The Laws of Nature

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?


William Cook said...

Commercial success equals creating art that YOU THINK other people will buy. Ergo, go to the people with the money that are looking for art product, and act accordingly.

If this is your motivation, than your subject doesn't matter. You are painting someone else's. Now you're an illustrator. It's just business--a living. Beats flippin burgers.

But you are still a spirit having an embodied experience--even though you are not expressing that directly in your moneymaking.

And when you accumulate enough dough from illustration (hey its reality), you can, in effect, buy a little of your own time to soar--your own experiential process. There you locate and explore deep inroads to the depths of your own soul where you realize I'm home at last, and everything in the world freezes into unmeaning and nonsense. And finally, contacting this state of consciousness becomes the entire reason for your life. Very personal (and I suspect universally so) stuff .

That happened to me once. I could hardly hold the brush I was crying with joy uncontrollably. The final piece was nothing to speak of, just a mere record of inner journey--the remnants of what took place. But when I look at the piece even now, it all comes flooding back.

If you're lucky your painting will generate a similar transcendental experience to others viewing your work. Now you're communicating on spiritual levels. I think this is what Kandinsky is trying to say and that this work is the real thing.


Sorry if this seems too melodramatic and all but you are hitting some serious chords here with this Kandinsky series. Thanks for that.

Unknown said...

Hi Wm - You said it much better than I could. Thank you!! I wholeheartedly agree.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but think that at one time or another, I'm a little of all these artist types. My bias is to want to be more in the type four, but I don't always feel it.

I do like Kandinsky's paintings, and today's is particularly appealing. But, I couldn't tell you why.

William Cook said...

It feels nurturing to me very womblike--primordial. Wm

Linda Roth said...

I disagree with #3. Art for art sake means to me the pleasure I take in making two dimensional images. To Whistler, it meant relatively the same-- "shapes and colors, not sentiment." I love making art pure and simple. And I definitely think artists are entitled to make a living from their skills.

I have this book--not on a kindle--and it's about here where WK became suspect. His art WAS the link between Expressionism and Abstraction and does hold an important spot in Western art history--on a par with Cezanne--but I do not understand artists who expound their theories. Are they doing it for themselves? Are they doing it for their colleagues, their competitors? Do they think they are helping younger artists? Do they feel their work isn't enough without some written explanation? Art theory taken too seriously can cripple artists.

Thanks Katherine for moving me to take a look back on art history. As I glanced through my Concerning The Spiritual in Art. I noticed I made a lot of notes in the margins. On page 45 I found these notes of mine written thirty three years ago:
"if the artist creates in order to express her personality and the spirit of her age (place in time) uninhibited-- honestly--spiritual harmony is absolute." Also: "If the artist creates [at all], who she is and her place in time cannot be avoided."
Obviously my opinion hasn't changed.

Such a lovely way to spend time while eating breakfast.

Mark Sheeky said...

I suppose WK was all four himself. A written explanation of art matters, because it changes the artwork itself. There's nothing wrong with analysing art, and sharing it is better than keeping it secret. Secret knowledge is useless.

On painting to sell; my insurance company is very confident I'll live to 70 whether I'm a commercial success as an artist or not. If I'm destined to die alone in poverty there is certainly no need to make any compromises.

hw (hallie) farber said...

Is there another category?

I'm following.

T.Nara said...

I am a binge artist. I do not support myself with it, I have another job related to artmaking. And as Wm said, it beats flippin burgers. When I am able to carve out time for my art, I often have a difficult time starting, but if I am able to spend some uninterupted time at it, I get to a place that feels like a connection to the spiritual. Sometimes I have had transcendental experiences while viewing the work of others. Maybe because that artist has achieved some aspect of what I have strived for. If I go too long without painting or drawing I get really grumpy. I have found that talking with others about art helps. Is this a 5th type of artist? Perhaps not an artist yet, perhaps a potential artist. Anyway, thanks all of you for the ongoing discussion.

Mary Paquet said...

Hallie asked is there another type? I create art for the joy of creating art.

Incidentally, I posted a Kandinsky-inspired painting I did in a Mike Bailey class in 2006 on my blog. You got me to thinking about that one with this discussion. And it was pure fun.

Celeste Bergin said...

I don't know what I am. I am following too.

Unknown said...

Hi ALL - Your comments are great! I'm learning a lot from you and hope you'll continue this journey through Kandinsky's book with me.