Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Memo to Gerhard Richter: Please help. I can't stop talking about art

By Barry Johnson

Before the diversion of a lot of loose talk about supply and demand in the arts (what IS the new motto of the NEA -- "Suppress the Arts"?), a little Gerhard Richter quote sneaked into Arts Dispatch, courtesy of HTMLGiant, one of several unsourced Richter quotes in the post (though I presume they were plucked from Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961-2007, which is actually mostly interviews, not Richter's own writing).
Gerhard Richter plays language games./Wikimedia

Here it is again:
“Talk about painting: there’s no point. By conveying a thing through the medium of language, you change it. You construct qualities that can be said, and you leave out the ones that can’t be said but are always the most important.”
I didn't take it to heart. By this point, we all know about the inherent instability of language and its limits, right? We often don't act on this knowledge, of course, meaning that we sometimes take pronouncement like Richter's seriously, especially given his present status as the World's Greatest Painter. (A previous World's Greatest Painter, Pablo Picasso, was similarly gnomic.)

Of course, we talk about painting all the time. We talk about nearly everything we can get our conscious minds around all the time. To ourselves if to no one else. No one thinks he or she can "convey" a painting through language -- that's not the point. We exchange descriptions, information and our feelings (which must be even more ineffable, right?) about the painting, but we don't think we've transmitted the painting itself. And once we've done that socializing around the painting, we haven't changed the painting itself, merely our perception of it, for better or worse.

The final line simply echoes the beginning of the Tao Te Ching: "The Tao that can be spoken about is not the true Tao."  Although I don't for a second believe that a painting, even a great painting, is equivalent to the Tao, I grant the possibility that crucial qualities are likely to be omitted by any discourse. But one of the critical features of modern (as opposed to classical) art is its self-consciousness, its language about itself, which we can begin to detect in Velazquez's Las Meninas if we believe Foucault in The Order of Things.

So, right, I didn't take Richter to heart. I didn't swear off talking about art. Or even writing about it.

And speaking of "instability" Richter himself is "such a slippery character," as Barry Schwabsky wrote last year in The Nation. "Nearly any statement he makes can be matched with one that says the opposite. Perhaps this equivocation or deniability is one source of Richter's success, his ability to represent so many different, possibly contradictory things to so many people; it's certainly a characteristic of his art and not just of what he says about it." And then Schwabsky located a serious contradiction in Richter's accounts of the same thing, the same serious thing, namely his use of personal experience in his art.

Of course, Richter was talking about his painting here, so he was violating his own stricture (if you were disposed to creating a Rule About Not-talking About Painting from what Richter said). And I loved a sentence of Richter's that Schwabsky quoted: "So it's all evasive action, in a way."

Evasive action. Why do artists (or any of us) take evasive action of the sort Richter is describing? Because we don't want to be pinned down by language. Even though we know that language shouldn't have that effect, it does. We start thinking in terms of the language previously used, and it binds us in uncomfortable ways. The enterprising artist then starts using language as a means to her or his own ends, the production of art, instead of using it "classically" as a descriptive and analytical tool.

We all know artists who do this, right? Here's what I wrote about a panel discussion  at the Portland Jazz Festival in 2008 that featured sax iconoclast Ornette Coleman:
"I think Ornette focuses on paradoxes inherent in language to help him play the kind of music he does. It’s useful to unhook his thinking from conventions — in language AND in music. So he talks in language games because it leads him to some genuinely original thoughts. At least for him. So: We forgive him the Delphic riddles and hunt for the expressions that will somehow lever us out of our well-worn troughs of thinking/listening/acting. This makes him a pragmatist in my book, and really, much of what he said had a direct connection to John Dewey-like American pragmatism!"
In short, if it doesn't do Richter any good to talk to the press about what he's trying to do in the most open and honest way he can, then he owes it to his art to take evasive action.  As one of those guys with notebooks, I can say that I wish he thought about this in a different way, but hey, "Delphic" makes good copy, too.  And ultimately, because I can't tell you why I just typed the sentence I typed in the way I typed it, I shouldn't expect Richter to do any better at explaining where a painting (which is a form of language, maybe) came from either.

Las Meninas: Who's the painter now?
Richter probably disputes the "painting as language" contention, at least when he's feeling nihilistic (as Schwabsky observes):  "I can communicate nothing, that there is nothing to communicate, that painting can never be communication, that neither hard work, obstinacy, lunacy nor any trick whatever is going to make the absent message emerge of its own accord from the painting process." But then  he feels the same way about language -- that it communicates nothing.

Schwabsky's primary point is that Richter can sound an awful lot like classic Abstract Expressionists. Compare Jackson Pollock's famous "I am nature!" to this construction by Richter: "Using chance is like painting nature. No ideology. No religion, no belief, no meaning, no imagination, no invention, no creativity, no hope -- but painting like nature, painting as change, becoming, emerging, being-there, thusness."

Tangentially and coincidentally, I ran into a Facebook post by Jeff Jahn, a critic/curator/webmaster, with the following heading: "Art Writing as the Eternal Enemy."  Which is funny coming from someone who writes about art and manages a website devoted to that purpose! From the post and the comment thread, I took him to be employing Richter's (or Coleman's) strategy with regards to language -- we use it because we must, but we distrust it, and never more so than when it is clear and definite (we should note here Richter's frequent use of "blurring" techniques in his paintings to efface clear lines).  We don't want to be pinned down by language, even if we are writers!

I'm in a different place myself. I want to be clear. At the same time, I understand that life and art isn't a photograph (and Richter's use of photography in his paintings has been an almost constant trope in his work). It moves (I'm thinking of the Doppler Effect); it eventually unravels any particular representation; it calls for a new description. If I manage some sort of clarity now (and by that ALL I mean is greater usefulness to some unknown reader than less usefulness), I know that I will have to repeat the feat at a later time on the same subject. Forever. Fortunately for my mental health, I don't have sufficient attention span for this sort of obsessive describing. Sometimes being a primate is a pretty cool hand.


Gwenn said...

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but text associated with an image can also very easily turn the image into an illustration of those words.

And I think that's the real rub when it comes to art and words about art. It's not so much that people don't want to be pinned down by their words or made to think a certain way by what words they choose to think in. It's that words can too easily overwhelm the art.

Barry Johnson said...

Gwenn, I love the link to your blog -- and your set of "worded" paintings. I hadn't thought of Richter's comments (and those of other artists, for that matter) in quite that way.

As a general process, I think the art comes first AND last. With the talking in the middle. And that the talking in the middle always runs into walls it can't get over. The talk has its limits, which is why so much of it devolves into "I know what I like" (plus we aren't taught how to talk about art). But whether that talk is consequential or not (and consequential I believe is better than not), we go back to the art for one last look.

But I can totally understand your point. If you are Richter, hundreds of thousands, millions, of words have been written about your work. Maybe you worry that the activity of looking at the art gets lost in all those words, overdetermining words. And you want to say, stop talking about it so much and look. I guess I don't think that's a problem so much: In the end, the words lead us back to the art.

Dr. Anja said...

That's right, Gwenn. The image can turn into an illustration if the words are too strong. We have to keep in mind that the ambiguity of the photograph lies - according to Roland Barthes - in its semantic underdetermination. Therefore the meaning of photographs will change depending on their context. Captions determine therefore their meanings. I am just wondering how this is the case with paintings? And what is more relevant: What the art critic might write about works of arts or the artist himself? It looks like in Gerhard Richter's case he has to comment a lot himself. His "Writings" has now more than 600 pages; the first edition in 1993 was only 288.

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