Saturday, July 17, 2010

Concerning the Spiritual in Kandinsky

[Or see my slightly revised pamphlet version -- at]


I wish to talk about – no...preach about – some things that perturb and stimulate me. I am full of passionate opinions and strange visions. Doesn't that qualify me for the role of sermonizing seer? Maybe, maybe not. And there is certainly no guarantee that anything I preach will be persuasive or even make sense. :)

These things – these stray thoughts – have hung in my mind for a long time, like vaguely colored threads. I wish to grasp these threads and weave them into some kind of verbal mosaic. The prompt for weaving them is a re-reading of Wassily Kandinsky's book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in 1911.

Considered broadly, I suggest that there are two types of people: the pragmatic and the aesthetic. The architect is a presumed synthesizer, but for me, he must stand among the pragmatists (granting, of course, there are exceptions to every rule). His projects attempt to bridge the chasm between the utilitarian mind and the dreaming soul. But just as the nervous system has no provable purchase on consciousness – no bridge that philosophy or science can erect via concept or theory – architecture must always be tethered to the physical, the practical. It will not reach across and touch the dream.

What of the religious believer, one might ask? Shouldn't I provide a third category beyond the pragmatic and aesthetic for him? No. He is also pragmatic. Although he deals in gods, angels, heavens, and hells, he remains grounded to the pragmatic, relies on forms of logic and reason to justify his faith in unseen beings and realms. Dogma and ritual are engineered mediation. Even burial ceremonies are a practical method whereby incantations transport the corpse's soul to a different territory. As pragmatic as moving goods from one seaport to another.

Yes, there have been centuries of great religious art, especially Christian inspirations: Augustine's beautiful philosophical meditations, Bach's cantatas and oratorios, Corot's God-haunted landscapes. Shouldn't I consider all this as aesthetic? I contend that even these are pragmatic manipulations, reconnaissances of merely different territory, attempts at metaphysical rapprochement. Those writers, composers, and painters presume too much about the “architecture” of reality and its having been shaped according to a holy “blueprint.” Hence, pragmatic.

There is a subtler religious impulse: Buddhism. Zen rock gardens and spare paintings of elemental nature would seem to epitomize the aesthetic. Yet Buddhism might be the most pragmatic, the least aesthetic of spiritual orientations. Instead of seeing it as a poetical, soulful impulse, I view Buddhism more as a constructivist project: a system for building up wrecked ego by paradoxically burying it in “fields” of imagined equipoise and stoical oblivion; the no-self as a vast pragmatic construction based on repressed despair. No, I will not include the Buddhist among the aesthetic ranks, even if he is seen by some as more spiritual than religious...or even as some kind of “artistic” atheist.

But I don't wish to imply that the aesthetic realm belongs exclusively to the atheist. Some atheists are strictly pragmatic, strictly utilitarian. They are aloof from the world of spirit, and for them, the dreams of art – aesthetic “séances” – are unknown experiences. Many atheists have not arrived at their unbelief after sifting through melancholy layers of profound thought – their vaunted sanity is merely a shallow reactionary stance. For them, Camus's twisting in the winds of perplexity and darkness is a non sequitur.

Consider the atheist cosmologist or quantum physicist who probes the vast or minute corridors of nature. Yet who is blind to the fact that Being per se – mysterious actuality, bare presence – lies behind and is distinct from nature's manifested objects and processes. Though that foundational abyss is beyond even a God (always signified as having qualities and attributes), that great, mysterious Void of the Real might very well have some aspect of the sacred about it. But the shallow type of atheist wouldn't even know what I'm talking about. Reality, in all of its dimensions and possible ways of being construed, is for him an interesting puzzle to be pieced together and then you die.

Just as the pragmatic believer sees the world as an expression of God, the pragmatic atheist sees the world as an expression of itself. Both are blind to the fact that “behind” God and world lies another consideration, another dialectic: Actuality and Nothingness. No God and no world can be self-justified. The “I am that I am” already requires an abyss of the real in which to be.

So...who possesses a true artistic spirit, who has a real aesthetic disposition?

First, I need to define what I mean by “aesthetic disposition.” The word “aesthetic” is derived from the Greek aisthētikos, from aisthēa 'perceptible things,' from aisthēsthai 'perceive.' For me, the aesthetic disposition is one characterized by looking at and coming to some kind of terms with what is really there. But I'm not talking about realism or naturalism in the arts. Nor do I mean simply someone who paints, sculpts, composes, or writes with flair and imagination. And I certainly don't mean those who spill thousands of words about theories of the beautiful in philosophy. Or those sophisticates who annotate color-plates in expensive books on fine art.

