Suggestions on looking at art; It's the message -- not the messenger -- that counts

Some people take art much too seriously. To hear them speak of it, one would think nothing else mattered.

They are easy to identify. They lack any humor about art, speak of it in absolutes, and are ruthlessly judgmental when discussing it. They love to categorize, to give one artist a godlike status and cast another into outer darkness. If they had their way, our museums would be stripped of most of their holdings and would house only a handful of the world's masterpieces.

They insist that only their most revered artists speak the truth - and that all other artists ''mumble,'' speak heresies, or miss the point of art altogether. They believe that the future of the world hinges upon mankind's ability to understand better the art of a particular artist or movement. And that we would all do well to approach art more reverentially and dogmatically.

Does this description sound extreme and a bit fantastic? Not at all, for I meet such people all the time.

My first real encounter with individuals of this type occurred shortly after I began to appraise art. I arrived at my client's home to find it bursting with Abstract Expressionist works. Every room, including parts of the kitchen and bathroom, was crammed with paintings by Pollock, Still, Kline, Hofmann, de Kooning - and practically everyone else of that movement. The effect was electrifying, for the owners had chosen well, and had assembled a truly magnificent collection.

I dashed about the house like a boy in a candy store. I had never before seen so much creative energy concentrated in so small a space. I was delighted and would gladly have remained there all day.

As it was, I was almost asked to leave. My enthusiasm - and my appraisal of their works' market value - apparently didn't jibe with my clients' perception of how an art appraiser should behave. And neither did it reflect the way they saw the art they had collected.

To them, their collection was a sacred trust - and a deadly serious business. Where I saw life, passion, and love, they saw only near-sacred relics. A canvas that had served Hofmann as a stage for an exultant painterly leap toward the stars was to them an icon to be silently meditated upon. And a late, achingly beautiful drawing by Gorky was to them only a relic of that artist's final spiritual battle.

Everything on their walls was important, and was to be treated as such. In the midst of dozens of the most passionately conceived paintings of this century , voices had to be hushed, demeanors had to be solemn, and any feelings of excitement triggered by these works had to be ruthlessly suppressed.

What a horrible way to treat art! Especially art that was alive, that sang and exulted, that represented victories of the human spirit.

The villain, of course, is our distorted perception of art as a succession of near-sacred things, and our failure to see it as an open expression of the human creativity.

Then again, some of us are also somewhat superstitious about art, and cannot quite shake off the primitive notion that possessing art somehow guarantees our receiving some of its ''magical'' properties. We feel that by owning a Cezanne painting we are sharing directly in Cezanne's creative vision, and that by owning a Calder mobile we also ''own'' a piece of that artist's genius at transmuting wire and tin into art.

It's a strange and subtle motive for owning art that my collectors above shared. They had ''bought into'' a major modernist movement and were convinced that by doing so they had magically become a part of it. The sad thing is that they failed utterly to enjoy their art, something a true collector would not have understood.

No, it's not collectors I'm discussing here (true collectors love the art they own), but those individuals who see painting and sculpture as an end rather than as a means. Who confuse the messenger for the message. Who practically worship the idea of art - but fail to experience it, and thus really enjoy to or understand it.

Among the worst offenders are certain art historians and writers on art whose great joy in life is the categorization of artists and art movements. Nothing pleases them so much as to take the just-created work of someone new and promising, and to define and label it.

The fact that this labeling often creates artificial barriers between the work and those who view it is of little concern to them. What matters is how something visual translates into something verbal, and not what it is as purely painterly experience.

We have, as a result, two realities to contend with: art itself, and the critical literature that has grown up around it. Now, that's fine, if they're in balance, but they're not. Things are so out of balance, as a matter of fact, that the words written about art are slowly becoming more real to many of us than the art itself.

Proof of this can be found in the apprehension with which we approach anything new in art - and the eagerness with which we plow through the literature on the new in order not to risk missing out on anything significant. We read the art journals, and scan the dozens of art books that appear every month. And we try to keep up with our favorite art critic. But it's all too much , and before we know it, we feel we've lost touch with what's going on.

What's actually happened, however, is that we've fallen victim to the art world's love of words, and to its need to create a verbal barrage for or against every ''new'' artist, idea, form, or movement that comes along.

It's all quite artificial and self-serving, and very much beside the point of art. What matters is what we see and respond to in art, not what we read or hear about it. Words should clear the air, dissolve confusion, help ''introduce'' the artist to the viewer. They should not compound the issue or strive only to sparkle like diamonds on their own account. And by no means should they interfere with the act of experiencing art. In fact, if we all spent more time just looking at art, and did so without first cramming our minds full of published information about it, we'd all be better off.

Words should make art more ''transparent,'' not more ''opaque.'' The writer on art is the servant of art, not its master. And by all means let us not forget that a work of art must be looked at in order to be comprehended or enjoyed.

There are many excellent places to start looking. Museums for one, galleries for another. Most major cities have museums that exhibit first-rate art of the past and present. And even smaller communities are increasingly finding the means to collect and display art.

New York has some of the finest art in the world, including permanent collections and loan exhibitions. Among the latter, I again recommend the Peggy Guggenheim Collection on view at the Guggenheim Museum (described in the Nov. 30 issue of the Monitor). It's an excellent introduction to the ideas of modernism and a satisfying way to get the flavor of this century's art from some of its outstanding masterworks. To anyone particularly interested in the birth and evolution of Abstract Expressionism, I recommend a good hard look at the several Pollocks on view, most especially his early ''Two.'' And to those interested in Surrealism's beginnings, I recommend de Chirico's ''The Gentle Afternoon.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.