The Laws of Nature

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Pyramid

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

Image: Composition VII, 1913 by Wassily Kandinsky

The Pyramid

The comments to my last post over the past week are well-worth a second and third reading. They reflect some profound truths and insights that transcend many of the best art theory books I’ve read and I’m grateful to those of you who have taken the time to write them!

Since I began reviewing this book exactly one month ago today, I’ve been captivated by the responses of my readers to it. Many of us appreciate and even revere the ground-breaking work done by this pioneer artist. WK’s rebellion against the traditional extrinsically-sourced art that preceded and surrounded him gave rise to what we artists do today. It allows us to freely express who we are as individuals – the intrinsic source of inspiration.

But, many of us are turned-off by Kandinsky’s elitist notions. The existence of a hierarchy among artists (whether or not it’s real) is especially abhorrent to us Americans who operate outside the social class system. We consider ours a land of equal opportunity and our philosophy negates the possibility of class by birth. At the same time, we recognize that some achieve to higher levels than others. It’s a fact of life. However, what is the source of the highest level of achievement in art? Is it genetic? God-given? Hard work and determination? I don’t presume to know nor would I guess at an answer.

This leads me to the last part of the first section of WK’s book: “The Pyramid.” Here, the author addresses all forms of art. He writes that in his day, the arts contain “in each manifestation … the seed of striving towards the abstract, the non-material. Consciously or unconsciously they are obeying Socrates’ command – Know thyself.” Because of this, WK notes that there is a convergence among the arts – a “drawing together” of process and purpose. Most notably, he compares music and visual art, which interests me a great deal since music, along visual art and also science, have been my professions.

“With few exceptions music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist’s soul, in musical sound,” Kandinsky writes. So true! Late in my somewhat mediocre career as a pianist, I hired a concertizing coach. Her constant admonition was to paint with my music – add colors that represent the moods of my soul. It made all the difference in my performances as well as in my paintings.

He adds: “This borrowing of method by one art from another, can only be truly successful when the application of the borrowed methods is not superficial but fundamental…. The artist must not forget that in him lies the power of true application of every method, but that that power must be developed.” Here is the real challenge! When we examine our motivations as an artist, what do we find to be fundamentally true? What should be fundamentally true? And, how dedicated are we to developing it? Here, WK reminds us that art is a discipline and that it requires real work, beginning at the psychological level.
Speaking to readers of his own time, Kandinsky writes “Painting today is almost exclusively concerned with the reproduction of natural forms and phenomena. Her business is now to test her strength and methods, to know herself as music has done for a long time, and then to use her powers to a truly artistic end.” Amen!

In the next section of his book, “About Painting,” WK turns his attention to color theory, form and color, and other matters. That’s where I’ll begin next time.

What are your thoughts?
P.S. To those of you who have been following the events of my life, here's an update: We've moved all of our possessions (except for one mattress) to our home in Maine as we await the closing date on our New York home. So, we're camped out on that mattress in an empty NY house for at least two more weeks. All of my art supplies are in storage, but my mind is at work. Hubby is still recovering from his surgery six weeks ago and should be approaching normal in another three weeks. Meantime, we've had record snowfalls, so I've been doing a lot of shoveling!!

Monday, February 21, 2011


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

Image: Jaune Rouge Bleu by Wassily Kandinsky

Returning to Kandinsky’s book, I’ve begun the next section entitled “Spiritual Revolution.” Any revolution involves rebellion against a prevailing condition. In this case, WK identifies the prevailing condition as the masses who inhabit the lowest level of the spiritual triangle (discussed earlier). These are the unimaginative, uninspired, hypocritical, economic Socialists according to Kandinsky. Those who inhabit the levels directly above this group are only slightly “better.” By contrast, those few at the top of the triangle are the spiritually creative problem-solvers who value science and art. It is from this lofty position that the rebellion is launched against the prevailing condition of the levels below.

But, the leaders of the rebellion are insecure. They know history, and therefore understand that visionaries are first revered and later reviled by society. Rejection is the ultimate reward. They struggle with their role and become tentative. What saves them? Their souls.
The artist owns the spirit of the future. The artist can tap into inner truth and reveal it. WK writes: Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt. They reflect the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what at first was only a little point of light noticed by few and for the majority non-existent. Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but on the other hand they turn away from the soulless life of the present towards those substances and ideas which give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul.