By “aesthetic disposition,” I describe someone who suspects that something is really there but is hidden in our shadows, dreams, and mysteries. Someone who then tries, through expression or appreciation, to discover what it is that is shadowing, dreaming, mysticizing that suspicion of the real into us. A disposition that doesn't take reality for granted. And I mean someone whose imagination is boundless, whose moods are abyssal and euphoric – able to contain within them the infinite gradients of emotional, spiritual reality.

Someone who is astonished to see the soul of motion abstracting out of a complex dance. Someone who weeps while sympathizing with Schubert's great B-flat Piano Sonata. Someone for whom time disappears while standing before a hypnotic canvas. Who becomes absorbed completely into Proust's memories. In short, a spiritual being.

But just as there are variations among the pragmatists, there are also many kinds found in the aesthetic camp. In the superficial layers are those for whom beauty is truth, truth beauty – the aesthetic capacity is exhausted in sighs before a pleasing painting or perfect mathematical theorem. Deeper and subtler is the response of the rare spirit – she for whom art, music, and literature (yes, even math and science) are merely doors behind which is a palpitating Mystery.

While the pragmatic mind will ask of history “what happened and what did it mean,” the aesthetic spirit ponders “what is time, what is event, what is meaning.”

Now...even though Kandinsky uses the word “spiritual” in his book's title, I have my doubts about him being a pure aesthetic creature (according to my possibly eccentric criteria). “Heresy!” you might exclaim. But let us see, let us explore this together.


The first part of Concerning the Spiritual in Art is “About General Aesthetics.” The radical artist, according to Kandinsky, leads a reluctant humanity toward and eventually into higher “atmospheres” of spirituality, of inner truth. He points out how previous avant-garde movements, which astonished and repulsed contemporary auditors, soon became the accepted, the norm, the taken for granted. Each notch up this artistic continuum is an advance of the general human spirit into a more expressive and more discerning condition.

At the time of writing, science was making discoveries about the equivocal nature of matter, the quixotic nature of energy. And some seekers were turning from traditional to ancient, esoteric ways into meaning (Blavatsky's Theosophical Society is an example). Suspicion was being cast on the external, with various hopes being placed in the internal, the mysterious. I would also include the philosophers A.N. Whitehead (“process” and “prehension”) and Henri Bergson (“duration” and “intuition”) in that general turn toward the inside of things, which influenced many around that same time, in that same ferment. And we must not leave out that great aesthete Nietzsche from the ferment. In fact, his thought was a primary yeast. From Rüdiger Safranski's Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, this appears:

All of the significant artistic currents in the early twentieth century, from symbolism to art nouveau and expressionism, were inspired by Nietzsche. Every self-respecting member of these circles had a “Nietzsche experience.” Harry Graf Kessler gave eloquent expression to the manner in which his generation “experienced” Nietzsche: “He did not merely speak to reason and fantasy. His impact was more encompassing, deeper, and more mysterious. His ever-growing echo signified the eruption of Mystik into a rationalized and mechanized time. He bridged the abyss (Abgrund) between us and reality with the veil of heroism. Through him we were transported out of this ice age, reenchanted and enraptured (entrückt).

Symbolist writers like Maeterlinck had lain the foundation for a new type of art: free abstraction, as opposed to the external, the naturalistic. Kandinsky emphasizes that art has always been the attempt at expressing the soul's complexion, but it had been, thus far, constricted and filtered through the natural, the objective (even Symbolist painting relied on the world of known forms to hold its deeper suggestions). Still waiting in the shadows of consciousness is the human spirit, which requires unfettered, unmediated expression. I should mention here something brought up in the translator's Introduction. Sadler brings to our attention the genealogy of attempts at a freer art. Those earlier exemplars on the brink of Kandinsky's emergence and assertion: Cezanne and Gauguin.

For Kandinsky, all true art – canvas, sculpture, story, poem – aspires to the condition of music. His non-representational, non-objectivist approach to painting is a desire to turn shape and color into abstract rhythm and melody – into an inner harmonious “seeing.”

