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Love in Art/The task of the critic calls for an open heart

I wish the words love, beauty, tact, and dignity were returned to the vocabulary of art; that criticism concerned itself more with the integrative and holistic aspects of creativity; and that every critic, curator, dealer, and collector cared as much about what constituted quality as about what caused a particular work to be perceived as ``relevant,'' ``significant,'' ``original,'' or ``new.'' If, however, my wishes were limited to one, I would ask that love's importance to art be made better known, not only because I know how crucial that relationship can be, but because that realization could help free us from the contaminating effects of an over-insistence on style, novelty, formalism, and fashion.

Before that can happen, however, we must reexamine our critical approaches to art, especially our belief that it can be analyzed on a strictly objective basis and without significant reference to such subjective factors as emotions or feelings. That it can, in short, be judged by standards that are clear, consistent, and absolute, and equally applicable to an ancient Egyptian fresco, a Renaissance sketch, and a Julian Schnabel panel made up of animal hides, broken crockery, and oil paint.

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Unfortunately, that is no more possible than judging oranges and carrots by a single standard, or deciding one novel is better than another because it was written in French.

Obvious as that may seem, however, there are still too many art professionals who judge art almost that narrowly, who condemn one style by the standards derived from and applicable primarily or exclusively to another, and who reject an artist largely because his or her formal ideals differ from those of the majority. There are even those who insist that art can only be made out of certain materials -- that plastic and tin, for instance, will inevitably produce lesser works than marble or steel. And ther e are others who claim that anyone working in techniques traditionally reserved for the crafts will never produce genuine art.

The trouble with such judgments is that they are based on external factors and procedures, failing to take into account the interior and subjective realities that motivate art and give it its energy and impact. Most particularly, they ignore the fact that art is a communicating device, a language, and that the means, the forms employed to get the artist's ``message'' across, cannot be perceived as ends in themselves -- any more than my words on this page can be viewed merely as row upon row of little bl ack specks.

Having spent several decades of my life as a painter, and somewhat less than one as a critic, it is perhaps only natural that my concern for what induces and impels creativity is at least as great as my interest in what it produces. I know, both from personal experience and from numerous conversations with artists, just how deep, inexorable, and life-transforming the creative urge can be. I am aware of how frustrating and heartbreaking it can be to feel something as huge as the ocean -- and to be able t o transform only a few ``drops'' of that into art. And I've also experienced the rare and truly extraordinary moments of creative grace when everything falls into place without conscious effort or thought, and one can only look with awe at what ``passed through'' one's hands on its way to realization.

Since I've been ``on the other side of the fence,'' as it were, and have felt the powers that induce art, I am frequently frustrated at having to express myself as a critic in ways that have much more to do with the way art is ``packaged'' than with the forces that brought it into being. And at having to use an art-critical vocabulary carefully pruned of references to those emotions and feelings that are, more often than not, the heart and soul of the creative act.

Even taking into account that the making of art is a fashioning process, that even such explosive painters as Nolde and Pollock shaped their projected energies through controlled formal relationships, we must still contend with the raw emotional and visionary sources of art. Confronted by Kollwitz's 1932 drawing ``Mother and Children,'' do we really care about the style, technique, or medium the artist employed? I think not. What matters is the simplicity and directness of the artist's depiction of the

mother's passionate, protective embrace of her children, the intense expression of her love for them. Kollwitz's draftsmanship and sensibilities were such that we feel our own muscles tighten in response to the mother's hug, and our hearts warm to the depth and genuineness of her love. Just as important, Kollwitz found the perfect format for her subject, and so produced an image in which feeling and form are and will always remain seamlessly fused and in perfect, effective balance.

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It is this irrevocable fusion of content -- be it emotional or intellectual -- and form that is crucial and that turns an impulse or an idea into art, and a talented painter, sculptor, or whatever into an artist. It doesn't matter if the work is by a New Guinea woodcarver, a 12th-century Chinese poet-painter, a contemporary African potter, or a young watercolorist in New York's East Village. And neither does it matter if it is ``primitive,'' done on a scroll in ink, precisely realistic, serenely abstract, or wildly expressionistic. If its motivating idea, experience, or emotion is authentic, and its formal resolution is appropriate, then it could easily be a work of art. Not necessarily anything of great importance, or even of particular interest, but something that can at least be identified as such.

That, of course, is only the beginning of the task of evaluating art. We cannot even get to that point, however, if we insist on applying the same critical criteria to everything we view, and refuse to take into account that, while certain artists may focus almost exclusively on the architectonic aspects of painting and sculpture, others will prefer a more informal and thematically dramatic approach, and others still will devote their lives to giving voice and form to the simplest, deepest, and most common human emotions.

With that in mind, shouldn't our art-critical vocabulary be expanded just enough to permit us to identify the emotions that are so crucial to the work of certain artists? Shouldn't we be able to come right out and say, for instance, that it was love as much as anything that inspired Van Gogh, Rouault, Kollwitz, and many others? And without making more of that than is appropriate, wouldn't we thereby at least help correct the current somewhat distorted emphasis on these artists' expressive and formal mea ns?

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