Does painting matter?

Richter

Betty by Gerhard Richter

“One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is idiocy.”

–Gerhard Richter

There is so much to argue against here–this missionary sense of purpose–but Van Gogh would have agreed completely and if Vincent gives something the thumbs up, I’m down with it. The fulcrum here is the phrase “change human beings,” which makes Richter’s credo sound sensible. He doesn’t say “change the world.” It isn’t a social or political agenda he’s talking about–though politics certainly hasn’t been outside Richter’s wheelhouse. Can a painting change you by helping you wake up to who you actually are? As I typed this, a catbird landed on our birdbath here in Pittsford, New York, and I’m thinking, no one has ever made a painting as marvelous as the way this nearly invisible gray bird looks and sounds. Does that bird, by flying into my field of vision and inspiring my humble appreciation for it, just now, change me in some way? If so, I think that’s the way a painting should change someone who looks at it.

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