The many masks of modern art

One of the difficulties in viewing very new art is that it sets up dramatic conflicts within us between our intuitive and reasonable shelves. While we may be exhilarated, even moved, by something totally unlike anything we have ever seen before, our historic, wary, and experienced self will immediately then demand, "Yes, but what does it mean?" or "How can this be art if it doesn't look like art?"

When that happens we have three basic choices: Decide that it cannot possibly be art because its "meaning" eludes us, and because it doesn't at all resemble what we have learned to recognize as art. Decide that it must be art because it excites us. Or, suspend judgment until we have had the opportunity to experience the work more fully in the light of its realities and their relationship to what we demand of art and believe art to be -- not only generally, but also specifically for our time.

Ideally, of course, our choice would be the third alternative -- difficult as it may be to resist condemning what appears to be a threat to our notions about art, or to resist something exciting and sensational just because it doesn't fit immediately into our larger scheme of things.

But it very seldom works that way. Even critics, curators, and dealers, the very ones who should be objective, are notoriously apt to jump to conclusions based on little more than their "conservative" or "advanced" positions -- or their tendency to play everything strictly "by ear."

Now, I'm not advocating a pussyfooting approach to what is new, only that we don't jump right in and declare it either art or nonart on the basis of one or two superficial encounters with it -- and what we don't claim either a great new genius or a terrible fraud has appeared just because what he or she produces resembles nothing we have seen before, or have heard described as art before.

From Picasso through Pollock to Beuys, the main objection to the new has been , "How can those odd-looking cubes, those drips and blobs of paint, those slabs of fat, be art?" To which the artists and their apologists have generally replied, "You'll see that it's art once you understand whym it's art."

By and large, we have acepted that --have gone along with the notion that the validation of something as art requires nothing more than an explanation or a theory --the notion that something becomes art merely because someone, describing himself as an artist, produced it, or because someone else can construct a reasonable argument in his behalf.

It's not that easy. While it's true that art reflects the dynamics of its time, and so must adjust itself to the prevailing culture's realities and needs, it's also true that art is a reality and a quality that transcends expediency, rationalizations, and even honest, brilliant arguments.

The problem lies in identifying this quality. It's an immense task, most particularly because we still do not really understand that art is a language, one of many carriers of truth, and not a unique revelation which exists with increasing clarity as we move forward in history, and which is to be found in its purest state in the very latest things produced today by usm and by ourm society and culture.

I'll never forget the immense excitement in the voice of a young jazz-musician friend who called me a few years ago to tell me he had just "discovered" Mozart. It was a blinding revelation to him, and blew apart his neat little world, which had previously denied the status of musical truth to everything but American jazz.

And it works the other way as well, as I can testify from letters from readers who, irritated by something I had written, and determined to prove me wrong, immersed themselves in the works of those modernists they particularly disliked only to find their dislike gradually turning into affectionate respect.

Quality is an elusive thing and is not determined by externals, by the fact that a poen is written in Chinese rather than English, or by the fact that a painting is realistic rather then abstract. If history decides that Mondrian was a great artist it will not be becausem he was abstract, but because he was a great painter who needed to fashion a new formal language in order to say what he had to say.

It is this compelling necessity on the part of some artists to seek new art forms that makes judging new art so difficult -- and which makes keeping an open (but wary) eye so very important. These artists' passions, ideas, and ideals can be so intense, logical, and all-consuming that they easily take on the semblance of total truth. But, rather than immediately accepting such works as art, or rejecting them as nonart, we should see them as impassioned arguments in a continuing cultural debate about reality, truth, relevancy, faith, or whatever. Seen this way, all the vital art of this century, regardless of style or orientation, is part and parcel of the Great 20th-Century Debate, and should be responded to as such --though a final decision on its merit had to be arrived at immediately.

What's interesting to watch at this moment in time is how this Great Debate is running out of steam in the visual arts. We see fewer passions and visions in the gallery world today than we have for as long as I can remember. Instead we see more and more art that is out and out realistic, or art that is assembled from bits and pieces of the great "arguments" of recent years -- either specifically in combinations of styles and forms, or more generally in points of view. It is a fascinating development, and is producing some extremely interesting and excellent art. In one way it's a summation of Modernism in all its varieties; in another it's an opening up as an attitude toward art that, one hopes, will enable future artists to look upon Modernism as a vocabulary of diverse forms, styles, and ideas to be used selectively, rather than as a bloody arena for the determination of right and wrong.

Bill Freeland is an artist who has already taken significant steps toward the shaping of an art that is absolutely of our time, and which yet derives specifically from no one recent art-historical premise. He is a sculptor, and yet his works don't fit any conventional notions (not even Modernist ones) of what sculpture should be. They look like models for mysterious inventions whose purposes elude us -- except that to intrigue and enchant are among them.

But are these constructions of rope, wood, clay, glass, canvas, etc., art?m And if they are, why?

I very much suspect they are -- much as the works of Klee, Wols, and Tobey, or the mobiles of Calder, are art. (Or the way a hummingbird is every bit as much of a bird as an eagle.) They are perfect withing themselves, as integral to their craft as their craft is to their larger intent. And their interior logic, while mysterious, is impeccable.

But most of all, they are re-creative and regenerative. While walking among Freeland's works, I experienced a deepening sense of harmony and focus withing myself, a very pronounced feeling of being recharged and redirected. I like them for many reasons, but mainly because I felt they were concerned with the detection and relocation of a kind of order that had somehow gotten misplaced in the confusions of today.

But I won't really know if they are art until I have seen them (or works like them) a few more times. I have just paged through the small exhibition catalog of Freeland's latest show, and the works reproduced in it have retained all the sense of art I first saw in the originals a few months. Even so I'm withholding judgment. I'm in no hurry, for the dialogue I have entered into with these fascinating constructions is a continuing one, and is every bit as interesting and rewarding as one I might have with a friend or anyone else I respect.

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