The many masks of modern art

The time has come for us once again to take a broader view of art: to stop seeing it as a narcissistic exercise for a few extremely self-conscious sensibilities whose despair at what they see as the frigidity and sterility of the modern world is matched only by their refusal to do anything about it. Such people, as a result, play an increasingly esoteric game they call art but which would more appropriately be labeled arrogance.

My patience, I'm afraid, is beginning to wear thin. I'm beginning to feel like the older relative whose trust that his nieces and nephews would pull out of a particularly difficult and complex phase of their lives is turning into the unhappy suspicion that they are perfectly happy with their problems, and have no intention of growing up.

I'm very glad it was discovered that art could be about space, attitude, discovery, freedom and ambiguity, as well as about all the traditions that went before. I think it marvelous that art has expanded not only its content but its nature as well. That it has enriched and enlarged its alphabet, structure, even its range of expression. That's great, and I couldn't be happier. But how much longer must we play with and puzzle over this new ''alphabet,'' this new language, before we realize the purpose for which these tools were designed? How long before we realize that new styles, forms, colors are not only toys to be played with but also the basic ingredients for a profound and loving act of creative probing, perceiving, shaping, and projecting reality's larger implications? Before we realize that art is basically an act of sharing, not of hoarding?

Our galleries, museums and art magazines which feature contemporary art are terribly exciting. So much color, such rich, gorgeous, juicy paint, such fascinating shapes and colors! I'm enchanted; I can almost taste the life and vitality of it all. It does, in fact, make me feel like a little boy in a candy store - only in this case it's an entire world of goodies to relish and from which to choose.

My enthusiasm and love for art is total. I'm free to enjoy whatever moves or enthralls me. I have no bones to pick with any style or movement, no need to defend any particular point of view or historical position. I have a number of artist friends who represent no particular style - in fact, they represent them all. I enjoy reading the most esoteric of reviews, the most convoluted of critical pieces. I love to probe into any previously unexamined nooks and crannies where canvas, stone, even running water can be used in artful ways.

I enjoy it all - and yet I sense that it is time for us to move on, to take fuller advantage of what we have discovered, or go off in a different direction altogether.

We have become so mesmerized by the notion that painting is a futile act in this age of photography, film, and television that we have made a fetish out of futility and have predicated a great deal of our art upon an inability to transcend this apparent limitation. At best that is self-indulgence, at worst self-destruction, and very similar to refusing a ladder to escape from a burning building for fear that the ladder might break.

We also have been programmed by our esteemed historians of contemporary art to believe that not more than two or three current art styles are true to art's realities. Thus the notion of trying something else becomes a heresy too horrible to contemplate, and creative death or sterility becomes preferable to doing so.

But what would our revered heroes, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, think of us were they to know that we who so admire their creative courage, refuse to leave the safety of the neat little boxes we have constructed in their names?They would, I'm certain, shake their heads in sadness at the smallness of our vision, and at our self-serving notions that cause us to carve up the grand tapestry of art into tiny slivers of razzle-dazzle, geometric ''purity.''How could these visionaries and revolutionaries not turn away from today's art that so often cares less about expressing significance and truth, less about seeking art within the context of human greatness and aspiration, less about communication, than about retaining the intactness of the individual creator's self-centered pride in his own imagination and uniqueness?Have we forgotten so soon that art is a two-step activity? Inward toward the creative self and outward toward humanity? That art is a process of transformation and transmutation of sense, experience, idea, and vision into symbol and form, and not a casual or belligerent dumping of dirty laundry or undigested and unshaped creative raw material, or an act of egocentric doodling?We have become so clever at believing that an artist who spends his time ''perfecting'' an insignificant image is really seeking its most perfect form or variant that we fail to take into account the possibility that he may have nothing to say - and that even his most ''perfect'' variant will be merely his own private plaything or the plaything of a critic who needs something to hang upon his critical peg.We put such priority upon comprehending art, that we fail to remember that the crucial test is experiencing it. Understanding what a work is about is one thing (important as it is as a first step), but it must be enriched by what it gives us through its intrinsic (and untranslatable) ''is-ness.'' Yet a good 95 percent of all writing about art concerns itself with the mechanics of art, with its nuts, bolts, wheels, and gears.Now, I don't by any means deny the importance of technical or formal matters, only that they be kept in their place. The question, after all, is not whether a work of art has wings but whether or not it flies.We seem to have lost track of that point. We have become resigned to accepting a work of art on no other basis than our grasp of why it was done. What we need is to begin with that and then go on to ask ''Of what larger human, social, or spiritual significance is this work to me - or to the rest of us?'' ''How does this work make me feel? Do I feel better, more whole, more challenged? Or do I feel more confused and disoriented after seeing it?''These questions are important, if for no other reason than to discover that art's ultimate purpose is to remove the rigid boundaries and separations created between and among ourselves, and to trigger an awareness of transcendent levels of truth and harmony where what separates us becomes of much less significance than what unites us.In the ultimate sense, this is what matters - and not whether a work is painted blue or yellow, in an abstract or realistic style, or was created 10 weeks before a similar piece by another artist.Within this context, I have always felt that the paintings of Adolph Gottlieb, limited as they may be in scope, have a great deal to say to us in depth.''Orb'' is one of his most successful paintings. It consists of ''opposites'' - earth/moon, male/female, death/life, aspiration/resolution - represented by two forms at bottom center and top center which are so sensitively bonded together through subtle tensions that the resultant image suggests wholeness and harmony within the essential dynamics of human life.It is a significant work because it moves us up to a level of perception that transcends and unites us and thus enables us to perceive one aspect of universal law. In this manner we achieve a glimpse of who and what we are within the largest possible context.

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