In an earlier post (8th October) I discussed a published conversation between Gerhard Richter and Nicolas Serota in which Richter comes back again and again to a central theme: how to convey the nature of the quality that distinguishes good art from bad. He is firm in his belief that there is such a quality. It is, he says, `what all good painting has throughout the ages’. He then adds: `That’s what we’re all trying to do, to see and to define this quality……we’re always working at it, be it as viewers or producers, from time immemorial.’
This is a strong claim, stated without reservation. In spite of all the huge differences between works of art across the stretches of human time, Richter says he finds some quality that is common, something by which we can tell good art from bad.
Many people disagree. Very often you hear the confident assertion that it’s `all subjective’ – just a question of what you happen to like. But Richter is generally regarded as a very fine painter and he is talking about his life’s work and his own awareness of art. So we have to listen.
What can this quality be, then? At one point in the conversation Richter calls it `this mysterious something’. I do not think it’s possible to advance our understanding much beyond this if we think only about properties of the work of art itself. We need to broaden our scope to include both the artist and the beholder: what they do and what they feel.
I am confident that the feeling by which Richter judges quality is some kind of expansive emotion. This surely is what he requires from his own art. If he doesn’t get it he scraps the work and tries again. How do I know that this is his touchstone? Well, he gives us hints, quite a few of them. He says of this quality that it `moves us’; `goes beyond what we are’; is `incomprehensible ‘ and is `something on a higher plane’.
Then also he says at one point that art is `the ideal medium for making contact with the transcendental, or at least getting close to it’. And he makes it quite clear that, although painting is always his main focus, all his remarks on this subject apply likewise to music, poetry, architecture: all the other great arts in whatever medium.
Think about this for a moment and you will see that it is quite hopeless to look for a limited set of objective properties that a work of art must possess in order to have the quality that Richter is seeking.
So where else can we look? How about looking to the artist?
Richter has these feelings himself as he produces his own art. He refuses to acknowledge anything as his art if the feelings are absent. He then wonders what `quality’ this is that he perceives in the object he makes. The only possible answer is that the quality is precisely the power to evoke expansive emotion – and he has put it there. Who else? The source has to lie in his own being. He is able to bring it out and offer it to others, partly because he tries most earnestly and won’t give up if he fails. All good artists do this to some degree and in some way.
This leads us directly to a set of linked conclusions that I will state bluntly for now:
Art is a means of communicating expansive emotion from one human being to another.
An artefact becomes art when this communication is achieved, and only then.
Art is never art `because I say so’.
So a further conclusion is that, as well as the artist, you need a responsive perceiver. Emily Dickinson was certainly such a one. Here is her account of how she recognises poetry when she meets it.
“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
She goes on to ask: Is there any other way?
In the end, then, the only basis we have for a claim that a work of art is good is the emotion that the art arouses in us. The feeling may often amount to little more than a flicker. Just occasionally it can be like a great illumination. There is a huge range in between but the stronger the feeling is and the greater the number of people who feel it, the better is the justification for saying that this an is truly great. Thus art accumulates greatness as its power continues across time.