Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Good art, good people

July 8, 2012 - 12:36pm -- Carol Diehl

·           Gerhard Richter, S. with Child, 1995, Oil on canvas, 41 cm x 36 cm, Catalogue Raisonné: 827-2

             took a mental health hiatus from my blog, but now I’m back. [Also had to delete a previous post, where the foundation that represents the estate of the artist I rhapsodized about complained about the accuracy of the info I copied and pasted from the museum press release—and were also annoyed that I’d included a Wikipedia link they said contained wrong info. Huh? Seems it might be easier to edit Wikipedia than to ask me to remove the link but hey, as it’s my only complaint in 475 posts, I can handle it!].

Anyway, there’s nothing more likely to get me going than reading stupid stuff about art and artists—like this article, “Good Art, Bad People” by Charles McGrath in the Times, which cites examples to bolster the stereotypical idea that artists are more deranged than the rest of the population. I think articles like these are written so the authors can assuage their egos with the excuse, “I coulda been a contender if I weren’t so fucking nice.” Because we think about stuff so much (artists are, at their core, analytical, always wondering, “how could this be different?”) it’s possible we may be less likely than others to conform to superficial societal norms, but I refuse to make further generalizations (I remember someone once telling me that I couldn’t be a “real” artist because my studio was “too neat”—although there’d be no problem with that at the moment). I’ve known a lot of artists—yes, even great ones—some of whom were totally agreeable (no one is nicer than Ellsworth Kelly) and others who were utterly horrid. Like the rest of the population.

Can good people make good art? Or to make it a little harder: Can good people make great art? The answer here might seem to be equally self-evident. There are countless artists who seemingly lead decent, morally upstanding lives, who don’t beat their wives, slur the Jews, or even cheat on their taxes. There are many more of these, one wants to say, than of the other sort, the Wagners, Rimbauds, Byrons, et al., who are the exception rather than the rule. And yet the creation of truly great art requires a degree of concentration, commitment, dedication, and preoccupation — of selfishness, in a word — that sets that artist apart and makes him not an outlaw, exactly, but a law unto himself.

Great artists tend to live for their art more than for others. This is why the biographies of so many writers in the 20th century who were otherwise reasonably good people, or not monstrous certainly (think of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Bellow, Yates, Agee, to take a few almost at random), are strewn with broken marriages and neglected or under-appreciated children.
Yadda, yadda, yadda. McGrath “wants to say” this is the case because an article about kind, generous, thoughtful, sober artists would be totally boring. Also, notice he may be a bit out of touch, as his famous examples are from the last-century or before, when divorce was difficult and alcohol flowed. These days, successful artists are more likely to be super-functional, careerist and businesslike, than dissolute. No one has time to be a drunk.
Meanwhile, if the image presented in the film, “Gerhard Richter Painting” is true, then the world’s most famous living painter is a real sweetie-pie, who has said, “I have painted my family so frequently because they are the ones who touch me the most.”

That’s a quote from the wall text at the recent Beaubourgretrospective, which I saw recently, and this is as good an excuse as any to post a few more. *

On classicism:

The classical is what holds me together.

It is that which gives me form.

It is the order that I do not have to attack.

It is something that tames my chaos or holds it together so that I can continue to exist, that was never a question for me, which is essential for life.

On chance:

Letting a thing come, rather than creating it.

On abstraction:

Horrible, gaudy sketches, sentimental things, functioning through the association of ideas, anachronistic, ambiguous, practically pseudo-psychodramatic and therefore unintelligible, without meaning or logic, if indeed there must be any.

I pursue no objectives, no system, no tendency; I have no programme, no style, no direction. I like the indefinite, the boundless. I like continual uncertainty.

* Note: I’ve taken some editorial liberties with the rather clumsily translated English text, eliminating some excess “that”s and a “really” (hard to imagine Richter saying “really” in any language) and choosing “touch” (in the French translation, it was touchant) over “affect” as in his family being the ones who touched/affected him the most.


As a blogger, I'm always searching for that good, opening one-liner to begin a post with. Well, you absolutely nailed it with your reference to your mental health. I'm sure your close friends will get some milage out of THAT one. haha
Glad you're back - it's always good to hear what you have to say.
As for the train of thought about who and what makes great art, my opinion is that when it comes to art you can't carve anything in stone. Art is like love - you can certainly work at it, but love and great art happens when it happens.

The NYTimes writer also used HE... so, yes, pretty out of touch. I also REALLY appreciated the Gerhard Richter film and the person portrayed there... Richter seems gentle, concerned, emotional, hard-working, and not the distant corporate machine he is sometimes said to be... I do think it is possible to both make your life the work of art (rough paraphrase of Kenneth Burke) and "keep the channel open" for art (Martha Graham).

Submitted by Maureen McQuillan (not verified) on
Love the piece, Carol! I have one comment:
I hate to be the one to ask the obvious, but, are there no great, crazy, dissolute, drunken, home-wrecker, many times divorced women artists? Off the top of my head I can think of an anti-semite (Leni Riefenstahl), a drinker (Joan Mitchell), a patient in a mental institution (Kusama), the list could go on and on...bad girls need equal time here.

The bad girls, yes! But fewer, I'm guessing, because fewer had the opportunity to become known, and also bad behavior was more tolerated in men than women. Some committed suicide (Virginia Woolf, Francesca Woodman, Sylvia Plath, Diane Arbus, Frida Kahlo) though, and others were, in my experience anyway, simply disagreeable (Louise Bourgeois, Helen Frankenthaler).

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