The Laws of Nature

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.


Carolyn Abrams said...

"A spiritual awakening occurs when artists express internal truth." I like this thought. I can actually relate to Kandinsky at this point. It could also be said that as artists express their internal truth they may experience a spiritual awakening. Either way, working this way reaches the core of your soul and goes beyond technical ability, illustration or intuitive work. Just my thoughts on very complex reading.

Casey Klahn said...

I well remember when I took an abstract workshop, and the teacher showed a slide of Kandinsky's artwork. I was struggling to say something and she said, "you have permission to dislike Kandinsky."

That was cool. Art is often about having permission. And, for the vanguard, it is about the area beyond the permissions and the rules, and the conventions be damned.

I had an "aha!" moment last night when I was reading elsewhere about the Samurai and their cultural resistance to change. My mind jumped to the issues of Kandinsky's essay, and I realized that he had distilled the art process to the creative kernel. If the Samurai was all about the past, it helps me by comparison to see that art is all about the creative - the future.

For Kandinsky, the representation of the same objects again and again was the past, and pure abstraction the future. What is the future, now?

I like the part about how one artist does something new, and then an army of repetitive art follows in the wake.

Yesterday my wife was showing me some artist had done a jackalope portrait, and I saw pure kitsch. Too easy an example. I have been organizing my studio, doing inventory and cleaning my flat files. There before me were the kitschy things of repetition. Also, in honored places, appeared the jewels that were new, different, and (for me, anyway) in "the van."

I always personalize the art, rather than set up a competition with others. It is me versus me.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, I am really enjoying looking at the Kandinsky paintings. I keep coming back to have another look. I like his work. From his words, I think I'll take away the thought that striving for personal (internal) expression is vital for art. Artistic spiritual growth could be a quest that lasts a life time.

Mary Paquet said...

Kandinsky is much more in his head than I prefer to be. Poor fellow really suffered.

Your conclusion is interesting and I agree that emotional content is the soul of a painting. However, I think I will be drawn to the paintings that not only say something, but are also rendered with a high degree of skill. This does not equate with realism, but does equate with technically competent pieces. I am a fan of abstraction, but I favor variety and art expressing emotion in a multitude of styles.

Eva said...

Kandinsky intellectualism makes my head swim. It sounds rather defensive to me. It reminds me of art critics "who, if they cannot dazzle you with their brilliance, they try to baffle you with their bull". People either enjoy and relate to my art or they don't and I deal it. My reasons for painting varies from day to day. From financial need to soul. The bottom line is I create because it's my passion.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I just add "amen" to what Eva said.

Please take care of yourself during these life changes--your health is important.

Dan Kent said...

Before an artist can transcend, he or she must master the technical aspects of the craft. But technical mastery is not enough, the painting must express something of the artist's soul. In this I agree with Kandinsky. It is close to the quote that I found so inspiring from his book - but since that is near the end, I will stay mum about it for now.

I like Casey's question - what is the future now? I often wonder this.

Celeste Bergin said...

I can't add anything of value...but I wanted to tell you that I enjoy reading the excerpts (and I am grateful I don't have to read Kandinsky). I think I am at the top of the triangle too. lol. Why not? Hoping your h feels better very soon. :)

Unknown said...

Hi Carolyn - your philosophy is reflected in your wonderful work! I agree with you.

Hi Casey - you offer us many golden nuggets! Thank you. I like your concept about "permission" and it makes sense. And, your comment about what is the future now is fascinating. I look at it as who's steering this ship, and will post something about this next. Thanks for giving me the idea to discuss this!

Hi Peggy - amen!

Hi Mary - I agree that technical skill is important. After all, an artist can have a terrific idea but if he/she can't produce it with some skill, the concept is either lost or at least diminished. Good point!

Hi Eva - you and Kandinsky share one common motivation: painting from passion. In the end, that's what it's all about.

Hi Hallie - thanks! I'm trying.

Hi Dan - I completely agree. And, I, too, am fascinated by Casey's question.

Hi Celeste - thanks! Hubby's doing better, but it's a very long recovery.