Artists speak through their own spirits and to the spirits of others. The connection, therefore, is purely on a spiritual level and not a material one, according to WK. Somehow, this seems too simplistic. After all, art is also an industry. It’s assigned a monetary value and traded as a commodity. Art and money are conjoined.

Although my distillation of WK’s dense text is somewhat overly simplified, his argument rests on the notion that some artists (the geniuses at the top of the pyramid) lead the rebellion against the uninspired, unspiritual legion of others whose influence demands conformity. As the rebellion gains strength, others on levels below join it.
But, if the rebellion succeeds, doesn't the new condition become the "norm"? Does this mean that the inspired at the top of the spiritual triangle become the condition of the lowest portion of the next triangle? (Remember Kandinsky’s discussion on the movement of the triangle.) At one time, the Impressionists were at the top of this triangle. Now, there are a host of imitators. Impressionism today is ordinary and passe’. Or, is it?

Kandinsky was a revolutionary in art. No doubt about it. But, he has a myriad of imitators today. Are they unenlightened??

What do you think?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Kepler's First Law and Other Universal Principles

Kepler's First Law
by Katharine A. Cartwright
watercolor on paper
26" x 19"

The orbit of every planet is an ellipse with the Sun at one of the two foci.

Somehow, in the midst of moving, I've managed to complete another painting in my series The Laws of Nature. Painting keeps me sane, even if the results seem a little insane. I think the word is therapeutic. Although I haven't had the chance to return to Kandinsky's book, I continue to ponder his ideas and motivation. Is the act of creating art always therapeutic for the artist? Is this a universal condition? I'll test that notion over the next month since all of my art tools and materials are now in storage until this moving transition is complete. This will be the longest period that I haven't painted and I wonder how it will impact me. Will I resort to thumb-sucking? At least I still have my sketchbook.

What does artmaking do for you?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

What is the future of art, now?

Sometimes it’s good to step back and reflect. This is one of those times. I’m truly enjoying the challenge of reading Kandinsky’s short but dense book (or, maybe I’m the one who’s dense). In either case, it’s time for reflection. Our good friend Casey Klahn commented on my last post about the future. He wrote: “For Kandinsky, the representation of the same objects again and again was the past, and pure abstraction the future. What is the future, now?”


Personally, I think the future is controlled by whoever is steering the ship.
Do visionary artists, art critics, or marketing geniuses control the future of art?

Will artists of the future, who now directly exhibit and market their work through the internet and self-publishing, control the future direction of art?

Will grass roots level artists, like me, ever have any opportunity to steer this ship, or will we remain passengers in the cargo hold?

What do you think?

I’ll be away for the week to make the last preparations to move into our winter wonderland home in Maine (image) and will check in now and then if I’m lucky.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Kandinsky, Moses and the Golden Calf

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

Image: Painting With White Border, Wassily Kandinsky, 1913

Part 1: The Movement of the Triangle

I’ll complete this section of the book today so we may move along to his next section about the “spiritual revolution” of his time. In the last two posts, we discussed Kandinsky’s hierarchical segmented triangle in an attempt to classify artists, their works and viewers. Vertical mobility up and down the triangle occurs over time as artists feed upon their own psyches for inspiration or starve. Of course, WK places himself and his work in the apex segment of this triangle, a place reserved for innovative geniuses who are misunderstood and ridiculed. This is a lonely place, indeed.

Wrapping up this section, WK complains of the dark periods in art when spirituality is lost in favor of materialism. He writes: “At such times art ministers to lower needs, and is used for material ends. She seeks her substance in hard realities because she knows of nothing nobler. Objects, the reproduction of which is considered her sole aim, remain monotonously the same….. Art has lost its soul.” He continues, by adding “In the search for method the artist goes still further. Art becomes so specialized as to be comprehensible only to artists, and they complain bitterly of public indifference to their work. For since the artist in such times has no need to say much, but only to be notorious for some small originality and consequently lauded by a small group of patrons and connoisseurs (which incidentally is also a very profitable business for him), there arise a crowd of gifted and skilful painters, so easy does the conquest of art appear. In each artistic circle are thousands of such artists, of whom the majority seek only for some new technical manner, and who produce millions of works of art without enthusiasm, with cold hearts and souls asleep.”

