to take place.

German Expressionism, Russian Constructivism, and Dada are specifically singled out within this context, because their goals were as much social and political as formal and philosophical. German Expressionism, while very much involved with individual expression, was at least equally as concerned with raising pre-World War I Germany's dangerously low level of social and political awareness. And yet, despite all its efforts, Europe exploded into World War I and Germany started its slide into what was to become the era of Adolf Hitler.

Russian Constructivism, at about the same time, saw the success of the Russian Revolution as the beginning of an age when art, speaking in its simplest and most elementary geometric forms, would participate in the task of helping the new Soviet nation fashion and consolidate its future along more open and equitable lines. In a few short years, however, all such notions were shunted aside as "bourgeois formalism" by leaders who preferred to see art strictly as a tool for political control and social mythification.

Dada systematically tried to undermine the rigid bourgeois values of its time in order to create an atmosphere conducive to a more intuitive approach to life. But it never got beyond first base. Its exotic approaches to painting, its bizarre theatrical "happenings," did little more than entertain those who shared its ideas, and it infuriated and confused those who didn't.

This "failure" of art to improve the spiritual and physical conditions of our age extended also to architecture and city planning, where the belief had been held that beautiful space and "significant" architectural forms would automatically instill harmony and nobility of purpose into all who lived or worked in their ambiance. Actually, very little of that happened, as the failure of any number of grand, streamlined housing developments, urban reconstruction plans, museum complexes -- even a few impractically designed (though idealistically motivated) "new" cities -- proved.

The 20th century is studded with many more examples of art's apparent inability to alter human history for the better, or even to add any noticeable new dimensions of meaning to our times. And so we are increasingly being told that the only realistic and sensible view to hold about art, as we begin the last two decades of this century, is to recognize its incapacity to exert any long-range positive effect on human nature.

Art, in other words, should stop striking out for the impossible, should stop seeing itself as a force for good, and find its justification and its reward in being a reasonable, enriching, and valuable -- but hardly crucial -- leisure- time activity.

I find this argument quite appalling. I would find the statement that love is entirely a matter of pleasure, entertainment, or convenience equally appalling. I cannot help feeling that some things are beyond reasonableness and common sense, beyond everyday practicality and expediency -- and that art is one of them.

Now, this doesn't mean that a great deal of art isn't staid, stable, and reasonable. Or that art shouldn't be pleasurable or entertaining. I'm only saying that art also has a profoundly revolutionary and fervent side that prefers to plunge recklessly into unknown or forbidden areas, and which would shrivel up and die were it forced to limit itself to making neat or beautiful things.

Art, like water, will always find its own level. It cannot be forced into a particular channel in order to conform to arbitrary human will without losing its regenerative powers -- and thus its primary reason for being. Art is inevitable -- but always in unpredictable ways.

On the other hand, art can profoundly affect human consciousness. In those instances, however, where large-scale alterations of consciousness were attempted -- as in the examples cited above -- the results were almost always disastrous. But only, I suspect, because we forgot that art is a private, one-to-one act of communication and sharing and not a public, mass event. It is a window or a door opening onto deeper perception or feeling for an individual viewer; it is not a map designed to lead us collectively to a Promised Land.

Art can indeed alter the course of human life for the good, but only on an individual basis. And then only through integrity and good faith. Mass control through art has so far had very negative effects -- as Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin knew so well.

This awareness that the creative act is a private one, both for the creator and the viewer, and that art must be permitted to find its own level, is becoming increasingly clear to many of our younger artists, who are also happily paying no attention to the current declarations that art must begin to modify its dreams and aspirations.

Dan Hanna is a young artist who represents this kind of creative independence and integrity. In looking back over the hundreds of exhibitions I've seen this past year, I can recall few that impressed me as forcefully as his show did last spring. It consisted entirely of a number of huge black- and-white canvases hung on the wall of a large and completely bare gallery, but it gave off such an extraordinary impression of power, integrity, and dedication that I felt immediately that I was in the presence of the kind of basic material out of which important art is made.

Walking among these intense, brooding, and dramatically simple canvases, I felt the same kind of primal presence, the same uncompromising drive to address only the most crucial of artistic issues, that I had encountered here and there over the years in early works of painters and sculptors who subsequently made major contributions to contemporary art.

Not that I am necessarily predicting a similar success for Dan Hanna, for it is still a bit too early to tell what he will do with what he has, but the heart and the spirit are there, as well as enough talent to accomplish the task. But his images already speak with a blunt and direct voice of rough-hewn boulders and primitive objects of worship, and exist with such an insistent, positive, and life-enhancing identity that I, spending an hour in their presence, felt better about our collective future than I had for days.

Whatever happens to Hanna professionally, I know that he, like the many other talented and dedicated younger artists throughout the world, will keep on insisting that art really is a vital force for good, and that it is more than just a pleasant and reasonable professional activity -- or something charming to hang on a wall.

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