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The many masks of modern art - 1

I'd love to be their guide, should Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Cezanne ever return to this world for a day of museum and gallery viewing. What would they think of Picasso and Matisse? Of Klee, Mondrian, and Miro? How would I explain Jackson Pollock to them? Or Pop, Op, Hard Edge, Minimal, or Conceptual art? What would be their reaction to the photo-realists, Calder's mobiles, or David Smith's stainless-steel constructions?

Would they accept Wyeth and Hopper? Diego Rivera? Or Benton, Grosz, Dali, and Moore? Would they have the vaguest notion of what Beuys is trying to do?

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I suspect they would be confused and upset. Perhaps not Cezanne so much because he would recognize his influence in much of what they had seen, but Rembrandt, I think, would be depressed, and Michaelangelo would most certainly fly into a rage.

Such reactions would not be surprising considering how foreign this art would be to them. But what ism surprising is how many of us living in this century feel the same way about much of this art even though it was created by and for us. Although we accept one or another of its schools or styles we generally reject the rest -- and usually with anger and comtempt.

How sad to view art so narrowly and to feel that one must take sides in its appreciation! To prefer one kind of art over another is one thing, but then to condemn the rest is to make a mockery out of art. We still fail to see that art's function is less to please and to lend support than to give evidence of a greater order, that its role is to extend our perception of nature and function of life.

Art is the sworn enemy of fragmentation and of any philosophy which sees life as a collection of bits and pieces. Nothing is ever created which is not instantly in dynamic dialogue with everything else, and every work of art militates against categories, compartments, and the bottomless pits into which we otherwise place those who disagree with us. Every work of art illuminates a tiny facet of the whole, and is as crucial as any other.

Nothing about twentieth century art is as disturbing as its warring factions, its schisms and its accusations of heresy and illegitimacy. The battle for modernism is far from over as long as large segments of our population continue to maintain that something is art only if it approximates the appearance of physical reality, or if it follows the strict rules of tradition. And the battle for reason in art is not over as long as representational art is considered regressive or irrelevant by its very nature.

It is time we gave legitimacy to the term "twentieth century art" by expanding it to include the full range of art produced in our century -- barring only such works designed specifically to flatter us or to demean our sensibilities? Or are we so fearful of contamination from art not acceptable to our peers that we prefer blinders to the pleasures and insights such art might give us? Are we going to remain the prisoners of prejudice as was the collector of every "advanced" art who, at the end of an appraisal of his abstract paintings, apologetically hauled an Andrew Wyeth watercolor from his closet. It is valuable, he said, and should be insured, but could it be put on a separate list? He had bought it recently on impulse and liked it very much, but he feared his friends' ridicule should they hear of it.

Andrew Wyeth and Jackson Pollock. Those names alone make may point! We are so programmed to think that the first is our most wonderful artist and the second our most reprehensible -- or vice versa -- that we fail to examine them seriously as painters.

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I am disturbed by this division of the art world into "good guys" and "bad guys." If the distinction were based on quality it would make sense, but predicating it upon stylistic affiliation doesn't -- unless we accept the notion that everything of artistic value is contained within one tradition or that the nature of art is such that it must follow one path and one path only.

Since I can't accept either premise, it occurred to me that writing some essays detailing alternative points of view might be in order. These I envision as gentle and informative, and designed to help make the art of our age a little more accessible without in any way demeaning or over-simplifying it.

This is the first of these essays and serves as the introduction to the rest.

My intentions are to remain non-partisan within the framework of a passionate concern for art. The only "bad guys" flushed out into the open will be those who violate the principles of art for sensationalism, publicity, or monetary gain. Other than that the only issues at stake will be honesty, integrity, talent, and good faith. That and the ability to see the other person's point of view.

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