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What is ARt?

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Sarcasm and offensiveness, which have replaced painting and drawing as the primary media for communication in the art world, are no longer shocking; they’re the norm. So is explicit display of lack of talent. What shocks now is the unobjectionable, the pure, the [gasp!] beautiful. And, occasionally, an art museum manages to shock me. In general, I wander around and try to look for something solid enough to critique, fighting off the vague feeling of exhaustion and disappointment that follows me out the door, and I wonder: “Do any of these people even *think* about what they’re doing?” Many try to blame this nagging frustration on modernism itself. But I will defend the movement; it had to happen, and it might be that in this age of anti-representation, what we have now is the best we can do. Hasn't’t there always been much more good art than bad in the world. It’s just that, through modernism’s minimal front, the bad ones are ten times as obvious. With a “bad” Impressionist — currently, Renoir is the culprit — one can at least observe the brush strokes, appreciate his ability to render, learn from the composition. But when no specific technique is required — when success depends upon a good eye, a sharp wit, and a punch line — if you don’t get it right, there’s nothing to look at but what’s there. Robert Smithson: a heap of earth with four intersecting mirrors. Jeff Koons: an inflatable raft cast in bronze. This can inspire the following common reactions: “This is stupid.” “They call this *art*?” “My six-year-old brother could do a better job!” Etc.

People want to know what to do when confronted with confusing modern art. In many cases, the answer is simply: “Walk away, and try not to think about it any more.” If you’re an optimist, like me, you may try to find some redeeming value in it, and you can usually find something to learn from. All this grows very tiring. But sometimes there is a bit of relief — a breath of fresh air, something much more beautiful and compelling than you’you've hoped for or imagined, and it stops you dead in your more-and-more-cynical tracks. For me, the most recent was in a gallery in SoHo, where the painting on display in the window led me to several dozen more inside, studies of the human figure done with such sensitivity and reverence that I wanted to run out into the street and shout to whatever members of the art establishment were listening: “Painting isn't’t dead! It was just taking a nap!”

And one day, in a dingy corner of Queens, where the sky is always gray even when it’s sunny, I discovered a vast wealth of treasure: the Isamu Noguchi Sculpture Museum. Noguchi was a half-Japanese artist, born at the turn of the century. Pop culture knows him as the first to market those cute paper lanterns with metal feet and warm, golden light that are now sold at an Ikea/Urban Outfitters near you. But by far, his greatest and most-loved achievements are in the quietly monumental sculptures in the garden outside.

My experience has found that sculpture is far easier to get wrong, and really wrong, than any of the two-dimensional arts; while drawing is more subtle, requiring only something to make a mark and something to mark on, sculpture presents an endless host of materials, forms, textures and *stuff* that makes it much more tempting to get caught up in the materiality of the object, and much harder to use it as a medium for presenting your own idea. Like modern art, it is more transparent. Noguchi is a master — he is precise, careful and respectful; each work presents a powerful, singular statement about tectonics, weight, and balance.

What do they look like? Well, huge slabs of rock. But it’s more than that. Every natural ripple of the stone’s coloration matters, every centimeter of the carefully etched slots counts toward your first impression. Is the water flowing over the sculpture, or out of it? I feel a human need to touch it and find out, ruining the abstraction. They are obviously artificial; but they contain enough rawness, enough natural elements of existence that a willing suspension of disbelief could make you think they had just always been there.

The space is welcoming; it breathes and doesn't dwarf you, though the walls are high. There is a path that winds through the garden, but onlookers are free to veer from it and onto the smooth pebbles that surround the sculptures in order to get a closer look. Everyone whispers, but not in forced whispers, the kind that come from being in a room where any of the pieces hanging on the wall is worth more than you. They arise naturally from being in the presence of something that has a contagious kind of calm. As I look around, it is evident that most of these people Karen’t art snobs; there are little kids, old couples, pierced / dyed teenagers. This is the strength of Noguchi’s work: it can be understood and appreciated on many levels, but what he’s trying to say is simple: there is beauty in what already exists. No one complains about not being able to understand it; they just enjoy it for what it is. That’s why it’s art. You know you couldn't’t do it, and so you admire others’ ability. I imagine myself trying to create something like this. How do you know when it’s finished? Every artist struggles with this question, but Noguchi displays true discernment through a series of well-timed, precise moves. A cut in the rock? Or two? Intersecting? Or parallel? I could never decide, but Noguchi straddles the fine line between creation and invention, understanding intuitively how to do only as much as is necessary. This is why his is some of the most beautiful art I’I've ever seen: because it may not really be art at all, just different pieces of reality — a rock, a puddle, a fault line — strung together to form snapshots of what, in a perfect world, would already have existed.

They are ageless, quiet and meditative. If ever there was a case for animism — these monoliths are more dignified, certainly, than a chubby queued man sitting cross-legged on a rock, and less awkward than a suffering man enduring a grisly death. And here in the peaceful quiet of the leafy shrubs and cool stone pathways, drinking in the purity of these forms, I feel a simple kind of peace and unity with them. I suppose it’s easier to “experience” God than struggle to obey Him.

I studied Robert Smithson’s work briefly in school and didn't’t understand it at all. In fact, I hated it. Now I begin to see, finally, what he was trying to do. His dull, ponderous earthworks lack the primal life of Noguchi’s smooth understatements. Smithson plunks an elaborate pile of rocks in a lake; it’s so obviously declared, a false sense of discipline with no respect for the individual elements. Noguchi used a very limited palette, but he succeeded where Smithson and a thousand others could not.

Mayor Giuliani brought up an interesting point when he avowed: “If I can do it, it’s not art!” I agree with him that quality of skill and thought is lacking in a number of sectors. But this oversimplification ignores that there is good modern art out there, and, although much of it is simple (not simplistic); it’s a lot more complex (not complicated) than you think. Sure, he could do it -- *now that he’s seen it done.* First, you have to have the idea, and figure out how to make it work. It’s harder than it seems. Turn Giuliani loose with a piece of rock, and see what he comes up with.

Photo: Rustem Pasa Camii - Constantinople, August 2002

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.

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