The many masks of modern art

Who of us can truly define art? Even the dictionary falls far short with ''the disposition or modification of things by human skill, to answer the purpose intended.'' And it only raises more questions with ''the making or doing of things that have form and beauty.''

It's been a vexing question since time immemorial. Plato decreed art to be imitation, and Michelangelo saw it in terms of the sublime. For Rembrandt, art was nothing if not profoundly human. And in our own century, we've decided it can be almost anything.

There's been disagreement even on more specific levels. To the painters of seventeenth-century Holland, art was the good life personified on canvas, and for the French masters of the eighteenth, it meant elegant frivolity. Constable saw it as robust depictions of the English countryside; Turner as light both revealing and concealing form, and Cezanne as a formal, holistic vision.

I myself have tried all my life to come up with a clear definition. I have letters written at the age of nineteen, while a soldier in Okinawa, in which I went to considerable lengths to inform my parents of my thoughts on the subject. And I remember long conversations with a Japanese painter in Seoul, Korea, a few months later, in which I tried to reconcile his Eastern perceptions of the nature of art with my Western ones.

Almost forty years have passed, and I'm only a mite closer to my objective. True enough, I have increasingly clear intuitions and feelings on the subject, and my tastes in art have certainly broadened dramatically. But, when I come right down to it, I find art as difficult to define today as I did then.

The problem centers on art's purpose and function. And on whether we view art as the personification of a particular ideal, or, more pragmatically, as anything that gives voice or form to cultural needs and realities. There is also the question of excellence. Must art be beautifully done, or do honesty and directness of expression come first? Must art be spiritually uplifting and pure, or can it be pagan and vulgar? Is it defined by its material? Can something made of plastic achieve the same artistic importance as something made of marble? And , on a more everyday level, can a fork or a hammer be art?

These are only a few of the questions that complicate any attempt to define art. And to top it off, even if we answer them all to our personal satisfaction, we have probably missed a definition acceptable to all cultures - or even to all our friends.

I've come to the conclusion that trying to define art is very much like trying to catch a firefly on a pitch-black, moonless night. Neither remains where or what it was when last seen. The firefly moves on invisibly, and art shifts and expands to encompass whatever is good in the very new.

We can no more scientifically define art than we can define life or love. Or, for that matter, something as physical as wetness. All we can do is come close. Beyond that, a demonstration is required. Even the most brilliant definition of wetness, for instance, is rendered meaningless in a splash of water, or a hand held under an open faucet.

None can be isolated and accurately defined, for they are qualities, not things. And, as such, they are too subtle and universal ever to be ''caught'' and pinned down by human intelligence.

Art can only be awakened to and experienced. It cannot be taught - any more than love can be taught. It is a dimension of experience, part of the process of spiritual growth that leads us to our highest and deepest levels of fulfillment. As such, it has a life and a will of its own, and will always resist conforming to preconceptions and definitions. It must do so, or it will cease being of any real value to us.

Art is a symptom of man's search, indeed his passion, for fulfillment. It is life-oriented and life-obsessed, a dynamic response to life, rather than a description of it. It is positive, and intrinsically opposed to whatever is negative, most particularly chaos, disharmony, disintegration, and death.

That, I suppose, is as close to a definition of art as I'll ever come. And yet, it's a ''definition'' that applies to everything I consider art, from the splashiest fingerpaintings by a three-year-old child to Michelangelo's mightiest frescoes. And it excludes everything I consider non-art.

Put simply, my ''definition'' is this: Art is that which is man-made, and transmits or personifies the lifeforce.

Too general? Perhaps, but it's as close as I can get to anything broad enough to include art in all its manifestations, and precise enough to separate what I consider art from non-art. I have found no other common denominators that apply to all art. I have yet to find any art that wasn't handmade, and that didn't transmit or personify the lifeforce, be it through ideal form (Brancusi), expressiveness (El Greco), passion (Nolde), yearning (Munch), empathy (Rothko), or any other artistic means. And conversely, I have yet to find anything I would accept as art that advocates an anti-life position. Art may represent something negative or destructive (Goya's war etchings, or Picasso's Guernica, but by its very nature, it transforms that negative quality into a positive affirmation of life's value and importance. The great gift of such apparently ''tragic'' artists as Goya, Rodin, Munch, Picasso, and Kollwitz is that they can show us human existence at its absolute worst, and then, through the magic of their art, call forth life's deepest resources from within us. A work of art, if it is art, will always affirm life, never deny it. And it will do so through its genius to reconcile, integrate, transmute, direct, and inspire.

No other artist of the past hundred years understood this better than Auguste Rodin. And in no work of his is this more evident than in his monumental Gates of Hell. In its entirety, and in every one of its parts, it represents a triumph of the human spirit. Despite its title, it literally seethes with life. There is nothing static in or upon it, and every one of its details portrays an individual or a group energized to maximum effort. It's a passionate, life-obsessed work that has never failed to amaze me. While standing in its presence recently, I knew precisely what art was all about.

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