50 Inspiring and Revolutionary Quotes From Avant-Garde Artists

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A key figure in the New German Cinema movement, Wim Wenders is also an accomplished playwright, author, and photographer. His analytical essays, collected in volumes like Emotion Pictures: Reflections on Cinema and experimental documentaries such as Room 666, confirm Wenders’ status as a questing, medium-blurring artist. Wenders is in that sense an avant-garde icon. In time for the Museum of Modern Art’s exhaustive retrospective of his film work, we’ve compiled a series of quotes on art, process, and philosophy from like-minded boundary-leveling artists.

Man Ray

“A certain amount of contempt for the material employed to express an idea is indispensable to the purist realization of the idea. Each one of us, in his timidity, has a limit beyond which he is outraged. It is inevitable that he who by concentrated application has extended this limit for himself, should arouse the resentment of those who have accepted conventions which, since accepted by all, require no initiative of application. And this resentment generally takes the form of meaningless laughter or of criticism, if not of persecution. But this apparent violation is preferable to the monstrous habits condoned by etiquette and estheticism.”

Joseph Beuys

“I am interested in the creativity of the criminal attitude because I recognize in it the existence of a special condition of crazy creativity. A creativity without morals fired only by the energy of freedom and the rejection of all codes and laws. For freedom rejects the dictated roles of the law and of the imposed order and for this reason is isolated.”

Hannah Höch

“I wish to blur the firm boundaries which we self-certain people tend to delineate around all we can achieve.”

Marcel Duchamp

“I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own tastes.”

Alejandro Jodorowsky

“Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness.”

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

“The theme’s remained the same, and always will remain the same: the manipulability, the exploitability of feelings within the system that we live in, and that at least one generation or more after us will certainly have to live in. What’s changed is the workmanship, the form, where I always try to get beyond what I’ve already mastered. In contrast to other artists, I’ve given up the purist notion about art that I once had: that art has to be very direct and very simple. For me that always had to do with the level of my technical skill. For me it would have been a mistake to stick with these theories once they were developed. For others that may be perfectly all right.”

David Lynch

“I learned that just beneath the surface there’s another world, and still different worlds as you dig deeper. I knew it as a kid, but I couldn’t find the proof. It was just a kind of feeling. There is goodness in blue skies and flowers, but another force – a wild pain and decay – also accompanies everything.”

Claude Cahun

“Realities disguised as symbols are, for me, new realities that are immeasurably preferable. I make an effort to take them at their word. To grasp, to carry out the diktat of images to the letter.”

Shûji Terayama

“When I was younger I thought that the fantasy of becoming invisible and the desire to become a poet stood in an antinomy. But now I can positively say that these two dreams are not contradictory at all.”

Luis Buñuel

“A writer or painter cannot change the world. But they can keep an essential margin of nonconformity alive.”

Lars von Trier

“The whole technique that I use in any film is to go to the edge of things.”

Kenneth Anger

“Some movies can be the equivalent of mantras. They cause you to lose track of time you become disoriented magical things can happen. Magic causes changes to occur in the universe. You can mix two elements together and get an unexpected result just beyond the edge of what you realize.”

Guy Maddin

I’ve always been interested in my place inside the great flow of time and history. I like to know how old my parents were when their parents died, and compare that to how old I was when other sad or happy things happened, then cross reference that to what happened in pop culture on those occasions, including the death ages of various favorite movie stars, my own age now, my own age when my parents were that age, and what my age will be when my daughter is that age. Everything is a matrix of cross-referenced dates and ages — a massive flowchart. I can’t believe other people don’t think that way, but evidently they don’t, or at least not everyone does. Some people just don’t think of the past at all. I’m an atheist, but I like to pay tribute to the past, almost memorialize it. I suppose that’s my facsimile of immortality, the best I can come up with.

Yoko Ono

“Art has become more and more important because politicians have become less and less interesting. They have to accommodate some kind of idea, and they can’t say what they want to. Even a speech is written for them, and then they read it. That position is extremely weak. It’s extremely dangerous for us. An artist creates; artists are still creating. The artist’s position is completely opposite to that of a politician. We’re still free. We can still say what we want to say. You have to be daring to say it, but you can say it. You don’t lose your job if you say it. Whereas the politicians may lose their job if they say anything they want to. The people have the right to know, they hired the politicians. We can touch people.”

Andrei Tarkovsky

“My objective is to create my own world and these images which we create mean nothing more than the images which they are. We have forgotten how to relate emotionally to art: we treat it like editors, searching in it for that which the artist has supposedly hidden. It is actually much simpler than that, otherwise art would have no meaning. You have to be a child — incidentally children understand my pictures very well, and I haven’t met a serious critic who could stand knee-high to those children. We think that art demands special knowledge; we demand some higher meaning from an author, but the work must act directly on our hearts or it has no meaning at all.”