We are presented with the examples of Debussy, Scriabin, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, who all contributed to new musical techniques and forms, new ways of artistic freedom. With them, chromaticism, dissonance, and even atonality (as well as Stravinsky's wildly sprung rhythms) offered the world a means for expansion of consciousness, of soul. Expressing even the spirit's discord with “ugly” sounds was a way into higher, more profound beauty...the beauty of hard truths. Freedom of expression, above all, is the driving impulse for the possibility of a new art.

Music, which is outwardly unfettered by nature needs no definite form for its expression.

That statement is on the last page of the first part of Concerning the Spiritual in Art. And moving beyond definite form is Kandinsky's goal, which I think he realized most wonderfully a little later on in his abstract paintings. (This manifesto-like book was written on the cusp of Kandinsky's own plunge into painterly non-objectivism.)

The second (final) part of the book is “About Painting.” Here, we are given a course in the psychological science of color and form, shade and line. But really, more of a pseudo-science. This entire part is a delight to read, to experience Kandinsky's free-form, oracular pronouncements about the human relation and response, especially, to color. Shapes, he seems to say, generate their own spiritual response in the observer. Triangles, used as a compositional principle, can evoke an upward, aspirational movement in the soul. Later, Kandinsky urges a transcendence from even such simple geometry and points to a new world of expression in which formal indefiniteness will charge the canvas with greater spirituality. Ambiguous form will allow an intuition of what is beyond the concretions of nature and known object. As he says, “The more abstract is form, the more clear and direct is its appeal.

The extended section on color is, indeed, fascinating. He states that “Shades of color...awake in the soul emotions too fine to be expressed in words.” His spiritual color theory is based on how certain warm shades like yellow draw us to the external (toward nature and the known), while cooler shades like blue recede (prompting a melancholy desire to move with them into a transcendent inner realm.)

Free color and free form are not all. He also proposes this for a new art: “attempts must be made to bring the picture on to some ideal plane which shall be expressed in terms of the material plane of the canvas.” That is some deep stuff right there! It's the kind of concept that takes a while to soak into my skull. And I'm going to remember it, because it will help me to better understand and appreciate abstract art. I also think it bears on Kandinsky's elusive word “spiritual.” Perhaps.

Here's some more good stuff:

The harmony of the new art demands a more subtle construction than this [Cubism],something that appeals less to the eye and more to the soul. This “concealed construction” may arise from an apparently fortuitous selection of forms on the canvas. Their external lack of cohesion is their internal harmony.


Painting is an art, and art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement of the human soul.

Utmost in Kandinsky's thought is the realization of a “spiritual atmosphere.” He concludes his book with this sentence:

We have before us the age of conscious creation, and this new spirit in painting is going hand in hand with the spirit of thought towards an epoch of great spiritual leaders.


Well...after such a book, after his having given the world such stunning masterpieces of abstract art, I should include, without a moment's hesitation, Wassily Kandinsky in the aesthetic and not the pragmatic camp. Shouldn't I? But hang on....I want to look at this question a little more closely, more deeply. After all, skepticism is the handmaiden of truth.

He did say this, which works in his favor: “It is the conviction that nothing mysterious can ever happen in our everyday life that has destroyed the joy of abstract thought. Practical considerations have ousted all else.” Point for Wassily!

But what is he getting at with his use of the word “spiritual”? What does he really mean?

As we've seen, music is the pinnacle for Kandinsky. Its freedom from nature provides him with action principles for painting. Music moves us in mysterious emotional ways, and he intends that painting should also reach deeply into the soul. But does he qualify or explain music as a higher spiritual form? Does he go where Schopenhauer did, who “pronounced music the direct expression of the world will” (from Safranski's Nietzsche). Nietzsche spoke of music as waves, and “Waves, which spill ceaselessly onto the shore, carrying you and pulling you along, and perhaps even pulling you under and submerging you, were Nietzsche's symbol of the depths of the world” (Safranski).

Music is a “language” of the ineffable. It speaks only vaguely, and what it speaks of, sometimes, seems beyond human experience. I wish Kandinsky had delved deeper into this. I'm willing to call music a spiritual art, but I would then be obliged to look at the word “spiritual” with a stronger, tighter focus. Music has the power to suggest the Beyond. It can conjure soul-states much subtler than the word “emotion” denotes. Just think of Bach's solo cello suites or of Beethoven's late string quartets or of Bruckner's cosmic symphonies...of Mahler's existential symphonies. Those “sayings” lift us out of the ordinary, and for a while, we are in worlds beyond the five senses. We sense another reality or a higher, uncanny atmosphere of our one reality. And a different spectrum of profound emotions is stimulated in us. As Safranski says: “In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche called this ecstatic life in music the 'rapture of the Dionysian state, which eradicates the ordinary bounds and limits of existence.'”

