ART matters most because it communicates significant human truths, insights, and experiences, not because it is pretty, entertaining, or charming. Nor even because it can serve as the cutting edge of a culture's inquiries into the future. We tend to forget this, however, and to focus on a work's surface characteristics, or on how challenging or innovative its subject or style may be. We have even been known to view art merely as an indicator of fashion, as something to admire or ignore according to the dictates of a few influential tastemakers.
The problem with this is that it limits what we receive from art and prevents us from perceiving and responding to the often quite subtle qualities that set genuine works of art apart from more ordinary pictorial statements. This is particularly true of the kind of painting and sculpture that not only embodies an extraordinary creative sensibility but gives voice to it in ways that often are oblique and elusive.
Thus, while Redon's florals may appear to be about anemones, poppies, and geraniums, they actually have more to do with the fragile beauty of life. And Morandi's still lifes of bottles and boxes are mainly concerned with the mysteries and implications of order and space.
So as not to miss the nuances that reveal an artist's true intentions, it is wise not to take a new work for granted, no matter how blatantly it seems to present its message. In a time such as ours, when artists delight in seeming to say one thing while actually saying something else, it pays not to jump to conclusions about what anything new in art is or represents.
We must also be aware of confusing what we have heard or read about well-known paintings and sculptures with what we actually feel in their presence. The pressure to conform in our tastes can be enormous -- especially in such art centers as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago -- but the loss is strictly ours, should we give in. There is nothing wrong, after all, in admitting that a famous picture almost every critic insists is a masterpiece strikes us as silly, or that an artist others claim is second-rate can occasionally move us profoundly.
It also pays to be wary of what critics and writers on art insist is or will soon be great or important, for they are as subject as anyone else to preferences and prejudices and sometimes get so tangled up in theory and verbal argument that they lose sight of the work itself. A good example is the discrepancy between Kandinsky's reputation as one of this century's greatest artists and the actual quality of his art. There is no question as to his importance as a theorist and as an influence upon modernist painting. And neither is there any doubt that he produced many highly accomplished abstract and nonobjective canvases, as well as a few superb minor pieces. It is only when we study his art objectively, and respond to what it communicates, without reference to his reputation, that it becomes impossible to equate the fascinating but rather decorative minor images before us with their current near-sacred status as great art.
Julian Schnabel is another artist difficult to approach objectively, thanks to his dramatic rise to fame. The art world's reaction to Schnabel and his work is remarkably varied, ranging from those who believe him to be the most powerful and important American painter since Jackson Pollock to those who insist he is merely an untalented youngster with a genius for publicity.
The controversy has complicated our ability to see his paintings for what they are. We tend either to accept their importance before we are actually convinced of it, or to decide that we won't succumb to the publicity, and so vote thumbs down even on their right to be called art. Much of the problem lies in Schnabel's use of exotic materials, and in the blunt and often savage manner in which he paints. His wood panels are generally huge, and they are often covered with broken crockery, animal hides, antlers, branches, and thick globs and smears of paint. Even more shocking to many is the fact that some of his largest and most committed pictures are painted on black velvet, possessing the sort of coloristic stridency associated with the moonlit seascapes and sentimental religious pictures usually painted on that material.
Even so, his best works project a degree of passion and power seldom encountered today. Their disruptive impact on the conventional and petty is enormous, as is their ability to challenge preconceptions and to provide stimulating images. Whether or not this outweighs the excesses and contradictions also found in his art is something that can only be decided when the controversy surrounding him eases a bit. Then we will be able to examine his paintings with the understanding that what they communicate and embody is of greater importance than their appearance.