Great Critics and Their Ideas: Hannah Arendt

on the banality of art school, interview by Matthew Collings

By Matthew Collings

Hannah Arendt (born Germany 1906, died New York 1975) was a German- American political theorist and moral philosopher. She coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ in her essay ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’, published in The New Yorker in 1963.


What have you been up to?


Going round the art schools.


HA Education is the point at which we decide whether or not we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.

What did you do there?

HA Listened in on the chats. I was impressed by the openness to difference. This appeals to my politics. Men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world. The human condition is one of fundamental plurality. I learned that the students could see the excitement in ethical art, or ethics almost as a career position; they could be inspired by performances in the Tanks at Tate Modern, and they could see the value of documenting reality via films and videos. But in this fascination with everything, as it were, they seemed to be missing an essential component: the usefulness of a sense of form. It was clear that they consider formal art a safe option and thus not really art. My perception of the new mentality is that students are encouraged to revere risk. The creed exalting it goes something like this: a student believes that, as opposed to other, newer ways of working, painting as a medium is inherently less risky, and all the more so if abstract, and to an almost revolting degree if involving the harmonising of colours and tones.

I suppose they want to know where the risk is with this kind of art – they think it’s wallpaper.

HA Exactly. They say, ‘Yes, there is plenty of appealing wallpaper around, and nice objects galore; lots of nice colours, and so on; but’ – they continue – ‘we are concerned that artists working with colours and patterns only play a safe hand, whereas we search for extremes, for danger.’


HA Well, they might think a bit more about wallpaper. It’s certainly possible to admire it. But the colour structures in abstract paintings are not so extendable as the ones in wallpaper necessarily must be, since wallpaper comes in rolls with repeated patterns, and so an urgent sense of the whole, and in particular the framing edge, never comes into it. Whereas an abstract painting whose content is the harmonising of different colour intensities will tend to have whatever pattern element there is arranged so that every internal part is supporting – and has some dynamic active relationship to – the painting’s outer perimeters. This boundary then becomes the most significant feature of all. Everything else only really makes sense in relation to it. This is the same for a Mondrian as it is for a Barnett Newman. The point is that formality in art is always connected to reality. It is a honed, abstracted, intensified, condensed version of whatever it is that different eras agree reality to be. It is a thought thing that derives initially from the world, from the sense-objects that make it up. In my book The Life of the Mind, which was published posthumously, in 1978, there is a passage about perception. ‘Although everything that appears is perceived in the mode of it-seems- to-me, hence open to error and illusion, appearance as such carries with it a prior indication of realness. All sense experiences are normally accompanied by the additional, if usually mute, sensation of reality, and this despite the fact that none of our senses, taken in isolation, and no sense-object, taken out of context, can produce it.’

What did you do after visiting these fine-art departments?

HA Saw some shows.

Anything good?

HA Yes, Frank Auerbach at Marlborough and Laura Owens at Sadie Coles – I saw one after the other. He’s European, she’s American, he’s old, she’s younger, he’s a heavy- breathing meaning merchant, she doesn’t mind seeming insouciant, full of light irony, an airhead maybe. My impressions of one show modified how I received another and that forced me to think, which is healthy. Talking of risk, I maintain there are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous. Owens presents endless happy colours and yet here was industry, crisp graphic design and wit.

And him?

HA I’d say he’s playing with the materiality of painting. To some extent he’s working with the logic of Cubism, that’s his concern with structure, but also you see the logic of the ‘truth to materials’ principle of 1950s art, which includes ideas about texture. If you think of painting in that era, you might see staining, flatness and liquidity, or you might see thickness and weight. Auerbach’s show manifested all these formal ideas. I responded to the energy of the lines, and the spatial constructions that they somehow served, in all their funny awkwardness, and there was really nothing in the show that didn’t seem electric to me from this point of view. And nothing in the Owens show that wasn’t impressive for its ability to transform, to transfigure, to get up onto a level that was much higher than you might expect at the point when you arrive in the space downstairs in the gallery, and you’re confronted by paintings of letters of the alphabet, like a child’s colouring book, with, for example, the painting for the letter ‘s’ showing a childlike line-drawing of a sheep, with its wool pattern executed in curls of real wool.

What’s the risk with that?

HA She’s setting up an experiment and she pursues the logic of the experiment: those colours don’t just come up out of nowhere. I’m reminded of Rilke’s poem ‘Magic’ – no doubt you read it in one of the footnotes to the section on ‘Work’ in my book The Human Condition? I cite it as part of a discussion about art, and my claim that the immediate source of an artwork is always the human capacity for thought. It’s only two verses. The second one goes something like, ‘Magic is here. In the realm of enchantment/The ordinary word appears elevated/But sounds as real as if the dove called/To seek its invisible mate.’

What, just putting one colour next to another?

HA It’s difficult for people, even those within the culture of art, to really see what colours are. ‘Risk’ is to do with making them work, since usually they don’t work – they have to be worked at. But I think you’ve also got to take in painting’s material objecthood. It is a created, made thing, and so it’s always in some way about materiality generally, and what goes on in it derives from how we perceive reality. What is embodied in the individual paintings’ material surface is the artist’s decisions, some more unconscious than others, but all having the capacity for success or failure, truth or falsity. We’re forced to judge, unless we don’t allow ourselves to engage, in which case one such experience is the same as another, we’re deliberately dulling our own faculties.

What’s so bad if in a plural world the students think formal issues are a dead academic impasse, once lively but now only the domain of pedants? Any idea, even a wrong one, can be the basis for a new creation, can’t it?

HA Yes, that’s true. And nothing more needs to be said.


HA OK, there is something, a parenthesis that follows that passage I just quoted from The Life of the Mind. It reccurred to me when I was at another art event, a show by Sarah Lucas, with her usual obscene sex symbols. ‘Art therefore, which transforms sense-objects into thought-things, tears them first of all out of their context in order to derealize and thus prepare them for their new and different function.’ It’s funny: I overheard a discussion about her in one of the art schools. It was agreed she is stuck with images whose shock power has waned over the years because of overfamiliarity. But originality in art is a matter of very small things, whereas it is expected to be thunderous, and with her it is not the immediate figuration that counts, a starkly readable sign, but her manipulation of surfaces. A satire is performed on art, the curves and holes of modernist sculpture, Brancusi, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth; but also Picasso, David Smith, Anthony Caro; but also, again, Magritte and Hans Bellmer and Louise Bourgeois. And in that satire, formal ideas about shape, line, texture, space, interval, plane and void are scrambled. Not diluted but actually intensified precisely because they are unhinged and swapped around, so they are defamiliarised and thus reanimated. It is all the stronger for being intuitive, the decisions as much unconscious as conscious, like any abstract painting, you might say. And what do those modernist ideas in the first place amount to but a surprise reanimation, through abstraction and dissociation, of visual traditions? All I’m saying is that it’s a shame to miss a trick. There is a sort of pressure to solipsism in modern life, which abstract values in art are actually against rather than for. And these formal issues now considered only a matter of dullness are really the opposite: they tell you about seeing.