“All means are sinful if they did not spring from the source of internal necessity”Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1912, p.176
In my search for interconnecting roads between art history, abstraction, spirituality, philosophy and art theory, I have come across a shrine hidden in plain view. Wassily Kandinsky, often cited as the first true “abstract” artist, wrote a seminal work at the beginning of the twentieth century which dives deep into the heart of pretty much everything. It is titled Concerning the Spiritual in Art and can easily be found in translation.
Aside from lucid predictions for the direction of art which have largely come to pass, he also outlines key language and concepts for dissecting and and talking about visual art. There is much here for the artist, art historian and philosopher. I would also argue, and plan to dig into with future posts, that this is also a work of profound spirituality.
What I want to draw out here is something which he couches in religious terms and can be useful in discussing artistic vision, style or voice.
Kandinsky believed that each artist must honor the internal necessity of each work the is created. This concept is to describe the unique expression of the piece as created through the relationships of color and form to each individual element and those elements to the whole. What a work of art ultimately says to the viewer is very complex, and will change over time. It will be affected by the culture in which it is produced, by the culture at the time it is being viewed, by what has gone before and what has come after, and the internal orientations and contextual baggage of the viewer.
All of this is to say that the artist can never be in control of how the work will be perceived by any other person. This is true as soon as the piece is finished, and remains true throughout all periods of time. There is no way for an artist to express the specificity of their internal view with a 1:1 translation. No matter how carefully we try to game out the relationships of form and color, or pay attention to the undertones of the cultural zeitgeist, our art will at best be an resonant echo of the idea we are trying to convey. As time goes on even a clear echo will fade and gain distortions.
We shouldn’t think this as a failure of the artist either. Kandinsky was clear about the underlaying theory about how form and color interacted. He was very interested in gaming out the relationships between elements on a canvas, and he advocated for the artist to be aware of these relationships. There is a science beneath it all, he would argue, which could be used to describe how the pieces of a work came together to provide meaning, or music. He found it very useful to describe visual elements in terms of musical elements. As he notes below, the form and color of a painting are what produces its sounds, harmonies and dissonances.
“…the same form always produces the same sound under the same conditions. Only the conditions always differ.”Kandinsky, p. 170
The carpet moves out from under us even as we splash paint on the canvas.
The act of creation itself holds the key. Art, for Kandinsky, isn’t about the final product per se, but the act of expression, the coming into being of the work. The artists charge is to channel what it is they resonate with out into the world. That act, while it will necessarily take shape and ultimately be described in the language of forms and colors, must adhere to its own nature as a unique work.
When he speaks of “internal necessity” he is describing the unique character of a given work or art. Seeing it once completed, and through the lenses of our own time and place, we have to talk about it by describing what we can see. We can break down each piece into artistic school or movement, and describe it in terms of the social situation under which it was created. We can talk about influences on the artist, training and places that the artist travelled. We do these things and categorize works because it is all that is available to us. We, who did not create the work, are forced to look on from the outside like examining a crime scene. These elements have their uses and can provide their own insights which are valuable, but they are not themselves the character of the work of art. Just as a collection of anecdotes, a eulogy and an obituary are not a person who used to live and breath.
The artist is not bounded by these forensic tools when making the art in the first place. For an art student to learn from those who came before is one thing. It is very useful to understand how colors mix, how certain optical effects are achieved, and how similar visual problems have been solved. To copy those techniques in the hopes of achieving one’s own vision, however, is a fool’s errand. Again, Kandinsky talks about the sound of a piece of art. When we are trying to capture something that another artist has tapped into before us, we should be cautious of doing it in the way that they did it:
“…it is perhaps easier to achieve expression of the same sound by the use of different forms than by the repetition of the same form: a really exact repetition lies beyond the bounds of possibility.”Kandinsky, p.170
Rather, he urges each artist to follow the unique thread of each piece. Instead of painting in the method of one’s teacher, an artist should follow the pull of the work of art itself that wants to be created. This will likely mean breaking from what has been done and trying something new.
“The artist should be blind to ‘accepted’ or ‘unaccepted’ form, deaf to the precepts and demands of his time. His eyes should always be directed towards his own inner life, and his ears turned to the voice of internal necessity. Then he will seize upon all permitted means and just as easily upon all forbidden means.”Kandinsky, p.175-76
This brings us to our sins as artists. Rather than listening to our own ideas and the pull of the work as it struggles into being, we often try to wrestle it through the art that has come before. Here we are again, with the expanded version of the quote at the top of this article:
“All means are moral if they are internally necessary. All means are sinful if they did not spring from the source of internal necessity.”Kandinsky, p.176
This may come from a place of fear, or insecurity. It may come from a lack of modelling and role models. For Kandinsky this version of sin is black and white but fluid. There are many reasons why a piece was not realized into the fullness of its being. Often this is because the artist has not had enough exposure to the appropriate ideas, or has not been shown what other avenues are possible.
In this way the sin of the artist is not a brand to be worn in shame, but a continual struggle which should push us to continually get closer. Like catholic original sin, I would argue, it is less the condition of being doomed from the beginning, and more the ongoing charge towards which we strive.
It is in the making of the art, the expressing what is already contained within the concept as it exists within each artist, that we are able to come into contact with creation and expression itself. Every piece is a new chance to come into contact with something greater than ourselves, and to learn something about that relationship.
To focus on the end result, the perception of our work, and our place in history, is to be caught up in a losing game. To try and grab hold of the river as it flows by, or to stop its progress by throwing masterpiece-anchors into the waves, is fruitless. It is a lesson in frustration.
If we can embrace the act of making and follow the unique threads of creativity which pull at us, then we can appreciate that this process is what is valuable. To be in touch with one’s own creativity, I would argue, is an irreplaceable blessing.
“And we see the common relationship between works of art, which is not weathered by the passage of millennia, but is increasingly strengthened, does not lie in the exterior, in the external, but in the root of roots – in the mystical content of art.”Kandinsky, p.175