Sunday, July 15, 2012
Kandinsky: Legal Academic Turned Anti-Materialist Artist
If you happen to be in the New York City area and have the chance to stop in at the Guggenheim, there is a very small but charming exhibit on the work of Wassily Kandinsky from the 1911-13 period. Kandinsky was a successful lawyer and law professor -- he had even been offered a chair in Roman Law at the Universität Dorpat -- when he suddenly abandoned the law and applied to art school in Munich. Maybe legal academia is the second best job in the world.
Among the items in the exhibit are some really neat first editions of his work, Concerning the Spiritual in Art -- and Painting in Particular, published in 1911. When I got home yesterday afternoon, I found a translation here. Kandinsky had ambitious ideas about the power of art to achieve spiritual illumination -- and in some ways to replace traditional religion for future generations. He had some very critical things to say about "materialism" in art, as well as the idea that art was to be enjoyed for its own sake. Here is a selection which gives (I think) something characteristic of the flavor of the writing:
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 the painting' (as one enjoys a pasty). But hungry souls go hungry away . . . .
This neglect of inner meanings, which is the life of colors, this vain squandering of artistic power is called 'art for art's sake.' . . . . The spiritual life, to which art belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements, is a complicated but 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. Veiled in obscurity are the causes of this need to move ever upwards and forwards, by sweat of the brow, through sufferings and fears. When one stage has been accomplished, and many evil stones cleared from the road, some unseen and wicked hand scatters new obstacles in the way, so that the path often seems blocked and totally obliterated. But there never fails to come to the rescue some human being, like ourselves in everything except that he has in him a secret power of vision. The power to do this he would sometimes fain lay aside, for it is a bitter cross to bear. But he cannot do so. Scorned and hated, he drags after him over the stones the heavy chariot of a divided humanity, ever forwards and upwards. Often, many years after his body has vanished from the earth, men try by every means to recreate this body in marble, iron, bronze, or stone, on an enormous scale. As if there were any intrinsic value in the bodily existence of such divine martyrs and servants of humanity, who despised the flesh and lived only for the spirit! But at least such setting up of marble is a proof that a great number of men have reached the point where once the being they would now honour, stood alone . . . .
When religion, science and morality are shaken . . . 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. Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but on the other hand they turn away from the soulless life of the present towards those substances and ideas which give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul.
Posted by Marc DeGirolami on July 15, 2012 at 03:02 PM | Permalink
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The passages (which are merely representative: there are others as well) following the quoted material from Iris Murdoch reveals how Kandinsky’s “triangle” is borrowed from or relies in essence upon Plato’s well-known (at any rate, at one time) metaphorical allegory of the Agathon and the Cave (and its vision of the Good), including the use of the “divided line” by way of representing levels of knowledge (and experience) and dialectical ascent through processes of imagination, belief, thought, and vision involving corresponding images, objects, models, and archetypes (recalling with Murdoch that Plato’s allegory involves both a dialectical ascent out of the Cave and a descending return to the darkness of the Cave by the person—here, the philosopher, and in Kandinsky’s case the artist—who has attained the vision).* The ascent and descent can be formulated as the problem of the “One and the many,” and with Kandinsky it’s rendered as “the working of the inner need and the development of art is an ever-advancing expression of the eternal and objective in the terms of the periodic and subjective.” Of course there’s no little irony in the reliance on Plato, given the Greek philosopher’s spirited critique of the art and artists of his time, nonetheless, as Murdoch has demonstrated, Plato’s understanding of the true purpose and value of art was fairly complex even if rather limited in articulation. And of course, as Murdoch reminds us, Plato “was himself a great artist.” Kandinsky agrees with Plato that “bad” art revels in personal fantasy (in a pejorative if not Freudian sense) at the lowest section of the triangle wherein imagination has yet to be purified through dialectical ascent toward the Good, a process that is in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity, and (yes, true) realism. Murdoch herself makes connection between the “sovereignty of the Good” and art in her seminal essay, “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts”(which should be read as in its early published form together with ‘The Idea of Perfection’ and ‘On “God” and “Good”’). As Murdoch says,
“A great deal of art, perhaps most art, actually is self-consoling fantasy [at times, involving a perverse collaboration between the artist and the spectator], and even great art cannot guarantee the quality of its consumer’s consciousness [i.e., everyone needs to make the ascent toward the Good, not just the artist]. However, great art exists and is sometimes properly experienced and even a shallow experience of what is great can have its effect [e.g., it may inspire us to move in the right direction as it were]. [Good] art…affords us pure delight in what is excellent. Both in its genesis and in the enjoyment it is a thing totally opposed to selfish obsession. It invigorates our best faculties and, to use Platonic language, inspires love [eros] in the highest part of the soul. [….] Art is a human product and virtues as well as talents are required of the artist. The good artist, in relation to his art, is brave, truthful, patient, humble…. [….]
Art then is not a diversion or a side issue, it is the most educational of all human activities and a place in which the nature of morality can be seen. Art gives a clear sense to many ideas which seem puzzling when we meet them elsewhere, and it is a clue to what happens elsewhere. [….] Good art, unlike bad art, unlike ‘happenings,’ is something pre-eminently outside us and resistant to our consciousness. We surrender ourselves to its authority with a love which is unpossessive and unselfish. Art shows us the only sense in which the permanent and incorruptible is compatible with the transient; and whether representational or not it reveals to us aspects of our world which our ordinary dull dream-consciousness is unable to see. Art pierces the veil and gives sense to the notion of a reality which lies beyond appearance [i.e., Kandinsky’s ‘materialism’]; it exhibits virtue in its true guise in the context of death and chance.”
“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.
Veiled in obscurity are the causes of this need to move ever upwards and forwards, by sweat of the brow, through sufferings and fears. When one stage has been accomplished, and many evil stones cleared from the road, some unseen and wicked hand scatters new obstacles in the way, so that the path often seems blocked and totally obliterated. But there never fails to come to the rescue some human being, like ourselves in everything except that he has in him a secret power of vision.”
“The life of the spirit may be fairly represented in diagram as a large acute-angled triangle divided horizontally into unequal parts with the narrowest segment uppermost. The lower the segment the greater it is in breadth, depth, and area.”
“Painting is an art, and art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul—to, in fact, the raising of the spiritual triangle.”
* For two compelling discussions of this allegory, see, first, Raghavan Iyer’s essay, “Agathon and the Cave,” in his book, Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979): 37-49, and material here and there in Francisco J. Gonzalez, Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato’s Practice of Philosophical Inquiry (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998).
Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 16, 2012 8:35:20 AM
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