The many masks of modern art

I feel sorry for those who respond to art only because of what it depicts. Or because it looks pretty, is technically impressive, or represents important ideas and ideals. Or, worse still, because it is considered fashionable to do so.

I feel sorry for them because they are missing out on one of the simplest and greatest of all human pleasures: the experiencing of an aesthetic event, as in a painting - relishing its colors, lines, shapes, textures, tones, and formal relationships, delighting in its existence, seeing a perfect fusion of physical, ideological, thematic, structural, and any number of other properties, realities , and ideals.

How does one convince anyone who approaches art sternly and with the firm belief that it must represent only ''uplifting'' values and ideals, or precisely record the appearances of physical reality, that it can also legitimately express things as gentle and tender as a loving caress, or as subtly beautiful as a hummingbird's iridescent wings? That it can still be art even if it says nothing more ''profound'' than that being alive is a joy and a blessing - and says it with something as utterly simple as three sensitively related colors accented by an exuberantly flamboyant line?

Can something that simple (such a person asks) really be art? What about all we've been taught about the greatness of art, its grandeur, profundity, and purity - how very special it is, and how only a tiny handful of creative geniuses in any century are truly capable of achieving it? Aren't these simple things we are describing too ordinary to be art? And doesn't our insistence that they can be so described debase the very idea of art?

The answer is that the word ''art'' defines a particular type of expressive or symbolic form, and does not tell us anything about its size, importance, or depth - any more than the word ''tree'' tells us whether it relates to a huge California redwood or a delicate weeping willow.

All the word ''art'' tells us is that something so described shares certain basic characteristics with other things already accepted as art. The question is , of course - what are these basic characteristics? This is where modernism has altered much of our thinking about art. For those who feel that they relate closely to traditional art, then only traditional subjects in a traditional medium and on a traditional surface can be called art. Thus, a figure of Venus painted in a classical style, in oils, and on canvas, is art, while a plastic construction of three round and four squarish objects tied with string is not.

Art, however, need not be classical to serve as a historical model. For some, true art is anything before the Baroque period, or possibly the late eighteenth century. The nineteenth-century Pre-Raphaelites imitated the styles of the Italian painters immediately preceding Raphael because they felt that with him painting began to lose its purity. And there are many today who think that Monet and Renoir were the last real artists before painting descended to the ''clumsiness'' of Cezanne, the ''madness'' of Van Gogh, and the utter chaos and non-art of twentieth-century modernism.

There are those who claim that there has been no art since Cubism, and others who claim that painting died with Abstract Expressionism. The list of categories and orthodoxies is endless, and grows longer all the time. Lines between what is and what is not are drawn every day. And although there is more tolerance today than in recent years toward unfashionable styles, the situation, by and large, is still far from what it should be.

One of the main reasons for this is our general unwillingness to first experience a new work of art and only, after that, worry about whether it is great or significant - or art at all. Too many of us approach something new in art as though our response to it were a test of our fitness to live in civilized society. We are afraid that if we like something the tastemakers have dismissed as non-art we will be considered fools. And if we fail to like something acclaimed as art by the ''experts'' the whole world will view us as insensitive clods. We don't know which way to turn, too often preventing ourselves from responding emotionally to new work until someone else tells us what to think of it.

Even art professionals, meeting at a gallery exhibiting new work, will often avoid expressing their own feelings about the work until they have acquired a consensus of their peers. They will then leave the gallery with a critical judgment only partly their own.

The tragedy about this is that art very quickly begins to collect a body of opinion about it that slowly grows over it the way barnacles cover the bottom of a ship. If the work achieves fame, its art gradually becomes almost impossible to find beneath layer upon layer of opinion and judgment. Leonardo's ''Mona Lisa ,'' for instance, is so famous that it is forever lost to me as a genuine art experience and has become instead, a symbol of artistic greatness. And I know there are many who will never really be able to experience certain recent museum purchases as art because of their awe before the several million dollars each of them cost.

It is for this reason, among others, that art must be shaken up every few years by the introduction of new ideas and forms. We need the challenge of experiencing art in its raw state, unencumbered by the accrued judgments of decades or centuries. We can then decide for ourselves whether or not it is, in fact, art. It's very important that we learn to appreciate the good and great art of the past, but it's just as important that we experience art as a living and dynamic contemporary creative process. Without the latter, we become like the person who can receive and graciously appreciate the gifts bestowed upon him , but who cannot give anything of himself in return.

Trying to respond directly to something new or even something very familiar can be difficult and disturbing because it often forces us to stretch beyond our previous capacities or willingness to perceive and to appreciate. This fact was forcefully brought home to me a few days ago while viewing the Milton Avery retrospective in New York's Whitney Museum. I had gone to fulfill a professional obligation, not because I expected to find anything new. Avery, after all, was an artist I felt I knew inside out. His art had been a respected part of the American scene for as long as I could remember, and my mind had been made up about him for a good twenty years.

I walked through the exhibition rather rapidly, ''greeting'' a few of the paintings I had always liked but had not seen for a while. I was about to leave when something about one of these old favorites caught my eye. I moved closer, studied it for a while, and discovered to my dismay that I had never really seen this painting before - that my appreciation and understanding of it hadn't advanced an inch beyond my more ''primitive'' perceptions of thirty years ago.

I went back to some of the other works I had always thought I knew so well, only to discover that much the same thing was true with them: familiarity had created a screen between us, preventing me from really seeing them.

My first reaction, I must admit, was not to disturb the past, to forget the entire matter. But the works themselves drew me in, and within minutes I was roaming the galleries looking at Avery's paintings as though for the first time.

It was a delight, a pleasure, and an enrichment. It was like discovering that a lifelong acquaintance had suddenly become a dear friend. I became aware of colors and color relationships I had never before noticed - became most particularly aware of how exquisitely his sense of line interacted with his extraordinary sense of color. True enough, a part of me kept resisting, and kept warning me not to be seduced by Avery's muted tones, or the sensitively attuned balance of his forms. But that gradually quieted down, and finally became still altogether, and I was able to savor and enjoy his art as I never had before.

When I finally left the museum, it was with a warm glow and the feeling that I was considerably richer than when I had entered it. I still do not think that Avery was a great artist, but that doesn't matter. What does matter is that he was an artist, and that I could finally respond to his art with love, and without preconceptions and prejudices.

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