Does art have responsibilities? At its best, it does
New York — I've still not recovered from the sight of Goya's ''Black Paintings'' in the Prado Museum in Madrid. Not only because they are so magnificent by themselves, but because they speak so directly and intimately to 20th-century perceptions.
I can understand why Goya's contemporaries--those very few who saw his paintings--were confused and disturbed. They wouldn't, after all, have seen anything quite like them before, and even those who might have shared Goya's experiences of war would never have thought of translating those horrors and what they implied into such strange and yet universal symbols of human pain and despair--symbols that still shock more than 160 years after they were painted.
No, it's almost as though these mysterious works had actually been painted for the 20th century, had actually been addressed to our experiences with modern warfare and with modern methods of political control, extermination, and mass destruction. It's as though Goya's insights had profound implications for all of us born in this century.
I would like to examine some of those implications in the light of today's cultural attitudes, specifically the way today's art either comes to grips with or evades what Goya insisted we see and try to understand.
It seemed appropriate to find Picasso's ''Guernica'' in its new home in Madrid. Although displayed behind a glass partition, and heavily guarded by military personnel (it is, after all, still something of a political hot potato) , it seemed to have gained something by coming ''home'' and by being so close to Goya's great antiwar masterpieces.
''Guernica'' is, without doubt, an extraordinarily powerful and impressive work, as well as a masterly summation of certain basic 20th-century formal theories and attitudes. As such it will tell future generations a great deal about us, and should serve, even if it does nothing else, to remind the world that this century was not without a moral conscience.
I suspect, however, that future generations will fail to be deeply moved by it, will see it more as a brilliant ideograph, a magnificent piece of pictorial distillation than as a truly moving human or artistic experience or event. There's just no getting around the fact that this work has to be ''read'' to be fully comprehended or appreciated, that we must approach it with considerable prior knowledge of what it represents thematically and stylistically if we want really to grasp it.
''Guernica,'' in other words, is more a dramatic pictorial document pertaining to certain crucial 20th-century realities than it is a truly great work of art that transcends and symbolically unifies those realities on the level that Giotto, Michelangelo, Goya, or Cezanne did. This is not to say that it isn't a very important work, only that it exists more as an idea for a work of art than as a work of art in the truest, deepest, and most physical sense.
Now, I realize I'm treading on very dangerous ground. First, because the mystique surrounding ''Guernica'' is so complete that challenging its greatness is as close to heresy as we can get today. And second, because I'm raising the question of art's truest and deepest responsibilities.
The very idea that art might have responsibilities strikes us today as a very reactionary and limiting idea. Art, we have been told over and over again, is an expression of freedom, of expansiveness and movement, of pushing back creative frontiers and of finding new ways to express the important feelings and ideas of our lives.
We prefer, as a rule, to see art as fun, as a plaything, as a means toward very sophisticated delights. If it must be serious, we insist that it must not intrude by being too serious, or by making demands upon us. And by no means must it jolt us out of neat little notions about life and its meanings and consequences.
I must emphatically agree with all of the above except for the latter points about art being ''too'' serious, making demands, and jolting us out of our preconceptions. There I disagree. I'm all for fun and games in art, but I'm even more for art that disturbs, even dismays.
Most of all, however, I'm for art that focuses our perceptions, and makes us feel more whole for having experienced it. That to me is what art is and does. The stronger the ''shock,'' the deeper the level, and the broader the range of what is ''pulled together,'' the truer and greater the art.
Art at its deepest is like a note struck to get us back ''on key,'' to keep us on course. But for it to function so, it must be grounded in human realities. It must direct itself toward what is central in man--not toward what is ambivalent, transitory, or peripheral in him.
Art is not merely something we look at, it is something we become. Or rather, it is something that ''enters'' us, and then restructures us to a greater or lesser extent in the light of who we truly are. Art can never violate, it can only accelerate our rate of becoming ourselves.
Because of this, there can be no hard and fast rules for what art is. As mankind moves forward toward new goals, so must art do the same. There are issues and ideas confronting 20th-century man that had no existence in Goya's day, and thus our art must differ drastically from his.
But if Goya may not have been aware of Buchenwald and Hiroshima, space travel and computers, Einstein and motion pictures, he did know a great deal about man, about who he is, what he fears and dreams about, what he wants to achieve, and where his strengths and weaknesses lie. And that, in the final analysis, is far more important in art than what man does, or the ideas and theories he advances.
By illuminating the core of mankind, art presents an insight into who he truly is and a sense of brotherhood and continuity with others of his kind--past and present.
It is here that artistic greatness makes itself obvious and felt. The work of art itself may be an Egyptian figure of a Pharaoh, a Sung dynasty brush drawing of a poet, an oil by Rembrandt, a religious painting by El Greco, a canvas by Goya, a figure study by Cezanne, a landscape by Van Gogh, or a cubist painting by Picasso. It doesn't matter so much what appears on the surface; what counts is its effect upon us, that simple and direct, in some cases overwhelming, insight that we are a vital part of a greater whole.
That is what great art gives me--and what I look for in all art. It is why my job is my pleasure, why tramping around visiting galleries and museums is never boring, is never really tiring. And why, when I find even the slightest indication of art in a painter, a sculptor, a printmaker--or whatever--I'm delighted, and consider him or her my friend.
I am, at the same time, aware that art exists at differing degrees of accomplishment. I may be open to and embrace every indication of art I can find, but that doesn't mean that it is all the same to me. It disturbs me, for instance, that so little art in our century has any true depth, that so little of it represents the wisdom and experience of age, that so much of it seems content to merely present puzzles and conundrums--or only to follow fashion.
I'm disturbed by the fact that our art has been broken up into dozens of tiny fragments, each with its own devotees and fanatics, and with its own cocky self-assurance that it and it alone represents true art. (This attitude strikes me as being as silly as would a belief that the only true color is blue.)
Where did we get this notion that the more ''pure'' and ''perfect'' an art or style is, the greater it is? That the more we focus upon one aspect of art at the expense of all others, the closer we come to creative truth?
What happened to our perception of art as profoundly multifaceted, as full, rich, and dense as life itself? What sent us down this path toward a specialization so precise and precious that it exists only one step short of nonexistence, and that promises only that the next generation's art will be more abstract, more expressionistic, more realistic, more shocking, more cool, more violent, etc., than that of our generation--and that the following generation's art will top even that, and so on down the line?
If there is one thing Goya's late paintings--and the works of El Greco, Velazquez, Titian, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Picasso, etc., have proved to me , it is that art at its best is indeed highly complex, pulsating with life, and profoundly human. And that art can only be splintered and resplintered for so many generations before it ceases being art altogether--and becomes something as ordinary and culturally insignificant as a bubble in water, or a leaf falling from a tree.