Bill Long 1/7/05
One of the joys of growing repository of knowledge that is internet-accessible is that comments of thinkers/artists whose words would have been lost to all but specialists are now at the fingertips of us all. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had an exhibition of the works of German/American artist Gerhard Richter about two years ago, and his words interpreting his works are online. After visiting SFMOFA and learning of some or Richter's work, his words still ring in my ears. They emphasize the flimsiness of our knowledge, the mind as an obstacle to artistic work and the general powerlessness of the artist as s/he faces the world.
Getting our Bearings
Richter grew up in East Germany and was trained in a conservative academic style of painting. When he saw some paintings of the Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock in 1961, it revolutionized his vision. He then focused on the problem of representation, especially in photography, and wrestled with the idea of how and whether painting and photography actually convey knowledge of the world. During the 1960s and 1970s his work became increasingly abstract. He explained that he wanted to pursue the "undoing of the photograph" or taking away the "certainty of the photograph." By the late 1990s, however, he discovered a new realism. His arresting painting Lesende (The Reader), depicting his wife bathed in light, is reminiscent of the work of Jan Vermeer, especially his "Girl with the Pearl Earring." It may be too much to say that Richter experienced a late-stage "conversion," but it shows that, in the words of Curator Robert Storr, that "not having a certain answer to things is not only legitimate but is the way we see (the world) most of the time."
Certainty and Uncertainty
Storr's comment on Richter, suggesting the perplexity in which most of us live most of our lives, encourages me to think of the flimsiness of what we call knowledge. For example, I spend my life amassing knowledge. However, I think of my task as different from simply accumulating information. It also includes the attempt to link ideas, to analyze critically what people say, to build on what I thought I knew yesterday. Yet when all is said and done, when I have finished writing about what I think I know, I go out to walk or to do errands and, all of a sudden, I know nothing. The knowledge that seemed so personal to me, which I "controlled" through my interpretive capacities, has now left me. Or, to put things differently, it has become objectified to me.
I know that I wrote what is there, and I recognize the thoughts and often can reconstruct the thought process behind the thoughts, but I feel that the essay is now an object, apart from me, frozen as a small icicle in time, separate from me. It was driven by an energy and a force that is different from the energy that now drives me; it became a historical document as soon as it left my "pen"; it began to decay as soon as I stopped "breathing" on it.
So, I face the world without knowledge or, stated differently, with tentative knowledge that is constantly called into question, refined, refuted or (rarely) confirmed as I meet the world. I only create new knowledge when I connect with other people, through writing, through conversation, through hearing from another. Otherwise, I live in perplexity, confusion or tentativeness.
These thoughts are consistent with some of Richter's reflections on his work. He says that he tries to:
"develop a strategy that enables the pictures to be more intelligent than I am....when I conceive something, it's wrong. [I need to devise a] strategy to evade my mind and go beyond myself."
Thus, he says that he must:
"Accept that I can plan nothing...I often find this intolerable and even impossible to accept. It casts doubt on my competence and constructive abilities. My only consolation is that I did make the pictures--even though they treat me any way they like and just take shape...I pursue no objective and no system, no tendency; I have no progress, no style, no direction....I don't know what I want. I am inconsistent, noncommittal, passive. I like the indefinite, the boundless. I like the construction of uncertainty."
Where does artistic freedom or creativity reside? Simply in this:
"It's still up to me to determine when they (the paintings) are finished."
In a day when fundamentalisms are rampant and fundamentalists ever-present; where certainties are spoken each day by confident people dressed for success; where "knowledge is power," it is refreshing to reconsider the skimpiness of our knowledge. I wonder if any of us would have the courage to enter an interview touting the limitations, uncertainties and flimsiness of our knowledge. Or, to put it differently, how many of us would say that we know nothing until we create it together with others? I rather like that approach to life.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long