The many masks of modern art; Capturing the human resonances
All art is about human beings, their realities, dreams, fears, ideals, and aspirations. It cannot be anything else, for it is shaped by human beings, and is created to answer and fulfill human needs and desires.
The human form and face, however, need not appear in art. Music and architecture have never represented men and women, and yet they've touched and given voice and form to some of the deepest and most significant dimensions of human reality. And painting, sculpture, and photography, while closely tied to human form and scale, have often fulfilled themselves through depictions of things and places, or through one or another form of abstraction.
Even these, however, have their source and inspiration in human experience or longing. Men and women use the world around them for their own purposes. Be they scientists, engineers, or artists, their objectivity is always tempered somewhat by their feelings. This is particularly true of the artist for whom true objectivity is an impossible goal, and an inadequate ideal.
The artist is primarily concerned with the human spirit and in evoking, through material means, things that can only be sensed or imagined. He or she is , to that extent, subjective. He may paint an apple, a pear, and an orange, but he is not so much interested in apples, pears, and oranges as in what he can evoke or convey through them. He may use them to create color harmonies, spatial tensions, or a severely classical composition. Or he may show off his technical skills, fragment and reconstruct the fruit to evoke a particular holistic vision of form, or twist them about and alter their color to create a wildly expressionistic effect.
Much the same is true of art that resembles nothing in nature. Even the most nearly ''perfect'' abstract art is primarily concerned with human sensibility. Without the aesthetic resonances produced by the exquisite placement of a thin line against a large square of red, or the perfect alignment of a vertical mass against a horizontal movement, Mondrian's paintings would be nothing but a few rectangles of color and a few intersecting lines. With these resonances, however , his work becomes the symbolic actualization of one exceptional man's vision of truth in art.
For some artists, nature and such living things as trees, flowers, animals, and birds can assume almost human characteristics, and can occasionally serve as ''substitutes'' for man himself. Caspar David Friedrich's dramatically gnarled and often centrally positioned trees frequently represent the artist's perception of himself as a questioning individual in an alien universe; Van Gogh's cypress trees jolt us with their human passions and ecstasies; Odilon Redon's bouquets of flowers tell us more about the beauty and fragility of human life than about anemones and geraniums; and Morris Graves's birds give voice and form to some of mankind's deepest ideas and experiences.
This ''substitution'' also takes place on more ordinary levels. I knew an artist who devoted his life to drawing and painting soaring pine trees and massive oaks because he couldn't draw the human figure (he admitted as much). And another who put his heart and soul into painting fascinating ''portraits'' of cats and owls. Both artists lived out their lives with solid local reputations, the first for ''making trees almost human,'' and the second for painting ''animals with souls.''
There also are artists who depict old buildings and streets precisely as they would white-haired, elderly men and women. Armin Landeck is among the best of these. His prints of crumbling walls, old staircases, time-ravaged stores and tenements, and streets that have seen better days are deeply moving and humanly authentic. The effects of time and weather on roofs and walls are as essential to his creative vision as are the wrinkles and lines of age in Rembrandt's etched studies of beggars and prophets. Our eyes may perceive his prints as depictions of buildings and streets, but our sensibilities inform us that they are really about human longevity and experience.
Most intriguing of all are the artists who create beautiful and provocative works of art while claiming merely to be working out theories, or fashioning impersonal things. For them, art is objective and divorced from all human references and associations. It is concrete and totally self-contained, and exists only for itself.
The 20th century has seen quite a few attempts to prove this point, and an almost equal number of failures. That's not surprising, since it's almost impossible for an individual to devote time and care to the shaping of an image or an object without putting a great deal of himself into it. Making a perfect circle with a compass is one thing; devoting one's life to the subtle nuances of ''perfection,'' or to finding the most perfect sequence of lines on a plane, is quite another. For all their claims to the contrary - and their intentions to create truly objective art - the vast majority of these artists ended up creating art charged with human references and resonances. From the Constructivists to the Minimalists, art has remained essentially ''human'' - regardless of how ''pure,'' ''perfect,'' ''objective,'' or ''absolute'' it was intended to be. An artist cannot deny his identity when fashioning art, be he Durer trying to make a purely objective rendering of a rabbit, or a modernist trying to fashion a work totally free of reference to anything but itself. If he is an artist, and remains true to his identity, then whatever he produces as art will have some human overtones.
A perfect example is Sol LeWitt, a minimalist known originally for his ''serial compositions'' and, more recently, for his ''wall drawings.'' Both are concerned with mathematical order, and with objective and logical actualizations of certain premises. Of the former he wrote: ''The artist would follow his predetermined premise to its conclusion avoiding subjectivity. Chance, taste, or unconsciously remembered forms would play no part in the outcome. The serial artist does not attempt to produce a beautiful or mysterious object, but functions merely as a clerk cataloguing the results of his premise.''
His wall drawings are intended to be just as logical and objective. They are based on a numerical series of permutations, and consist of dark or white lines drawn with great precision on a wall. Since the drawings are always painted over at the end of an exhibition, their permanent existence depends upon typewritten documents describing their components and manner of reconstruction. Here again, the artist sees himself as totally objective and logical, with no interests beyond seeing where a particular premise will take him.
Interestingly enough, however, his wall drawings are beautiful, cool and mathematical though that beauty may be. And they are mysterious and humanly relevant. But then, they are art and, as such, capable of reaching beyond logic and objectivity.