'Misunderstood artist' - the story behind a cliche

I know it's a cliche, but today's artist really is often misunderstood. And not only by the public at large, but by art dealers, curators, critics, collectors, - anyone, as a matter of fact, who comes into professional contact with him.

Even his fellow artists may misunderstand and thus misjudge him, especially if he works in a style markedly different from theirs. What compounds the problem even more is that he himself may well be as blind and dogmatic toward his fellow artists as they are toward him.

When one has tried to get others to appreciate an obscure artist, few things are more disheartening than hearing that artist turn around and call his fellow artists, whose works differ from his, hacks and frauds.

It is disheartening even if one realizes that his attitude results at least partially from the frustration of battling unsuccessfully all his life for his art, only to have others succeed with little effort - and with what appears to be little talent. This is true even if one realizes, based on long experience in the art world, that there are indeed artists of genuine power who are totally or relatively unknown, and a number of others with good to excellent reputations whose work is actually mediocre, shallow, or dramatically bad.

But then, such inequity must also be true in all other fields. We don't, however, hear lawyers, plumbers, or professors making such an issue of being misunderstood - or, let's face it, taking such pride in being misunderstood.

I know artists who worry once their work receives favorable public attention, for they assume such acceptance indicates they have descended to the level of the ''common herd'' (and no fate could be worse than that). What they do appreciate, on the other hand, is a dense and learned article in one of the art journals - much of which they probably will not understand - which gives their art an air of mystery, and which puts a beautifully dense smoke screen between it and the public.

Altogether too many artists feel naked and vulnerable without such verbiage to surround and support them. They may know their work is simply and intuitively produced, and with little conscious involvement with complex art-historical or philosophical ideas, that it wells up from deep inside them and demands attention - and that they then just go ahead and paint.

They may know that, but it wouldn't do for anyone else, least of all the writers on art, to know that. Writers, after all, work and shape their professional identities through words and verbal concepts. It would not do to let them know how nonverbal painterly conception and expression often are - or they could easily declare such artists creative simpletons and of little real significance.

Ask an artist to speak about his art, and if he doesn't decline altogether, he will generally speak simply and directly. But ask him to put the words down on paper, and what he produces will almost certainly read like a ponderous scientific or philosophical treatise.

Now I know as well as everyone else that art is profound and complex. Yet the point of some works of art is their direct and breathtaking simplicity. The most any writer on art can do for such work is to help pull up the blind that may temporarily be obscuring it from the viewer. That is all. The moment he begins to decorate that ''blind,'' or makes clever little verbal curtains to frame it, he has begun to defeat his professional purpose. Like the ringmaster at a circus , his job is to introduce - and to then stand aside.

At the same time, I'm not arguing for the popularization or oversimplification of art, for that might destroy its effectiveness altogether. To describe Picasso's ''Guernica'' as a diatribe against war, or Rembrandt's late portraits as sympathetic studies of elderly men would be like describing the sun as a round, hot object, and the ocean as something big and wet.

In ''explaining'' cubism, for instance, a writer has to go into considerable historical and theoretical detail in order to lay the groundwork for an analysis of what cubism was and why it developed when and where it did. There is no reason, however, why that cannot be done simply and directly, and without the mystification that so often seems second nature to writers on art.After all, the writer's primary responsibility is to give his readers some basic clue about how to respond to, how to ''enter'' the work of art. If the work is particularly obscure and appears as impregnable as a fortified medieval castle, well then, his function is to be the lowered drawbridge leading up to it - not an added ring of defenses around it preventing clarification.The artist, however, should also cooperate. Not by making his art easier to understand or more accessible, but by being willing personally to bridge the distance between himself and that portion of the public that doesn't understand his work but would like to.There is a world of difference between the painter who rudely refuses even to discuss his work with anyone who is not a devoted fan, and an artist like Calder, whom I once saw charmingly mimic the movements of one of his mobiles in order to communicate to a group of students something of what he was trying to do as an artist. He was by no means able to make these students fully understand his art, but I'm certain he triggered a greater appreciation of it - and through that, some degree of understanding as well.Lastly, the public should realize that it also has a responsibility toward clearing the air. For one thing, it should not let the artist get away with the self-mythification (and self-mystification) he often prefers. For another, it should demand that the pontifical and obscure attitude so frequently encountered in today's art literature be replaced by a more open attitude, and by writing that is clear and to the point.After all, the only ones who should fear clarity are those who have nothing of value to say or who are themselves confused - be they artists or the persons who write about them.

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