Judgement, Mystery, Dialogue – interview by Zbigniew Taranienko (1990)
(The text was published in art magazine “Projekt”, No. 4/1990)
ZBIGNIEW TARANIENKO: Do artists introduce new forms of art also in order to renew and enhance its reception and experience?
JERZY BEREŚ: In this context, I prefer to consider the sensitivity of reception rather than experience which to me is always related to yielding to something external. On the other hand, one’s readiness to yield to experience is often used by all sorts of manipulators in whose interest it is to produce fetishes…
Z.T.: Which, in tum, are damaging to genuine sensitivity?
J.B.: I think that deformation of this kind started in the 20th century with the phenomenon that the English philosopher Whitehead called suspension of judgement. Years later, it resulted in a stream of shallowness in art. The suspension of judgement was necessary for artists who needed freedom in order to be creative. But total freedom, free of judgement, grows too easy…
Z.T.: Perhaps the excessive subjectivism, to which a sense of unlimited freedom amounts, has to be set against something more general, more objectifying?
J.B.: I think that dialogue is the only option. It is very difficult, almost beyond our human possibilities. Fully confident in what we do and what we say, we have to be prepared that it may be defied… Once a physicist asked me whether it was possible, because he thought it impossible, to think in pluralistic terms… I still wonder about it myself. But I have a feeling that it is a threshold to which we have come.
Z.T.: Many things are created in dialogue. Resistance and opposition occasionally prompt the creation of something important.
J.B.: Resistance is even sought. For instance Kantor has said recently that he is looking for a wall to hit with his head…
Z.T.: So what in the circumstances is your definition of art?
J.B.: One cannot give a complete definition of art. I once attempted a definition that art was a contest for the supreme values. I even called my action thus. To me, there is no art without works. If the two are separated, as in conceptualism, the answer to the question becomes even more difficult.
Z.T.: Is the presence of works what determines the uniqueness of art? Theologists and philosophers also deal with supreme values…
J.B.: We are considering what may be described as mystery. Theologists and philosophers have come the closest to it. But the essence of mastery is that it cannot cease to be a mystery…
Z.T.: But not only do we want to come close but also to learn more about it.
J.B.: Some not only want to come close to also to catch it… Once, after Professor Stróżewski’s lecture, during which he said that there a part of art which may be called metaphysical, I asked whether there was any good art devoid of the metaphysical element… I think that a work of art is valuable only when it has a metaphysical dimension. If there is only physics in it, it is no longer a valuable work of art.
Z.T.: But there are mysteries of a lower rank, without a metaphysical quality.
J.B.: This is why debunking false mysteries is quite important. Then we may come closer to genuine mystery.
Z.T.: Can’t it be that our critical or debunking attempts only pave the way for other, equally imperfect, ways of getting closer to mystery?
J.B.: In spite of it, it happens from time to time in art that what emerges is an authentic mystery also to the artist himself. It is unique. It goes beyond the “mystery of workmanship,” The latter type may be unmasked: it frequently leads to patented masterpieces having nothing in common with mystery proper, an infrequent phenomenon.
Z.T.: Does it imply that competent workmanship without value?
J.B.: High-class workmanship is undoubted valuable. It defines the limit beyond which something may happen. A striving towards perfect execution is a good way to self-improvement. But we sense a limit to it. This is why one has to stop at a certain point. To be able to say more about it, we would have to consider how to stop thinking, as they do in Eastern cultures. Western thinkers find it very difficult. Just as the suspension of thinking is a difficult thing to Western thinkers, so to check oneself in one’s striving after perfection is more difficult than to go on.
Z.T.: Also because striving towards perfection, or the development of skills, agrees with the patterns of conduct generally adopted in our Western civilisation.
J.B.: This is why we have to stop on the threshold of the pluralistic clash of subjects, the dialogue of individual solutions. I see no other way out.
Z.T.: The use of various technologies, not aimed at perfect workmanship but at an idea or an expression of emotions, may lead to quality or value. Are these not the conditions in which mystery may be approached?
J.B.: It is a departure in the direction of which I have spoken. Something may happen. But it also implies reliance on chance. Can one depend on it?
Speaking about perfectionism. One more solution has surfaced. After the perfection of workmanship has been discarded, it has been decided that poor painting may be good art… We have had such trends, promoted especially intensively in Germany. I think it a very dangerous deformation which has caused art to lock itself more and more within limits marked out by fetishes. Only as a result of fetishisation may poor painting or poor sculpture be presented as valuable.
Z.T.: We have seen young artists trying very hard to pretend they could not paint well…
J.B.: These were desperate attempts at freeing themselves from the trap of perfectionism.
Z.T.: Despite your leanings towards debunking false mysteries, when did you feel you had come close to mastery?
J.B.: I can neither define nor describe it… A few years ago, I had an exhibition of potential works. I don’t think I am doing anything related to what we are talking about, namely, mastery. The existence of a work of art is still an open question. Only the sum of judgements verifies what has been proposed. A play of this type continues over many generations and its range is growing broader and broader. We simplify things by saying that time is the decisive factor, but it is people who make decisions.
Z.T.: What are your personal feelings and experience?
J.B.: I may only describe a situation to indicate difficulties linked with the problem… When I do something, I clash with a piece of nature, and when something has already been created, I often do not feel that it can be put on show and subjected to another person’s judgement. 1 put it aside and it may wait for years. Sometimes a dozen-odd years have to pass until I know clearly what has to be done. It may be very simple, quite evident, though it couldn’t have been done before. There is the additional element of time in it; many things have had to happen, perhaps not even to this piece of wood, but to myself. It is sometimes just a small evident alteration, which has made the thing worth showing, worth presenting it to the judgement of the public. This example illustrates that I cannot tell how it all happens. I often wonder what is it that doing things takes so much time.