The Laws of Nature

Monday, January 31, 2011

What's worthy of expression?

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
by Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler

Painting: On White II, Wassily Kandinsky, 1923

Part 1: About General Aesthetic

Moving on past the first two paragraphs of this section, Kandinsky expresses his despair over the “harsh tyranny of materialistic philosophy” that “divide(s) our soul sharply from that of the Primitives.” These diametrically opposed entities are defined as the difference between being purely external with no future (materialism) and being internal containing the seed of the future within itself (primitive). This philosophical distinction should be interpreted within the context of Kandinsky’s psychological transition at the time.

Disenchanted with the effects of materialism, Kandinsky saw it as the catalyst for the expression of the basest human emotions and behavior. In contrast, removing oneself from the pursuit of materialism awakens the “subtler emotions” that, when expressed in a work of art, “give to those observers capable of feeling them lofty emotions beyond the reach of words.”

Before moving on to the rest of Kandinsky’s explanation, I’d like to explore this part. I’m interested in Kandinsky’s fascination with the Primitives. He seems to equate “primitive” with “simplicity” - an unsophisticated and uncomplicated state. Apparently, without the complications of our materialistic society we artists could more easily tap into ourselves to reveal our “lofty” emotions. Kandinsky elevates our emotions to the noblest level, worthy of artistic expression to the exclusion of all else.

At least, that’s how it seems to me at only three pages into his short book. Kandinsky looks to our motivations in artmaking. He challenges them and looks for value or worth. So, what is worthy of artistic expression? What do you think?


Casey Klahn said...

We just had a wake for a very dear and popular friend in Seattle. A very young girl drew a crayon picture of our friend, and it is without a doubt one the most moving images I've seen in a while. Simple. Childlike. Very emotive.

Maybe you can see it at this link, if it works.

The likeness, in cartoon form, is so accurate, I wish you could see that part.

I am a believer in childlike simplicity in art. The primitive direction of the Moderns puzzled me, and at first I rejected it. African masks, Islamic art, stuff like that. Now, after seeing what Matisse and Picasso did with it (contemporary with WK) I am also a believer in that.

But I keep the primitive separate from the childlike and from the simple.

I will say that I looked sideways at WK at first, suspicious that I wouldn't like or agree with his essay. But, I think he makes his case. I like his later work the best.

Do you see the parallels between your Laws series and these Kandinsky"s, Kathy?

Linda Roth said...

Everything is worthy of artistic expression if you feel moved enough to bother.

WK reads like he wasn't happy with the effects the Industrial Revolution was having on life. He should see us now reading his book on a Kindle.

We are of our time and what we create is of our time as we see it. Some of us paint the complexities--you Katerine. Others of us paint less so. But none of us are primitive. This is the age of communications.

hw (hallie) farber said...

When I visit the primitive African part of the NC Museum of Art, I "feel" what Kandinsky is talking about. I don't think words can describe it--what appears simple contains the core.

hw (hallie) farber said...

And I should add that I don't "feel" this way about Kandinsky's work. Not yet, anyway--and I think primitive shouldn't require a lot of study; just a little "Aha" moment.

Anonymous said...

I just want you to know I'm following along. I don't really understand the discussion so far, but I'm here.
Kandinsky is neither primitive or simple. Perhaps this is just his build up to justify attaching meaning (depth) to his abstract art?

Abstract art can have deep meaning to the artist and or viewer. However, realistic (objective?) interpretations of art have the potential for a more universal meaning and depth. Sorry Kandinsky. As much as I admire and respect his work, the average person will only see it as decorative. GASP!!!!!!!

Dan Kent said...

I love the way you explain Kandinsky. I read the book, and was put off by a rant that I took to be against capitalism. His book was a manifesto on art but I thought he included other personal opinions as well, as is his right.

