The many masks of modern art; 'Isn't this a lovely little world I've made?'
Art, for some, is like a private garden in which ideals, dreams, and fantasies flourish, beauty and perfection are the norm, and everything unpleasant is kept on the other side of the wall.
Such art, of course, must be carefully and sensitively made. The colors must be rich and harmonious, the forms orderly and precise, and the overall mood calm and serene.
The artists who create such images of privacy and perfection are an interesting lot. Although a fairly large number achieve popularity, only one or two in a century make it into the really big time.
Our century's outstanding creator of this kind of art is Paul Klee. His wonderfully mysterious and enchanting miniature worlds, in which geometric shapes, exquisite colors, and meandering lines become tiny cities, forests, gardens, ocean beaches, and many other things populated by fascinating people and objects, are matched only by the exotically private art of Bosch, Blake, Redon, Ensor, and a few others.
The majority of such artists, however, put privacy and preciousness before art. Their original reason, all too often, for getting into art was to use it as a means of escape from the more boring and painful aspects of everyday reality. Their paintings, as a result, while often exquisitely and charmingly painted, tend to reflect a vision of life that is overly safe and precious and that is populated by people, creatures, and things that are cute, whimsical, pretty, or embarrassingly sentimentalized.
These artists fail to realize that art is a symbolic gateway towardm human reality, not a quick and easy escape from it. And that their attempts to trivialize reality run dramatically counter to art's need to confront it.
Art, after all, is the opposite of escape. It is one of humanity's noblest attempts to transform a lesser, purely experienced dimension of human truth into a greater, more deeply sensed one. As such, it inevitably helps lead the way toward a more total unfolding of human truth. It does not scurry away into darkness every time the ''light'' becomes a bit more bright or intense.
Art dramatizes the distance between who we think we are and who we actually are. It pulls us forward, gives us a clearer glimpse of the wholeness and significance of human life, and serves as a daily reminder of how far we still have to go.
Overly precious and whimsical art, on the other hand, does just the opposite. It diverts our attention to the merely pretty and cute, and invests the superficial and banal with a false aura of importance.
It does so coyly and with calculation. It puffs itself up, makes itself as pretty as possible, and asks, ''Isn't this a lovely little world I've made?''
The numerous imitations of Grandma Moses' paintings are perfect examples. They are self-consciously quaint, and filled with dozens of shrewdly executed details calculated to make us smile and remember the ''good old days'' with fondness.
Not so with Grandma Moses herself, however. She was serious about her art, and she struggled always to be as ''real'' and ''correct'' as she could. She painted life as she remembered and saw it. Her imitators, on the other hand, concoct sugary sweet, sentimental pastiches of her world in the hope we will be charmed into buying them.
At the opposite end of the pole are such artists as Redon, Ensor, and Klee. Their fanciful works are profoundly serious - even though that seriousness may be lightheartedly conveyed. These artists understood the difference between seriousness and solemnity and took full advantage of anything witty, delightful, or charming that could help convince their viewers of the beauty or truth of what they were trying to communicate.
Their intention was to speak truly, not to seduce their viewers for their own ego gratification or gain. For all their fancifulness, exotic imagery, playfulness, and good humor, they were as dedicated to art as any of our more solemn and monumental masters.
There is something truly awesome about the ability such artists have to distill their deepest and clearest feelings and perceptions into images so full of life that they leap across to the viewer with the spontaneous enthusiasm of a puppy welcoming its master home. And so profoundly or lyrically true that they lodge deep in the viewer's consciousness and become a part of him forever.
We've all had that experience, with a line of poetry, a piece of music, or a dancer's performance - if not with a drawing or a painting. It's always a very special moment, and a precious one, for it represents the truest form of communication - the moment when one human being's creative spirit leaps free and rushes forward to engage another's.
The result can be of profound, life-altering significance, or it can be a delightful enhancement of one's perception or appreciation of life. But whatever , it is something precious we receive as a gift, and not something we need judge for relative merit or importance.
This is particularly true of the more imaginative and witty art being created today. For all its idiosyncrasies and lightness of touch, it also is remarkably life-enhancing and true.
No one is more adept at this kind of art than Gaylen Hansen. His huge, free-hanging canvases represent a zany and slightly mad world that parallels our own, but which fits beautifully into it. It's a world in which people are often very small and insects, plants, birds, and animals are very large. And in which leaping fish occasionally ambush horsemen and grasshoppers investigate the sudden appearance of humans their own size.
Even so, there's something very reasonable about Hansen's world. Like Alice in Wonderland, it makes a strange sort of sense. I suspect that's because Hansen takes his art seriously, and uses it to convey feelings, ideas, and attitudes that are important to him. His may be a zany and somewhat upside-down world, but it is neither cute nor sentimental.