“The work of art is born of the artist in a mysterious and secret way. From him it gains life and being. Nor is its existence casual and inconsequent, but it has a definite and purposeful strength, alike in its material and spiritual life. It exists and has power to create spiritual atmosphere; and from this inner standpoint one judges whether it is a good work of art or a bad one. If its ‘form’ is bad it means that the form is too feeble in meaning to call forth corresponding vibrations of the soul.”-Kandinsky.
There seems to have been no doubt in Kandinsky’s mind of art’s essential role in the growth and progress of humanity when he published “Concerning the Spiritual in Art“ in 1912. In certain moods, I have to agree with him.
I have always known art to be tremendously powerful in my life. It is one of the few things that can make me cry, one of the few things that comforts me in my darkest moments. It can inspire me and motivate me to be a better person. But when faced with the question of whether art is important in itself—beyond its influence in my own life—I often waver. I want to say yes with conviction. But I doubt myself. Some days I believe wholeheartedly that art (in all its manifestations, not just visual art) has something important to teach us about life that we cannot learn elsewhere. That belief is, after all, one of the reasons I started this blog.
Other days, I look at the tangible and immediate impact things like medicine, technology, and science have on our lives and I compare their apparent usefulness to the vapid, self-satisfied work that overwhelms the art world these days and I think, to be an artist seems a mere self-indulgence. I look around the world with all its myriad problems and I wonder, what can art really do?
The things art can do to improve our lives, the effects it can have, cannot be pointed to directly— a problematic fact when attempting to articulate why art might be important in the world. There are no statistics, no charts, no graphs to indicate its influence. Its effects do not usually have an obvious, immediate, or physical manifestation. Rather, the ways art can help us are, and I hesitate to use this word, spiritual in nature. When I say spiritual, I do not mean it in the way it is colloquially used today as an alternative t0 religious. Rather, I mean having to do with the human spirit which can be understood as something like a mixture of soul, mind, consciousness, and our experience of life. For Kandinsky, spirit is the vitality or energy of life.
“The spiritual life, to which art belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements, is a complicated but definite and easily definable movement forwards and upwards. This movement is the movement of experience. It may take different forms, but it holds at bottom to the same inner thought and purpose.”
Kandinsky represents the progression of humanity’s spiritual life with the image of a triangle moving continually forwards and upwards. This spiritual triangle is divided into levels, delineating various stages of spiritual attainment (attainment that is not to be misunderstood as some kind of theological ranking but rather a depth and clarity of understanding and feeling). At the top of the spiritual pyramid stand the visionaries, often mocked and ridiculed for their outrageous beliefs. The lowest and most populated level of the pyramid contains all those who maintain an unflinching and dogmatic hold on their beliefs, regardless of whether those beliefs are religious, scientific, political, or philosophical. Only after years of slow movement forwards and upwards does the bottom level of the pyramid come to stand where the top stood long before. When this happens, the discoveries of the visionaries that were once mocked and ridiculed become the new dogma of the masses.
Artists exist in each level of the spiritual triangle, “Each one of them who can see beyond the limits of his segment is a prophet to those about him, and helps the advance of the obstinate whole.”
Moving up through the levels of the triangle brings an increased openness to the provisionality of our understanding of the world, and an acceptance that the discoveries we make in science and the political and philosophical conclusions we reach about the nature of the world are often incomplete. They may even turn out—though it may take decades or even centuries to discover this—to be dead wrong (take, for example, the geocentric model of the our solar system).
“Here and there are people with eyes which can see, minds which can correlate. They say to themselves: ‘If the science of the day before yesterday is rejected by the people of yesterday, and that of yesterday by us of today, is it not possible that what we call science now will be rejected by the men of tomorrow?’ And the bravest of them answer, ‘It is possible.’”
