Our simple and important part in a 40-year debate

Robert Motherwell is a particularly difficult artist to ''explain,'' largely because so much of his work consists of splashes of black paint or pieces of torn paper pasted onto a board.

That's enough to drive some of his critics into a frenzy, and to cause them to insist he's a fraud. Even some distinguished professors, talented painters, serious collectors, and interested laymen argue that what he produces is not art - while an equally distinguished and concerned group argues that it is.

The debate has been going on for roughly 40 years, with neither side fully able to convince the other. ''Officially,'' of course, he is accepted as a major artist, as one of this century's important innovators, and as one of the dozen or so American painters of the past half-century who are assured of a respectable place in any history of our period.

He is highly regarded in Europe - especially in France - and has exhibited with great success throughout the world. Collectors here and abroad pay very high prices for his pictures, almost every museum owns a print if not a painting of his, and students study what he has produced as seriously as they study the works of Matisse and Pollock.

He is, in every real sense of the word, a resounding success. Why then is there such resistance to his art, such an insistence on the part of many that he is vastly overrated?

The answer to that is threefold: the apparently accidental and totally ''unskilled'' look of his work; the bluntly black-and-white nature of most of his images; and the seeming triviality of his creative intentions. These points appear to present a devastating argument against Motherwell on the part of anyone who believes art must show evidence of great skill, be richly colored or sumptuously painted, and address itself clearly and specifically to beautiful things, significant ideas, or ennobling ideals.

It's understandable why such a person would be confused and even angered by a Motherwell painting - especially if it is seen in a major museum and is said to cost several hundred thousand dollars. Its blatancy alone would count heavily against it, to say nothing of its total lack of ''order,'' ''meaning,'' or ''charm.'' At least Miro, this individual would reflect, used beautiful colors and put things together in a fun and fanciful way. And Pollock? Well, Pollock was at least passionate and impressive.

Furthermore, Miro and Pollock had something to say and a formal language through which to communicate it. What that was may not have been of great importance, but at least it was of some interest. Not so with Motherwell, who has nothing to convey and the effrontery to cloak his emptiness with meaningless splashes of paint.

When, our critic would conclude, will someone have the courage to tell the world that Motherwell is not an artist, to say in effect, ''The emperor has no clothes!''?

Well, it's already been said - several times in fact - without any significant effect. And I'm not surprised, for I believe all the real evidence argues in Motherwell's favor, and that he is indeed a serious and very important artist.

But how to prove it, when all the verbal evidence on his behalf wouldn't convince me had I not already known in every way that matters that it was so? Words cannot by themselves alter our deepest perceptions and intuitions. They can present reasons for and help remove prejudices against an object's identification as art, but they cannot cause the viewer to experience, to know it as such.

For that, the work itself must be confronted directly and identified with as fully as possible. Here, empathy is at least as important as analysis, and willingness to respond favorably to something that had previously annoyed or angered us could very well be the final clue to our discovery that the painting in question is indeed art.

Or if not art, then at least something of interest in other areas. Perhaps we have too narrow a definition of what constitutes a work of art, and so prevent ourselves from appreciating things that don't quite come up to our rigid standards. Why not give over to what does please and possibly even enchant us? Or to what engages us in some very strange way even though tradition, logic, and common sense argue against it? What, after all, have we to lose, especially if our cultural horizons may be broadened and our understanding and appreciation of art deepened and enriched thereby?

What matters most is the depth or fullness of the experience we have before a painting, sculpture, print or whatever, not our identification of it as art or non-art. That is a matter of category and definition, and will be taken care of in due time by our critics and art historians. We have a simpler and just as important task to perform: to respond to what lies before us with sympathy, to try to discover what it is, and to forget for the moment what it should be.

If it bothers us to describe something shockingly new or unsettling as art, then let us call it something else. Labels aren't that important - especially if they prevent direct and sympathetic confrontations between us and images and objects that may or may not be works of art.

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