Discussions among art critics seldom lead anywhere. Not only is there often a basic disagreement on how best to write about art, there is also often a fundamental difference of opinion on what art is and what it should do.
This was very evident during a recent meeting of art critics at which various art-critical approaches were discussed in an attempt to discover what common bonds might lie between the critic who writes strictly about his personal reactions to art, the critic who views art in a purely formalist sense, and the critic who views it within a socio-political context.
Although the discussion was interesting and lively, and some good and important points were raised, I left the meeting convinced we had failed to confront the most crucial issue of all: the nature and the purpose of art.
Now I realize this is so fundamental and basic an issue that it must seem utterly simplistic of me to think it should be brought up at such a meeting. After all, art critics, of all people, should know what art is all about! And yet I couldn't help but feel that now is precisely the time to once again ask that question - and most particularly of art critics. And to keep on asking it until we have either gained a clearer insight into the nature of art or have learned to better understand its purpose.
I suspect it is precisely because we have so studiously avoided the issue of art's identity and function these past 30 years that we are now as professionally ineffective as we generally are. And why we tend today to respond to new art as though we were windmills responding nervously and uncritically to every new puff of wind.
Most specifically, we have been so busy adapting and adjusting to every new twist and turn of the art world that we have tended to forget that art is more than a matter of surface effects, formal invention, theory, sensation, or faithful mimicry of nature or photography.
I would go even one step further and say that we have lost sight of the simplest and most obvious fact of all: that art is a product of man -- and that man, therefore, is intrinsic to art's identity and purpose.
I don't, of course, mean by that that only works representing the human form can be art. Nor that art must concern itself only with the deepest and loftiest of human realities. No indeed! Nonrepresentational painting and sculpture have more than proven their worth. And there must always be a place in art for the full range of human experience -- including the playful, the witty, the fun-filled, and the delightfully lighthearted. No, I mean only that we must once again understand that art is of and about man, and does not have an identity apart from his. That it is irrevocably bound to what man is, wants, fears, loves , dreams about, idealizes, and worships.
It is my opinion that art at its best is a seed of the human spirit sent out to spiritually fertilize others -- to share with them the artist's intimations and intuitions of the quality and wholeness of life. As such, it is one of the deepest and most precious gifts man can give to man and should not be trivialized or perverted for immediate gain, or sensationalized for short-range glory.
Art is an extension of man -- and does not exist of and for itself. It draws into itself and reanimates whatever is central to the one who fashioned it. For example, there is a vast difference between a beautiful bouquet of flowers and a Redon painting of such a bouquet. The former is a bouquet - the latter a work of art. And it is art because the spirit of Redon lies at the heart of it and animates every atom of it.
A painting without some echo of humanity is a thing. It is not art. The artist does not create more objects with which to litter this globe. He creates symbolic projections of human realities and human ideals. Or, at the very least, clues to what man wants, is, or dreams about.
Just so, a Mondrian abstraction encapsulates the finest ideas and sensibilities of a man who devoted his entire life to finding truth through art. And a Calder mobile prances and dances with the very essence of its creator's insight into the ''livingness'' of life.
At the same time, however, the human spirit that lies at the heart of all art does not always come in equal-size packages. Some art is just simply truer, finer, bigger, or greater than others - and it is the critic's ultimate responsibility to determine just where a particular work or artist stands in relation to the art of the recent or distant past.
Not perhaps when the work first appears, although even then it must pass certain tests - but certainly when it has established itself as a viable part of its culture. It is certainly time now, for instance, after 20 or 30 years of art-world acceptance, to begin to relate the work of such current favorites as Warhol, Lichtenstein, Frankenthaler, and Johns to the acknowledged ''big guns'' of 20th-century art. And to begin to ask where Matisse, Klee, Miro, Braque, etc. , fit into Western art as a whole.
There are some artists, of course, who view themselves and their art within the widest possible socio-historical context and who create not only to satisfy themselves and to engage meaningfully with their culture, but also to extend and enrich a tradition.
It's a tricky road to follow. Seeing oneself as a connecting link between the past and the future can be creatively intimidating -- and can easily lead to a too-deep immersion in the art of the past and to a textbook approach to the art of the present. We need only look at the official art and architecture of Hitler and Stalin, as well as at the academic painting, sculpture, and architecture still being produced throughout the United States, to see evidence of that intimidation and resulting false emphasis.
Fortunately, however, there are creative individuals who can see themselves within a classical tradition and still produce art that is both alive and significant. There may be relatively few of them, but the quality of what these few produce more than makes up for their small number.
Athena Tacha is one such artist. The majority of her large and extremely handsome environmental sculptures are designed not merely to be looked at -- but to be walked upon and around as well. They are public objects and public events, and they exist as arenas within which individuals and groups can be physically, aesthetically, and spiritually exercised by following the ups and downs, the ins and outs, of her highly complex and subtly orchestrated forms. These forms, ''modern'' as they may appear, often have their roots in the architectural and sculptural forms of the past -- most particularly in the ordered tiers and rhythmical designs of ancient Greek amphitheaters.
A somewhat more private artist is painter-draftsman Maria Scotti, who is currently the subject of an exhibition (through March 14) at Siegel Contemporary Art Inc. here. Scotti also creates within a long and distinguished tradition -- in her case the tradition of classical allegory -- and does so with considerable passion and verve.In this, her first, New York exhibition Scotti reveals both a remarkable talent for drawing and an even more remarkable ability to create strange and haunting images. Her canvases in particular speak of myths and taboos; of strange, primal rites; of mysterious and shadowy personages -- and all in a linear and tonal language that is both classical and primitive at one and the same time.
Scotti is a fascinating new voice - and an utterly authentic one. Her sensitive fusion of traditional and private themes and styles is seamless and totally effective. She faces both the past and future without pretense or artifice and manages to create art that is both calm and wonderfully mysterious.
These then are two artists who create with full awareness of tradition, but without being in any way entrapped or limited by it (any more than were Cezanne or Picasso). Both have the knack of suggesting that whatever is genuinely ''new'' is also timeless and has been known, in one form or another, by every true creative spirit. And finally, they see art and their own unique contribution to it as part of a dynamic continuum and not as brilliant pieces of isolated individualism. In other words, they know, or at least have a pretty good idea, what art is all about.