Mystery is a vital ingredient in much great art. And it's the heart and soul of a few great paintings and prints. One thinks of Leonardo's ''Mona Lisa,'' El Greco's ''View of Toledo,'' Durer's ''Melancolia I,'' Rembrandt's ''The Polish Rider,'' Velazquez ''The Maids of Honor,'' Goya's late ''Black Paintings,'' and De Chirico's haunting early canvases.
Each of these works is an enigma, with a ''subject'' that both masks and reveals the artist's true intentions, and that eludes full and final interpretation. What, for instance, is the real significance of Goya's strange and disturbing flying creatures? Or of Rembrandt's elegant young man sitting so proudly on his horse? And why does Velazquez painting of the Spanish royal family's visit to his studio beg more questions than it answers? And why, most of all, do the interpretations submitted by the scholars of one generation generally fail to fully satisfy the scholars and the public of the next?
The reasons are complex, and vary from work to work. Central to them all, however, is the popular misconception that a work of art has a clear and rational meaning, that it can be taken apart and analyzed as though it were a problem in arithmetic, or a specimen in a biology class.
The truth of the matter is that a work of art is alive and dynamic, and can no more be successfully analyzed than a flying butterfly, or a beam of light. And if that is true of the work of relatively simple and straightforward artists , it is much more true in the case of those profound and complex individuals we consider great.
A work of art can be mysterious and beyond analysis even to the artist who created it. It can result from his desire to embody vague but persistent philosophical or spiritual intuitions and intimations, or from his need symbolically to reconcile profoundly contradictory forces within himself. It can also spring into being already half formed as the result of a dream, the reading of a provocative poem or novel, or even from a chance remark overheard during a walk. In all these cases, the artist, to a large extent, is a highly focused and talented middle man, a conduit for truths and forces beyond his full comprehension or control.
Now, I'm not saying that the artist in these situations isn't in technical or formal control, only that what he is trying to translate into shape, line, and color may be ''bigger,'' more complex, and more ambiguous than he is aware. If he is moved or excited at all by the creative process, it is probably because it touches upon areas and dimensions of meaning not otherwise encountered by him. Art, after all, is a magical process, for the artist as well as for everyone else. It is expansive and life-enhancing, and represents feelings and ideas for which we have no other form or language. We must also keep in mind that art does not define, categorize, or explain. And that it can neither stifle the life force nor deny it, and remain art.
Art scoops up and ''packages'' life according to the artist's vision, perception of reality, and ideals as they act in counterpoint to the deep and mysterious forces within him. If these forces are of great and noble proportions , and the artist has the necessary talent or genius to ''package'' them, the art that results will very likely also be great and noble.
It probably will also be profoundly mysterious, the expression of truths and realities that, like icebergs, lie largely submerged.
In such a case, how do we determine the meaning or significance of what lies beneath the surface? Or the degree to which the small ''visible'' and comprehensible portion of the work truly represents the much larger portion that is submerged?
Familiarity with the artist's work and creative philosophy can give us a clue , as can our own sensitive and sympathetic response to the work itself. The title of the painting or print might help a bit, but titles can be misleading - especially if they were invented (as was the case with the titles of several of Rembrandt's masterpieces) a century or so after the artist's death.
No, I'm afraid we must accept the fact that the ''meaning'' of certain works of art lies precisely in their unfathomableness, in their imperviousness to analytical dissection or categorization - and that they are of great significance and value to us becausem of their mute insistence that life and truth are greater, more awesome, and more mysterious than we might prefer them to be.
But why should this disturb us? Doesn't a great work of art cease being both great andm art the moment it is fully ''understood''? Doesn't the ultimate meaning of art lie in its continuing challenge to us to expand and deepen our perceptual and spiritual resources in order to broaden and deepen our awareness of life's richness and grandeur? I believe so, and I can think of no time in which this awareness has been of greater importance than to our own - especially if we consider our current fascination with, and search for, the lowest common denominator in social, intellectual, and spiritual affairs.
We need art today as much as man has ever needed it, even if only to keep reminding us over and over again that the human spirit is expansive and not contractive, and that life and truth cannot be regimented or made rigid without profound and crucial loss. But art cannot serve this purpose if we envision it too narrowly, if we accept one stylistic manifestation of it, but none other. Or if we refuse to break down prejudices and preconceptions about what can and cannot be art.
Certain great paintings, however, rise above all petty considerations of style and tradition, and do so with such assurance and benign grace that they successfully undermine all opposition, and manage to move and enchant individuals of widely divergent points of view.
There haven't been many of them - a Leonardo ''Last Supper'' here, and a Michelangelo ''Creation of Adam'' there - to say nothing of a few Raphaels, Vermeers, Rembrandts, El Grecos, and Bruegels. But those we have, have immeasurably enriched all who have come to know them.
To my mind, Henri Rousseau's ''The Sleeping Gypsy'' is modernism's one real entry so far into this distinguished company. Our other major possibility, Picasso's ''Guernica,'' never quite rises above its style, and so calls attention more to howm it was done than to what it is trying to communicate.
''The Sleeping Gypsy'' is one of the artistic marvels of our age. And one of the most marvelous things about it is that it was painted by someone who had no formal training in art. When I first saw it many years ago, it affected me as did only three or four other paintings in all of New York's great museums. And it has continued to exercise its magic upon me even though I have, by now, seen it hundreds of times.
I know it backward and forward, and yet I don't know it at all. I have dreamed of it, seen echoes of it in the works of later painters, and tried for a long time to understand its fascination for men and for all those who feel about it as I do.
I've finally stopped trying to analyze it or its effect upon me. As far as I'm concerned now, it's a real and very alive part of my world. It's a painting I will never fully understand, and yet it leaves me feeling positive and good every time I spend even a few seconds in front of it.