The many masks of modern art

To anyone born and raised within a sealed and windowless room, the sudden appearance of a window, and then a glimpse of a landscape beyond, would be a shattering experience. Not everyone would respond in the same way, however. Some would welcome the window, while others would panic and nail it shut.

Much the same thing happens in art whenever a radically new form or idea jolts and provokes us. We either respond with enthusiasm to the possibility of new dimensions of experience and new insights, or rear up and declare that anything so different and strange could never be art.

Our reactions depend on what we want of art. On whether we see it as a challenge or a comfort, as something that opens up our world, or encloses it and makes it neat and tidy.

We don't, however, have to make that distinction, for art can be almost anything we ask. It can leap toward the stars, or provide peace. It can celebrate human greatness, or express delight in a grasshopper on a leaf. It can thunder, monumentalize, enchant, or poke fun. It can probe or elevate, transfigure, transcend, or transmute. All this and much more is in its power, and we can choose according to our personal inclinations, or our culture's values and ideals.

We shouldn't, however, insist that our choice is the only form art can take, for that would mean we've confused truth with art. And have forgotten that art, while it may speak of and symbolize truth, is not truth itself.

It's best not to be dogmatic about art, nor to jump to hasty conclusions, even when trying to distinguish between the superficial and the profound. In art , things aren't always as they seem. Our museums are full of impressive but empty works, and of modest works that move us deeply.

Judgment is difficult, and not always necessary. There are times when art should be enjoyed as simply and wholeheartedly as we would a bouquet of beautiful flowers. And others when we should temporarily suspend the question, ''Is this art?''

What, after all, do we have to lose? Will the sky fall down, or the world end , if we don't immediately classify everything new as art or non-art? Will we lose our souls if we permit even one piece of non-art to pass as art?

I simply do not understand such suspicion of the new in art. I'd much rather be ''fooled'' a hundred times than miss out on even one work of art I've been able to love because I originally gave it the benefit of the doubt. What matters , after all, is what enriches our lives, not what might make us appear fools.

Doesn't it make sense that a fresh, new artist should see and express himself a bit differently than anyone before him? And that a young artist with extraordinary talent and sensibility should create something very much out of the ordinary? If not, of what interest or importance is the work of such an artist? Without that fresh and original quality, wouldn't his art merely be the rehashing of old styles and ideas? The repetition of what we already know?

Art is more than static images, icons of perfection, or near sacred relics of great, past, art-historical victories. It is also a mirror reflecting whatever stands before it, or an open window facing truth. Art is incredibly complex. It yearns for the eternal at the same time it treats the most fleeting moment or action with respect. It is ephemeral, and can no more be nailed down and defined than can faith, hope, compassion, or love. And it is just as impossible to judge absolutely.

Judging art is a great deal like judging life. How, after all, can we judge the relative truth of a circle and a square, or of blue and yellow? Is a weeping willow any less alive than a giant redwood? Or a sparrow less true than a hawk? And in matters of art, is a tiny watercolor by Klee less in tune with the universe than the mightiest fresco by Michelangelo? I think not. Truth is truth, no matter how big or small the ''window'' through which it is perceived might be.

What we can determine is whether that ''window'' actually looks out upon truth and reality, or if what we see is only the artist's dirty laundry hanging in front of it. We should also be able to tell if its glass is dirty, distorting , or more mirror than window. And if it is transparent, translucent, or opaque.

We cannot, however, immediately and objectively determine if what we are seeing through the window is a radically new or different art. We may be drawn to or repelled by it (or feel nothing), but that is about all we can know at our first encounter.

Judgment, if it comes at all, must come a bit later. And even then it will almost certainly be modified from generation to generation. For centuries, Vermeer was thought a very minor painter, and El Greco a disturbingly idiosyncratic one. And in the course of the past forty years I have seen impressive reputations dim (Ryder, Benton, Derain), and others regain some of their original luster (Sargent, Dove, and Avery).

What a culture or society considers art depends very much on its realities, ideals, and dreams. American art, for instance, although split for a long time along rural and urban lines, has increasingly committed itself to an urban mystique. A predominantly rural culture would never have declared Pollock, Kline , Warhol, and Stella major painters. It simply wouldn't have understood them - any more than today's urban art-professionals (and most are highly urbanized), can really sympathize with the essentially rural qualities embodied in the art of Wyeth.

All this, of course, makes any judgment of the dramatically new a very precarious undertaking. Braque and Picasso were fortunate because Cubism emerged at the precise moment that man's perception of his physical universe had changed radically. Had Cubism appeared two or three decades earlier, it would have been laughed out of existence. And much the same is true of the art of Miro, Calder, and Pollock. It too was the product of very particular cultural demands, and was fashioned under tremendous pressure. The end product, however (just as with diamonds, which also are fashioned by great pressure), was a rare and haunting kind of beauty.

''Discovering'' this beauty when it first emerged, and declaring it to be art , required recognition of what had formed it, awareness of its formal integrity, and the insight to know it would be of cultural interest and significance. That is as far as ''judgment'' could go at that time. We now accept this work as art because it speaks to and for us. What future generations, operating under different values and ideals, will think of it, we do not know. That will depend on the direction man takes.

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