The many masks of modern art

A goodly portion of today's art world refuses to face facts. It exists in a dream world of illusion and fantasy, of outdated romantic aspirations and sterile formalist ideals.

Although it fancies itslf as heroic and full of revolutionary fervor, it actually is quite pathetic, and all too frequently guilty of rehashing worn-out, second hand ideas.

It is also desperate and dogmatic, to say nothing of shrill and egocentric, with members who outdo themselves in arrogance and intolerance, and in the assumption that they alone create art. A few of these have pronounced themselves the spokesmen of the era, and the only true champions of the modernist tradition. And some have even claimed that they, and they alone, are culturally significant. In short, these individuals - and there are quite a number of them - refuse to wake up, to acknowledge that a new day in art has begun, and to accept the fact that their brand of hyped-up sensationalism is neither an appropriate heir to what the seminal modernists created, or of particular interest to the art world at large. On the other hand, another portion is wide awake and facing facts. And is, as a matter of fact, busily investigating the various creative alternatives open to it.

These alternatives are numerous and complex, and are intended to open many of the creative and conceptual doors and windows that orthodoxy, fashion, and dogma nailed shut a good thirty years ago. Among them we find a more open and patient study of nature, a more serious attempt to learn from the art of the recent past , and a greater willingness to evoke and to follow the gentler intuitions and perceptions.

Nothing is really dramatic or new, and yet all are of crucial importance. And all have one thing in common: the creation of art that is vital and open - and that springs from the deepest and most central dimensions and experiences of man.

Such is the current state of the art world as I see it. On the one hand, a wild and desperate attempt to hang on to the latter-day dreams, myths, and dogmas of twentieth-century modernism as promulgated by artists and art theorists over the past forty years. And, on the other, new beginnings predicated on the best of what modernism produced; on deeper and clearer perceptions of our physical world; on greater trust in the subtler intuitions and sensibilities; and, most particularly, on renewed acceptance of human experience as subject and theme for art.

The disparity between these two aspects of today's art world grows more obvious every day. And yet, large segments of the art community refuse to see or acknowledge it. They behave as though nothing had changed, as though the art world will remain eternally as it's been these past forty years.

Things, however, have changed. We live in a fascinating art-historical period , the most wide-open one I've seen since the Abstract Expressionists began to make impatient noises in the mid-1940s. But this period is also full of illusions and paradoxes. Things (and artists) aren't what they seem. For all their abilities, such highly touted ''new'' artists as Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Jonathan Borofsky, and Jedd Garet are the ghosts of the very recent past, not the prophets of the future. They represent the last gasp of what has been, not the stirrings of what will be. They may not know it, but for them the party definitely is over.

The sad thing is that more people in the art world realize this than will discuss it publicly - although they will do so in private. And that the public, regardless of what it actually feels, goes right on supporting most of the art world's myths and illusions.

The problem stems largely from the fact that we have been conditioned to believe that art is a special commodity requiring special skills and training to be understood. Well, that just isn't so. It may require patience and study, as well as an open and unprejudiced attitude, but that's about it. We don't, after all, have to be agricultural experts to know when a head of lettuce is wilted. And we don't have to be art experts to sense whan an art and its ideas are stale or dying. All we need do is ''sniff the air.'' Such things are fairly easy to determine - provided we keep a sense of proportion, and don't fall victim to a fast-talking stranger's insistence that staleness, limpness, and even decay are precisely what make something good and important. And that crispness and freshness are definitely now ''old hat.''

I, for one, have grown very tired of hearing that something new is important because it is ugly, misshapen, to be viewed upside-down, offensive, or impossible to respond to with feeling. And that, if I can only accept it, I'll go on to discover untold beauties and significances within it. Well, I seldom have. What I have generally discovered is that someone with little or nothing to say has managed to catch my attention and to waste my time, for I'm under a professional obligation to give anything described as art the benefit of the doubt.

We mustn't forget, after all, that Calder was not a significant artist because he used wire and tin, but because of what he could communicate with them. And the same applies to Nolde's painterly slashings, Klee's doodles and smudges, Mondrian's right angles, Pollock's dribblings, and Guston's ''vulgarities.'' Anything goes - as long as it communicates something beyond itself. But if it continues to call attention only to itself because of its novelty, shock value, or ugliness, then it is merely novel, shocking, or ugly. And it most certainly is not art.

There is an intriguing Kafkaesque quality to much of the art world today that makes it almost as fascinating as the art it produces and shows. And yet, no ''serious'' artist has emerged to give that quality pictorial form - unless we accept Saul Steinberg as such an artist, and Eugene Mihaesco, by extension, as another.

I do so accept them both, even though Mihaesco addresses himself less specifically than Steinberg to the world of art, and more generally to the realities of the world at large.

Mihaesco is that rare creature, an imaginative and wildly inventive cartoonist who is also, at various times, an artist; a social, political, and cultural analyst; a philosopher, wit, and satirist; and an all-around poker-of-fun at human foibles.

And yet there is nothing innocent about his work. The very worst this century has been able to do to itself lurks deep under the calm although eccentric exteriors of his line drawings, watercolors, and pastels. What we see is merely the top layer of a highly complex reality descending in geological fashion to depths incorporating a multitude of experiences. He has a remarkable insight into this century's Zeitgeist, and an extraordinary grasp of our culture's crucial images, symbols, and metaphors.

''Stairway'' is a good case in point. The stairs come from nowhere and lead nowhere. Their design, construction, and placement serve no purpose; thus, they have neither real identity nor a solid reason for being. In addition, the two wall openings (from the past and toward the future?) are not joined. And all we have of man is a faint, totally ambiguous shadow of a human being on a wall.

It's a simple image, but a haunting one. And, although I'm certain it's not what Mihaesco had in mind when he drew it, one that quite accurately portrays that portion of the art world I discussed above.

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