The many masks of modern art

It's easy for art to remain on the surface of things. Easy for it to consist entirely of attractively arranged shapes, colors, lines, and textures - or sentimental, historical, or exotic themes dramatically presented. In other words , it is very easy for art to be merely decoration or illustration.

There are, however, other, less obvious kinds of artistic superficiality that can seduce or confuse us into complying with their creator's claims for artistic importance. For example, we can be made to suspend judgment because of a work's novelty or sensationalism, its slavish mimicry of nature, or because its validity as art is insisted upon by complex and apparently learned rationalizations.

Thus we have been seduced into giving first-rate status to Pop Art on the basis of its iconoclasm, its derisive attacks upon sentiment and idealism, its superficial and narrow reading of recent art history, and its noncommittal attitude toward human, social, and spiritual values. All rather perverse reasons for attributing quality and importance to art - compared to investing money with a broker because he has consistently gone bankrupt.

We have also refused really to examine the extravagant claims made for various artists since the waning days of Pop. We have heard Kenneth Noland described as one of the three or four greatest colorists of the past two centuries - second only to Matisse. We have heard Carl Andre compared most favorably to Brancusi and Rodin, have listened to talk about the incredible genius of Warhol (I've been informed that to talk with Warhol is to ''talk with tomorrow'') or the crucial art-historical importance of Julian Schnabel and the profoundly significant originality of Sol Lewitt - all this without batting an eyelash or offering one word of caution.

We have, in other words, accepted the claims of these artists' advocates that they are not only good (and most of them are), but that they are also among the most original, the most profound, the most important, and the greatest artists who ever lived. In fact, if we accepted all the extravagant claims made in their behalf, we would have to concede that there has never before been such an artistic Golden Age as we have had since the end of World War II.

Now, that's sad, and a very real distortion of art. The same kind of uncritical and adulatory mentality that declared the Beatles as great as Beethoven, and Bob Dylan as great as Shelley and Keats, has been permitted to run rampant in recent art literature. The effect of such puffery has been disastrous, and has helped undermine the very notions of quality and value - which are, after all, pretty much what art is all about.

But how do we determine artistic quality and worth if we deny or ignore the very idea of long-range or universal standards, and if we uncritically accept every new declaration of genius and importance at face value? And judge every new style or movement on the basis of its physical impact upon us, on the basis of size, novelty, sensationalism, or garishness rather than on its relevance to larger issues, or its positive effect upon our vision or our knowledge of ourselves?

When judging overall quality of a work, I fully realize the importance of its sheer physicality and how difficult it often is to analyze that quality with any degree of objectivity. But we should at least try, and should stop seeing art as a series of circus performances with each new ''act'' announced by a critical or curatorial ''ringmaster'' as ''The World's Very Greatest!'' And we should stop listening to the shrill voices of individuals whose main critical standards are novelty and sensation, whose worst imaginable fate is being bored or out of fashion.

We also seem to have forgotten that fresh new talent full of bushy-tailed enthusiasm and vitality isn't everything in art. Art, like life, can mellow and improve with age.

One very noticeable effect of this sensation- and novelty-seeking process is that our artists are increasingly focusing their painterly attention upon the surface of the canvas rather than upon its depthward and inward potential, piling paint and illusion on top of the canvas rather than ''opening it up'' for us to ''enter.''

As a result, the viewer tends to be bombarded - even ''slapped in the face'' - by surface effects, sensations, and novelties rather than being permitted to enter into an empathic interior ''dialogue'' with the work. The unfortunate fact is that empathy has become something of a dirty word in art circles today, and has been left entirely to the painters of pets, sentimental landscapes, and glowing sunsets.

Yet the sensitive manipulation of empathy has a long and noble tradition. Consider, for instance, what Rembrandt, El Greco, and Van Gogh would have done without it - or Rouault, Kollwitz, or Rothko.

Empathy has been in short supply since the early days of Pop Art, when painting became a matter of surface effectiveness and obviousness - even of outright vulgarity. This is not too surprising, considering the powerful impact commercial billboards and comic books had upon Pop Art's birth and growth.

This lack of empathy is very noticeable in recent new realist art which tends to be overwhelmingly cool, detached, surface-oriented, and unemotional. And it is especially evident among the photo realists - most particularly in Chuck Close.

Close prides himself on the total ''objectivity'' of his paintings of human heads. If a Rembrandt painting of a man is a window into that man's ''soul,'' then a Chuck Close painting of a man is a drawn window-shade upon which a photographically precise copy of that man's physical appearance has been painstakingly and unfeelingly rendered.

Where Rembrandt portrays one man as Everyman, Close portrays him as nothing but an accident of flesh, skin, hair, pores, and wrinkles.

Now, the irony of this is that Close's supporters claim it is precisely this ''objective'' quality that makes him an important artist, that it is precisely his way of turning people into things, into ''abstractions,'' that makes his art so valuable and so relevant. They claim he is a major artist because he reduces humanity to mere physicality, because he resists any and all temptations to work with feeling, sentiment, or empathy. They further insist that he is very possibly great because he perceives reality and truth as they are and not as we would wish them to be.

The truth of the matter is that his work has little if anything to do with ''reality'' or ''man,'' and everything to do with a particular perception of post-World War II painting. This perception was predicated upon pictorial effectiveness, novelty, and sensation, and when confronted toward the end of the 1960s by a need to create something even more startling and sensational, turned to the most blatant form of photographic mimicry imaginable.

What happened then is part of recent art history. Close's huge and photographically precise heads have been seen almost everywhere, and were, without doubt, among the most effective, startling, and sensational paintings of the past decade.

They are, however, beginning to lose their impact, are becoming too familiar and too much like a circus act that no longer amazes.

And so we now demand something new - and will get it. In fact that something ''new'' is already upon us. Not something photographically precise this time, but the exact opposite: huge, colorful, violently ''expressionistic,'' and unbelievably garish canvases that are as ''hot'' and ''passionate'' as the art of the previous cycle was cool and detached.

It just goes to prove that we haven't learned our lesson. That our only response to the excesses of one extreme is to try those of another.

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