This, of course, leads to unhealthy competition between artists as they fight to be at the top of the heap and leave in their wake a confused public. Despite these negative forces at work in the art world, WK optimistically believes that the spiritual triangle continues to move upward over time. There is no holding back true spiritual advancement in the arts. He attributes the cause for this upward advance to those artists who occupy the apex segment and, from time to time, descend from their lofty perch like Moses descending from the mountain, to impart wisdom to the worshippers of the golden calf. At first, the voice of the visionary who resides in the apex isn’t comprehensible to these lower artists who only replicate what they see and focus on technique. But, eventually some begin to understand and follow the call to aim for expression of their “finer feelings.” A spiritual awakening occurs when artists express internal truth.

And so, this section of WK’s book concludes. His dogmatic form of expression is a little off-putting but I agree with the central message which is core to my own teaching. I am a child of Kandinsky’s ideas. I do believe that the concept, or idea, behind the work is far more important than reproduction, materials, and technique. Unique and meaningful art comes only from authentic individual expression of the artist’s ideas – not how well he/she can use materials or make a rose look just like a particular rose. So, I’m grateful to WK for his ideas and for stridently defending them.

What do you think?

P.S. Please excuse my infrequent attention to this blog. We’re in the final three weeks of moving to our new home in Maine during a terrible winter and my husband is recovering from a difficult operation at the same time. It’ll take me awhile to sort out everything, but I’ll try to keep up.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Movement of the Triangle, continued

Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler

Painting: Aglow byWassily Kandinsky

Part 1: The Movement of the Triangle

This section of Kandinsky's book is most difficult to navigate, and yesterday our good friend Wm. Cook correctly reminded us to view WK's words in light of the time and circumstances in which they were written: Here it is a hundred years later looking back on a guy who stood at the forefront of one of the main cultural shifts of human history. It was a left brain to right brain shift, and is still going on, thankfully. Indeed, this was a major shift in artistic expression. External sources of inspiration for the artist had been dominant (e.g. landscapes, portraits, physical objects, etc) and now artists like Kandinsky began to turn inward to find their inspiration. The psyche was the source of spiritual food for their work.

As I continued through this dense text and WK's elaborate explanation of the spiritual triangle I got bogged down. So, the scientist in me emerged to handle it and I drew a diagram of what I think Kandinsky means. Here it is, and here's my explanation:

The apex of this triangle represents the highest level of spiritual achievement for an artist and the base of it is the lowest. At each level, I've indicated three conditions:

1. the artist's source of inspiration (external or internal)

2. the artist's work on the basis of how much it's understood by others

3. acceptance by the viewers on the basis of popular opinion about the artist and his/her work.

On the lowermost level of this triangle resides the least spiritually developed artist whose works are inspired by external references that are easily recognizable to viewers and gain wide popular acceptance.

As the levels progress toward the apex, artists depart more and more from external references and become more inspired by internal ones (their thoughts and emotions). Progressively, the audience understands less about the work and so it's not as popular.

In the apex resides the most spiritually developed artist whose works are entirely inspired by internal references that are unrecognizable to viewers and unaccepted, even ridiculed. Only a few visionary prophets from lower levels can recognize the genius in these works.

As WK advances his philosophy, he writes of the "spiritual food" that sustains artists at each level. This food can act either to nourish or poison the artist. If the artist eats too little of it, he can sink to a lower level on the triangle. And, if he eats too much of it too quickly, he'll drop like a rock to the lowest level. My interpretation is that this food is introspection. If we tap into ourselves enough, we'll create unique and meaningful art. If we aren't introspective enough, our work will become shallow or vacuous. If we are too introspective we'll go nuts and our creativity will be destroyed. At least, that's my interpretation of all this.

Those of you who have read this book might want to offer another opinion. I'll digest this awhile before moving on to the next paragraph!

