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The many masks of modern art

A friend called the other night to tell me that I hadn't as yet persuaded him to change his mind about abstract art -- or about the many other new styles and forms of painting and sculpture that have been popping up all over the place.

He added that, while I hadm managed to persuade him to take such modern figures as Pollock, Noland, Caro, Andre, Dine, etc., a bit more seriously -- that he could see now that they were not frauds and charlatans -- he still couldn't accept them as artists in the true sense of the word.

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"Who is an artists in the true sense of the word," I asked, "and why?"

"Someone like Cezanne and Picasso," he responded. "Or Henry Moore -- even Ben Shahn. I'd also include Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper. They care,m they paint pictures or make sculptures that speak to human needs. I recognize myself and my realities in their art. I can hang up a painting by Cezanne or Hopper and feel that it speaks directly to me, that it recognizes and acknowledges the truth and the importance of mym existence. I don't feel that the picture or the sculpture is just a piece of clever gimmickry as I do in the case of, say, Jim Dine."

"Why do you single him out?"

"Because you speak of him quite often and have shown me those photographs of his things, the ones with the tools stuck on canvas, and because you can't get to first base convincing me that he is really an artist."

"That's because," I answered, "you want me to prove that Dine is great, profound, and concerned before you will let yourself respond directly to his work, before you will let yourself enjoy it."

"I'm not talking about enjoyment," he said, "but about something deeper. I must admit that I find Dine's tool pictures witty in an odd sort of way -- just as I get a kick out of Oldernburg's wacky sculptures. But that's something else again. No, it's not pleasure I'm talking about. It's meaning and significance and the furtherance of human values through art. I'm talking about art that causes me to be a little bit bigger and better as a person than I was before."

Our conversation continued in this vein for a few more minutes and then ended , as have all our recent conversations on art, with a sense of frustation on both sides.

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Why is it, I asked myself, that it is painting and sculpture that bear the brunt of so much misunderstanding and hostility today? Why do experimental theater, literature, film, dance, and music (with the probable exception of electronic music) have less trouble gaining acceptance? Is it because the so-called visual arts are more outrageously daring and original -- and so more difficult for the general public to reach? Or is it -- and I shuddered to think of it -- because the premises of recent modernist and post-modernist painting and sculpture are shaky and weak, possibly even false?

Was my friend, whom I've always admired for his open- mindedness toward the new, just simply missing the point of recent art -- or had he put his finger or its crucial flaw?

Was the art of this period after World War II actually shallow and little more than decorative doodling or cleverly packaged pictorial sensation?

And, if it was only that, was it art at all?

I must admit that I have never been one of the true believers in modernism. My 40-year love affair with the art of our century has been a rocky one, consisting of a series of flashes of insight followed by periods of wary examination of theory and motivation. Like the original "doubting Thomas," I've needed to "touch" and thereby verify for myself the succession of miracles which constitutes the history of modern art.

My first reaction to the excitement of seeing provocative new work is to try to see through it, to play the devil's advocate with it. And when I do so I am ruthless; no holds are barred. What is surprising, however, is how little of such art fails this acid test. It may not end up the "equal" of Rubens or Matisse, or even Poons or Zox, but it almost always has something good in it, be it "advanced" or "conservative."

One of the great surprises of my life has been how well Miro has held up in my private world of first-rate 20th-century artists. And this goes also for Mondrian, Calder, Dubuffet, Pollock, all artists whose work I originally felt was flashy and trivial, even when it excited me.

From the day that I, as a high school student, first encountered a Miro, a part of me has been active in revolt against the idea that such a "mere doodler" could be an important, possibly even a great, painter. It violated something deep inside me -- the part of me forever in love with Rembrandt and Michelangelo -- that such a splasher of paint could have something significant to say, could even be called an artist.

For almost 40 years this side of me has been trying to toss Miro aside, but, like a rubber ball, he always bounces back. The work itself, its reality, passion, form, integrity, beauty, convinced me over and over again that it was alive, vital, and good.

And this has been the case with all the other art of our century which has remained or become important to me, and whose original appearance within my world was outside the scope of my immediate intellectual acceptance.

I was bowled over by the sight of my first Jackson Pollock in 1947, but disheartened at the same time that painting had sunk so "low." I doubt if any of those who despise Pollock have questioned everythingm about his art as intensively as I have. I tried in every way to find him a charlatan and a fraud -- or superficial -- but I couldn't, and another glimpse this week of his "Autumn Rhythm" at the Metropolitan Museum left me more convinced than ever that he is the most important American painter of this century.

The side of me that sees Michelangelo as the greatest of all Western artists doesn't much like that conviction, but then, neither does the side that loves Miro appreciate the fact that seeing a 1979 Andrew Wyeth painting in the Metropolitan that same day jolted me into realizing that Wyeth is indeed one of America's major contemporary painters.

And so it goes. I cannot answer my friend except to say that, by putting life and vitality ahead of false facades and empty monumentality, today's art has remained true to the central and crucial realities of mankind.

As to greatness and profound significance, well, I don't know. I suppose in one respect we could say that the great ocean liner which was traditional Western art, has been sunk and that we now find ourselves floating in open waters. Under these circumstances, we should be grateful for whatever life-sustaining art comes along, even if it is not as grand and inspiring as our ocean liner.

But then, I also can't help feeling that today's art, by addressing itself specifically to our immediate realities, provides all the significance we need, and that, should we need more, we dom have the art of the historically great upon which to draw.

The crucial thing is to remain open. Life must come first, and we must learn to accept it wherever it pops up, regardless of how odd or novel a form it may take. Perhaps that is the real source of the significance of 20th-century art.

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