Standard styles vs. individuality. Why some artists paint like everyone else , and others don't
Most art doesn't survive the period in which it was made. It may survive physically, or as an object of curiosity, or possibly even as a prime example of its kind. But as a living and dynamic statement - as true art - almost certainly not.
The reason is simple: Most paintings and sculpture reflect the styles and ideals of their time - and little else. Since they were primarily created to embody these qualities - as well as to satisfy fashion and orthodoxy - they take almost their entire identity and worth from them, and so cease to exist independently, once a new set of values takes center-stage.
This is true even of work produced during the infrequent artistic Golden Ages , when creative standards were such that even the less-talented proved capable of exceptional achievements. Excellent as such work may have been, however, it still essentially drew its form and inspiration from rigid tradition or from the example of that period's true creators.
No, the fact remains that it's the very rare individual who can create art that both represents and transcends his age, and that achieves any degree of significance for succeeding generations.
I was reminded of that fact while visiting a well-known arts club last week. Its spacious Victorian rooms were filled with paintings and sculpture executed between 1875 and 1925. Every piece was attractive, and of high professional caliber.
Several well-known artists had works in those rooms, and here and there I encountered a fairly famous name. In addition, it was obvious that all artists represented had been successful and respected members of the American art community during that period.
Even so, I came across no more than two or three even moderately memorable paintings, and no truly outstanding sculptures at all. And even those paintings were exceptional more for their technical brilliance than for their clear-cut identities as works of art.
What I found on those walls was not art so much as a catalog of styles and subjects popular and fashionable in the United States during the period in question. None of the subjects - the people portrayed or the landscapes depicted - were as important as the derivative styles in which they were painted. Portraits were not really about men or women, but about the styles and techniques of Sargent, Chase, or Henri - or pastiches of them all. And landscapes, although they appeared to be about waterfalls, forests, and meadows, were actually about the way Inness painted skies, Twachtman painted sunlight on snow, or Lawson fashioned ridges of paint to indicate trees.
Viewing those works was not a happy experience. Why, I wondered, had all that talent been tossed away in order to paint like everyone else? And why had so little talent been directed toward the development of authentic creative identities?
Those questions, unfortunately, apply not only to the art of that period, but to much of the art of ours as well. Although we may have learned a great deal in the intervening years about creative self-realization and fulfillment, altogether too many of our artists still believe (and too many of our art schools still teach) that art is primarily a matter of style. And that if an artist cannot fashion his own style, assuming another's is the next best thing.
Now, style ism important, but only if it evolves from and represents the artist's own perception of experience. If it doesn't do that, then style is merely something external that is borrowed or stolen to cover his creative inadequacy. Style, after all, is the artist's very own ''verdict'' on life's quality and significance, his individual way of placing the realities of life in what he perceives as their proper order. It is an expression of his scale of values, of what matters most.
Thus Arp's and Mondrian's styles tell us that what most deeply concerned them in art was ''abstract'' values, not physically descriptive ones. And the styles of Alfred Leslie and William Beckman make it very clear that such physical things as skin and cloth, tone and texture, and the way light defines form are as important to them in their art as the qualities conveyed by composition and placement - or by the subject itself.
Every artist who ism an artist communicates through a subtle fusion of device (subject) and style. It makes no difference if that device is a highly realistic depiction of a horse, or of two squares and a circle. What the work has to ''say'' is forever bound up in that fusion of what is depicted and howm it is depicted. The two cannot be separated and remain art, any more than one can separate strength from steel or wetness from water.
Now, in a monolithic and cohesive society such as the ancient Egyptian or Aztec, only one style in art was acceptable - or even conceivable. Everyone shared in it and adapted themselves to it. We, however, live in a very different society, one that is increasingly open and well disposed toward creative individuality. And one that sees art more as a symbolic projection of individual identity than as the champion of cultural dogmas.
The artist today is expected to say and do only what is unique and intrinsic to himself, and to create art rooted as exclusively as possible in his own personal vision. He may look as much as he wants at other art for guidance, but his primary goal, his function as an artist, is to produce a fusion of device and style that will present a uniquely personalizedm clue to human consciousness and significance.
For this to happen, however, our younger artists must realize that borrowing another's style to cover their own creative ''nakedness'' simply will not do - now more than ever. As we apparently move toward an increasingly open society, it will become more important that each of us knows very clearly who and what he is - and where he is going. Platitudes and cliches - and if slick, fashionable artistic styles don't belong in that category, what does? - are increasingly suspect. And art that is derivative or cliche-ridden will (at least one hopes) be given short shrift.
The danger, of course - and this has already happened - is that idiosyncrasy and novelty will be confused with originality and vision. And that blatancy and vulgarity will be equated with integrity and honesty.
That is the price we have to pay for our current perception of art, and the challenge that confronts us. But is that really any worse than what the Victorians had to contend with in art? Is vulgarity any worse than hypocrisy? And is blatancy about certain aspects of life any worse than a sanctimonious denial of them? I think not.