Conversational glimpses into characters of modern artists

Artwords: Discourse on the 60s and 70s, by Jeanne Siegel. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International Research Press. 235 pp. $29.95. The artist has developed a new role for himself in the 20th century, that of antagonist. In earlier times the artist was subservient to his patron, whether it was royalty or the church. Certainly there were frictions between artist and client, but the artist's desire was to acquire patrons and the appreciation of an audience.

In recent decades, the artist, in his wish for new revolutionary concepts, has gone beyond the understanding of most laymen into rarefied areas of thought. New approaches to painting and sculpture have met with resistance from the general public, but some contemporary artists have developed an antagonism toward all but the few who agree with or understand them. This anger surfaces as an unpleasant intellectual arrogance.

Nowhere has this attitude been more public than the recent case of the ``Tilted Arc'' on Foley Square Plaza in Manhattan. The government's Art-in-Architecture program had commissioned Richard Serra to do a piece for this location. The public found the 120-foot-long rusted steel wall unpleasant and obtrusive. Many in the art community testified in favor of Mr. Serra's sculpture, implying that public taste was not up to the art world's perceptive level. The sculpture is to be removed.

This is a complex issue. Everyone knows the stories of the public's disapproval of now accepted classics. In most cases those creators desired the approval that was withheld. Today many artists flaunt their disregard of any broad acceptance. A coterie of artists, critics, and collectors is created with disdain for the public. Ironically, this perverse attitude often attracts media interest, and kudos and wealth may be bestowed on the nonconformists in this topsy-turvy art world.

Jeanne Siegel has compiled the transcripts of radio interviews she conducted on New York's noncommerical station WBAI. These segments are brief, but because they are unrehearsed they give intimate insights into the character and theories of the artists questioned.

The cast of the book includes such artists as Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, and Louise Nevelson. Because the artists have a wide range of views, this book is a potpourri. Periodically, antagonistic hubris crops up.

Adolph Gottlieb says of art: ``It isn't for everybody. The average man can get along without art.'' Carl Andre, a minimalist and an unrelenting Marxist, refers to the ``dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.'' Joseph Kosuth, a conceptual artist whose work includes blowups of dictionary definitions, refers to his relation to other conceptional artists as ``pretty hostile.''

The book also has moments of human interest. Leon Golub and Ad Reinhardt strike sparks when they approach Vietnam-era protest art from diametrically opposite viewpoints.

While many of the artists disdain any broad-based approval of their work, there is a touching interview with black artists Romare Beardon, Alvin Hollingsworth, and William Majors, who speak at length of their struggle to be recognized at all.

Ms. Siegel's perceptive questions give us a kaleidoscope of concepts that cover most of the major movements of the '60s and '70s: Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalist Art, and Conceptualism. The New York art scene changed quickly during the two decades she covers, and is changing at a faster pace now.

There is room for many approaches to the visual experience, and it is unnecessary to denigrate those who hold differing opinions about the place and function of art. Rather than alienating himself from the general public, why can't the artist show more patience and educate as many as possible to enjoy the rewarding experience of viewing art? A wider audience would benefit all.

Charles McVicker teaches art at Trenton State College.

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