Finding the Less Good Idea Lecture by William Kentridge at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Kathy Weaver, Guest Contributor

Artist William Kentridge at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo by Kathy Weaver.

Artists share their ideas with one another all the time, but last night was an exceptionally expressive and notable sharing. On Tuesday evening, Nov. 8th, William Kentridge, was in Milwaukee, thinking out loud, explaining his creative process for a project to be realized next year. The lecture was titled “Finding the Less Good Idea.” Kentridge is a South African artist known for his wide-ranging work in drawing, writing, film, performance, music, theater and collaborative practices. He is the founder and director of The Centre for the Less Good Idea in Johannesburg. South Africa. The Centre takes its name from an African proverb that says, If the good doctor can’t cure you, use the less good doctor. Kentridge states,” This has implications for ways of making art. You may start out with what you think is an amazing impulse, but it soon shows cracks, and it is in the explorations of these cracks where new ideas and a different way of thinking emerge. It is a psychoanalytic approach to creativity which privileges your inner feelings about the work over rational ideas. Give it the benefit of doubt”. It is this trust in the divergent, emerging idea that is the core of The Centre for the Less Good Idea. The Centre is an informal physical space in Johannesburg, where collaborative and cross discipline arts projects are being made, to the tune of 400 individual performances since its inception in 2016. To date 700 artists of all disciplines have participated.

During the lecture the audience was treated to various film clips that showed the work process of Kentridge and his crew of 12 to 20 people depending on the scale of the project. He may be rapidly dictating phases to a costumed dancer to elicit out of the ordinary movements, he may be reaching an arm across the interior of a cardboard puppet stage to get the action just right, or he may be directing actors to switch heads, larger than life drawings held face level, of Joseph Stalin, Indira Ghandi or Rosa Luxemburg. The head switching, he explained, contributed to the anarchy the piece needed and it also shook up the hierarchy of gender. He stated that in the making, the process will show the artist who they are and where the project is going. In his work he asks the big questions, referencing Brecht and Mayakovsky. Kentridge addresses the dark times in South Africa with premonitions of the future. He talked about the Big Yes and The Big No, questions relating to the north versus the south, the earth, poverty, and the formal versus the informal economies. Referencing Mayakovsky, he asked “The world is leaking. How do we put our finger in the dam?” In all this darkness, there is humor and over-arching absurdity. In a clip of the work, “O Sentimental Machine”, the audience saw the sly voyeurism of megaphones eying a typist. The lecture was also interspersed with Kentridge’s dry wit. In talking about working on an opera he said it was a three-hour drawing and he was just the hired help. He concluded that the Centre is predicated on drawing. The ideas are coming from the openness of drawing. Drawing is the genesis from which ideas spring and often the object that is incorporated through animation, fragmentation or multiplication. 

The lecture, “Finding the Less Good Idea’, took place at the Milwaukee Museum. It was one event of a month’s long Kentridge Arts Festival sponsored by Milwaukee’s Jan Serr and John Shannon, art collectors, patrons of the arts and founders of the Warehouse Art Museum. To see a calendar of events at https://www.thewarehousemke.org/programming

About William Kentridge

William Kentridge was born in 1955 in Johannesburg, South Africa where he currently lives and works. Often drawing from socio-political conditions in post-apartheid South Africa, William Kentridge’s work takes on a form that is expressionist in nature. For Kentridge, the process of recording history is constructed from reconfigured fragments to arrive at a provisional understanding of the past—this act of recording, dismembering and reordering crosses over into an essential activity of the studio. His work spans a diverse range of artistic media such as drawing, performance, film, printmaking, sculpture and painting. Kentridge has also directed a number of acclaimed operas and theatrical productions. 

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