I've just returned from a small Midwestern college where I spent the better part of a week talking with students and faculty about the larger issues of art and creativity -- as well as about such specific things as the gallery and museum world, fine art vs. commercial art, ambition and talent, and art criticism.
I came away both encouraged and stimulated - not only because of the depth and nature of the issues raised and discussed, but also because quite a few of the students were obviously hungry for affirmation that art is indeed more than merely a matter of craft, skill, professional achievement, or fame.
The number of those, as a matter of fact, who saw art as a crucial key to human purpose, direction, and significance was remarkably high -- as was the number who seemed aware of art's overall cultural and philosophical implications.
But most of all, I was encouraged by that bright and knowledgeable handful whose vision of art refused to acknowledge either the validity or the necessity of the contemporary art world's frequent overemphasis on sensation, success, fashion, gimmickry, or money. And who, young and bushy-tailed as they might be, struck me as potentially capable of helping raise the goals and standards of art and even of accelerating the rate at which that could be accomplished.
What particularly moved me was the absence of cynicism and malice among these students and faculty members, qualities with which I've become altogether too familiar this past quarter-century as an art professional in New York. And qualities which, I suspect, these youngsters will do their best to avoid in their future dealings with the art world.
I mused on all this during my return flight. What, I wondered, turned so many talented and idealistic young artists and art historians into the ruthlessly ambitious and tough-minded individuals I met every day on my art critic's rounds? And what -- and this was most crucial -- kept the select few who remained genuinely and profoundly engaged with art at a full throttle of creativity despite setbacks, professional indifference, and having to accept menial jobs to support themselves?
Much of that, of course, has to do with drive, talent, and strength of character. But those are fairly common qualities among artists, and are not the exclusive property of those few whose lives and art still reflect the vision and ideals so carefully and lovingly brought to the surface during college and art school days.
No, it goes deeper than that. But what that is is difficult to pinpoint or define.
There was a time when I thought it largely a matter of individual integrity, and believed that true creativity could only result from an artist's jealous protection of his unique individuality. But I soon realized it was just this sort of willful and exclusive focus on self that often sidetracked or slowed down creative growth. It is much too easy -- as well as self-deceptive -- to feel that our ideas and ideals must be defended ''to the death'' simply because they are our own. And to assume that any profound and long-range critical dialogue with our culture and our age, especially one likely to alter our initial values or point of view, is the first step toward the selling of our creative souls.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In art, as in every other dynamic area of human experience, to see creativity mainly as an extension of our own accrued experiences and perceptions, as merely a projection of our individuality and personality, is to miss its point entirely.
I am not, however, saying that individualism is not important. Far from it! Without the artist's unique flavor and character, a work of art would remain something of an empty shell: interesting and possibly even quite beautiful, but lacking that element of humanity that is its ultimate characteristic and its critical activating ingredient.
Art transmits life, and does so in both a universal and a particular sense. And since that is so, art, to be truly alive, needs to transmit both what is unique and what is universal about an artist.
To fulfill his task, the artist must engage himself with realities beyond those of self-gratification and self-expression, and interact with the larger issues and realities of his culture and society -- as well as with those dimensions of being traditionally described as ''universal.''
It is here that I believe the ''special'' creative person differs from the merely talented one. Not because he is willing to usurp his hard-won individuality, but because he perceives -- or possibly only senses -- that individualism is only a part of a larger dynamic, only one half of the creative interaction between self and other.
Such a person sees his art as part of a give-and-take between the specifics of his identity, and the generalities of the cultural context within which he exists. This interaction can be largely intuitive -- as it was with Soutine and Pollock, or it can be extremely intellectual and calculated - as with Mondrian and Moholy-Nagy. On the other hand, it can be a mixture of both, with elements representing passion, courage, faith, wit, dignity, ecstasy, etc., included -- as was the case in the art of Nolde, Hopper, Rouault, Calder, Kollwitz, and Burchfield.
The important thing, however, is that this process be natural and ''organic.'' It must come from the artist's deepest levels of being and perception, and be as natural to him as the act of swimming is to a fish. Any attempt to fake or force it, or to create it artificially through elaborate technique or gimmickry, will immediately call attention to itself, and will alienate the artist -- at least to a degree -- from his true creative self.
But how does the young artist achieve this? How does he manage to establish clear and consistent access to his deepest creative resources -- while, at the same time, remaining alert to the character and the issues of his age?
How that is accomplished varies from artist to artist. In some instances, no conscious effort is required, for there are those who somehow need only to ''unfold'' in order to ''become.'' But for those others not so fortunate, the first step generally has to do with getting more intimately in touch with their deepest feelings -- and with finding ways to give those feelings form through color, line, shape, texture, etc.
It's a twofold task. On the one hand, it's a matter of giving expression to the most private dimensions of the inner self - and on the other, it demands seeing that self as a part, as an illuminator of larger cultural attitudes and ideals.
In both instances, familiarity is crucial. The quickest way for an artist to make contact with and learn to trust his emotions and feelings is to hurl himself into the creative act as totally and frequently as possible. It's the best way for an artist to ''find'' himself by ''forgetting'' himself -- which really means establishing contact with his unique and essential creative self by ridding himself of accrued fears, inhibitions, prejudices, and personal and cultural taboos.
And the same applies to cultivating an awareness of the greater creative issues and realities of his time. Only here it's a matter of experiencing as much art, and of trying to get the very clearest idea of what it all represents.
The young artist must remain alert to the creative realities both within himself and without. To be talented and clever is not enough. To speak to and for our age demands a great deal more than self-expression, skill, and adaptability. It demands a direct line to the sources of individual and collective truths and significances, as well as clear and continuing access to the dreams, fears, hopes, ideals, passions, and pressure points of our day.
All that cannot be learned in school. It is both too simple and too complex to be taught. But what can be taught and learned in school is an awareness of what constitutes the creative self, as well as a way of making direct contact with it. In addition, the art student can acquire professional skills, a sense of discipline, and a rough idea -- through a sensitive teaching of art history -- of what today's art all about.