Wang Keping

“One big difference between now and then is that in 1979 and 1980, artists actually believed there was going to be great change in society. Nowadays, artists believe there won’t be any change in the next 20 or 30 years. The artists don’t believe they have the strength to change. Their lives are comfortable, but they feel they don’t have any freedom of expression.”

Stan Brakhage

“Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception.”

Věra Chytilová

“You don’t really begin working creatively until you are at a point where you don’t know.”

Jean Cocteau

“I long said art is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious. Latterly, I have begun to think: Is genius an at-present undiscovered form of the memory?”

Hollis Frampton

“Language and image, each trespassing in the other’s house, secrete disquieting disjunctions, conundrums, circularities. We are accustomed to the poetic strategy, within language, of bracketing a noun within the genus of yet another noun, which may come from an alien phylum, a foreign kingdom. Translation of that strategy into the economy of images yields artifacts… savagely grotesque, arch, silly… that seem to flee the rigors of self-reference; contradictory images, far from coalescing in a dialectical encounter, annihilate one another in a gesture that sweeps language clean of specification and seems on the point of suggesting a raw map of the preconscious work — the material action — of language.”

Maya Deren

“Art actually is based on the notion that if you would really celebrate an idea or a principle, you must think, you must plan, you must put yourself completely in the state of devotion, and not simply give the first thing that comes to your head.”

Barbara Hepworth

“Working in the abstract way seems to release one’s personality and sharpen the perceptions so that in the observation of humanity or landscape it is the wholeness of inner intention which moves one so profoundly. The components fall into place and one is no longer aware of the detail except as the necessary significance of wholeness and unity… a rhythm of form which has its roots in earth but reaches outwards towards the unknown experiences of the future. The thought underlying this form is, for me, the delicate balance the spirit of man maintains between his knowledge and the laws of the universe.”

Méret Oppenheim

“Freedom is not something you are given, but something you have to take.”

Kurt Schwitters

“Art is a spiritual function of man, which aims at freeing him from life’s chaos. Art is free in the use of its means in any way it likes, but is bound to its laws and to its laws alone. The minute it becomes art, it becomes much more sublime than a class distinction between proletariat and bourgeoisie.”

Louise Nevelson

“My total conscious search in life has been for a new seeing, a new image, a new insight. This search not only includes the object, but the in-between place. The dawns and the dusks. The objective world, the heavenly spheres, the places between the land and sea. … Whatever creation man invents, the image can be found in nature. We cannot see anything that we are not already aware of. The inner, the outer = One.”

Jonas Mekas

“As a film-maker and a poet, I feel it’s my duty to be an eye and an antenna to what’s happening around me. I always felt a solidarity with those who are desperate and confused and misused and are seeking a way out of it.”

Joel-Peter Witkin

“At the moment of photography I act instantaneously and instinctively. At the moment of printing I take time for esthetic decisions for which I didn’t have time with the camera, I re-design the image into something more powerful, more mysterious.”

Diane Arbus

“Take pictures of what you fear.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat

“I start a picture and I finish it. I don’t think about art while I work. I try to think about life.”

Natsuyuki Nakanishi

“I think painting is superior to performance and conceptual art. According to my idea, the real world is like something existing within a cave, in which we see things as if with a little light from outside or a very little light from a candle inside the cave. In other words, what we see are those shadows and our own shadows not the real world of ideas. The cave is shaped like a kind of cylinder. To see real things means going out of the cave. This means taking the light in. The way to get the light inside is to cut the cave, which is like a cylinder, in two halves. Then when you open up the cylinder the flat side appears, which is the canvas. Also this flat surface becomes the front when you see it, and I think that the reason why the flat surface was found was to emphasize and keep frontality. Cezanne said people are in the spectacle and painters show people what this is. The scene is the spectacle and the cutting of the cave in half is the painting. The outside light is excessively bright and the painting surface is to screen and catch this. Because of this, facing the painting surface is much more intense than any kind of performance.”

Mamoru Oshii

“I do feel that there are things you can learn from an artist, but I think you need to be very close to that person, and to know that person fairly well, in order to acquire anything from them. I do have a teacher myself, and I have learned quite a lot from my teacher, but it’s not how to make a film. It’s more how to approach my life as a director, how to approach and how to lie to a producer.”

Su Friedrich

“There are many ways and reasons to make art, and I can only talk about what I do and what I believe in doing. This means, very importantly, that I don’t think other approaches or reasons are lesser or wrong; they’re only different. I don’t think it’s better (or worse) to speak explicitly and directly about one’s personal life, it just happens to be what I do. So in my case, I would say that it was necessary for me to use art as a way to say what ‘shouldn’t’ be said.”

