The many masks of modern art

A reader has responded to my frequent requests that art aim a bit higher than it has of late. He writes: ''How is it that demands for quality and the addressing of 'fundamentals' are not, as defenders of both the avant-garde and of pop culture invariably charge, simply assertions of traditionalism and reaction? How can the call for - and response to - fundamentals and quality be culturally progressive?''

In other words, is it terribly old-fashioned and backward-looking of me to insist that there are such things as creative fundamentals? And that art, in order to fulfill its true nature and purpose, and to achieve a greater level of quality, must address itself more wholeheartedly to these fundamentals than it has of late?

My response is simple: styles, forms, attitudes, and certain ideas may become dated, but truth, reality, and quality do not. Therefore, while a call for a return to a particular style or form may be reactionary, the call for a return to quality and truth is a progressive and forward-looking act.

Twenty-five years ago I wouldn't have felt so sure about that. Everything in art, even truth and quality, was relative - or so I was taught. And besides, I, like almost everyone else, was still caught up in the euphoria of Abstract Expressionism's great tidal wave of open-ended and limitless creativity; I was still able to be seduced by almost every new movement that came along. Art, and particularly American art, seemed to be moving forward and upward with a kind of majestic inevitability that was its own justification and glory - and that made all questions of deeper or greater truth and quality at best irrelevant, and at worst reactionary and defeatist.

My faith, however, in the inevitable and long-lasting greatness of American painting and sculpture began to weaken shortly after 1960, and by 1965 it had run out of steam entirely. By 1970 I began to fear we would never again be able - or want - to do anything but skim the surface of our creative resources, and by 1975 I was convinced we could hardly even do that anymore.

In something near desperation, I began to look for new talent and fresh creative ideas and ideals much the way a gardener looks for living sprouts and seedlings in a garden burned dry by the sun. I welcomed any indication, anywhere , that life, growth, and creative depth, truth, and commitment were struggling to assert themselves. And when I found such indications, I was as pleased as though I had discovered those resources within myself.

By 1980 things began to look up. Not only was I finding little sprouts and seedlings, I was finding them in groups and clusters. And each succeeding year since then has revealed more and more of them scattered over the horizon.

Most of them will have a hard time of it, and quite a few won't make it. But I'm enchanted and refreshed by them nevertheless. What does concern me, however, is the creative climate within which they will have to grow, and whether or not they will have to deal with the double talk, philosophical evasions, and art-critical gobbledygook my generation, and the one or two following it, have had to put up with.

Unfortunately, there's a good chance they will have to, for the old order is still very much with us and is very unwilling to let go. The brilliantly scholarly and academic art language that such intellectuals as Meyer Shapiro and Clement Greenberg introduced into the everyday art world almost forty years ago to give verbal credence to the Abstract-Expressionists and those that followed, is with us still - only now it has become unbelievably dense, convoluted, and obfuscating. With it, has come the odd notion that art must be incredibly dense, complex, and ambiguous to be of any value. Ask a young painter to talk about his work, for instance, and he will usually do so within five minutes. Ask him, however, to put it down on paper for publication, and the result will run to thirty pages, require three readings and a dictionary before it makes any sense.

Now this - and I'm only touching upon one of dozens of areas of distortion with which a young artist has to contend - creates confusion in the minds of these younger talents trying desperately to catch or to retain the true scent of art and to follow it wherever it may lead. Or, even worse, it can twist their art to conform to what some of the older generations still insist are the only true forms of art.

A truly searching and demanding look at the art produced by our most highly touted painters and sculptors during the past twenty years should convince us that there is something seriously lacking in it - no matter how ''brilliant'' and ''extraordinary'' it may also be. It has been so ruthlessly fragmented, so drained of the full richness and wholeness of both life and art, that approaching it for any sort of deeply significant response is very much like entering a pool for a swim, and discovering that the water is only one inch deep.

Now, it is my contention that most of the ''important'' art of the past two decades - be it abstract, representational, pop, conceptual, or whatever - is only one inch deep. And that it is getting shallower all the time.

The fashionable response is that today's art reflects realities so different from the art of the past that it neither needs nor wants the kind of depth and significance associated with that older art. Any call, therefore, for such qualities obviously misses the point of today's art, and reflects a narrowly traditional and reactionary point of view.

Now, all that is true - up to a point. Different realities do generally demand different formal means of expression, even at times (as is true with twentieth-century Modernism) an entirely new formal language. When we speak of depth of expression, however, we speak of something else entirely. That makes itself felt and realized in any artistic language, be it ''old,'' as in the case of Rembrandt, Rubens, or Vermeer, or ''new'' as with Rouault, Pollock, or Miro.

What the early modernists introduced as agents of greater expressive freedom, have very recently become ends in themselves, and the cause of a dramatic shrinking and narrowing of creative vision and expectation. We want art only ''one inch'' deep today because we have become thoroughly conditioned to it, just as the French art world of the 1870s and 1880s was conditioned to the worst excesses of academic art - and wanted absolutely nothing to do with what Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Gauguin were up to.

Just as Van Gogh's contemporaries thought that progress in art could only result from being increasingly precise and academic, so do we today feel that ''progress'' in art depends upon our being increasingly more extreme in our formal means, in being more sensational, inventive, ''innovative,'' exotic, or blindly imitative of nature's appearences. By thinking so, however, we doom ourselves to art that will become increasingly pointless - and dead.

We must not forget that art is a form of spiritual and cultural food which must be nutritious as well as tasty. Just as it would be ultimately fatal to extract the nutritional elements from food in order to make it taste better, so is it ultimately fatal for us to remove the deeper and more spiritually nourishing elements in art in order to make it more pleasant or ''relevant'' or novel.

Now, if that statement represents a position, so be it. It is what I believe. It should not, however, be taken to mean that I advocate any sort of return to previous ideas, forms, or modes of expression in art. Far from it! I ask only that we try to shake off this illusion that art is primarily novelty and surface excitement, that its essential function is to engage our senses and our fantasies. And that, in order to satisfy our increasingly jaded sensibilities, it must become brassier or more out and out sensational.

Art is an arena for communication. Van Gogh, for all his intense emotionalism , never saw it as an end in itself. In his hands, passion and fervor were transmuted, through explosive paint-handling and color, into images that touched , caught, and communicated something of what he saw and felt of the power, beauty, and miracle of life. His art was an act of love that represented wholeness, a communion with life and with man, a creative surge toward meaning and order, and a passionate and total identification with the forces and rhythms of nature. Much the same, but in varying degrees, can be said about the best art of our century from Picasso to Pollock, but not, I'm afraid, about most of the ''important'' art of the past twenty years. From Warhol to Olitski to Schnabel, too much of it has been trite and self-serving, and is supported by the double talk and jargon of large portions of the art community. I, for one, have had enough of it, and wish we would get on with what art is really all about.

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