The many masks of modern art

We've entered a most fascinating time as far as art is concerned. A period when there appear to be no hard and fast rules, no blind devotion to linear tradition, no subservience to critical categories or dogmas. When artists, in short, can apparently face each creative encounter as though it were a bright new day with very little yesterday and all tomorrow.

And yet the younger artists of today have as many problems as did their predecessors. Although they may be free of the "tyranny" of tradition, and may now be free to follow their own creative inspiration, they are also dreadfully aware that success will generally be theirs only if they manage to avoid the taboos and learn to obey the rituals prescribed by those whose approval is crucial to professional success.

But, since these rituals and taboos are usually unspoken and are never clearly defined, the younger artist finds himself in the position of the soldier confronting a mine field without a map or chart to guide him, or detection equipment to warn him. One false step and, while our artist may not be blown to smithereens, he will most certainly discover that peer and professional approval will suddenly be in danger.

Small wonder then that such a considerable amount of the new art we see today is not so much a positive statement, a clear and brisk affirmation of life, as it is the record of an artist's clever avoidance of current artistic taboos, and his shrewd ability to follow currently prescribed artistic rituals. And small wonder then, also, that many art critics, approaching the show of an artist whose work they don't know, are more likely to apply a mental checklist of these taboos and rituals to his work than to trust their own intuition, experience, or reason -- and will write, not art criticism, but a listing of that artist's conformities to, or deviations from, that list.

We tend today to give our highest critical approval not so much to the artist who genuinely and undeviatingly follows his perceptions as to the one who most shrewdly adjusts his particular talents to these taboos and rituals. The one who accepts the fact that art today is to a large extent a cultural game whose rules go back almost 100 years to the days of Cezanne and Van Gogh, and whose taboos and rituals, while weakening rapidly all the time, still have the force of law.

Of all our recent cultural heroes, Jasper Johns is probably the shrewdest and most brilliant gameplayer of them all, the artist who, above all others, knows both how to play within the rules and how to push those rules into new directions. And yet his art is predicated on risk, on never being safe.

This ability to take risks has always been central to 20th-century modernism and has enabled it to progress as rapidly as it has.

Modernism was born out of the desperate need to create new assumptions about art when art's dependence upon the appearances of nature for its validation and authentication seemed to come to an end. And, to an amazing extent, it succeeded. From Fauvism, Cubism, Constructivism, Dada, Surrealism, Neo-Plasticism, all the way through Abstract Expressionism, Pop-Art, Minimalism, etc., modernism has conceived and given form to one new artistic assumption after another -- often at great risk to its creators. And with each new assumption, time and breathing space were provided for individual creativity and expansion.The problem, however, was that each of these assumptions came into being as much as a working alternative to a weakened existing style, as the result of an awareness of the overall needs and dynamics of art.

Modernism, in other words, became increasingly desperate and opportunistic, and sometimes established new styles for what were largely arbitrary or trivial reasons. Pop art, for instance, was a cynical and artificial sytle created with great calculation to fill the void left by the diminishing powers of Abstract Expressionism.

Modernism has been one of the great myth-makers of all time. If it is dying (or has died), it is only because it has lost its great ability to cause artists , critics, curators, collectors, to think that its latest assumption, its most recent style, could really thism time serve as the basis for the art of the future.

Judging from what I see in the galleries and most especially in artists' studios, this ability is already a part history -- although there are still many who think otherwise or who hope desperately for at least one more glowing, all-encompassing myth to overwhelm them.

But, although a considerable portion or the critical, gallery, and museum art-world is still operating as though nothing had really changed, the best of our younger artists know otherwise, and have adjusted their sights accordingly.

In the absence of an overwhelming myth or dominant style, these artists face a fundamental creative decision: should they piece together a personal style out of the scattered fragments and theories left behind by modernism, or should they toss modernism and all its accrued effects overboard, and sit down before some aspect of nature and faithfully try to transcribe it into art?

Most of our better younger talents have chosen the first course, and have, by and large, fashioned some truly remarkable art. What it may sometimes lack in passion and power, it more than makes up in sensitivity, inventiveness, and wit. Most of what we see today in "New Talent" exhibitions consists of art of this category.

But there are those who have chosen the second course, and have taken their talents and their tools directly to nature. Not many succeed, because nature is a hard taskmaster, but among those who have is Alan Magee, a painter of delicately and exquisitely colored, smooth, polished beach stones.

These paintings, while absolutely faithful to life, are among the most lyrical works of art I have seen of late. They arem art because Magee's deepest creative sensibilities were brought into play by these simple stones and pebbles -- and he was impelled to transcribe and transmit these visual and tactile experiences into art.

But he is no blind copyist. As he has written, "In painting the stones I have gradually developed the view that it is not appropriate or satisfying to realistically copy existing stones. . . . By using methods of dripping and flowing paint, and by employing a great variety of unusual tools for applying paint, I attempt to restage these natural occurrences on the canvas in order to better experience and present this part of nature."

This, then, is the situation our younger artists find themselves in today. Modernism is so much a part of the lives of most of them that it would never occur to them to seek a mode of expression outside its premises or beyond its still sheltering wings. And that's fine. But, I'm glad that those who feel otherwise are now free to create as they choose and are able to hold up their heads with some modicum of professional pride -- even though the most dramatic and most highly regarded reputatons in art still derive from modernist premises.

The next article in this series appears on March 24.

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