But I wonder if Kandinsky would go or was capable of going that far with the word “spiritual”? I wonder if he means by that word merely the extreme hues or eccentric shapes of emotions wrought in us by experience? Some music, I think, is indeed spiritual, is capable of evoking the Beyond – that mysterious power of presence allowing nature and even a possible God to have being, to come into the clearing of actuality.

Kandinsky's “spiritual” includes this, which is another point in his favor: that art can reveal to us the inner life of things, like the still-lifes of Matisse and Manet. I think he is getting at something like Kant's “thing-in-itself,” the numinous aspect of phenomena. And that reminds me of philosopher Martin Heidegger's late-period reverie on a painting by Van Gogh of peasant shoes: a secret, inner, profound “life” inhabits those shoes and whispers to us about another side of reality. But...Kandinsky only drops this aspect before us in passing. He doesn't go into it with sufficient depth. And given his “psychology” of colors and forms, I'm inclined to see this “spiritual” aspect as having less to do with numinous evocation and more to do with how a painted vase of flowers affects our merely sentimental constitution. Or perhaps how it affects our associational matrix in which deep memories are subconsciously re-woven with colors and shapes. In both cases, we are dealing with the emotional, and I think the word “spiritual” should be reserved for possibilities of transcendence. For what is beyond the ordinary range of conscious or even unconscious experience. Does that inner life of the vase of flowers belong to itself, or does it represent a configuration of our experience?

Kandinsky seems to use the words “soul,” “spirit,” and “emotion” interchangeably. This annoys and confuses me. If you have read Kandinsky's book or have a desire to do so at some point, I would be interested to know if you agree with me that his use of the word “spiritual” is loose, inexact, and almost careless.

But perhaps I should be more generous, or at least subtler in my analysis. It could be the case that Kandinsky and many of his artistic contemporaries had internalized spiritual matters and found no need to speak explicitly of underlying currents. Maybe something like Nietzsche's Dionysian theory was taken for granted during that time: that the world spirit behind phenomena is a dark, capricious force. Adorno saw that spirit-force dissipating from cultural awareness, from recognition, from acknowledgment. So, I do wonder if it had already receded from aesthetics by the time of Kandinsky's writing.

In his chapter “The Language of Form and Color,” we find this: “The inner need is built up of three mystical elements....” These three elements have to do with “personality,” “style,” and “artistry.” His explication of those terms baffles me. Nothing he says even remotely qualifies those elements as mystical for me. It almost seems that he would have been more accurate to say “vague” instead of “mystical.” (Could our translator from the Russian be at fault?) For me, Kandinsky is smuggling in a loaded word to support his book title. It's as if a verbal legerdemain is occurring: profound words used casually, perhaps irresponsibly to create an unearned impression. For me, the word “mystical” is indeed associated with the spiritual, but both adjectives should be reserved for something like the serious probings of a Meister Eckhardt and not used for an artificial flavoring or spicing of mundane material.

Considering the book in its entirety, I must ask this: are the artists, sculptors, composers, and writers of that new age of freedom being urged to uncover or stimulate responses to deep reality (an underlying spiritual significance) or are they being asked only to register their uninhibited personal emotions – uninhibited by traditional themes and forms of expression?

I think I will go ahead and allow Kandinsky into the aesthetic camp. Though I suspect he leans toward a pragmatic (worldly) concern with mere psychology and emotion (with how to evoke emotion), he has dropped sufficient clues about his sensitivity to the mysteriousness of existence. Yes, I think he suspects the world is haunted by a numinous quality. But he was not profound enough a thinker or sensitive enough a seer to push very far into that “atmosphere.” At least in words. He may very well have succeeded in evoking the spiritual in his paintings. A sensitive aesthetic auditor of those canvases might very well be exposed to something truly spiritual painted into them.


