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The many masks of modern art

Originality in art is very difficult to pin down, for it sets its own rules and conditions, and they seem to vary from age to age. One of the most original of all works of art, Albrecht Durer's "The Young Hare," resulted from nothing more unusual than an artist looking very, very carefully at a young animal, and the trying his very best to draw it exactly as it appeared.

We today, of course, would tend to see such an act as the very height of unoriginality, as nothing more than the slavish copying of nature. But, in its time and place, it was a truly revolutionary act.

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To us today originality lies more in the imaginative ability to do something dramatically different (regardless of its intrinsic merit), or in the knack of inventing something out of whole cloth. We also see it as the ability to stand out from the crowd, and, at times, as the ideal way to achieve fame and glory.

Durer's originality, however, lay in his ability to perceive and to transmit a particularly full and clear image of physical reality directly to paper by means of line and color, and without following certain rigidly prescribed rules for drawing based on centuries of tradition. But there were risks. For him, in 1502, to sit down in front of a rabbit and to try to draw it exactly (and only) as it appeared to him was to challenge the weight of that tradition, and to set himself up in opposition to the formal dogmas of the Italian Renaissance -- as well as to the rules of his own northern tradition.

But he persisted -- and we know what happened. "The Young Hare" is now generally acknowledged as one of the greatest drawings of all times. Not greater than the best drawings of his Italian Renaissance contemporaries, but equally great and true -- only in a different way.

While Durer may have been one of the first artists to make the search for originality a conscious and crucial part of his creative life, and to have insisted that art be as much personal expression and search for identity as cultural event, he most certainly was not among the last to think so. Since his day, the notion that originality is the only true source of art has gained such momentum that we now tend to judge art on the basis of originality, as much as anything else, if not more.

There is nothing more frustrating than trying to talk to young artists ruthlessly determined to be original at all costs -- unless it is trying to communicate to the older ones still desperately hanging on to their youthful dreams of a glorious originality. The tragedy, of course, is that the latter often had real talent, but have long since abandoned it (possibly for fear of admitting that it was a modest one) for a fugitive and highly fickle dream of being "original" and thus beyond any and all competition.

One artist whose increasingly obsessive search for originality did manage to bring him fame and fortune (if not the full respect of his peers), wa Salvador Dali. No ther major figure in the long and complex history of 20th-century art tried so desperately to be original. And none did as much damage to his native abilities as a result.

Dali's is one of the genuine tragedies of our 20th-century culture, and for that reason I've always had a soft spot in my heart for him. For all intents and purposes, he is a fugitive from the Royal Spanish Courts of the 17th century. He would probably have been much happier wearing feathers and lace, and hobnobbing with kings and dukes (perhaps sporting a title himself), than living in this century of the common man.

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Dali struts a stage that no longer exists. He is so much the aristocrat that he insists on elegance and refinement in his art even when he has nothing to say. But, rather than remain silent (for he has had little of significance to say for almost 30 years), he insists on striking outlandish poses, spouting pseudoscientific nonsense, acting like a royal personage, and, in general, wasting his considerable talents on the shallowest and most idiosyncratic pictorial frippery. And it is too bad, for his need to stand out, to be different, unique, and, above all, original, has pushed him into some of the strangest excesses ever perpetrated in the name of art.

But that has not always been so. A few of his early oils -- mostly small still lifes of such things as bread and fish, and a few tiny surrealist gems -- are among the most haunting paintings of the century. And there are a few works of the mid-to-late 1930s (and the painting on this page is one), which exist as worthy examples of surrealism at its best.

But then there are the others, done more recently, that are among the emptiest and most ridiculous paintings exexuted since the heyday of the French Academy. I'm referring most particularly to his huge allegorical and pseudoreligious extravaganzas of the last 30 years.

With the exception of the Glasgow "Christ of ST. John of the Cross" (which is , despite its trick effects, a genuinely moving work of art), these paintings are hollow and pretentious -- even with their exquisite Vermeer-like technique and extraordinary inventiveness. They are proof that Dali was victimized by one of the most pervasive and destructive myths of our time: the one that holds that originality is a definable and thus a predicable quality, and that it can be willed into existence.

But it cannot. Originality is more a matter of being than of doing, and exists in the very nature of the individual who expresses it. It is intrinsic to identity, and, on its most primitive level, is quite simply an individual's uniqueness. We are all of us, in other words, intrinsically original.

And yet we tend gradually to subvert this quality as we grow up by permitting it to be overwhelmed by other considerations: by the need for peer approval, or by our preference for a ritualized rather than a dynamic life.

Or, as in the case of dali, we pervert this quality by twisting it for ambitious ends.

Dali, for all his abilities and achievements, will most likely be remembered much more for his eccentricities and idiosyncrasies than for the genuine touches of originality he permitted himself in his simpler moments.

And he is not alone in that respect, as a day's visit to our galleries and museums will reveal. The myth that originality can be willed into being is continuing, and will continue, to take its regular toll of talented as well as untalented victims.

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