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The many masks of modern art

Creativity is not a rare commodity. We all have it to some degree or other, although we may not recognize it as such.

It can express itself in many forms - through such simple things as the care a teacher takes to instill a love of learning in a young pupil, or the willingness of an older person to help a younger one establish himself in a career. Or through such complex action as the dedication and determination of an entire community to the successful realization of a far-reaching social project.

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All these and thousands of other acts of loving generosity are genuine expressions of creativity on its simplest and most direct level - while the writing of music to sell soap, the painting of turgidly sentimental landscapes on black velvet, are not, no matter how brilliantly or effectively they are done.

On its deepest level, creativity is a form of love that expresses itself as the urge to clarify and to share with others what it holds most dear. It is the expression of an expansive, curious, and generous spirit eager to do what it must to activate, provoke, reveal, or release the fullest aspects of life and love in itself and in others.

Creativity is a matter of generosity of spirit and impulse, not of brilliance or skill. It cannot be claimed by those who use their talents or skills - extraordinary as they may be - for self-indulgent or manipulative purposes. Nor can it be defined in terms of an individual's brilliant performance within a highly regarded art or craft. An unskilled laborer whittling objects out of wood as a hobby can be more profoundly creative than the most highly trained sculptor who sees his work largely as an exercise in technique.

This confusion of creativity with skill has complicated the entire issue of what is and what is not art. It has caused rough and clumsy-looking but genuinely expressive works to be ridiculed and dismissed, and works of vacuous technical virtuosity to be acclaimed as great works of art. But worst of all, it has often prevented very new and ''difficult'' works of art from being perceived and appreciated for what they really are.

In this context, it's important to point out that recognizing that art in an object everyone else sees as nonsensical is very close to a creative act in itself. It cannot be done unless the individual concerned is almost as open and free from prejudices and misconceptions as the artist. And has almost as deep and broad a perception of art's possibilities as he who actually creates it.

Although the non-creator may not be ruled by the same inner necessity that compels the creator to make art, he can share with him his sense of adventure and curiosity. In his case, however, the adventurous quality must take the form of an alertness to what the innovative artist will do next. If such an artist is seen as a firefly giving off flashes of illumination in the dark, then the sensitive critic, curator, dealer, or collector must be seen as someone eagerly waiting in the dark for that firefly to glow. (And not, as some critics see themselves, as the person who knows best, and whose responsibility it is to tell the ''firefly'' what to do next.)

There is a crucial difference between the person who has grappled directly with the process of creativity and one who has not, and this leads to most of the misunderstanding about what the former is doing. It makes those relatively few individuals who can bridge the gap all the more valuable.

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One of the most important and influential of the latter in recent years was artist and art dealer Betty Parsons. From 1940 until her death this year, she exhibited the works of an incredible number of our best American artists, while also producing a large body of wonderfully warm and colorful paintings and sculptures.

Her contribution to the art of our time is incalculable. It included encouraging and giving shows to youngsters who would later dominate American - and to a certain extent, world - art; giving lectures about art and artists to almost anyone who asked; and serving on juries-of-selection for countless exhibitions. And all this time - but most specifically from 1946 until the mid to late 1960s - she and her gallery were considered among the true guiding lights of the newly emerging American art.

The roster of the artists whose work she showed at one time or other reads like a Who's Who of American Art. It includes Cornell, Steinberg, Stamos, Gottlieb, Hayter, Hofmann, Rothko, Reinhardt, Still, Pollock, Newman, Rauschenberg, Krasner, Lindner, Kelly, Youngerman, and Agnes Martin - and this takes us only up to the 1960s. For every one of these artists who achieved fame, there were dozens whose art was only fractionally lower in quality or importance. From the beginning of her career as a dealer until its end this past July, Betty Parsons remained alert for anything and everything that could in any way be described as having the quality of art.

Most of us sooner or later learned to pay attention to her choices. She had the uncanny ability of cutting through rhetoric and surface charm, and of getting down to the central issue of whether or not the artist in question had anything life-enhancing to communicate. Her judgments were predicated on deeper things than skill, fashion, orthodoxy, or brilliance. They were, instead, based on an individual's ability to transmit the quality of life through color, form, spatial tensions, line, texture. If an artist had this ability, it didn't matter to her what form the art took.

This in itself, simple and even obvious as it might seem, was so rare a quality in an art dealer that it quickly set her apart from the majority of her professional colleagues. But that wasn't all. She also gave her artists total freedom. ''Each of my artists,'' she said, ''is an individual. Once I have made my selection, I have complete trust in the artist's creative work. . . . I would never dream of imposing my will for the sake of recognition or applause.''

In her heart of hearts, however, Betty Parsons was an artist. She had studied sculpture as a young woman in New York and Paris, and had had her first show in that latter city in 1927. She supported herself as a teacher in California for three years after her return to the United States in 1933, and in 1936 returned permanently to New York. From then on she began to exhibit regularly, starting out as a traditional watercolorist, and then gradually moving toward abstraction in the 1940s.

It's in her later painted wooden sculptures, however, that her artistic talents converged most successfully. These were generally totemlike structures assembled from driftwood, stones, bits and pieces of weatherbeaten and time-worn furniture, and various odds and ends picked up wherever she went. These were then painted and textured in whatever manner struck her fancy.

The result of all this patching and hammering together was art that was warm, fascinatingly alive, colorful - and good. Since she refused to exhibit her work in her own gallery, it was up to others to do so, which they did, with considerable success.

Only once did her gallery break her rule against exhibiting her work. In September of this year a selection of her later works was brought together for a memorial exhibition. One room was filled with wooden structures she had made during the last six months of her life, and another was filled with slightly older constructions.

It was a lovely and heartwarming show, and one I'm very glad I saw. I almost missed it, however, because I had left a great Kaethe Kollwitz exhibition a few minutes before, and had decided not to lessen its impact by looking at any other work that day.

Even so, something drew me in to the Betty Parsons Gallery, and I was deeply moved by what I saw. Not only because of her work, but also because it reminded me once again of how infinitely varied art can be. No two artists could have been more dissimilar than Kollwitz, with her monumental black-and-white images of human dignity, and Parsons, with her lyrically abstract and highly colorful images of fun and enigma. And yet both were artists, each in her own way, and on her own level of achievement. But most of all, both were profoundly creative individuals for whom creativity extended way beyond the mere act of fashioning art.

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