But Kandinsky’s spiritual triangle should not be misunderstood as somehow anti-scientific. Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin—all were visionaries of their time standing at the apex of the spiritual triangle. As visionaries, they feared or faced everything from ridicule to house arrest. As the triangle moved slowly onward and upwards, their ideas and assertions became more widely accepted. Today, those ideas have come to define the way most people think about and understand the world around them. Likewise, we slowly come to accept radical innovation in the arts (recent examples include the slow acceptance of photography, or motion pictures, or performance art as legitimate forms of artistic expression) until the ideas of these visionaries thoroughly penetrate popular culture.
Though spiritual progress does not necessarily exclude scientific or technological discovery and innovation, the kind of spiritual progress Kandinsky talks about requires a sustained open-mindedness to the ways in which these fields of thought may be incomplete or insufficient (or even sometimes completely wrong). Scientific discovery may explain some things about our world, but it cannot deal with all aspects of human experience. Thus spiritual progress also demands a sensitivity to our inner needs, the needs of the soul or spirit, which science and technology are ill-equipped to meet.
“When religion, science and morality are shaken, the two last by the strong hand of Nietzsche, and when the outer supports threaten to fall, man turns his gaze from externals in on to himself. 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 great majority non-existent.”
Art enters as a necessary guide, leading us through what Kandinsky calls the darkness of materialism toward this dim light, the light of the spirit. But despite our continual progression forwards and upwards, humanity today is still as engulfed in the darkness of materialism as it was in 1912. Kandinsky’s description of the state of man’s spiritual world still rings unnervingly true:
“This all-important spark of inner life today is at present only a spark. Our minds, which are even now only just awakening after years of materialism, are infected with the despair of unbelief, of lack of purpose and ideal. The nightmare of materialism, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip. Only a feeble light glimmers like a tiny star in a vast gulf of darkness. This feeble light is but a presentiment, and the soul, when it sees it, trembles in doubt whether the light is not a dream, and the gulf of darkness reality.”
Art, for Kandinsky, is the lone glimmer of hope within the “harsh tyranny of materialistic philosophy,” a philosophy whose influence can be felt rippling across our culture, influencing science and technology, politics, religion (think mega-churches, televangelism and the concept of “seed money”), and even art. Though art can act as a guiding light, not all art serves as nourishing spiritual food for its audience. Some art can even be harmful, appealing to our baser desires, arising out of or even taking materialism, consumerism, or popular culture as its subject.
Of such art, Kandinsky writes:
“The artist uses his strength to flatter his lower needs; in an ostensibly artistic form he presents what is impure, draws the weaker elements to him, mixes them with evil, betrays men and helps them betray themselves, while they convince themselves and others that they are spiritually thirsty, and that from this pure spring they may quench their thirst. Such art does not help the forward movement, but hinders it, dragging back those who are striving to press onward, and spreading the pestilence abroad.”
“This neglect of inner meanings, which is the life of colours, this vain squandering of artistic power is called ‘art for art’s sake.'”
Such art is soulless, providing no nourishment to the spirit either of its creator or its audience. Sadly, the great work that is produced is met, according to Kandinsky, with indifference or worse, misunderstanding.
“The spectator is too ready to look for a meaning in a picture—i.e., some outward connection between its various parts. Our materialistic age has produced a type of spectator or ‘connoisseur,’ who is not content to put himself opposite a picture and let it say its own message. Instead of allowing the inner value of the picture to work, he worries himself in looking for ‘closeness to nature,’ or ‘temperament,’ or ‘handling,’ or ‘tonality,’ or ‘perspective,’ or what not. His eye does not probe the outer expression to arrive at the inner meaning.
With cold eyes and indifferent mind the spectators regard the work. Connoisseurs admire the ‘skill’ (as one admires a tightrope walker), enjoy the ‘quality of painting’ (as one enjoys a pasty). But hungry souls go hungry away.”
Yet, the power of sensitive and insightful art remains undeniable:
“Every man who steeps himself in the spiritual possibilities of his art is a valuable helper in the building of the spiritual pyramid which will someday reach to heaven.”
For those who are concerned with steeping themselves in the spiritual possibilities of their art, a different kind of vision and insight into inner worlds is needed.
