The many masks of modern art. Toward a give-and-take

Some artists have the knack of projecting complex emotions and ideas through very simple forms. Others can communicate great warmth through a handful of colors, a few textures, and two or three simple shapes.

It's a special gift reserved for a very few. For most, simplicity represents a victory that comes late in life - if it comes at all - and then only after years of constant striving.

Simplicity, however, can be deceptive. A canvas consisting of nothing but two squares and a circle may represent the meaning of life to its maker - but remain nothing but two squares and a circle to everyone else. And a beautifully polished piece of marble may say everything a sculptor wants to say about love - but be nothing but a piece of gleaming stone to all others who see it.

The issue is not so much one of communication as of the ability to perceive and to give form and expression to a reality larger and richer than one's own. And to go beyond mere self-expression in the creation of art.

In other words, is the artist merely self-serving, merely involved with himself? Or is he trying to attune himself and his viewers to a more universal dimension of truth through his art?

It's a crucial question, and one that needs to be better understood by the public. Appearances can be very deceiving in art. Too many viewers still react to art exclusively on the basis of its subject, and fail to realize that what appears on the surface of the canvas is not necessarily what the work is all about. To them art is what is depicted - be it a human head or a circle painted blue - and, if what's there looks like nothing but a blob of ink, then that is what it must be.

But that is like claiming a road sign exists only for itself and not to convey information. Or that someone speaking in a language we do not understand is merely making noise.

No, art doesn't work that way. It's a language, a code, a mode of communication that exists to transmit human realities from one individual to others. It doesn't exist in a vacuum, and neither does it exist merely to flatter its creator, or to permit him to show off his skills. Its goal is not self-centered privacy but as much universality as it can achieve.

But if art is universal, then the individuals who create it, and the individuals who respond to it, must recognize this universality and adapt themselves to it. Both must understand that art is not an exclusively private act for the artist, and that it might require a little effort on the part of the viewer to perceive what the artist is trying to convey.

There should, in short, be more give-and-take on both sides. The viewer must realize that the artist is not necessarily trying to be obscure, and the artist must realize that the viewer is not stupid merely because he or she doesn't always swoon with joy before a new work.

But most of all, no one should lose sight of the fact that art is a mode of sharing and communication relevant to all, not merely a highly esoteric game created and played by and for a special few. Art is more than a private joke, or a password designed to identify one's peers. It may occasionally reveal and speak of hidden and mysterious things, but it is not secretive, esoteric, or beyond the comprehension of ''ordinary'' men or women.

It's time for a little common sense, and for a perception of art that is less specialized and more holistic. Just as war is tragic and stupid because it leads humanity toward self-destruction, so is an exclusively private art a waste, because it denies mankind a major source of self-knowledge.

Too much of the art world resembles a steamy hothouse producing increasingly exotic hybrid plants of no earthly good to anyone except those whose jaded tastes demand greater and greater variety. And yet this portion of the art world persists in believing it and it alone has the key to art - and that any artist not sharing its ''vision'' is automatically irrelevant.

At the same time, I cannot understand the unwillingness on the part of so many even to try to learn the ''language'' of contemporary art. Nor their eagerness to condemn out of hand anything on canvas or in stone that doesn't exactly reflect the appearance of the natural world.

That, after all, is not what art is about. Art is a response to life and to actuality, not a flat-out description of the latter. And that applies even to the most ''realistic'' of painters. No one depicted physical reality more sensitively and acutely than Vermeer, and yet no one could mistake his painted reality for that painted by Van Eyck, Durer, Holbein, Ingres, Courbet, Manet, or Degas. All painted the same world, and yet each created a ''world'' very much his own.

No recent artist understood this better than Edward Hopper. Art, for him, was a lifelong probe into the nature and meaning of the human condition, and a lifelong search for the simplest and most effective way of conveying what he had discovered and decided about it.

He sought simplicity of form the way a speaker seeks clarity of expression, not for its own sake, but for better and more precise communication. And he sought it through a continually more intense ''dialogue'' between human and formal realities.

''Night Shadows'' is an excellent example. It is simple almost to the point of being abstract. And yet, as we study it, we find ourselves deeply involved with the man walking down the street. And through him, we become aware of ourselves, and of how vulnerable and alone we seem at times.

It's an extraordinarily human statement. If anyone doubts it, I suggest he substitute any other object for the man. Without him, the print loses its point and almost all of its depth - and ceases to exist as a work of art.

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