The many masks of modern art

Probably the greatest gift an artist can give us is to awaken feelings and sensibilities we never knew we had. And to help us, thereby, to expand and deepen the degree to which we are truly alive.

We have all experienced this gift at one time or another, through one art or another. Some of us accept it passively and indifferently, others of us actively seek it out. But whichever way we receive it, the gift itself is life-enhancing and a blessing - although it may not, at first, strike us as such.

This is understandable, especially if the art so presented to us is new and different. It makes sense, after all, that we should resist something unfamiliar. But it is also unfortunate, for such resistance can keep us bottled up and narrow, and limit our appreciation of life.

These resistances vary from person to person. One of the most widely shared derives from a profound wariness of what seems particularly easy to do - or seems to require no skill at all. We have all heard the declaration, usually made in a frustrated or angry tone of voice in front of an abstract or wildly expressionistic painting; ''But my 5-year-old could have done better!''

However, the most widely shared resistance of all concerns work that doesn't in the least resemble what we have been conditioned to think of as art. Those of us who had, during the 1950s and early 1960s, come to accept the fact that anything could be art as long as it was on a stretched canvas or on a board, hung from the ceiling or rested on the ground were dumbfounded to hear that holes dug in the ground, mounds of pebbles, acres of plowed land, grand pianos wrapped in felt, tubs of lard, dyed water in streams, etc., were now to be considered art.

How, we wondered, did one determine which hole in the ground was a work of art, and which merely a hole dug for the planting of a tree? And how did one know which plowed field to approach respectfully as art - and which to plant with seeds?

What, in other words, was the determining factor that turned such things into art?

The answers we received varied from the perfectly reasonable to the utterly absurd. Among the former were responses that stressed identification with the earth and its primal connotations and mythic potentials, the need to take art out of commerce-oriented museums and urban centers, and the simple wish to expand the symbolic language of art.

Among the latter was the argument that if a particular individual declared himself an artist, then anything he did was art. Thus, if John Doe said he was an artist, his stripping bark from trees or tossing red dyes into streams was automatically art - if he said so.

Fortunately for us, this last argument was soon discredited, although there are still a few ''artists'' among us who adhere to it. Before long, and with practice, we began to differentiate between those works that were seriously motivated and of some significance, and those that were grounded in nothing but ego, willfulness, or blind conformity to peer pressure or approval.

My own method of separating the wheat from the chaff was to approach any work that looked like nothing I'd ever seen before the way a cat approaches a new kind of food: slowly, carefully, but with hope. I would try to erase all previous conceptions and prejudices about what constituted art, and try my very best to make contact with the sensibilities of the person who produced what lay, hung, or stood in front of me.

I still follow this approach - although it's rare that anything comes through. The good times are when I feel something deep within me stirring and coming into focus, when I feel something I had never quite felt before awaken and start its long, slow climb to my full awareness of it. And when this does happen, life takes on a rich and warming glow, for I know that I'm in the presence of something that will add a new nuance, note, texture, or dimension to my life. Or give me an added insight into what it's all about.

My most recent experience of this sort was with a piece by Michelle Stuart called ''Correspondences,'' which fully occupies, and is partly defined by, a medium-size room. The first thing I noticed was a group of potted palm trees, all obviously very much alive, and scattered about the room. But my attention was quickly drawn to the far wall, which appeared to consist of square stones which were actually, I discovered later, squares of paper embedded with soil from Mayan archaeological sites. Centered upon this wall were two large photographs creating the effect of windows, one of two Spanish crosses on the wall of a building and the other of an architectural detail of the divine Maya snake. And, as I walked about the room, I heard, coming through a speaker, a sound track consisting of Mayan music, rain forest sounds, and readings from a conquistador's diary - all very softly and discreetly projected.

I must admit I didn't at first get the point of this work - or have any clear reaction to it. I didn't ''understand'' the palm trees; the photographs, while intriguing and provocative, made no sense; and the sound track was too faint.

Within minutes, however - and I don't know what triggered it although I suspect it was the very subtle smell of living palm trees intermingled with half-heard sounds of the rain forest - I felt a gentle prickling run up my spine. And, as I moved closer and touched the squares of paper and absorbed the imagery of the photographs, I felt, welling up from deep inside me, a wonderfully gentle and lyrical sense of peace, significance, and harmony.

It was a deeply satisfying experience that seemed timeless and wonderfully appropriate for such an urban setting. And that put me in touch with areas within me with which I hadn't communicated in years.

I remained in that room for a while and then left. But the feelings and qualities I had experienced there stayed with me and quietly haunt me still.

I have thought of ''Correspondences'' often since seeing it and have tried to understand its effect upon me and upon others.In her short introduction to the catalog detailing something of this work's background, the artist writes: ''The chamber exists like the mind. The windows are passages to the past and belief . . . to the outside and inside, symbols that each culture brought to the event of the meeting with the other. The walls are masonry blocks, the building stones of an established culture and the earth of its land. Plants and light evoke the surrounding terrain. The auditory element joins a personal point of view (the artist's) and historical witness (diaries, written documents, and early Mayan music).''

But that really doesn't tell us much. It certainly doesn't explain the gentle prickling up my spine, nor the rare and wonderful sense of peace and harmony the work gave me.

Nor are those reactions explained by Stuart's haunting evocation of a long-dead civilization and its people. Nor by her skillful blending of the work's visual, tactile, cultural, auditory, olfactory elements into a unified whole.

Those are all contributing factors, all essential, true enough, to its effectiveness. But there's more to this work than all that. (Just as there is more to the running of a car than a listing of its parts - or even to a perfect assemblage of them.) What that all comprises is so subtle, so ineffable, and so elusive that we have no adequate word for it.

Unless, that is, we are willing to fall back on that simple but magical - and still undefined - word ''art.'' I personally prefer to do so. As far as I'm concerned, ''Correspondences'' is art. Someday I may understand why. For the moment, however, I'm content to let my feelings and intuitions inform me that it is so.

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