Artifact And Artifiction

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-12-04 08:00:00-05:00 No comments

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I have been reading the writings of Gerhard Richter, a painter whose view of his work is a good deal more interesting to me than much of the work itself. He was, like John Cage, not interested in creating things that were an expression of his personality; he wanted some larger aspect of things to manifest itself through him. In fact, Cage is explicitly credited as an influence, and in one of the photos in the book, Cage is seen smiling in front of one of Richter's paintings.

I admire tendencies like this even as I recognize they are lost causes. When Cage tried to manifest such things in his work, he found to his dismay that there was always some piece of him in there, even if it was in the form of a man with an eraser scrubbing out all traces of himself. Attempts to drain the melody from music resulted in a melody-of-a-sort.

Artists always have some striving to be superhuman or transcendent. It's a package deal; it goes with the territory. You want to make something that is an expression of that, and so you sweat blood over a keyboard, or squint at a canvas for months on end, or traipse off with a crew of people to corral a bunch of actors in front of a camera. Whatever your chosen jam happens to be, you jam on it. All that matters is some fulfillment of the feeling that you're striving for something bigger. You want to rip a hole in the fabric of the universe that is exactly the size and shape of the thing imagined and then deliver said thing through it.

Richter comes off as almost the obverse of that. The way he wanted to manifest all this was by making a superhuman effort to put himself out of the picture, to subordinate himself to the workings of a larger process. He was, again, like Cage in that he was less interested in art as being a way to produce specific ends — a given kind of painting — and more about a way to embody a point of view or a methodology. Whatever paintings emerge from that way are just artifacts. A snapshot of a marathon runner breaking the tape at the finish line isn't what matters; the runner and the race itself matter.

I'm treating all this with equal doses of sympathy and skepticism. Sympathy, because I've been there myself, I don't know how many times now. Ran out of fingers to count on. How many times in these very pages have I emphasized the process over the artifact? But now, on seeing another extreme case of process-over-artifact, one that's once or twice removed from my own line of work, I realize again how limited it can be. A creator needs an audience that's more than just peers, especially when he has at least partial pretensions of being an entertainer. And most audiences respond to an artifact, not a process. Creators respond to the description of the process a little more readily then lay audiences, but even most of them want an artifact, too. (How else are they supposed to recommend things to other people?)

Sum of comment: Richter is fascinating as a case study, but maybe not as a role model. I wouldn't want to write the way he paints, let alone make a case for my work the way he makes a case for his. But I do want to study him.

Tags: Gerhard Richter John Cage art artists