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Morality in art: is it a lost cause?

Has Modernism Failed?, by Suzi Gablik. New York: Thames Hudson, distibuted by W. W. Norton. 133 pp. $14.95. In a recent advertising communiqu'e, Hilton Kramer, formerly lead art critic for the New York Times, stated that ``after viewing the art scene all these years, it is impossible for me not to ask: What's wrong here?'' Suzi Gablik has written a small but important book that confronts the problems of today's art world.

Ms. Gablik is an artist and critic who has written several books on art, one in conjunction with John Russell, also art critic of the New York Times. She studied with Robert Motherwell and is at present London critic for Art in America.

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``Has Modernism Failed?'' is a series of essays exploring several phases of the contemporary art arena. The first issue Gablik confronts is the artist's responsibility to society. Until the modern era all art was socially directed. Commissioned by the church or state, its purpose was to present the views of the patron as well as the artist. Within these restrictions it was the artist's challenge to be as creative as possible. Now the artist eschews such commitment in favor of total individuality and freedom. There seems no desire on the part of the postmodernist artist to communicate or relate. His only concern is satisfying his own inner needs. This, Gablik states, reflects modern society's fundamental assumption that the main social unit today is not the group, tribe, or city, but the individual. This attitude leads to a confused pluralism where there is neither direction nor standards. What then is a work of art? Is it a row of bricks by minimal artist Carl Andre? Or is it Chris Burden having himself nailed to the top of a Volkswagen?

Gablik echoes other voices in decrying corporate and bureaucratic influences on the art market. A number of years ago Tom Wolfe claimed in his book ``The Painted Word'' that the New York school of painting was really the creation of art critics who had artists illustrate their aesthetic concepts. In return the artists received favorable reviews. Now, it seems, the critic has been replaced by the art dealer. Mary Boone is better known than some of the artists she represents. The artist has become a disposable item. It is the marketing system that is indispensable. The artist, Gablik says, has become an organizational personality who submits to cultural and economic systems for the rewards of money and prestige.

Gablik's most impassioned plea is for a return of morality to art -- even a religious sense. In a secular society, where nothing is sacred, the symbols of the artist have been demystified and formalized to the point of having no meaning. When an artist's goal is merely receiving the plaudits of the New York power structure, there is no need for moral obligation. All that is called for is professional success. Gablik contends that art must combine moral values with social and aesthetic standards. She says, ``Art is not value-free as science tries so hard to be -- it is motivated and purposive.'' But she feels that the time is past for the artist to retreat into his ivory tower or rebel against the system. The artist must be strong enough to retain his personal ethics while working within the system to bring back standards higher than those of an economic structure. Self-seeking is not enough.

As I read this book, I was overcome by a deep sadness. I realized that Gablik's criticisms of the art world could be applied to a broad range of today's institutions and to society itself. The need is for higher moral standards and less self-seeking reaches beyond SoHo and the galleries of Madison Avenue. The defects she lays at the doorstep of art could easily be deposited on corporate verandas and governmental porches. The artist can be a leader in areas of thought, aesthetics, and even morality, but he also reflects the world he lives in. He may be more sensitive to the mental atmosphere and not always able to maintain his equilibrium. Gablik's solution of rebuilding a sound ethical tradition will take struggle and sacrifice on the part of many, but it may be the only answer.

Charles McVicker teaches art at Trenton State College.

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