The many masks of modern art

Some say this century is under a wicked spell. Others that it is haunted by past greatness, confounded by doubt, and obsessed by images of self-destruction. Still others that it is merely a transitional period, in which what appears as destruction and desolation is actually only the plowing under of an old crop in preparation for a new planting.

For my part, all that seems true - and yet not true enough. It has been, and is, such an incredible century, so fiercely eager (on the one hand) to control, stifle, and destroy, and (on the other) to push toward new frontiers, to be open and creative, to love, plant, expand, and be passionately alive.

And yet it seems to me that we are currently boxed into a haunted corner of the century. That we are ''treading water,'' that we seem at the moment trapped and existing in a kind of limbo. We are haunted by the excesses, oversimplifications, and cruelties of our very recent past, but are as yet unable either to exorcise those ghosts or live comfortably with them. But worst of all, we sense ourselves drifting toward senseless confrontations and possible global self-destruction.

In all this, art has played and will continue to play its part. Not, perhaps, as an active agent for dramatic change or improvement, but certainly as a listening and warning device, as a reminder of the beauty and value of life, and as an indicator that man has dynamic alternatives to fearfulness, anxiety, despair - and death.

All the arts serve in all these capacities, although some are better equipped to address particular problems or represent certain truths, values, or ideals than others. Thus, music can address itself to nonspecific and universal levels of feeling and experience that are well out of the range of landscape painting - no matter how grand and sweeping a particular landscape might be. And a novel can spell out the evolution of character in great detail, something a painted portrait can only do by implication.

It is when we come to art's ability to fully address specific social and moral issues, however, that certain art forms stand out most dramatically. Here again the novel stands supreme, although serious and quite successful attempts have been made in this century to use the public mural as a political and educational device. Printmaking has also served in this capacity at certain times and in certain places; American Social Art tried its best to create a better world through its painting during the 1930s and early 1940s; and Picasso touched a universal raw nerve in his anti-war painting, ''Guernica.''

We have also, in this century, developed the cinematic art form as a means of altering public consciousness of issues and events, both through filmed dramatizations and newsreel and television reporting. And yet, to my mind, of all the various arts devoted, at least as much to human and social realities as aesthetic ones, none stands out as more effective in reminding us of our worldwide humanity, and in warning us of what that entails, as photo-journalism.

Although this facet of photography has been neglected and looked down upon, some of the most haunting images of this century have been given us by photo-journalists who have roamed the world, on assignment for their newspapers or magazines. Who can ever forget the photographs of turn-of-the-century New York slums; World War I trench warfare; the bread lines, and the effects of droughts and floods during the Great Depression; the sudden death of a fighter during the Spanish Civil War; Pearl Harbor after the Japanese attack; the survivors of Hitler's concentration camps, and then, a bit later, the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The list of deeply memorable images seems endless, and keeps on growing as men pursue their sometimes noble, but altogether too often ignoble, business.

The remarkable and unique quality about a photograph is that we know with absolute certainty that what we see in a particular photographic image actually happened. We know, for instance, that a strand of hair on a woman's forehead was blowing exactly as it is depicted in a picture taken eighty years ago; that the three-year-old girl crying amidst the rubble of her home actually lived, and that the tears she is crying actually existed, and actually stained her face. Whatever else the other arts may have, this quality of actuality belongs to photography, and to photography alone.

For most of us, our deepest insight into the nature and quality of certain realities comes from photographs. I know, for instance, something of what terror must be like from having seen photographs of men and women experiencing it, not from what I myself have known. I have learned about hunger from photographs of starving children; cruelty from pictures of victims; hate from photos of men on a rampage; lust for absolute power from photographs of leaders and their victims; and sacrifice from pictures of totally dedicated individuals and those they served.

Of all the arts, photography has the greatest ability to cut through all evasions and half-truths, and to get to the deep emotion triggering compassion and goodwill. And it can do so because we know that the camera was there, and cannot claim that what is depicted is an artist's overly sentimental or dramatic rendering, or that the entire situation was invented out of whole cloth . . . unless we have to consider those overzealous photographers who have been known to create fraudulent photographic records by staging nonexistent events in order to further a point of view.

But these do not touch the true and deeply disturbing images I am talking about. I do not believe we can ever blot them from our memories, for their emotional content will linger in our consciences even if we ''forget'' the images themselves. We can try our best to rectify the situations that caused the human pain and suffering, but this will not altogether succeed, either, although it is at least a positive first step.

On the other hand, there are some among us who confront these memories in new creative ways. Recently at New York's Jewish Museum I saw an exhibition of photographs of Auschwitz, the notorious and now deserted concentration camp. They were taken by Sally Soames, a staff photographer for a London newspaper, who went to Auschwitz on her own volition in 1979 and made it virtually her home for several days and nights. Her intention: to sense, identify with, and record the mood and the memory of what had happened in that camp forty years ago.

She writes: ''Facing me was a challenge I had undertaken voluntarily, the most important of my life . . . no amount of research could have prepared me for the reality of that place . . . my room was in the former Nazi administration block. All around me was bitter cold and deadly silence.''

The resulting photographs are severely simple black-and-white images of the place that is Auschwitz, and of various details and artifacts she saw there. It is all stark, crisp, and somber with not one single human in sight, nor, if I remember correctly, any other form of life.

Soames obviously felt the place was haunted - and managed in a truly remarkable way to convince me of that too. Perhaps some of that comes from my own associations with the name ''Auschwitz,'' and some from her ability to evoke feelings through particularly stark images. But most of that feeling, I suspect, is a true representation of the mood and atmosphere that still exists at that former concentration camp.

I returned to the exhibition a few days later trying to understand its impact upon me, and came to the conclusion that it was mainly due to the fact that the camera which had taken these pictures had verified, in a manner I had not previously experienced, the stark actuality of what those concentration camp inmates had experienced. I sensed, with positive certainty, that a particular area in a particular photograph was where they had actually walked, that a dark and gloomy room is where some of them had actually slept. And that the view through a particular window was precisely what countless numbers of them had also actually seen. It brought me, in other words, into the meaning of Auschwitz itself, and for a brief moment made me a participant in a profoundly moving and disturbing moment of human history.

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