The many masks of modern art

Modern man is often torn between chaos and perfection, between a perception of reality that is unbearably labyrinthian and one that is hopelessly ideal. He is confused and disoriented, and wants nothing so much as to abdicate any responsibility for either himself or for mankind.

Such a person will often seek his identity within the most extreme forms of alienation and self-dramatization -- or within equally extreme forms of social and religious collectivism. And is often more than willing to subvert his uniqueness in order to achieve temporary euphoria or total forgetfulness.

Unfortunately, today's art does little to resolve this dilemma for we have given in to the belief that art is incapable of anything more than reflecting and mirroring human realities -- that art can, at best, diagnose but never heal. And, most particularly, that it can in no way affect human destiny.

Even our 20th-century genius, Picasso, was a victim of this belief, even though he never fully accepted it, and spent a large portion of his life insisting that art could indeed affect man's future for the better -- by shock if by nothing else.

He was, however, the last artist with sufficient power and breadth to do so. Once it became clear that even his genius was not really up to the task, the twin poles of 20th-century modernism snapped apart, with Mondrian assuming leadership over the forces of ''perfection.'' and Pollock, a few years later, assuming a similar position over the forces of ''chaos.''

By 1950, Cezanne's mighty mountain had been totally split in two, and it has remained that way to this day. All that's really happened in painting since then has concerned itself with trying to bridge that gap, ignoring, or even deriding, the nature of that split, pretending that it never happened, or claiming that it really had nothing to do with art.

The art world has been crucially divided even further between those who think that only those paintings that address themselves to that split, that crisis, have any validity as art, and those who feel that art can exist independent of the problem. They feel, in other words, that this entire issue is artificial, and is the result of too much theorizing and formalistic self-indulgence -- and of too little understanding and direct observation of life and of reality.

It is, in other words, a matter of dogma and orthodoxy, with Modernism's true believers holding all nonbelievers in withering contempt -- and the nonbelievers failing utterly to perceive the nature, the necessity, or the vision of 20 th-century Modernism.

Although things aren't quite as bad as they were twenty years ago, it's still quite true that the passionate devotees of Motherwell and Wyeth, to give only one example, cannot tolerate each other's hero, let alone accept the fact that both artists may legitimately hang on museum walls.

I believe that all truly major figures of 20th-century art so far have been dramatically or moderately ''modern.'' But I also believe that this by no means proves Modernism's future or ultimate truth -- only that it has proven to have been extraordinarily relevant to 20th-century issues, ideas, and problems. And I believe most emphatically that our artistic salvation does not now lie in insisting upon Modernism's purity or dogma, but rather in our ability once again to see art within a larger, more total, and more relaxed context.

Modernism, after all, was an art of crisis which came into being in response to the uncertainties and terrors precipitated by the death of one social order and the birthpangs of the next. It was designed to redefine and reassert values and priorities, to do battle against philistinism, to define and set new ideals, and to serve as a conduit through which the best of the past could be distilled and transported into the future.

It had no time for the nonessential or for the tangential, only for what could further the cause. It became, as a result, ruthless and dogmatic, and as nervous about ''heresy'' as any idea fighting for its life.

The need for dogma and defensiveness is now over. Artistic truth must once again be redefined in the light of new demands and realities.

The problem is that we lack the impelling imperatives that caused Modernism to establish itself in little more than a decade. Rather than being pushed forward, we are at present much more like a cork in the ocean bobbing up and down, and being pulled in whatever direction the wind or the currents take us.

We are still too wrapped up in our little dogmas or islands of individualism to see that we are directionless and drifting, and that we need to dig for essentials and to redefine our goals. And most of all, we fail to recognize the fact that an art that does not define itself by concepts of wholeness and integrity is neither art nor anything else of great value.

What we do have going for us is an utterly open attitude toward experimentation, a renewed understanding that art can be both traditional in style and original, a greater willingness to make contact with and to utilize our deepest and most quietly effective creative intuitions, and a lessening prejudice against the use of such things as light, sound, movement in the creation of art.

In addition, and this is of the greatest importance, women are taking an increasingly greater role in both the making of art and in the formulation of creative goals.

Looking at new art in this period of shifting and expanding priorities and goals is both exhilarating and a little disturbing. Exhilarating because the doors to creativity are wide open and art is sprouting in great profusion. And disturbing because I see so little focus and direction among all this talent.

What I do see are any number of exciting, novel, intriguing, sensitive, and moving ''beginnings.'' Works that seem to stand completely on their own, with only the slightest of references to any of the art of the past. Many have the freshness and the vulnerability of seedlings. And like seedlings, they exist at this point more as promises of things to come than as full and realized art in their own right.

Even so, there are a few younger artists who seem to have gone beyond that point, and Brian Conley is among the best of these. I stumbled across his three-dimensional, wall-hung ''constructed paintings'' quite by accident several months ago, and was both impressed by their imagery -- which seemed etched upon the light-colored walls -- and amused by their undertones of wit and good humor. They were very alive and fascinating and yet seemed to have sprung full-blown out of nowhere.

The artist, I suspect, would dispute this. He refers specifically to African and New Guinean sculptures, as well as to Early Christian art. And mentions a wide range of inspiration, from Cubist sculpture to marine life.

I don't for a moment question any of that. It is all there if we look for it. I only say that none of it is crucial to the identity of his work and that none of it intrudes upon our response and enjoyment of it.

My point is that this is a new species of art, a new form of imaginative distillation that may have certain roots in the past and may derive certain strengths from them, but it stands pretty much on its own in the present. And it may or may not point in the direction which some of the art of the future wil take.

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