In an essay on Gerhard Richter entitled “The Master of Unknowing” [New York Review of Books, Volume LXVII, No. 8, May 14, 2020], Susan Tallman quotes Richter:
“Pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures.” A good picture “takes away our certainty, because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name. It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view” (4).
Tallman then writes: “Richter is contemporary art’s great poet of uncertainty; his work sets the will to believe and the obligation to doubt in perfect oscillation. . . . Though his influence has indeed been profound, it has played out in eyes rather than hands, shifting the ways in which we look, and what we expect looking to do for us” (4). She concludes her essay by saying that Richter’s art is “an assertion of endless possibility” (8).
I read this assessment of Richter as pointing toward an attempt to suspend judgment. The aim is to arrest the movement from perception (‘looking’) to naming—what Kant calls “determinate judgment.” Judgment, it would seem, can not be avoided altogether. Notice how Richter’s statement—with its hostility to “meaning”—reintroduces “significance” in the very next sentence. The real stakes rest (it seems to me) on the contrast between the “manifold” (a pluralism that generates multiple possibilities) and the singular (a “name” that would designate the object as one, and only one, thing, with a clear and determinate “meaning”).
The hope of arresting judgment, of deliberately frustrating our habitual rush to designate some thing as this or that, does seem characteristic of much modern art. First, there is the continual desire for “pure”perception, for a perceptual experience that is not directed or shaped by conceptual judgment. Second, there is the attraction to difficulty and ambiguity, both of which make a singular judgment difficult to make. The artist wants to resist having his work easily digestible, easily categorized. A glancing look should not suffice. We should be made to pause before the work, to see its multiple possibilities. It should arrest the eye—but, even more importantly, arrest the mind.
Is judgment just slower to arrive in such cases—or can the urge/need to judge (to name) be frustrated altogether? Can we just have the “looking” and stop there? A perceptual experience relieved of any act of naming what we are seeing/touching etc.? Perhaps that perceptual experience is linked to an inchoate emotion, a kind of “raw feel” to go with the “pure perceiving”—and we get no further, not naming the experience and not feeling any need to name it, just resting in it.
In any case, that seems to me one version of the modern artist’s hostility to—or, at least, suspicion of –“meaning.” And one version of the strategies adopted to frustrate the processes through which “meaning” is assigned.
However, as detailed in Florian Klinger’s essay “To Make that Judgment: The Pragmatism of Gerhard Richter” (in Judgment and Action: Fragments Toward a History, ed. by Vivasvan Soni and Thomas Pfau [Northwestern University Press, 2018], 239-67], Richter does expect “judgment” to play a crucial role in the act of creation and the act of reception when it comes to works of art. Richter’s method (as he describes it) is “to paint without a plan,” “to smear anything I want on it [the canvas].” But as the process continues, “each step forward is more difficult and I feel less and less free until I conclude there’s nothing left to do. When, according to my standard, nothing is wrong anymore, then I stop. Then it’s good.” (249). The criteria is not meaning, but some sort of aesthetic quality. There is a “standard” of judgment, even if that standard is vague. When his interlocutor tries to press him to be more specific about what “good” means, Richter replies: “It just doesn’t look good. Then it’s wrong.” The interviewer presses on: “Can we dig deeper than looking good or bad?” to which Richter responds: “It’s extremely difficult. We’re all completely equal here. The producer and consumer, artist and observer, both must have one quality: to be able to see if it’s good or not. To make that judgment” (249).
I don’t really know what to do with this, except to make three observations. First, the issue of “taste,” or “sensibility,” keeps rearing its (ugly?) head. What’s this “quality” of being able to see if something is good or not? Where does it come from? How do you tell when someone has it—or does not have it? Classical conundrums that keep recurring. Presumably there are many ways to be “good”; that’s why one keeps producing new works—or keeps going to view new ones. But still there is dichotomous judgment to be made. This one is good; that one is not. And we receive little guidance as to how that judgment is to be made.
Second, Richter (throwing up his hands; “it’s extremely difficult”) asserts an equality between artist and audience (even as his words acknowledge a distinction of roles). The judgments made by the artist is the process of creation are guided by the same standard—of goodness—that guides the spectator’s response to the work.
Third, can this judgment of goodness occur without a judgment as to meaning? Can there be that suspension of interpretation, of naming, that seems to be the goal? It seems easier to say that it is not the artist’s business to concern herself with the meaning of what she produces. The question of meaning may never arise in her practice—and the possible meaning of her work for its audience may be of no interest or concern to her. It is also possible to say that the meanings that her finished work calls forth for its audiences were not consciously controlled or produced by the artist. The work encompasses things outside that artist’s control; part of the pleasure of artistic creation is precisely that. As Richter puts it, “Something happens spontaneously. Not by itself, but without plan or reason” (249). [Here we get the “interactive” understanding of artistic creation.]
Still, even if we can see the process of artistic production as unfolding apart from the question of meaning, can we say the same of the process of reception by the audience? Can the audience judge the work good or not apart from also judging what kind of thing it is (naming) and understanding its significance in relation to that name? We are in Kant’s territory again since it would seem a judgment of goodness in the absence of any act of naming would be a “reflective judgment” (not a determinate one) because the work would be viewed as utterly singular (the only one of its kind, thus not “a kind” at all. Only a proper name, not a generic one, would be adequate to it). And to finish up by returning to the Tallman passage: it would seem that to have no determinate name, to have no determinate meaning, would be to have multiple possible significances. The paradox would be that the “singular” (by escaping categorization) becomes plural. It gets to be a shape-shifter.