“After the period of materialist effort, which held the soul in check until it was shaken off as evil, the soul is emerging, purged by trials and sufferings. Shapeless emotions such as fear, joy, grief, etc., which belonged to this time of effort, will no longer greatly attract the artist. He will endeavor to awake subtler emotions, as yet unnamed. Living himself a complicated and comparatively subtle life, his work will give to those observers capable of feeling them lofty emotions beyond the reach of words.”
Kandinsky believed in the power of art to work directly on the soul of the observer likening its effects to the hammering of the keys of a piano on the strings to produce a particular vibration when one plays. Art when effective and attendant to the inner need, produces sympathetic vibrations in the soul of viewer.
“Indeed the Stimmung [defined by the editor as “‘almost ‘sentiment’ in the best sense and almost ‘feeling’”] of a picture can deepen and purify that of the spectator. Such works of art at least preserve the soul from coarseness; they ‘key it up,’ so to speak, to a certain height, as a tuning-key the strings of a musical instrument.”
Certain qualities are required of a work of art (and the artist who creates it) for it to effectively “key up” its observer. It must, for example, be more than just a child of its age. It must be a mother of the future. Of art that is merely a follower of contemporary trends Kandinksy writes,
“Such an art can only create an artistic feeling which is already clearly felt. 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.”
Art that is the child of its age is often dismissed in the art world as derivative, and yet derivative art often constitutes the majority of art produced. Art that feeds our spiritual progression on the other hand does much more than respond to artistic trends and fashions.
“The other art, that which is capable of educating further, springs equally from contemporary feeling, but is at the same time not only echo and mirror of it, but also has a deep and powerful prophetic strength.”
Such work must take its cues from a mysterious element Kandinsky calls the “inner need.” The artist must look inside herself for the truth and once found, must follow it with unflinching dedication without becoming distracted by material concerns.
“The artist must have something to say, for mastery over form is not his goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning.”
A great responsibility therefore befalls the artist:
“In each picture is a whole lifetime imprisoned, a whole lifetime of fears, doubts, hopes, and joys. Whither is this lifetime tending? What is the message of the competent artist? ‘To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts—such is the duty of the artist,’ said Schumann.”
The artist’s entire life becomes the subject of her work and thus to be a great artist—one who creates rich and meaningful work capable of feeding and nourishing the human spirit—one must also live a rich life.
“The artist is not born to a life of pleasure. He must not live idle; he has a hard work to perform, and one which often proves a cross to be borne. He must realize that his every deed, feeling, and thought are raw but sure material from which his work is to arise, that he is free in art but not in life.”
The artist must labor diligently in the field of the spirit; possessing technical skill or impressive business savvy is not enough. A focus on or flaunting of an impressive or novel technique may bring acclaim, but this is not the artist’s purpose. Such art is empty and deadening to the spirit. Nor can the artist over-inflate her own importance. She is a laborer, she is not god and to think of herself as superior is toxic and distracting from art’s true aim and function.
“It is very important for the artist to gauge his position aright, to realize that he has a duty to his art and to himself, that he is not king of the castle but rather a servant of a nobler purpose. He must search deeply into his own soul, develop and tend it, so that his art has something to clothe, and does not remain a glove without a hand.”
Reading “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, I take comfort knowing that there are those out there who believe with conviction in the power and necessity of art. I also find Kandinsky’s definitions of art, his descriptions of what differentiates great or real art from the vapid, self-indulgent work we often find ourselves surrounded by in the art world poignant and insightful. But mostly I feel that “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” is worth reading because it draws attention to relevant but rarely discussed issues such as the state of the human spirit caught up in the seductive yet stultifying whirlwind of materialism.
For those with a love of art, it will confirm what you have suspected and articulate what you have always felt but might have been unable to put into words. For those who have yet to come to appreciate art, it will perhaps open your eyes to its importance. Let it open your eyes. Because if Kandinsky is right, the state of your spiritual life may be at stake.
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