'Quality' in art: it has to grow and change to stay alive

There are those who suspect that quality is beside the point of today's art - that all that matters is being up-to-date. Even to raise the issue of quality, they would say, is to brand oneself a traditionalist, if not an out-and-out reactionary.

There appears to be some evidence to support this suspicion. Almost every season brings us new kinds of art whose main reason for being seems to be the violation of all standards of excellence, whose champions loudly proclaim the dissolution of all previously held creative ideals.

Such ''evidence'' is actually misleading. With the exception of some self-serving ''artistic'' gimmickry by individuals of great ambition but no talent, such art is generally concerned with expanding the range of quality, not narrowing or obliterating it. With keeping quality alive within an ever-new cultural context instead of letting it grow sterile in outmoded and ineffectual styles.

Art, after all, is a living thing. Unless it keeps pace with the dynamics of its culture, it will represent little but rehashings of past moments of greatness, or descend to fantasy or decoration. And quality, within this context , becomes not only a matter of standards but of vitality and emotional truth as well.

To determine quality, we must do more than merely measure ourselves and what we do against the great art of the past. That makes sense only in a thoroughly stable or static tradition. We must also see if our art addresses itself to the realities of our age - and whether it gives form to the constant within it, rather than the merely topical.

Determining the quality of the new and revolutionary can be almost impossible if the only frame of reference we have is the art of the past - if the only way we can judge a wildly original contemporary watercolor, for instance, is by holding it up against a watercolor by Samuel Palmer or John Marin. Such a comparison may tell us a great deal about technical competence, but very little if anything about those crucial qualities that are distinctly ''modern.''

For that we must draw upon our overall experience with contemporary art, and, most important, upon our intuitions. We must, after all, be able to follow the artist out beyond the traditional in order to have any notion at all about what he is trying to do. In an age of rapid and profound change such as ours, art can function much like a compass - with our intuitions about its quality directing us to ''true north.''

We must remain open to the possibility that art will come from the direction least expected and look like nothing ever seen before. We must not turn our backs on something startlingly new and declare that it cannot be art merely because it looks like no art we've ever seen. We may make mistakes by being open-minded, but we will make an even greater mistake if we keep our eyes open, but our minds shut. Human values in printmaking

Kaethe Kollwitz's importance as a printmaker becomes more obvious every year. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if she ended up as one of the four or five major graphic artists of this century.

I say this partly because she was, first and foremost, a printmaker, not someone for whom the making of prints was merely a convenient method of reproducing her paintings on a smaller scale. And her prints are among the most profoundly conceived and beautifully drawn lithographs, woodcuts, and etchings anyone has produced during the past 100 years.

Proof of this can be found in the exhibition of Kollwitz prints on view at the Galerie St. Etienne here. Its focal points are Kollwitz's first print cycle and her last, which are both shown in their entirety, together with related drawings. In addition, the artist's internal development is chronicled by a series of comparisons of early and late states , and of rejected and accepted versions of the same theme. An unusual glimpse of the artist's working procedures is also provided by a number of hand-corrected early-state proofs and experimental plates.

It's a first-rate show that includes many rare and superb impressions that beautifully illustrate the deeply human and solidly constructed nature of her art. One of the miracles of her manner of working was that she didn't have to resort to expressionistic frenzy or distortion in order to project maximum feeling. She managed instead so thoroughly to couch even the most dramatic emotions and events in the simplest of human terms, that the resulting image, intense and monumental though it might be, is also touchingly human.

Another miracle is her extraordinary compassion for the human condition, and her refusal to strive for any pictorial effect not predicated upon human truth. Kollwitz depicted life as she saw it, not as she would have preferred it to be. She was an artist of absolute integrity, with a great heart and a great talent to go with it.

I cannot recommend this exhibition too highly. While viewing it, I kept asking myself what other word but ''great'' could adequately describe it, and I could think of none. If anyone needs proof of mankind's ability to suffer, surmount, and transcend the very worst that life can offer, he will find it here. This show also proves that even in this modernist age, art ism capable of coming totally to grips with human experience and emotion. All we need do, Kollwitz tells us, is to make art speak directly for man.

At the Galerie St. Etienne through Nov. 6.

The art dealer as artist

This is not so much about an artist as it is about a great art dealer, although, fascinatingly enough, Betty Parsons was just as much artist as she was dealer.

Her passing last July deprived the art world of one of its living wonders: a dealer whose career spanned more than 40 years - and whose ''stable'' of artists included, at one time or another, practically every big name in post-World War II American art.

The roster of her artists reads like a Who's Who of American art, and goes back all the way to Pollock, Rothko, Hofmann, Still, Rauschenberg - and all the way up to some of the most talented younger artists of today. She was a marvel, and already a legend when I first came to New York in 1956.

Many people didn't realize, however, that Betty Parsons was also an original and accomplished artist whose paintings and colorful wooden structures were at least as good as the work of some of her artists. A great deal of her remarkable ability to spot new talent derived from her own creative vision.

I recently saw some of her last wooden pieces in an exhibition assembled by her gallery staff as a tribute to her career. Nothing could have been simpler, warmer, and more intrinsically art. Not that, by traditional standards, they looked like much. But then neither were any of her artists' works bound or defined by tradition. Like most of theirs, her art was direct and alive - and totally free of convention.

The good news, for those concerned about the future of the Betty Parsons Gallery, is that it will continue, at least for the run of the season, at its old address (24 West 57th Street) under the same director, Jack Tilton. What happens after that is still under discussion.

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