Sion Sono

“I think a lot of young filmmakers and film students love Godard and films like that. But when you reach a certain level of maturity in your filmmaking you become more interested in what was instinctually interesting to you when you were younger. If you’re honest with yourself you realize that might be more of the sort of films you want to make.”

Kitasono Katue

“Poetry is the passport to all the arts. Anyone who wants to do something in the art world must grasp his own ‘poesy.’ All the arts are nothing but a variation of poetry; in that sense it is meaningless to call photography easier than poetry or the novel more difficult than poetry.”

Michael Snow

“I make up the rules of a game and I play it. If I seem to be losing, I change the rules.”

Bruce Conner

“I don’t think of pieces as having a beginning or end. Usually when I speak about the assemblages or collages, I have a date for them. Basically that’s the day when I put it on a wall, a sculpture stand, or on exhibit. It didn’t mean that it was finished because I never considered them to be finished. I considered them to be in process, that I would continue to work on them through the future and that I would have the ability to do so. There were inherent characteristics of these pieces, but if I didn’t want it to be the way it appeared to be I would change it.”

Jean Dubuffet

“There is no art without intoxication. But I mean a mad intoxication! Let reason teeter! Delirium! The highest degree of delirium! Plunged in burning dementia! Art is the most enrapturing orgy within man’s reach. Art must make you laugh a little and make you a little afraid. Anything as long as it doesn’t bore.”

Agnes Martin

“It is not in the role of an artist to worry about life — to feel responsible for creating a better world. This is a very serious distraction. All your conditioning has been directed toward intellectual living. This is useless in artwork. All human knowledge is useless in artwork. Concepts, relationships, categories, classifications, deductions are distractions of mind that we wish to hold free for inspiration.”

Berenice Abbott

“Does not the very word ‘creative’ mean to build, to initiate, to give out, to act — rather than to be acted upon, to be subjective? Living photography is positive in its approach, it sings a song of life — not death.”

Kurt Kren

“I am more visual than audiovisual. … There is the danger that the image and the sound start competing with each other. The rhythm of the visual has always interested me more. It can produce inner music within the spectators themselves.”

Alain Resnais

“They say that a director always makes the same film. I try to make, as François Truffaut said, the next film in opposition to the one that came before. I’m not sure if I succeed. To put it another way, I agree with the auteur theory, but I don’t consider myself an auteur. I’m more of an artisan, a craftsman.”

Hans Bellmer

“The body is like a sentence that invites us to rearrange it, so that its real meaning becomes clear through a series of endless anagrams.”

Laura Mulvey

“We were interested in the way experimental cinema could move beyond the purism of specificity and into work between word and image, sound and image, music and image.”

Chantal Akerman

“I want the spectator to have a physical experience, for him or her to feel time. Films are generally made to literally and metaphorically pass the time. But I want you to experience the time of a character. I don’t want you to just go through an emotional experience, but also another kind of experience, like with music, that is unique because it is purely physical.”

Martha Rosler

“Art about politics will often have an ironic distance, or it signals to you that this is really about the subjectivity of the artist, as opposed to addressing the viewers as citizens. So psychologizing and subjectivizing have a tendency to depoliticize the political.”

Tracey Moffatt

“I am not concerned with verisimilitude. I am not concerned with capturing reality. I am concerned with creating it myself.”

James Benning

“I always believe that any learning comes through concentration and patience, and that you have to train yourself to have that patience and to perceive. That isn’t slow to me, that’s hard work. It may be slow in the movement of things but it isn’t slow in the stuff that’s going on in your mind when you watch something for a long time and you see very minimal changes: you start to learn from that. So time is a function of becoming more intelligent, I think; you need to take time. The word ‘slow’ seems to belittle that process. How can you rush that?”

Isaac Julien

“One of the problems with cinema is that it has forgotten that it is an art form. In Britain, in fact, they hate it, and that’s why one has had to return to the space of art to remember it. We don’t really have art cinema in Britain. Nowadays film is thought of as a skill to be honed for getting Oscars. The art cinema got killed off after Derek Jarman’s death in 1994. That’s been one of the reasons, at least in the English context, that art became, I would say, obsessed with cinema in the mid-’90s and that we’ve produced video artists like Douglas Gordon or Steve McQueen, or the Wilson twins. It’s been the space of art where we’ve been able to give back attention to making pictures.”

Barbara Hammer

“At first, I was told by feminists who were promoting writers and performers at the time, I should choose. Which did I want to be? Either an avant-garde artist or a lesbian filmmaker, I couldn’t be both. I just never could make that choice, because I love both. I just followed my instincts and made films about what I needed to make films about.”

Curtis Harrington

“I happen to be a filmmaker who loves ambiguity and uses it very consciously. Of course, that is the opposite of what producers want. I remember what Orson Wells said: ‘The trouble with my career is that I don’t want to make the films that producers want to make.’ The same is true of me; I don’t want to make the films the producers want to make.”