The many masks of modern art

I recently went over a portfolio of drawings I had made during my art student days and found, among the usual life studies and still-life drawings, a handful of abstractions. I can remember taking these to a favorite art teacher and asking him what he thought of them. I had added that I liked them very much, because they had come about during a period of intense excitement. They were nothing, he had replied -- and suggested I go back to doing what I had been doing all along.

I followed his advice, even though an inner voice told me that my feelings for those drawings probably indicated where my true direction and creatively lay. Now, 30 years later and looking back, it is obvious that my inner voice, had been correct, for those few abstract sketches are by far the best things in that portfolio.

One of the most difficult things to do in art is to paint, write, compose, without anxious concern for what one's peers will think. It's all too easy to box oneself into a position where what one creates is little more than a shrewd composite of what everyone else is doing or thinking -- or represents a safe midde position at the center of several conflicting contemporary points of view.

Now, I don't mean that we shouldn't maintain a deep and healthy involvement with the ideals, imagery, language, goals, and priorities of the culture and society into which we are born. Nor that we shouldn't concern ourselves with the opinions and values of our peers -- only that we should understand that art is not matter of consensus and committee, that art is nothing if it isn't the clear and direct expression of its creator's identity, values, interests, ideals , and passions; that in addition to subject and form, art has personality and character, for an uncommitted and toadying art is as far from its true nature as an uncommitted man is from his.

Thirty years ago I would not have dared write the above for publication. What, I would have asked myself, would my professors and friends think of me for writing about the true nature of art and of man as though I knew what they were? Hadn't my long and intensive intellectual training been partly designed to convince me that the true nature of both art and man was beyond human comprehension? Was I not convinced that our perception of either or both was continually in a state of flux and that truth itself was relative, open, and contingent upon events and interpretations? With all this to take into consideration, who was I to make judgments about the nature of anything, least of all something as profoundly complex as man or art?

But it's not easy for a youngster to follow his intuitions about art if authority, tradition, and peer pressure are arrayed against those intuitions. And, most especially, if ambition rears its head and advises circumspection.

What complicates it even more is that we are confused about the nature of creative intuition and believe it invariably seeks out the ineffable, the subtle , and the abstract -- that creative intuition is always fragile, delicate, and vague.

We still do not really care to accept the fact that the nature and quality of life-intuitions differ from individual to individual. Since creative intuition is insight into how an individual can best relate to or be creatively fulfilled within his personal or universal potential, it stands to reason that everyone's intuitions differ at least to a degree (and in some instances dramatically) from those of all others. Thus, one young painter might find his creative intuitions leading him into the realm of nonobjective art, another might find himself coming into focus as a painter of stormy seas, and yet another might find that it isn't painting at all but photography that best meets his inner needs are requirements.

Each and every creative individual must find his or her uniquely individual voice. This is the primary task -- together with the acquisition of the necessary skills to shape that "voice" into whatever the artist's inner vision directs.

All this sounds easier than it is, especially since the exotic, the merely different, and the cleverly inventive can so easily be mistaken for the genuine and the original. And since our new and younger artists are so frequently pressured into committing themselves as artists long before most of them are ready.

What often results from this is a cacophonous and sometimes hysterical jumble of works that does little but dramatize its creator's frustration, ambition, and creative immaturity. Rather than permitting their art to emerge and to develop in the manner of a spring becoming a stream and then a river, these artists pour all their energy into the manufacture of pictorial gimmicks to satisfy the art world's all too often indiscriminate taste and its desire for instant novelty.

Those on the outside of the creative process should also realize the need to exercise a form of creative intuition when viewing, buying, or judging art. Intuition must join hands with an inquiring, appraising, and knowledgeable eye.

Roy De Forest is an artist I originally viewed with considerable suspicion. His slightly mad and zany paintings and assemblages, in which almost anything happens in conjunction with some of the most outrageous combinations of colors, textures, objects, and scribblings, struck me as frivolous and trivial, if not downright silly.

And yet I found that there was something irresistible about them, something so good-natured that several times I found myself returning to them in order to understand why I couldn't just ignore them. What particularly challenged me was how oddly appropriate even the zaniest of their colors or details were to their overall compositions, even though, at first glance, they appeared to have been included without rhyme or reason.

With a few exceptions, I found that what had originally appeared as a confused jumble of childishly executed shapes, colors, and objects was actually a rather sophisticated pictorial statement operating under an odd kind of inner logic all its own, the kind of logic that permits some individuals to wear dramatically mismatched clothing -- and yet carry it off with aplomb -- or lends fascination to tales told by children.

And that is precisely what De Forest's works are: childlike inventions and pictorial tales that hold their own in our adult world by the nature of their external obedience to the artist's private inner world of impulse and imagination. An inner world of memories, loves, fears, fascinations, and dreams -- all coexisting within him, and springing forth naturally and spontaneously through the courtesy of his creative intuition.

It is this spontaneous outflow of highly accessible, imaginative inner material and excitement that determines the nature of De Forest's art -- an overflow that has put a powerful stamp upon the art of our time. This greater accessibility to inner resources and imagery has resulted partly from our increased curiosity about the internal workings of human personality, but mainly because we have spent the better part of this past century searching for quicker lines of communication between the artist's inner realities and his art. And we have, in the process, seen fit to give creative intuition pride of place in the creation of works of art.

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