The Eye of the Beholder

November 26, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

Many years ago, as an elementary school student in New York City, I was forced to attend an art appreciation class every other Thursday.

A nice lady with a lilting Eastern European accent turned down the lights and talked about Cezanne, Monet and Winslow Homer for an hour while she showed us reproductions of the world's great paintings through a slide projector.

I squirmed in my seat, tried mightily to remember from week to week which painters went with which pictures, and generally couldn't wait to get out of there.

But years later I happened to visit a major retrospective of Cezanne paintings mounted by New York's Museum of Modern Art. And for the first time I realized why these works had fascinated viewers for more than a century.

I had a similar sensation last Sunday when I visited the Walters Art Gallery's new "Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven" exhibition. The colors and shapes in the paintings had a vivid immediacy and an intensity of feeling impossible to convey in even the best reproductions. One stands in front of them and thinks: ''Oh. They are beautiful.''

There are so many cliches about how rare beauty is that subconsciously we tend to forget that hackneyed phrases actually contain a grain of truth. Beauty is rare -- so rare, in fact, that we mostly discount it in our everyday comings and goings, contenting ourselves instead with the commercial substitutes offered up by ad industry.

But to stand in front of Gauguin's "Young Brittany Girl" -- to take an example from the Walters' show -- is to experience an odd sort of revelation. It is to see the world freshly as a vital communion of color, pattern and design.

And one thinks, ''Yes, that is beautiful,'' although the thought seems more instinct than rational idea, as though it emerged from some atavistic sense organ responding to a realm whose existence we barely suspected.

After the revelation, though, is apt to come annoyance. If such beauty exists, we may ask, why do the artists of our own time seem so incapable of creating it? Why, in comparison to Gauguin and his followers, does contemporary art so often seem frivolous, incomprehensible, depraved, even ugly?

Naturally, anyone who asks such questions runs the risk of being called a philistine or a prude. In fact, there probably are good answers to such questions that do justice to the integrity of our contemporary artists and their vision. But they are hardly comforting ones.

Perhaps it is simply that modern artists, like modern scientists, have had to give up so many certainties about the world that what remains can only be described as ''beautiful'' in the sense that a mathematical equation can be described as ''elegant.'' In both cases, the ''beauty'' or ''elegance'' is so abstract that it no longer satisfies our craving for familiar, easily digestible truths.

Consider, for example, the revolution that occurred in physics at the end of the 19th century. Up to that time physicists believed their mechanical universe based on Newton's laws of motion completely sufficed to explain all physical reality.

Then came Einstein's theory of relativity and Planck's quantum mechanics. Together they smashed Newton's familiar clockwork universe and replaced it with a capricious cosmos in which the whole objective universe of matter and energy, atoms and stars, does not exist except as a construction of human consciousness. Even space and time have no objective reality except as an order or arrangement of the events by which we measure them.

These ideas were so unsettling that most non-scientists today -- and many scientists -- still refuse to acknowledge their full implications. But modernism in art can be said to have begun when painters began to grapple with the problem of a world that was not really there except as a construction of the artist's consciousness, which itself was merely an edifice of conventional symbols shaped by the collective senses of humanity.

Ironically, Gauguin and his followers consciously worked to extend the symbolic language of painting -- without, however, having the slightest inkling that the physical world they portrayed was pure illusion.

Contemporary art does not have that luxury. If its artifacts seem deliberately incomprehensible or obscure, that is because the artist's function is precisely to remind us that the world consists only of what we bring to it. That is not necessarily a comforting thought, but it nevertheless reaffirms the old saw that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Glenn McNatt writes editorial for The Baltimore Sun.

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