The many masks of modern art

Some works of art cease to exist for us the minute we leave their presence. One minute we're engrossed and enchanted by their color, technique, design, subject, and the next they're forgotten.

Unlike other works which linger with us, and still others which stay with us and grow to become a profoundly important part of our inner reality, these leave nothing behind except possibly a memory of their surface charm or brilliance, and an aftertaste of shallowness and artistic triviality.

This quality is shared alike by famous paintings and by works of unknowns. Tiepolo's huge and dramatic eighteenth-century canvases are always terribly impressive - until I move away, at which point their impact upon me evaporates. The same is true for me with the paintings of Boucher and Fragonard, and with those of most of the other eighteenth-century French, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch painters. And it is also true of a goodly number of the works of my contemporaries which I see every day in the galleries.

It's not that these works aren't often beautifully, even at times brilliantly , executed, or that they aren't excellent works of art by certain standards. It's just that almost everything about them has been directed toward surface effectiveness, was designed to enchant, overwhelm, impress, even to ravish, our visual sensibilities. Everything else in the work, its subject, theme, formal structure, was subordinated (usually quite dramatically) to sensational or decorative effectiveness, or to evidence of the artist's technical virtuosity.

In very new or supposedly very ''advanced'' work, on the other hand, the artist may, in the search for novelty (or out of sheer desperation), try a totally outlandish gimmick or device, or push his work into areas never before explored. Thus, Georg Baselitz, one of the current crop of German Neo-Expressionists, exhibits his roughly executed paintings of people upside down. And Julian Schnabel, America's darling of what would at one time have been called the avant-garde, saw fit for a while to attach clusters of broken crockery to his huge and boldly painted canvases.

We are, of course, totally familiar by now with the tactics of the Pop-Artists, the Photo-Realists, the New-Imagists, and any number of other artists whose work is classified as ''neo'' something-or-other. In some cases, these artists have talent and significance, in others not. But what they all have in common is a passionate need to stun or shock the viewer into paying attention.

There are also painters who have stumbled upon and perfected dramatic or lyrical painterly effects that give the appearance of art to the unwary or unsophisticated, but which are actually only clever gimmicks. These painters manipulate the styles and surface characteristics of modernism without in any way touching upon its substance, and create chic and empty facades signifying little or nothing.

Such ''art'' exists in considerable profusion, because not everyone can distinguish between a few splashes and shapes of paint that are just that, and a few splashes and shapes of paint that are art. But then, neither can everyone perceive why a painting of a house by Edward Hopper is art, while one painted by another artist may not be. And this is particularly true if the second artist's house looks more ''real'' than Hopper's.

In the case of the abstraction, the viewer may be fooled into thinking it is art because it resembles certain well-known or famous abstract paintings hanging in the local museum. And in the case of the painting of a house, the viewer might be confused because art to him is predicated entirely upon how closely a painted object resembles the original from which it was drawn. In both instances , judgment is made on resemblances, not on what is intrinsic to each kind of painting - or to each specific work of art.

If there is one thing I'd like to accomplish before leaving this planet, it is to convince those people who still don't realize it that art should be chosen and judged on the basis of what it is and not on the basis of the style or object it resembles. That the first thing we must do when confronted by something that is claimed to be art is to search for what lies within the attractive, dramatic, or shocking ''package'' in which it is presented. If we cannot do that, and accept or reject the work entirely on the basis of its technique or subject, we will no more benefit from what that work has to offer than if we accepted or rejected a fellow human entirely on the basis of race, sex, age, or social standing.

We must not forget that a genuine work of art is a work of humanity, and is, therefore, highly subtle and complex. (Sometimes the ''simplest''-looking abstract art is the most complex because it is so extraordinarily distilled and compacted.) Art is a symbolic language that speaks great, simple, profound, and life-enhancing truths, but which must, in order to make itself truly heard and felt, utilize every bit of wit and skill at its disposal. But these things act truly only if they help convey the heart as well as the texture of what the artist wants to communicate. If they exist only as ends in themselves, as the goals of art, they serve a purpose that is as empty and ultimately as sterile as love limited to oneself alone, or the short-circuiting of all human and humane impulses for purposes of self-gratification.

It has become fashionable once again to condemn abstract art for being shallow and incapable of conveying significant and profound dimensions of experience and reality. This is ironic, because abstraction originally came into being in response to the need to find a more direct way through which these deeper dimensions could be communicated without entangling the viewer in secondary or irrelevant issues. Like every other style of the past or present, abstraction has succeeded or failed on the basis of individual artists' substance, talent, or genius - not on the basis of style alone. On the highest of all possible creative levels, one style may some day be proved greater than all others. But if it is, it will be so only because it more truly and fully communicates the highest of all possible truths, not because it is more beautiful and true in itself.

Along this line, I think it is important that I point out that ''realistic'' art can be as superficial and self-serving as any other. And can also exist as a brittle facade.

John Taylor Arms's incredibly detailed etching ''Memento Vivere'' is a perfect example of brilliant technique and total faithfulness to subject adding up to little more than a demonstration of an artist's skill and the flexibility of a particular medium.

This tour de force probably took Arms roughly two thousand hours to complete. At any rate, his detailed records of the time required to finish another, rather similar etching, ''Spanish Profile, Palencia,'' indicate that that print took him precisely 2,172 hours. Now this means that on the basis of a forty-hour workweek, Arms labored almost fifty-two weeks on that print.

(And that doesn't include the time spent making the original drawing.)What Arms got for all his time and patience was a work that will go down in art history as one of the most astonishingly detailed and precisely rendered etchings ever made. And a reputation among certain print collectors as one of the greatest etchers of all time.

Great indeed! His accomplishment deserves more to be listed as a record event in The Guinness Book of World Records than in future art history books. Whatever real art exists in this plate derives entirely from the designers and builders of the cathedral depicted, not from Arms. For all his brilliant technique and faithfulness to his model, Arms does nothing in this print but illustrate for us in precise detail the structure and appearance of the north transept of the Cathedral of Evreux in France. And the result is a superb example of architectural illustration, not of art.

Now, there's no reason why a piece of architecture cannot be the subject of a great print or painting. Artists over the centuries and in the present have managed it brilliantly. (Arms himself did so on several occasions.) But merely to copy every stone, crack, texture, and piece of glass of a portion of a cathedral onto paper as a drawing, and then onto a plate as an etching, and then to consider the resulting art to be of any significance strikes me as extremely presumptuous and naive.

Fortunately, Arms was not always so shallow. Some etchings of his rank with some of the best works of this century's architectural etchers. I myself am fond of quite a few of Arms's prints and own several of them. As a matter of fact, I owned an impression of ''Memento Vivere'' at one time, but sold it because I could no longer live with its empty, if brilliant, virtuosity.

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