Andrew Wyeth: beyond Helga

IT'S too bad that Andrew Wyeth let the world know about his so-called Helga pictures, for the publicity surrounding these paintings and drawings of a woman friend has diverted attention from the real issues of his art. Once again, he has become the object of controversy, and at a time when several of his critics were beginning to reconsider their original objections to his work.

Not that they or anyone else questions his talent or skill. Both were already very much in evidence during his teens. No, what his critics have difficulty with is the creative use to which he puts his natural gifts. Has he used them properly? Is what he produces with them truly art?

A sizable number say, no, it is not. That what he paints is really first-rate illustration or, at best, a bittersweet, heavily romanticized evocation of a rural America that no longer exists. A few go even further and insist he's little more than a clever hack.

Most, however, believe he is sincere, and that if he cannot legitimately be classified as a ``significant'' artist, it is only because he's ignorant of modernist goals and ideals and doesn't understand what the great artists since C'ezanne and Van Gogh attempted and achieved.

All of which, of course, is utter nonsense. Wyeth is perfectly aware of what's been going on in art these past hundred years. If he has chosen another path from that taken by such other Americans as Jasper Johns and Richard Dieben-korn, it is for solid creative and professional reasons, not because he is ignorant of modernist ideas or because he is naive.

Many of his critics are so caught up with the notion of ``mainstream'' art, with the idea that an artist, in order to be taken seriously, must paint in a manner that reflects the current art-world consensus of what constitutes relevancy or significance, that they have lost the ability to look beyond a work's style to what it represents or communicates.

It seems never to occur to them that a deeply committed artist of genuine talent and substance could turn his or her back on any or all modernist or post-modernist approaches without batting an eyelash. And yet it happens all the time, whether the art establishment cares to admit it or not.

Wyeth, of course, is the outstanding American example of someone who has done just that - and who has achieved an extraordinary amount of popular success in the process.

That, above all, is Wyeth's unforgivable crime. If there is one thing the elite of the art world cannot abide, it is the realization that an artist they admire is also a particular favorite of plumbers and farmers. They find that intolerable, for it threatens their claim to be ``special,'' to have insights and sensitivities beyond those of ``ordinary'' human beings.

It's ironic that art, the great humanizer, should also be the refuge of individuals whose only claim to fame is that they are ``better'' than others by virtue of their exquisite sensibilities and commitment to advanced ideas.

Not surprisingly, it is important to these people that art be perceived in the most precious and progressive of terms, as something so subtle and innovative that only persons of unusual refinement and imagination could possibly understand and appreciate it.

Given this fact, it is understandable that Wyeth, because of his no-nonsense approach to art, insistence on cultural continuity, disinterest in modernistic rhetoric and formalist theory, and extraordinary popularity, should find himself the prime target of his more ``perceptive'' and ``forward looking'' peers and contemporaries.

To them he is the great debaser, the painter who most cleverly and persistently brings art down to its lowest common denominator to make it accessible to all.

For that he cannot be forgiven - and indeed he won't be, unless a group of influential critics and curators decides he is special after all. That he is, in fact, a kind of latter-day Thomas Eakins, an artist of hitherto unsuspected depths and subtleties whose qualities (of course) go just a little beyond the comprehension of ordinary men and women.

Should that ever happen (and I suspect it will, sooner or later), he could easily end up as one of America's most highly acclaimed 20th-century painters. He has the substance, consistency, and body of work - to say nothing of the art - for that to occur.

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