The many masks of modern art

Art is a bundle of contradictions. It has been known to lie in order to tell the truth, to point in one direction to get us to look in another. To cause us to affirm life when we were in the mood to deny it, and to sing with joy while we were on the edge of despair.

But it is well intentioned, for it leads us to celebrate life by its loveliness and vitality, consoles us with its beauty, inspires us with its character and depth, and helps us to reaffirm our identities by insisting upon integrity and order.

Most of all, however, art is mysterious and enigmatic, for it is never quite what it seems. It is, in fact, often an illusion purporting to be about one thing while it is really about another.

Thus, Redon's florals are not about flowers, but about the poignant beauty of life. Ensor's grotesqueries are not about masks and clowns, but about alienation and the pain of not being understood. Calder's mobiles are not about things moving in space, but about transcendent delight. Brancusi's sculptures are not about form but about spirit. Reinhardt's black paintings are not about death and night, but about life and dawn. And Braque's oil painting ''La Table Grise'' is not about objects on a table, but about transformation and transmutation.

The public at large understands very little about the importance of transmutation in art. It has heard a great deal about freedom of expression, about painting out of one's own experience, about being original, but little or nothing about the crucial process of transmuting appearance, experience, and idea into art.

As a result, a great deal of confusion exists about both the nature of art and about the creative process, a confusion that frequently leads us to prejudge a work on the basis of its appearance, its style, rather than on its substance, its success at transmuting creative raw material into gold - into art.

This process of transmutation, however, can be very deceptive and can cause art to appear to be something other than what it is.

We might not understand, for instance, why such a classic ''realist'' as Vermeer is actually closer in spirit to such a pure nonobjective modernist as Mondrian than he is to any academic or hack artist today who paints in the style of Vermeer. Or that Braque, for all his revolutionary genius and fervor during the days he and Picasso created Cubism, is one of this century's outstanding classical masters and one of its strongest links connecting the art of Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Poussin, Vermeer, Chardin, and Cezanne to the art of the future.

And the reason we might not understand this is that we too often perceive a work on the level of its surface realities. In other words, we often mistake the messenger for the message.

Vermeer and Mondrian are closer in spirit to each other than either is to any of his imitators, because both artists saw their art as a means of actuating a transcendent level of reality, while their imitators see only the work, the style itself. (Imitators, unfortunately, like cats, mistake the finger for what the finger is pointing at.)

The greatness of Vermeer lies not in his exquisite (and accurate) depiction of physical detail and surface, but in the manner in which he utilized physical reality to give form and substance to ''prove'' the transcendent existence of harmony and order. And Mondrian's importance lies not in his formal innovations, but in the manner in which they permitted him greater freedom to hint at, possibly to even verify, the existence of perfection.

These artists saw the act of painting not as an act of ''self-expression,'' as an act of cultural provocation, mimicry, sentiment, mythification, or idolatry, but as an act of transmutation: an act wherein visual stimuli and experience are transmuted, atom by atom, into a symbolic visual object intended to represent a vision or an idea of the wholeness of life and not merely a detailed or fragmented segment of it.

Georges Braque was also such an artist. And to a degree that will, I believe, assure him a place in the history books for many centuries to come. Interest in him may have waned somewhat of late, but only because his work seems stolid and a bit dense next to the brilliant innovations and pyrotechnics of post-World War II art. And because he already looks a bit like an ''old master.''

But that indifference will soon pass, and he will once again be recognized as one of this century's major champions and carriers of the classical Western tradition of painting.

I suspect, in fact, that he will eventually be seen as the 20th-century champion, and one of the very, very few painters of this century to whom the title ''great'' can legitimately be applied.

The miracle of Braque's post-cubistic works is that they give the effect of reality without detailing its specific appearance. Standing in front of ''La Table Grise,'' we see a complex of overlapping and interconnecting flat forms, some of which vaguly resemble actual objects, but we experience a marvelously alive painting of a gray table on which various objects have been assembled.

Or, to be more accurate, while our eyes register the thing itself, our sensibilities leap beyond it and reconstruct Braque's original perceptual experience from which the painting derives.

And having done so, and having enjoyed the process, our sensibilities relax, and we can enjoy the painting as a thing in itself, as a remarkable fusion of color, line, form, texture.

Now, what is the real subject, the real point of this painting? It certainly isn't the actual table and its objects. And it also isn't the handsome patterning of the composition, or its subtle color, forms, or textures. (If it were, this work would be merely decoration.) No, the point of this painting, its reason for being, and the measure of its quality as significant 20th-century art , is its ability to cause us to participate with the artist in his act of transmuting observed reality into a flat evocation of it. And to cause us to extend ouselves beyond the passive role of merely observing art to the active one of sharing something of the creative act itself.

This painting, then, is not about a table and the objects on it, nor about its formal or pictorial elements, but about the process of transmuting appearance and experience into art. It is about the act of making a certain kind of art, about a certain way of perceiving reality in relation to art, about a desire to involve the viewer in the artist's creative act. It is, in other words , about sharing, about the artist wanting to share the magical moment of creativity as he experiences it with as many of us as are willing to go along with him and are willing to give his art a chance.

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