ARTICLES BY BRANDL
Brandl Art Articles, a blog with archive of most of the publications by Brandl concerning art, art history and the philosophy of art:
Session Speech for CAA Annual Conference:
Panels, Covers and Viewers: My Mongrels of Painting, Installation and Comics
Review Essay: Art, Philosophy and Comics: Beyond The End of Art History
Theoretical Essay: Re-Reading Kandinsky
Review: Charles Boetschi
Article: The Two Jacks
Essay from Book Medien Lesen (pdf file):
The Expanded Text Concept and Central Trope in Painting and the Novel
A SAMPLE ARTICLE BY BRANDL
The Art Book, London, VOLUME 5 ISSUE 2 MARCH 1998, pages 13-15
MARK STAFF BRANDL
Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky, published originally in 1911 as Über das Geistige in der Kunst, is one of he key art books of Modernism.1 Chiefly because of this small yet brimming volume, and his role as the patron-creator of abstract art, the author and artist has been christened 'The Theorist' of early Modernism. Does this book itself, outside the revolution it helped engender, stand up to a scrutiny influenced by our Postmodern (or perhaps even Post-Postrnodern) concerns? Do the 'explorations' still feel coherent and deep? In light of the end-of-the-century reconsideration of abstract art, these questions become particularly pertinent in forming a new appraisal of Concerning the Spiritual in Art.
Kandinsky is most important in the history of art for his prime role in creating abstract art. However, the influence of this book by the artist has also been considerable. Richard Stratton describes this well in the preface to the Dover edition.
More than any other single factor, this book helped disseminate and foster acceptance of the new principles upon which much of modern art developed ... The coherent and deep philosophical explorations of Über das Geistige in der Kunst into the theory of non-objective art constituted a revolution that is still felt today and secured for its author an internationally recognized position as one of the founders of modern art. (viii)
Many artists today still read Concerning the Spiritual in Art. This is especially true of students in their formative years and of a 'spiritual' bent. What they derive from this is, however, usually more of a sense of empowerment to revolt against received conventions, than a literal belief in or use of the principles outlined in the book. Kandinsky's argument is positive and emotionally enabling, yet its brand of hazy, esoteric mysticism and its broad abstractions of the personal or individual seem naïve and rather dated. Post-modernism itself, in most of its current theoretical manifestations, has its own high-flown abstractions of the social, which likewise become caricatures. But, the questions and doubts raised by Postmodernism add a distinct colouration to a reading of this book. Perhaps it would be a better metaphor to say that recent philosophical concerns make the inherent colouration of Kandinsky's thought more noticeable and less seemingly transparent than it was in the heyday of Modernism, much like a varnish that reveals itself as a coating by yellowing with age.
One of the most debated developments in recent years has been Theory (often capitalised when Postmodern). As is now perhaps too well-known, this capitalised Theory derives primarily from continental, specifically French, Poststructuralism and related movements. Progenitors include Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan and others. Also, albeit more indirectly, Concerning the Spiritual in Art must be counted into this number. It is a border-straddling work, neither a typical artist's manifesto nor a scholarly treatise in the contemporary sense. Yet the translator, M.T.H. Sadler, quite clearly refers to it as 'this book of theory.' (xiii) The whole book is indeed theoretical, yet Kandinsky found it necessary to emphasise this by including one particular section entitled 'Theory.' (VII, 46-52). In this section, Kandinsky seems to envision theory as a kind of systematic grammar of the visual, for which he yearns, but which he finds at the time of his writing to be not yet achievable. A bit wryly I'd add that herein lies something spiritual: clairvoyant shades of Structuralism and Noam Chomsky!
The most intriguing aspects of Kandinsky's discussion of theory are his admonishments concerning its potential misapplication. He pairs off theory against practice in what verges on an adversarial relationship --- strange for one of the progenitors of modern theory. 'In real art theory does not precede practice, but follows her.' (35) Furthermore, he says that the only true route to the future is by way of the talent of the creator, not through theory, because theory is essentially backward-looking. 'Theory is the lamp which sheds light on the petrified ideas of yesterday and of the more distant past.' (12) He illustrates this marvellously in a footnote by citing the anecdote of Leonardo da Vinci's colour-spoon-system.