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Triangles and Webs

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

Painting: Gelb Rot Blau byWassily Kandinsky

Part 1: The Movement of the Triangle

Kandinksy begins this chapter by comparing the “life of the spirit” to an acute triangle that is divided along the horizontal into segments that become narrower toward the apex. Each segment of the triangle from base to apex represents a state in the artist’s spirit, understanding, and situation. Without going into the numerous spiritual iterations offered by WK, I’ll focus on his central idea:

“The greater the segment (which is the same as saying the lower it lies in the triangle) so the greater the number who understand the words of the artist.” Therefore, those artists who have moved into the apex segment are least understood through their works. This smallest of segments is usually occupied by only one artist – a misunderstood visionary. This artist is doomed to loneliness and ridicule that commonly besieges those who are misunderstood. The only ones who can understand and appreciate them are those few “prophets” who occupy lower segments and see beyond their own limitations. These are the ones who help “the advance of the obstinate whole.”

This philosophical fabrication, like the Aristotlean Ladder, stands only because of its oversimplification. Before I move further into this text where WK embellishes this construct, I’d like to explore what I think he means.

Kandinsky saw himself as a visionary – a genius. He felt alone. He felt that only prophets could recognize his genius. This may all have been reality, but it was also self-imposed. It’s human nature to feel misunderstood and alone. But, it’s not helpful. Artists are particularly vulnerable to this feeling and it’s a pity.

I see artists existing in a network, a web-like structure. All of us share this web; we’re interconnected. I don’t believe that what we produce is “equal.” Some, obviously, are more innovative than others and their work becomes historically significant and, therefore, more valuable to society. If someone is isolated, it’s because they want to feel isolated. That’s how it seems to me.

What’s your opinion?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Four Categories of Artists

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
by Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler
Painting: Painting with Three Spots, Wassily Kandinsky, 1914

Part 1: About General Aesthetic

Although I’m only three pages or so into this section of Kandinsky’s book, it’s apparent that he has rejected materialism in favor of primitivism in order to connect with what he feels is worthy of artistic expression: our innermost thoughts. Anything external to that is a distraction and, in his opinion, evil. Taking an extreme approach may be distasteful to most people and seemingly unrealistic but I think WK needed to do this in order to find focus and innovate. So, I’ll continue reading.

Kandinsky instructs us about the motivations of artists and viewers through contrasts. He categorizes them:

1. Artists who use their work for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment. Schumann’s definition: “To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts – such is the duty of the artist.” These artists produce (usually commissioned) allegorical work from an external source.

2. Competent artists (technicians). Tolstoy’s definition: “An artist is a man who can draw and paint everything.” Kandinsky notes that the works of these artists evoke admiration from viewers for their skill, but are lacking spirit. He writes, “But hungry souls go hungry away.”

3. Artists who produce “art for art’s sake.” Viewers of these works find them “pretty” or “nice” but vacant of meaning. According to Kandinsky, these artists are sell-outs who paint just for material reward and to satisfy vanity and greed. This leads to competition, over-production, hatred, jealousy, and so on.

These first three categories of artists, according to WK, produce “barren art.” He writes, “This art, which has no power for the future, which is only a child of the age and cannot become a mother of the future, is a barren art. She is transitory and to all intent dies the moment the atmosphere alters which nourished her."

And then, there’s the fourth category of artists and viewers:

4. Artists whose work springs from the spirit of contemporary feeling, which is capable of educating further. This work is uplifting and meaningful to its viewers.

Clearly, WK supports this fourth category and values it above all others. He’s an idealist and I admire his ideals. We may argue that any form of idealism is too limiting for something as nebulous as “fine art.” But, that’s up to the individual artist. In forming a philosophy, Kandinsky’s concern was not with commercial success, but with the spiritual aspect of his artmaking. Most of us professional artists must be concerned with commercial success in order to support ourselves. And, this is where Kandinsky finds fault with many artists: seeking commercial success compromises the creation of spiritually authentic work.

It IS a struggle. These two competing forces pull me in opposite directions as I struggle to keep my work spiritually pure. So, I think WK has a point but I can’t adopt his strict philosophy. After all, I am the product of this time, place, and culture. My concerns are uniquely my own.

How about you?