So...lest I also leave things in a careless state, I should reiterate what I mean or expect with the word “spiritual.” For me, it has to do with the shadows, the dreams, the mysteries that we find on our aesthetic paths. As they move with us and dapple our days in melancholy hues, we are sporadically, tenuously put in touch with Being. Our aesthetic orientation should be a higher affective state: a going-into or a living-into the dark light of Actuality. The possibility of presence -- of thereness -- is a true and deep riddle. Other little riddles – like space-time, gravity, quantum uncertainty, the chemical eruption of organic life, the forms of human love – ...all these pale beside the naked fact of presence, as such. Even if there is a God, that entity or Pantheistic extrusion will always be contingent, dependent on the mystical “foundation” of Being, as such – the possibility of anything actual. In such a light, Being is better seen as a kind of Nothingness – an abyss from which presence and actuality arise. An Abgrund. Meister Eckhardt knew this, and he wrestled mightily with it, moving from God to abyssal Godhead. Heidegger knew this, and all of his philosophy flows from it. In Sonya Sikka's book Forms of Transcendence: Heidegger and Medieval Mystical Theology, she says this: “Since it is being that lets every being be a being, every being, however it may concern and affect us, remains infinitely behind and under the the compulsion of being; we only feel the press and urgency of beings. Being is as if it were not there, as nothing.

This sense of the actualizing Nothing through which beings have presence is a hard conception to hold in one's mind. It's really other than a conception. It is an experience. Twenty-five years ago, I had one of those rare experiential moments. For a few minutes, I was able to hold in awareness the strange fact of naked presence, of stark actuality...of Being, as such. It was like being thrown into a vortex, and for a little while, I spiraled into the abyssal Abgrund. Into the basic Fact of the Real. Into this abstracted condition in which all things and processes are situated in their presentness. I will never forget that experience.

From George Steiner's book Martin Heidegger, comes this: “It is the unique and specific business of philosophy, therein and at all times referential to its Greek inception, to be incessantly astonished at and focused on the fact that all things are....” Also this: “Heidegger is a man literally overcome by the notion of 'is' (Greek on), a man inexhaustibly astonished by the fact of existence, and haunted by the reality of that other possibility, which is nothingness (Sartre's néant).

Heidegger was an atheist, but even he was forced into a mystical corner at the end of his thought, of his philosophical project. Again Steiner: “Heidegger locates in the mysterium tremendum of the Hölderlin ode, of the Van Gogh painting, that 'otherness' of absolute presence, of ontological self-signification, to which he cannot allow a theological-metaphysical status. Hence also, and most enigmatically, the turn toward 'the gods,' toward the Geviert('foursome') of pagan, chthonic forces in Heidegger's last writings. For the later Heidegger, Being is presentness in the poetry, in the art we believe in. But how can that which 'shines through' the choral song in Antigone, how can that which 'conceals and discloses itself as the true being of Being' in Van Gogh's painting of peasant shoes, be thought, be said in terms other than those of transcendence? Words failed Heidegger and, at a pivotal stage in his life and work, he failed them.

Given all of the above, here is what I think that spirituality in art entails: it is an attempt to probe the fact that Being, qua being (actuality) is a hiddenness; in the clearings our art ties to make, we strive to bring the shy mystery into awareness, for ourselves and for others; art is an unforgetting of the most essential.

When Kandinsky uses the word “spiritual,” I don't think he is going that far and deep into reality. I think he is mostly talking about how colors and forms have an associational impact, how they affect our feelings. And his passion for free expression hits me as more about working in the “music” of world than about an unbridled probing of the spiritual basis for world. I think he would have been more accurate had he titled his book Concerning the Emotional in Art.

The only artist I would unreservedly call “aesthetic” or “spiritual” is Yves Tanguy.

I'll bring these stray thoughts to an end with a quote from George Steiner's book Grammars of Creation:

Dated 1901, Hofmannsthal's Ein Brief, better known as the "Lord Chandos Letter," has lost nothing of its finality. The eponymous hero, a brilliantly endowed young Elizabethan aristocrat, writes to Francis Bacon. He has already, at nineteen, composed mythological poetry. Much is expected of him, for both world and word have been prodigal. But now "the capacity to think or to say anything coherent has deserted me."....A watering can, a dog lazing in the sun, a modest rural cottage on his estate can become "a vessel of revelation" (Gefäß einer Offenbarung) so charged, so brimful with existentiality, as to make impossible any adequate response. ..."in a medium more immediate, more fluid, more glowing than is the word. This medium too is made up of whirlwinds and turning spirals; but unlike language these do not lead into the bottomless, but somehow into myself and into the deepest lap of peace."

Copyright 2010, Tim Buck

No comments:

Post a Comment