The Theosophical Forum – September 1947

MODERN ART, A MIRROR OF HUMAN PROGRESS: I — Hazel Boyer Braun

PART I

True art has a message for every age, for universality is the first measure to be applied to any claim for greatness. Order is the very law of cosmic life, producing harmony and a sense of peace. When we contemplate music, painting, or sculpture from this point of view, we immediately grasp the idea that everything is evolving, and understand that what we call art today is but the expression of today's place in progress.

Leaders in the art world are pointing to the fact that the art of our age is WHAT WE ARE! Under it all there runs deep and true a current that represents the emotional interests of our many-sided public. In our various schools of art we find a cross-section of life, a record of an age that we are often unwilling to look in the face. We should frankly acknowledge the weak points in our "civilization" before we blame the artists for reflecting them in their work.

The well known painting "American Gothic" by Grant Wood is an example of a current effort toward realism translated into a veritable essay about those simple midwestern farmer folk. It does not make us happy even though we delight in the creative genius of the artist. We feel pained when we are reminded so vividly of the evolutionary status of minds that are so set, so rigid in the understanding of universal life, as the types in this canvas. We've known too many of them.

Many persons ask why so much of modern art is ugly. This is because there is much in our life that is ugly. We are all so closely linked together as a humanity that everything that is done and thought affects us all. We cannot have a great art until we lift the whole to a higher level.

There are numbers of serious minded persons who really want to understand better the newer expressions, yet continue to measure them by old standards. The constant demand that the artist see exactly as they see, prevents the average layman from realizing a closer companionship with the modern artist. It is always a mistake to fail to grant art the right to progress. Surely all thinking persons must agree that art, like all other phases of life, would cease to evolve if it stands still and changes not.

It is so easy to condemn the minute we find something with which we do not feel immediately harmonious. Prejudice must be transmuted into open-mindedness. It is because there is such chaos in the general understanding of life that art is such a puzzle to so many. When we realize this we see how necessary it is for art students and persons who visit art galleries to do so with an open mind.

Dogmatism is out of the running, in religion, science, and art. Any observant person today realizes that there must be required countless grades or degrees of heaven and hell to meet the needs of the evolving individuals in the human family. So it seems necessary to have all manner of art expressions. They run the gamut from the most materialistic: brutality, vulgarity, personality, sensationalism, and the speed of this age with its fervid rapid vibrations; to the very opposite: serenity, the spiritual and impersonal, the slower tempo of the soul life.

Art is tending toward creativeness and while we may see the reason why this impulse has not always achieved greatness, let us applaud the effort. A demand should be made that an artist have something real to say to the world before he merits serious attention. Because of the confused ideas of truth and beauty which exist in the minds of the human family, it is necessary perhaps that time be the final measure of true merit.

Man's prejudice, his inhumanity, raise a strange but very real barrier through which all truth, all illumination and, in fact, all forces that tend toward harmony must force themselves in the battle of life. Nowhere more than in the realm of art is this so evident, where trend after trend is emphasized in the forward movement.

In the attempt to recover from a position of kneeling to the idealized formula of established leaders in art, modern artists are now plunged into a maelstrom of conflicting schools and styles. Too many artists and lay persons become devoted to types and trends to the exclusion of all else, hating with wild fury. Too often the artist who is wedded to conservatism gets white with rage when recognition is given to what he terms modern; and with equal vehemence, some of the moderns not only look with contempt upon the work of their contemporary who gives a sense of reality to his creation, but then turn with adoration to an old master whose work is absolute realism.

All the phases of unkindness, of failure to sympathize with every serious effort, are due to a mistaken idea of what art is and where to seek it. While we never feel that anyone can define art, it seems evident that real art must spring spontaneously out of the experience of the individual. It cannot be made to conform to any dominion, it can neither be a slave to doctrine, serve as propaganda, nor bend in obedience to any rule. The only rule is that there shall be no rule. Art must be the instrument of its own finding, the outpouring of the realities of the artist.

Somehow we prefer to keep art in the liquid state — to feel that it will ever be challenging the art critic's vocabulary. All our intuitions are opposed to a crystallized definition of art.

Certainly art is as universal as truth. Neither may be captured and wholly enshrouded with a label of any type that the imagination of man can conceive, for art and truth have not yet been fully comprehended. No artist can produce great art until he has evolved the broadest tolerance which permits his innate taste to find for him the finest in all things. This natural intuition is so precious to a clear vision, yet it is impossible for it to function through prejudice and mere intellectuality.

Few persons have an outlook that is universal and impersonal, while many build their conceptions of art on intellectual ideas and never see the ideal that is sensitive only to the delicate perceptions of the intuition. Just as a work of art is limited by the vision of the creative artist, it may be interpreted only with the limitations of the observer.

It behooves us to become not only intelligent in our approach to art but intuitive. Intuition is the greatest essential, for it is instant cognition directly from the higher self, from the higher reaches of man's nature.


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