THERE are those who claim that the purpose of culture is to improve the lot of mankind and that art's primary objective is to call forth the best in each of us.
In the main, I agree, provided our ''best'' is perceived as gentle and compassionate as well as serious and committed. And as long as it permits us to smile and to share an occasional laugh with our fellow human beings.
Art certainly is broad, deep, and complex enough to encompass all that and more. In addition to being profound, it can be as lighthearted as a brightly colored balloon, as chipper as a squirrel scampering up a tree, or as subtle as a moth's softer tints and tones.
I know few sights more startlingly beautiful than that of a hummingbird zipping into view over a flower and then suddenly darting off again. It happens so quickly, takes us so by surprise, that it's a wonder our sensibilities can register it. And yet they do. We are left with the memory of something incredibly fragile, swift, and beautiful appearing before us for the twinkling of an eye.
Is it possible to capture that moment on canvas or in stone in order to reexperience it whenever we wish? I'm certain it is, but not by making a precisely detailed rendering of the hummingbird hovering forever over the flower or by producing a stylized, static design.
No, whatever we did would have to catch the ''zip'' of the experience, the flash of the bird's colorful plumage, and our fleeting impression of its small, perfectly shaped form. Redon could have done it with a few carefully placed touches of pastel, Klee with several colors and free-moving lines, and Calder with a small, simple, brightly colored mobile.
But no matter how it was done, the crucial issue would be finding the means to embody the totality and the intensity of the experience itself. We've all been so overwhelmed at times by the beauty, poignancy, depth, or drama of something we've seen that we'd give almost anything to retain that moment forever for ourselves and those we love. We try to do so with our cameras. But, while that might work for us (a snapshot, after all, can remind us of our original reactions), it seldom does for our friends. They see only what we saw, not what we felt - unless, of course, we are artists with the camera and can do more than record what lies before us.
Artists tend to have particularly strong desires (I would even say needs) to give form and expression to their feelings and to share them with the world. That drive can be so powerful that they will devote their lives to searching for the most perfect way both to express those emotions and to cause others to experience them. If they are fortunate, they will be able to do so through traditional subjects, forms, and techniques. If not - and this has often been the case in this century - they will have to invent whatever is appropriate out of whatever means are at their disposal.
Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) had this passion to embody and to evoke experience to an extraordinary degree. No one worked harder than he to find the exact form or gesture that would best satisfy what he himself sensed and knew and that would be the most likely to trigger similar feelings in others. He was both a sculptor and a painter, and he also produced thousands of sketches and drawings that distilled the essence of what he saw and felt into a few light and nervous lines.
Distillation is also the key word in any discussion of his working process in sculpture. His matchstick-thin and elongated figures represent the same kind of search for irreducible form we find in Mondrian's canvases and drawings - different as these artists may have been in other respects. So art history may very well list Giacometti among the most representative and revealing artists of the 20th century and decide that, together with the Cubists, the Constructivists , Mondrian, Klee, Miro, Pollock, and a few others, he best articulated a modern understanding of reality and truth as applied to human existence. It is a primarily urban and industrial perception, however, for it derives much of its substance and imagery from the dehumanizing sense of isolation and alienation too often encountered in large cities and in factories.
Be that as it may, his stripped-down men and women represent his own highly subjective, profoundly charged vision. They exist, not as descriptions of how we appear, but as the symbolic evocations of who and what he believed we actually are. They are icons dedicated to our ability to survive in a world he sees as alien and uncaring, a world within which people meet and interact without any real awareness of one another.
Giacometti's art provokes us to empathize and to agree. It is stark and uncompromising, and it allows for neither elaborations nor evasions. We either accept it as one exceptional man's highly personal statement about humanity's current condition, or we reject it as so much idiosyncratic nonsense. I not only accept it, I admire it greatly. In the most direct fashion possible, it conveys his most profound feelings and ideas about the nature of contemporary life. And in the process, it demands that we all face certain issues and realities we might otherwise avoid.