The many-sided genius of Leonardo devised a system of little spoons with which different colours were to be used, thus creating a kind of mechanical harmony. One of his pupils, after trying in vain to use this system, in despair asked one of his colleagues how the master himself used the invention. The colleague replied: 'The master never uses it at all.' (Mereschowski, Leonardo da Vinci) (35)
Perhaps, as Kandinsky declares, early Modernism offered a time in which it had never been 'more difficult ... to formulate a complete theory. . .' (46) However, as his comments and well-chosen anecdote illustrate, it is always difficult, even dangerous, to formulate theories. They often are taken to be the primary experiences themselves. Kandinsky very level-headedly presents a rectification to his own theorisation. This should serve as a cautionary tale to Postmodernists as well. We now desperately need neo-iconoclasts of theory: theoriclasts, to wantonly neologise. That is, thinkers who theorise, yet can harbour pragmatic suspicions concerning their own ramblings, as Kandinsky does.
Kandinsky and Postmodern theorists coincide in similar attitudes of despair concerning the present, for both see the end of the world as nigh. Kandinsky is simply chiliastic to boot with his high hopes for the future. Nowadays we are in a time of disenfranchisement, the philosophical disenfranchisement of art according to philosopher Arthur C. Danto in his book of the same name.2 Kandinsky sees the situation in his time as a spiritual disenfranchisement: a time lacking in aspirations to wholeness, insight and creativity. As described in Concerning the Spiritual in Art contemporary life is a 'motionless' and 'backwards' period of history.
Men attribute to these blind and dumb periods a special value, for they judge them by outward results, thinking only of material well-being. They hail some technical advance, which can help nothing but the body, as a great achievement. Real spiritual gains are at best undervalued, at worst entirely ignored. (78)
Granting his vocabulary, what Kandinsky perceived in 1911 still rings true today in 1997. In his book he adeptly criticises artists as well as society in general. He finds too many artists to be contributors to such a morally and intellectually diffident age. '... [T]he majority seek only for some new technical manner, and ... produce millions of works of art without enthusiasm, with cold hearts and souls asleep.'(8) Artists are no longer forward-thinking, rather petty success-mongers according to Kandinsky. 'There are complaints of excessive competition, of over-production. Hatred, partisanship, cliques, jealousy, intrigues are the natural consequences of this aimless, materialist art.' (3-4) One need only flip through any fashionable art glossy to confirm the continued viability of these observations now. Kandinsky's warnings concerning the 'dangers' as well as 'possibilities' of the new freedoms are keen.
This way lies today between two dangers. On the one hand is the totally arbitrary application of colour to geometrical form --- pure patterning. On the other hand is the more naturalistic use of colour in bodily form --- pure phantasy. Either of these alternatives may in turn be exaggerated. (51)
Updating this to our time the dangers remain: the extremist poles of either pure, empty form --- decoration --- or pure, academic cerebration --- self-deception. Artists must, Kandinsky demands, 'have something to say' (54, italics in the original).
There are several points in Kandinsky's thought where, when viewed from a contemporary postmodern vantage point, he seems nebulous if not outright confused. He waffles between various interpretations --- whether the effect of art on a human mind is innate or not, whether art is historically determined or ahistorical, whether art is social or personal. Granted a case could be made for all of these, and probably more to the point for Kandinsky one could envision a philosophy or theory which would encompass the truths of both extremes in these three cases. As an author, however, he does not clearly choose sides or adequately combine them. This is especially shown in his discussions of innateness on pages 24-31. He writes that '[n]ew principles do not fall from heaven, but are logically if indirectly connected with past and future.' (52) Yet he constantly refers to ahistorical linkage, such as suggesting 'a similarity of ideals' of Modernist artists 'with the Primitives' (I). He champions the individual, lone, heroic Artist, seemingly free from any outside influence, yet includes qualifiers.