But thinking about it, art, for me, is a departure from all that capitalism requires. My chosen employment saps my soul; my art strengthens it. I firmly believe that this is because art is closer to my essence - I knew this as a child (primitive) and abandoned it for more practical pursuits. This was my mistake. Of course I have not yet begun to try to sell my work - it'd be interesting how that would play into this dynamic.

Kandinsky has definite ideas about subject matter (the absence of the external object), but without rereading the first three pages, I think he is looking inside the artist here, as he does elsewhere in the book.

Mary Paquet said...

What is worthy of artistic expression? I like you interepretation: "Kandinsky elevates our emotions to the noblest level, worthy of artistic expression to the exclusion of all else."

I believe that art is an expression of the artist's emotions and the subject matter is simply a vehicle for expressing those emotions. Kandinsky took subject matter to the abstract, but I don't feel its a requirement.

Anonymous said...

Today I think just about anything is worthy of being painted. I think what matters is what we bring of ourselves to the art making process. Painting the emotional content can be exciting; it can be vacuous too if it becomes too egocentric. Painting the external, what we see, and reducing the ego (emotion) can lead to sublime work. But, taken to the extreme, it can lead to technical excellence devoid of feeling. As usual, I sit on the fence and depends!

-Don said...

I've been sitting on the sidelines on this discussion, but feel it's time to weigh in...

I've stood before several Kandinsky's over the years and have studied MANY of them in books. I understand and even appreciate what his work represents, but I never 'got' it. I want to, but somehow I can't. I feel nothing, even empty. So, the emotion I feel when I walk away from one of his works is a sadness that has nothing to do with what I just saw. The sadness is because I want to feel what others have felt that did 'get' his work. I've spent several minutes with each of his works that you've posted the last few days and still nothing.

With all that said, I do not in any way denigrate his artistic expression. I guess this observer is just not capable of feeling the lofty emotions beyond the reach of words when placed before his works.


Unknown said...

Hi Casey - I wish I could see this poignant drawing, but the link doesn't work! Indeed, children produce the most honest and uninhibited work - something that we seem to lose as we age. And then, we spend a lifetime trying to get it back - or at least tap back into it. Ironic. I think you're right about keeping primitive separate from childlike and simple. There seems to be a difference.
I never thought about similarities between my new work and Kandinsky's but now that you mention it, mine has no external references so philosophically we're on the same wavelength. Perhaps you see more??

Hi LW - you raise some points that I've been mulling over as I'm reading this book. A black and white philosophy can be argued with on many levels, but can be useful in providing a focus that leads to innovation. It's a fine line to walk, for sure!

Hi Hallie - you give us more to think about. It seems like WK is equating primitivism with simplicity, but I'm not certain that I agree. I'll keep thinking.

Hi Pam - while I agree that WK's work is anything but simple, I don't agree that it's decorative. And, I think that non-objective art can evoke the timeless humanistic themes just as well as the objective art. But, the final word really belongs to the individual viewer. Your, and my, subjective experiences with art provide the ultimate meaning for it.

Hi Dan - you said it well!! I agree. Thanks.

Hi Mary - thanks for a good reinterpretation! I agree.

Hi Peggy - I share your philosophy. You state it well and make the case for authenticity. Thank you!

Hi Don - Like you, when I see a Kandinsky I have no passion for it. However, I appreciate his innovative approach and form of expression. For me, viewing his work is an effort and the only pleasure I derive from it is discovering the relationships between forms and colors. What it meant to WK isn't conveyed to me, but I do feel something - a spirit of something. Would I hang a Kandinsky in my home and enjoy it for the rest of my life? Yes.

Casey Klahn said...

Mostly, Kathy, I see your work (or vice versa) in WK's patterns. Your work has exquisite patterns, and so does WK.

I like Don's opinion, and others, about being empty vis-a-vis Kandinsky. Perhaps the reaction of WK to his era was a feeling of empty or personal isolation?

Linda's comments are wonderful. We truly don't live in a simple era.