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!!


Casey Klahn said...

Ugh. I am keeping you two in my thoughts. I know the way it is when you've had a surgery and it is a matter of time (usually a long period) of recovery. Well wishes to you and hubby.

I never thought about the aspects of american artists being resistant to a hierarchical system, such as what WK puts forth in his essay. I think you are right on with that, and your comments have given us a community resource here. So cool.

Americans (and many others, but I'll speak to my own culture) love a winner, and they love talent in people. They like to see it as the reward for good, hard work. They admire if the talent is "natural," but I think most will agree that talent needs effort.

I don't know why artists aren't held to the same office/esteem here as they are in Europe. Italy, for instance, loves artists. I know there is some lethargy about that nowadays even there, but in general I think that statement is correct.

I just watched a video interview of the other WK - Wolf Kahn. He said that one great thing for him was the way Hans Hoffman (German cum American) imbued a sense of higher purpose/position to artists. I'll post that interview at my blog soon - it is on YT.

Anyway, it is what it is. Artists are a funny lot in the USA and they often shoot themselves in the foot. In my own growth, I am having fun watching my reputation grow with time, moreso if and as my work improves. I'd like to be the guy on the top of the pyramid, and I'd wish for all present company the same. In some ways, we are. Look at the high pulpit we occupy in internetville.

Linda Roth said...

My sympathies for having no art supplies around and snow piled high on the walks. Making art has been a godsend this abominable winter.

Today, painting is concerned with anything and everything. It's wide open for artists. Anything goes. I like that. It's very American. Equal opportunity for free expression, our first amendment. Then I like pursuing artistic excellence in execution using only the best materials--sound chemistry used in production.

hw (hallie) farber said...

The comments on your last post were great; I just re-read them. I'm following.

Whenever I've lived the simple life (mattress on the floor during remodeling or moving) I've hated going back to the life with all the "stuff." I hope all goes well.

Dan Kent said...

Kathy, didn't you know that when you whisper everyone hears you? :)

I wish you and your husband well. What an adventure (adventures can of course have very unpleasant aspects). I'll bet you can't wait until it's over, and that you and your husband will always remember this transition.

I've said it before, but I am fascinated with the way music, art, writing, in this technical age, are all 0's and 1's - all aspects of creativity, all the same really.

Stealing from "Art and Fear" again, genius in any creative endeavor cannot fully manifest without effort, and effort can sometimes trump "genius". And genius in the arts is often a description ascribed after effort and success anyway, not recognized beforehand - which begs the question whether it is sometimes just a label arising from the result of effort and success.

-Don said...

Kathy, I'm still following along, but find it really hard to get involved in this conversation. Sorry.

I hope things get settled for you and your husband soon. Being in limbo is a really discombobulating experience, but it sounds like you're holding up. I have a feeling that once you get settled you're going to be ON FIRE in the studio.


Robin said...

Hi Kathy, Like Don, I am still following but have been distracted (between vacation and computer problems) and I am a bit behind in my reading. I hope you complete your move hassle free with good health shared by all and look forward to your blogging from your new location and home. I have to say, on quick glance, the Kandinksy painting featured with this post looked like it was one of your Laws of Nature paintings!

Mary Paquet said...

Hi, Kathy. Just time to comment on the personal note. You are one strong woman -- moving and hubby recovering, and throw in a bit of snow shoveling with camping out in your soon-to-be former home. I am happy that you are mentally creating.