...[T]he freedom of an unfettered art, can never be absolute. Every age achieves a certain measure of this freedom, but beyond the boundaries of its freedom the mightiest genius can never go. But the measure of freedom of each age must be constantly enlarged. (177)
Kandinsky's greatest insight, through which he could have linked the warring aspects of his vision, is his quirky yet discerning definition of the subjective and the objective. The subjective is for the author what is ordinarily termed the social --- the local, culturally and temporally determined and available means and concepts. The objective is less clear, but seems to be a transcendental, 'inner need', which could be more fruitfully developed along his lines as drive, desire or afflatus. (28, 29, and 34). Discussing Mozart, Kandinsky writes, '... we hear it as the echo of something from another age long past and fundamentally strange to us ...' (43). Although he only lightly touches the surface of this idea, it is a stimulating one which could be expanded to quite fertile postmodern dimensions. There is an element of the fundamentally strange in Kandinsky's union of (his idea of) the subjective and the objective, as he displays in his remark about our understanding of Mozart's music. There is in art and literature a dialogue between our sense of a shared humanity and our sense of strangeness, of otherness. Kandinsky's notion here could be supplemented and matured by the vital feminist scrutinies of the Other. When one of these twin aspects dominates too heavily, then the art work fails. With only strangeness, the Other, one has exoticism; with only the Shared (to mimic the contemporary formation of the Other) one has the discredited, inutile kitsch of the 'universal.' Together in dynamic debate, these two factors allow art works to step outside of petty solipsism, blanketing Hegelianism, or blanketing and petty Nietzscheism. The acceptance of self and of the hope for interaction with others is offered. Much like Julia Kristeva's vision of love, Kandinsky's perception, so extended, might help remedy certain difficulties of our postmodernism --- such as the attacks on scholarship, the dismissal of quality, the denial of resistance, its sophistry, and its compartmentalisation and erasure of the creative self.
Most foreign to any postmodern thinker is certainly Kandinsky's repeated insistence on the unmediated affect of the arts on humans. This claim pops up repeatedly on page 28 and those immediately following. One example is his likening of the artist to a hand on the piano of 'the human soul.' (29) Our widened range of experience and of societies today makes it impossible to accept such a pseudo-bio-scientific image, no matter how many naïve expressionist artists still cling to this a-cultural fancy. In a similar vein, when Kandinsky discusses technique his status as a Modernist is most obvious. The suggestions seem dated and imprecise. His page-long salute to Belgian playwright and poet, Maurice Maeterlinck, does not point out much more than the author's use of abstraction, simplicity and repetition (15). Other techniques suggested by Kandinsky include 'alterations in form' (33) and the power of colour (36-42). His accounts are wrought from generalisations and fraught with difficulties. Cookbook-like recipes abound: blue is 'profound,' white shows 'harmony' and 'joy,' black is 'grief' and 'death' (38-39).
Kandinsky is more enlightening when he celebrates the encroachment of the various arts on one another, proposing making use of this tendency as an invaluable modus operandi. His famous comparison of abstract art to music is contained in these passages. He suggests that all the arts can learn from one another and press their own individual boundaries, '[d]espite, or perhaps thanks to, the differences between them...' (19-20). His emphasis on interaction with difference has seldom been commented on --- and it is a far cry from the facile unity of art and music attributed to Kandinsky in art-world myth or the priggish divisions demanded by Clement Greenburg later in the century.
Postmodern critical self-awareness finds a prefiguration of itself in this book when Kandinsky raises the issue of personal style. This is one of the last of our cherished illusions even today, one which still continues as a hangover from Modernism. It is something of a welcome surprise to notice now that he had already contemplated the issue --- short but adventurously. Kandinsky lauds Picasso, not for his formal discovery, as is most often done, but for his mercurial approach.
Tossed hither and thither by the need for self-expression, Picasso hurries from one manner to another. At times a great gulf appears between consecutive manners, because Picasso leaps boldly and is found continually by his bewildered crowd of followers standing at a point very different from that at which they saw him last. No sooner do they think that they have reached him again than he has changed once more. (18)
Even in art of our time, which considers itself Postmodern and critical of the ideological structures of Modernism, one sees approaches dominated by imposed style and series, the real legacy of Modernist thought, with its beginnings in scientific Positivism. Artists hailing the end of advancement concoct a single, clearly memorable style as a marketing device, which is then duplicitously proclaimed to be new. If no advance is possible, how can one say that? That is why it is astonishing to realise through a new reading of Concerning the Spiritual in Art that Kandinsky saw portents of this already in 1911. He bemoans the fact that 'each new extension of liberty in the use of outer form is hailed as the last and supreme' (35). He advises that 'a deliberate search for personality and "style" is not only impossible, but comparatively unimportant' (35).
