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The Many Masks of Modern Art

I would like to take exception to the currently fashionable dogma that art can have no significant effect upon human destiny because it has failed to prevent even one war, avert even one catastrophe, or block even one tyrant.

German Expressionism, the argument goes, for all its profound human and political concerns and passionate warnings, could not delay World War I by even so much as one hour - and exercised absolutely no deterrent upon Hitler's rise to power. And Russian Constructivism, for all its working class commitments and social idealism, could do absolutely nothing to stop Stalin's totalitarian state - and was, in fact, itself destroyed by it.

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Although these are the most dramatic examples trotted out to prove art's failure to affect the course of human destiny, they are by no means the only ones. Every artistic idea or style that was carried to any degree of realization has been confronted with the question of what genuine effect it has had upon anything except the course of art itself. And the verdict, handed down by those who accept this dogma, has invariably been negative, has been that art, for all its good intentions, has had no real authority, is really nothing but a passive reflection of individual and cultural attitudes, experiences, and ideals.

I couldn't disagree more if someone told me that love has had no significant effect upon human destiny because it has failed to prevent wars, catastrophes, or the rise of tyrants. Or that good faith, respect for one's fellowman, or a belief in transcendent values were of little cultural significance for very much the same reasons.

Unless I'm very much mistaken, I've detected a note of gleeful satisfaction on the part of several critics and writers who have been particularly quick to condemn art for this ''failure.'' I'm left with the impression that it pleases them somehow that art has ''fallen on its face'' trying to accomplish things beyond its supposed capabilities. They seem pleased that art, having done so, will have learned its lesson, and will now return, like a good little boy, to its neat squares and circles, its handsome colors and lovely designs, and leave the really important matters to the ''grown-ups.''

The trouble with this point of view is that it is predicated on the notion that art is primarily the creation of more or less perfect things; that the more ''perfect'' in form these things are, the greater they are as art; and that, therefore, anything that contributes toward this ''perfection'' is good, and anything that detracts from it is bad - and does not belong in art.

In other words, it is better to paint a perfect circle, signifying nothing but its own ''perfection,'' than to paint a highly complex but not quite ''perfect'' work attempting to give symbolic form to a profoundly disturbing human reality or situation. Or, to be more specific, it is better to have created a ''perfect'' Arp, Malevich, or Noland than to have painted an ''imperfect'' Guernica.

The truth of the matter is that Picasso's Guernica, flawed as it might be, is worth a hundred ''perfect'' works by Arp, Malevich, or Noland - not only because it is a formidable formal exercise, but also because it will challenge human conscience for centuries to come. The other artists' works, on the other hand, will only be remembered - if they are remembered at all - as handsome objects, or as representative of certain twentieth-century formal ideas.

The important thing to remember - and I cannot, for the life of me, understand why this is not better understood - is that art is not primarily a matter of things, but of ideas, feelings, emotions, ideals, qualities, perceptions, given form and projected through things, and that art, at its truest and deepest, is not something merely to look at and to admire, but is something to confront, engage, and involve oneself within. That it is, in short, an active process, not a passive state.

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Now, it is precisely this active and dynamic quality that has been so crucial to the art of the past century, and which has given it so much of its character and meaning. This has been a restless and an anxious age, and a very insecure one. Art has swung, as though on a pendulum, from one extreme to the other - and has taken a more ''far out'' position every time it has done so.

And yet, underneath it all, it has been art, in every one of its manifestations, from dance to poetry, that has tried most desperately to come to grips with and to symbolically resolve the great issues and questions of our time. That it has failed seven out of ten times to do so, and has failed to affect the course of world affairs to any obvious extent, should not be held against it. And, most important, that ''failure'' should not be used as a club to force art back to its neat little pleasantries and smug islands of conformity.It should rather be applauded for its heroic attempts to prove that reality and truth are perceivable and attainable - if only for a split second or only on a symbolic level.

It should also, however, be very clearly understood that art, while it may set up goals and ideals, project qualities and values, inspire and instill hopes and good faith, is only the transmitter of these realities, never their instigator.

Art can only do as man directs, consciously or unconsciously. And so, if anyone is to ''blame'' for art's failure to affect the course of world affairs, it must be man. Art's potentials for true greatness and importance have not yet, I'm convinced, been truly tested. Once - and if - they are, I think we'll be astonished at what art can do.

What it has already accomplished, however, during the past one hundred years is astonishing enough. During that period we have had one truly great painter, Paul Cezanne, another magnificent artist, Pablo Picasso, whose greatness may still be in question but whose genuis is not, and still another genius (or near-genius) by the name of Henri Matisse. We have also had a handful of other artists of only slightly lesser caliber or vision, from Braque, Rouault, de Chirico, Brancusi, to Klee, Mondrian, Morandi, Calder, and Pollock.

Cezanne, however, towers above the rest, not only because he was one of the most original and truly revolutionary artists of the past several centuries but also because he was the major ''gate'' through which Western painting passed, in order to become twentieth-century modernism.

His true greatness, however, lies in something very subtle and difficult to define: his extraordinary ability to give form to a perception of reality that is unified, totally consistent, and whole, and in a manner that activates a similar perception in the alert viewer.

I remember the excitement with which a friend of mine described his first real encounter with a Cezanne painting. He was at a museum looking at paintings in his usual art-historical and basically intellectual fashion, when he came upon a Cezanne landscape. He studied it for a while, and decided to forgo analysis and to try to ''give over'' to it, to try to ''enter'' it. He concentrated on the painting for a few moments, and then, very gradually, became aware that, in a way he still doesn't understand, it was beginning to engage his perceptions and sensibilities, and was slowly but inexorably, altering them to conform to its perceptual realities.

He described it as very close to a visionary experience, in which his vague and slightly disjointed everyday feelings and perceptions were redirected to give him a glimpse, as experience, of something whole, intact, and complete. Even more important, it left him feeling alert, focused, highly energized - and convinced that he had been on the threshold of something deep and mysterious.

Others have described similar experiences with Cezanne's paintings. And I myself have found that nothing can pull me together and redirect me as simply and as lyrically as a painting by that artist.

Man With Crossed Arms is a particularly good example of a Cezanne painting that has, over the years, exercised its remarkable effect upon me. Viewed simply as a painterly object, as a thing, it is rather unimpressive and ordinary-looking. But, if it is identified with and experienced as a clue, as a guide to a deeper and more total perception of reality than the one we normally have, it can be an action-altering event. As an object, neither it nor any other Cezanne painting has prevented any wars, but as the expression of an idea, and as the activator of a deeper awareness of reality and truth, it exists as a means to undermine or dissipate the insanity that leads to war.

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