„You can be a virtuoso at being sloppy”

A conversation with William Forsythe
von Florian Malzacher

In: herbst. Theorie zur Praxis (2010): 62-65.

Florian Malzacher: Virtuosity is the concept we investigate from different angles in this year’s edition of steirischer herbst. When I look for a positive connotation of that term, you are one of the artists that first come to my mind. Do you feel comfortable with this rather old-fashioned term, is it still valuable? Or is virtuosity just something to hate as a distraction from more important layers of art?

William Forsythe: Oh, I think it is a bit like hating your parents: It became trendy. But virtuosity is simply a word that was chosen to describe a certain phenomenon – and to ascribe to a word a kind of ubiquitous power over the structure of art is really preposterous. There is no way to determine what conditions art can emerge in. And you can be a virtuoso at being sloppy – I mean: in a good way. You can decide: I need to be really sloppy in this scene, I am going to be the incarnation of sloppiness. Then you could be a virtuoso in that. It is just a word to describe excellence and craft: craft put to a certain kind of … intensity. It has to do with intensity, not with a numerical thing. It is not about: Oh, she did five hundred turns. That would be a kind of … quotidian use of the word virtuosity. Or do you remember this artwork which was just a piece of paper: The artist had stared at it for a thousand hours, that’s what made it art. That’s also virtuosity. So the contemporary doesn’t abjure, doesn’t push away the concept of virtuosity. Just the term is old, it had it’s heyday perhaps in the 19th century. Today we have other terms – but I just don’t like relegating the language to fashion.

You mentioned another term that is out of fashion: craft, “Handwerk”. It also plays an important role in your work – without dominating it.

“Handwerk” is the foundation, it is the springboard. Without it, your ability to differentiate would be less … hm … I have to think, how can I say it without being undiplomatic … Well, let’s say: “Handwerk” is useful. (Laughs) Craft is useful, craft is a large percentage of it and if you are lucky enough you’ll be able to bring it over into art – the best people combine the two. Dana Caspersen is so skilled – but she works her fucking ass off!

So it is – to use another outdated word – about discipline?

Discipline is very interesting. It has to come from within. You realize that certain portions of your time are not available for other things. It is just like: That’s what needs to be done. It is kind of being very practical. You know: This ridiculous notion that art is impractical and disorganised. It is just the opposite: Artist are extremely focused people, the best ones are the most focused ones.