Kandinsky's comments in this book concerning revolt, resistance and renaissance are few but suggestive. He is overwhelmingly pre-World War l and II in his belief that artistic insurrection will improve society, perhaps even soon. But he can be read through the lenses of Postmodern theorists such as Mikhail Bakhtin or Julia Kristeva. These two writers' theories include resistance, or at least the possibility of disruption, as a bracing restorative to the impotence and exhaustion that seems to be the inevitable outcome of the theories of Paul de Man or Roland Barthes. Kandinsky sees the creator as a transgressor, one who will and must 'employ means both sanctioned and forbidden by his contemporaries' (35). This characterisation is more evocative than his other heroic models for artists; it gives creators both an intrepid role and a position in society and in history. The gist of the thought for Postmodernism lies in the words 'sanctioned and forbidden.' Kandinsky espies a potential enervation in the division of art into a 'what' and a 'how,' where the 'how' gains the upper hand.
The question 'what?' disappears from art; only the question 'how?' remains. By what method are these material objects to be reproduced? The word becomes a creed. Art has lost her soul. (8)
But even in the heart of this darkness there can be rebirth.
Already in that very question 'how?' lies a hidden seed of renaissance. For when this 'how?' remains without any fruitful answer, there is always a possibility that the same 'something' (which we call personality today) may be able to see in objects about it not only what is purely material but also something less solid ...
... [T]he emotional power of the artist can overwhelm the 'how?' ... (9)
The closed, deadening system may contain the powder for its own bursting. It can be disrupted and undermined by the resolute playing out of what is sanctioned and what is forbidden within it. The explosive tools for this deed could be the prohibited subversive toys of laughter, pleasure, desire, flux and so on. Belief without creed.
Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky is one of the sources of Modernism. In light of the lost faith of Postmodernism, many of the author's arguments and much of his terminology feel extremely antiquated and seem almost embarrassingly puerile. However, the book should not be scoffed at, or worse still consecrated as a relic and ignored. There are elements within it to warrant new readings. Features of Kandinsky's thought which were earlier lionised can now be set aside as no longer useful, and other previously unnoticed aspects can be highlighted. This will, perhaps, yield revitalised yet variant and amended appreciations. Themes of Postmodernism often run against the grain of Kandinsky's thought, yet the points where they can interact furnish striking perceptions in both directions. One of the foundations for art of this century bears a thoughtful (post)- postmodern interpretation in this the fin de siècle of the twentieth century.
Mark Staff Brandl is an artist and writer born in the US and now living primarily in Switzerland.
1. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. (New York: Dover, 1977). Quotations are cited in the text with page numbers in parentheses.
2. Arthur C. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).
Click on HOT LINKS above to see links to additional publications, esp. Critical Review, an on-line ezine originating in New York.
Art in America, New York, February 1998
Charles Boetschi at Brigitte Weiss
Charles Boetschi is a geometric painter. This is a dangerous arena in which to work in Switzerland, where the local hard-edged, geometric art concret style is ever-present, over-composed and extremely polite. When Neo-Geo came along with its salutary critique of idealist abstraction, it was commonly misunderstood here. Artists misappropriated the name, claiming it as a rebirth of the timeless geometric abstract. But not Boetschi, which is why his work is so invigorating. In his paintings he acknowledges geometric art's tradition, but also shows that he has taken deconstructivist doubt to heart.
Born in India of a Swiss father and an English mother, Boetschi grew up in Japan and Hong Kong and lived for many years in New York City until his recent move to Switzerland. This cosmopolitan background helps to account for his sophisticated approach to painting.
Critical disbelief manifests itself in Boetschi's arbitrary structuring of his compositions. He focuses attention, instead, on the potency of color. His large, 7-by-7-foot canvases are based on a grid formed of eight rectangular, horizontal subdivisions, termed "color units" by the artist. The surfaces are immaculately smooth. Infinitesimally raised edges due to paint thickness highlight the unit foundation. In several of the paintings in this show the segments form a squarish "J." However apportioned, the units assemble into clear background and foreground elements-exactly 50 percent of the surface area for each. The paintings accentuate color, and peculiar color at that. Strangely irritating yet attractive "off-hues" are adjoined in a seemingly random fashion. The colors include flesh-tones, mustard yellow, tomato-soup red, YMCA green, and throat-lozenge blue. There are no primaries or even secondaries. Personal, emotional and anecdotal associations accrue handily but not insistently to the various tints. These works show a belief in painting and color that includes irony. Boetschi's works are intelligent, complex and, while geometric, teasingly unsettling.
-Mark Staff Brandl
Image: Charles Boetschi: Color Unit 10.10, 1997, acrylic on canvas, 78 ¾ inches square. Click on thumbnail to enlarge.