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The many masks of modern art

We're teaching our youngsters only half of what art is all about. And the half we're teaching them is of much less importance than the half we are leaving out.

We're teaching them about technique, craft, composition, form, the importance of self-expression and originality, and a good deal of art history. What we are not teaching them is why art exists and why it is important.

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This was brought dramatically home to me during a recent discussion with a group of art students. The discussion, after ranging far and wide over many topics, came around to a particular representational painter about whom I had written a very favorable article.

''OK, so he's good,'' one of the students ventured, ''but I don't think he's original. What new things is he coming up with? What kind of contribution is he making?''

I glanced at the handful of teachers present, and they, as well as the other students, seemed curious about my answer.

I tried to respond by first relating this artist's work to some of the larger issues and goals of art. But nobody was interested. What they wanted to hear was whether or not he was making a conceptual or formal ''contribution'' to the modernist tradition. Was he, in other words, continuing to expand the formal and conceptual vocabulary that had come down to us from the seminal modernists of the first decade of the twentieth century? And they made it very clear that if he was, fine and good, but if he was not, he would cease being of any further interest to them.

I don't think I was able to convince anyone present that the artist we were discussing was truly an excellent one. As far as they were concerned, by rejecting modernist precepts (and it didn't matter that he had done so only after a decade of soul-searching), he had damned himself to professional oblivion.

Fortunately, this no longer reflects the general everyday attitude of the art world. More and more non-modernists are finding professional recognition. And yet, although things have improved on the surface, they haven't done so to any real extent on a deeper and more crucial level. There, narrow-mindedness, and an unwillingness to broaden the base of art, remain as strong and as militant as ever. And that applies to both modernists and non-modernists alike.

The problem stems largely from our narrow perception of what art is and of what it can do. And from our conditioned responses to the kind of art education we still all too frequently receive.

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I was appalled, for instance, to overhear a teacher tell her very young pupils during a tour of an Andy Warhol exhibition at the Whitney Museum some time ago that Warhol was one of the greatest artists of this century. She gave no reasons for that statement, and asked for neither questions nor discussion from her pupils. But what was worse, after touring the show, she had them group themselves around Warhol's huge portrait of Chairman Mao, and then presented them with a litany of Pop-Art cliches that was as distorted as it was empty-headed. But that wasn't all. Before asking them to stand up and file out of the museum, she pointed to a child of ten or so and asked her who Andy Warhol was. ''America's greatest artist,'' was the prompt reply.

Now, this sort of ''art education'' is deadly - and it doesn't matter if the ''greatest artist'' is declared to be Warhol, Andrew Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, or Julian Schnabel. Without the presentation of an art-historical context, and without a discussion of the forces that helped shape a particular artist or school, any declaration of ''greatness'' is, at best, stupid and misleading.

It's not as though we lived in a closed society such as the early Egyptian or Aztec, in which all art partook of one style, and in which art could be judged according to a precisely graded scale of skills and values. In a situation like that, it was relatively easy to decide who and what was best.

But that is not our situation. Our society is wide-open, and our art is as diffuse and fragmented as any has ever been. No artist alive today can speak for more than a small fraction of mankind, which means that Warhol can no more be declared America's greatest artist than can Wyeth, Calder, Rockwell, Pollock, or anyone else whose art has a devoted following. What's more, because of our cultural fragmentation, I doubt that any artist today can in any true sense be described as great.

Now, there are those who would argue that artistic greatness is determined by strict adherence to an orthodox position or ideal. They would insist that an artist's primary responsibility is to fashion one (and only one) truly universal art that would speak for an entire culture. Unfortunately, although many men and women of great talent and dedication have devoted their lives to this ideal, it simply has not worked. Almost eighty years have elapsed since this notion was first put into effect, and we are no closer now to a ''universal'' style than we were in the early days of the Constructivists and Neo-Plasticists. If anything, we are further from it than ever.

No, a universal art cannot be willed, distilled, or legislated into being. It must emerge from mankind's deepest levels of collective being. But how can such an art emerge if we are increasingly at odds with ourselves and with one another , and seem, at least, to be drifting further apart?

I believe that art is becoming increasingly pluralistic and multifaceted, and that we will have to learn to live with the fact that ideas and forms that do not represent our notions of truth and beauty have as much right to exist and to be respected as do ours. Isn't it better to have dozens of styles and forms of expression to enjoy and to appreciate rather than merely two or three? After all , do we love one friend any the less for having several? Or the taste of watermelon any the less for also loving the taste of bread?

Which is not to say that we must accept all art indiscriminately, and without weighing it against our own standards and values. To do so would be a violation of art's reason for being, and a denial of that deepening perception of the nature of quality, integrity, and truth that is art's unique gift to us.

No, since art is about quality, integrity, and truth, we must take it seriously. We must not, however, insist that these qualities can only come through one form or style of art. Art, after all, is only a series of windows looking out upon deeper and greater dimensions of being, of truth. It is not truth itself.

Even so, we will always have our preferences and prejudices, our ''blind spots,'' as far as art is concerned. I cannot for the life of me, for instance, understand all the fuss being made over the work of Robert Smithson. And I say that knowing full well that his monumental earthwork, ''Spiral Jetty,'' is considered one of the major artworks of the past twenty years, and that any number of sober and intelligent individuals think he was one of this country's most important twentieth-century artists.

I've tried my best to feel something about his work - but I cannot. Books and articles on his art and on his theories haven't helped, and neither have long discussions with his fans. I believe I understand what he was trying to do, and the inner logic of what he did is such that I believe he succeeded in translating his intentions into actuality at least reasonably well. Even so, I feel nothing either positive or negative about his work. As far as my feelings, intuitions, sensibilities, and the sum of my experiences in art are concerned, what Smithson produced has not as yet registered for me as art.

What it actually is, I don't know. Since it caught the fancy of so many people, and was so influential on other earthwork and conceptual artists, I cannot argue against his work's ''importance,'' or even, let me add, against its being art. And neither do I feel the slightest need or wish to do so. To me personally, at this minute, it's not art. And yet it is altogether possible that some insight tomorrow will cause me to begin changing my mind. I'm not really concerned one way or the other. I've learned my lesson. After all, there was a time, long, long ago when I couldn't for the life of me understand all the fuss being made over Cezanne. And then, later, over Calder and Miro.

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