I’ve been reading a book about the artist Gerhard Richter. It was published in 2011 to accompany an ambitious retrospective exhibition of his work designed to be shown in Berlin, Paris and London. The book consists mainly of essays but it also contains the transcript of a conversation that he had with Nicholas Serota, the Director of Tate, London.
I was particularly struck by one of Richter’s replies to a question from Serota. Here’s what he said:
‘It’s that same quality I’ve been talking about. It’s neither contrived, nor surprising and smart, not baffling, not witty, not interesting, not cynical……..’
Why so many negatives? And why these negatives? And what is this quality?
People generally use long negative strings when what they’re talking about is at once important and elusive. We are like butterfly-hunters when we try to define things. We have our word-nets to catch them in, but a few of the most desirable butterflies always manage to get away. We think we have them, but then we find that they are beyond the net, never really in it. We see them, but our word-net can’t contain them. They can’t be pinned down. This is vexing!
So what do we do? We resort to saying what the deeply desired but eternally elusive one is not. Thus in effect we say where it will not be found hiding. No use looking there! It’s not that kind of creature.
What Richter is talking about, as you may have realised, is a quality that he believes to be common to all good art – not even just good visual art. The question from Serota that evoked all the negatives was: ‘And what is it that connects Vermeer, Palladio, Bach, Cage?’ Well, says Richter, it’s that thing that I can’t pin down, but it’s definitely not the quality of being witty, smart, interesting etc. I suppose he chooses these particular negatives because he is trying to correct some of the most common false notions.
He makes other attempts elsewhere in the conversation. He calls the quality a ‘mysterious something’ that has nothing to do with technique. He says it ‘moves us’ and it ‘goes beyond what we are’. He doesn’t give up trying – and it’s clear that he absolutely rejects the view that the distinction between good art and bad art is only a matter of subjective opinion and personal preference. I agree with him in rejecting this.
I think it’s possible to say some more specific positive things about the species ‘Artistic Quality’, but for this it may be necessary to look beyond the study of art and turn to the study of human beings and their responsiveness – but again not just their responsiveness to art. The most valuable insights come from thinking about some fundamental features of the way people experience their very existence.
I mean to write more on this later, but it’s contrary to the spirit of blogging to tie yourself down with promises. That’s more like old-time publishing when you have signed a contract committing yourself to certain things and there are editors nearby to keep you on track. No meandering!
This makes me think of the poem by Robert Frost where he says:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep.
What sad lines! I like the Buddhist saying: I eat when I’m hungry, I sleep when I’m tired. And if I should come unexpectedly upon some lovely dark woods I hold myself free to go into them and linger there. But when I come out, I have the feeling that ‘Artistic Quality’ may still be fluttering around me.
Here is the reference for the book I’ve been quoting in this post.
Gerhard Richter: Panorama. Mark Godfrey and Nicholas Serota (Eds.) London, Tate Publishing, 2011