The many masks of modern art

Some artists have a great deal of skill, but little if anything to say, and so must continually think up new ways to call attention to themselves. Painting incredibly large canvases is one popular method - as is being wildly outrageous; using the brightest of colors; drawing like a two-year-old child; pasting anything and everything onto canvas; and trying to be more photographically exact than anyone has ever been before.

The problem is that these devices have been used a bit too often and are now old-hat. Painting outrageously and drawing like a child on oversize canvases is pretty common these days. And being photographically precise will no longer cause anyone to sit up and take notice.

New devices are hard to come by and difficult to steal, since they are usually so totally identified with the person who first used them. Consider the nerve it must have taken to be the first to hang paintings upside-down. And yet, although Georg Baselitz did it (and established an international reputation because of it), he still has no serious imitators.

No, being different is becoming increasingly difficult. We are running out of ways to be outrageous and ''revolutionary,'' and are coming close to the point where we'll have to reverse the process. It may not be long before being mundane and banal will be considered daring, and seeking artistic anonymity will be viewed as the most revolutionary act of all.

Until that time, however, we'll have to brace ourselves for one more outrageously ''original'' scheme after another, and for a steady stream of articles in our art magazines touting each as among the most significant creations of modern man.

It's this ''one-two punch'' that's so confusing. One often gets the impression while reading some of our art magazines that the art depicted and the articles written about it were jointly conceived. And, worse still, that the writers saw themselves more as publicists than critics.

The ballyhoo for the new is often beyond belief. No one, least of all the critic, is given time for reasoned judgment. If art critic ''A'' doesn't rush into print with a glowing account of whatever is new, critic ''B'' most assuredly will, and critic ''A'' may well find himself no longer taken seriously. Critics in this world are too often judged, not on the depth and clarity of their insights, but on how militantly they champion the new.

Now, there's no doubt that one of the critic's major functions is to ''run interference'' for new art and for art that remains difficult for the general public to understand. We all owe a great debt, for instance, to such writers and critics as Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg, Thomas Hess, and Harold Rosenberg for helping us really to see what we were looking at in the art of the 1945-1970 period. (And there are several younger critics upholding that tradition today.) But that doesn't mean the critic should descend to the kind of verbal puffery and blatant advocacy that so often passes for art criticism today.

It should be clearly understood that an art critic's primary responsibility is to render considered judgments on art. Advocating the best of the new is of secondary importance, and playing the role of press agent should be out of his jurisdiction altogether.

An art critic must not be pressured - as I was some time back by a dealer who refused to give me photographs of a new artist's work unless I could satisfy that dealer that I would treat the artist ''fairly.'' And neither should he be expected to make snap judgments, or made to feel that his reputation will be tarnished if he doesn't hail everything new.

One of his most important functions is to detect artists with considerable (or even great) skill who have little or nothing to say. And to point out those who've puffed up their talents, or subverted them through gimmickry.

This is more difficult than it seems. Some artists have a genius for creating the illusion that their mediocrity is actually genius in disguise. And that their pictorial pufferies are great works of art. And if this is true of such established figures as Andy Warhol, Paul Jenkins, and Larry Rivers, it's also the case with younger artists on their way up, and older ones desperately trying to succeed.

In an art world in which success is everything, and being noticed is of primary importance, the ambitious artist of moderate talent faces a difficult choice. Should he accept himself as he is and hope for the best, or should he do everything possible to stand out from the crowd?

The latter may mean pushing a currently fashionable idea or form to its logical or ludicrous extreme, or producing work designed to insult the older generation's values and ideals. It can also mean striking a dramatically idiosyncratic posture, fashioning a lurid pastiche of current styles, or actually coming up with something genuinely new. But whatever, it must follow certain unspoken but rigid art-world guidelines, chief among them being that it must startle, and must not be likable at first glance.

Most important of all, however, it must present the art world with a dilemma, and force it to decide if this strange new thing is art or a fraud. It's a fascinating moment, watching those concerned trying to decide how to cast their votes. And it's even more fascinating to note how very few actually make that ''decision,'' and how many more simply accept the decision of a handful as though it were an official ruling.

But then, that's the way it's always been. The articulate and concerned few have always determined art's direction. And, by and large, they haven't done too badly by it.

Here and there, however, mistakes have been made. Artists have come along with such uncommon skills and determined attitudes that the art world has given them status without really thinking too deeply about it.

John Clem Clarke is one such case. His transcriptions of Old Master and 19 th-century paintings are unique and often very impressive. Some are particularly interesting for the subtle manner in which Clarke modified the original artist's technique, and for their clever surface variations. Others stand out for their size (the painting reproduced here is eighteen feet wide) and technical brilliance.

There's no doubt an exceptional talent is at work here. And yet, what is it producing? My answer, given reluctantly after watching his art and career for a number of years, is that Clarke, for all his talent and skill, has very little to say. And that his huge, impressive, and technically brilliant transcriptions of Old Master paintings are just that: transcriptions, copies, variations, which no amount of verbal justification can turn into significant art. They are fascinating painterly performances, but that's about it.

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