The Art History Newsletter

‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’

by | 1 March 2012 | CAA2012, Conferences, Modern

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the College Art Association’s yearly conference. It also marks, by a rather happy coincidence, the 100th anniversary of the publication of Kandinsky’s influential text, Concerning the Spiritual in Art—a perfect opportunity for not only celebrating Kandinsky’s work, but also reconsidering it.  To that end Susan J. Baker, University of Houston, Downtown, and Valerie Hedquist, University of Montana, had the good sense to chair the panel, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art: Kandinsky’s Radical Work at 100.”

The scope of the panel was wide, but was thematically organized around various interpretations of the ‘spiritual.’  First up was Linda Dalrymple Henderson who pointed out how pervasively the scientific understanding of the early 20th century, along with various occult themes, informed Kandinsky’s writing on art.  Even after Einstein’s special theory of relativity had made the whole conceptual apparatus of the ether vacuous, Kandinsky seems to have relied heavily on the notion as means and a medium for expressing spirituality.  This also helps explain how Kandinsky could liken the effects of color on the human consciousness to musical vibrations.

Sarah Warren discussed some of the political consequences of the ‘spiritual’ in her presentation, which is an avenue not often pursued in Kandinsky scholarship.  In the main, Warren did a fantastic job of connecting Kandinsky’s sense of the new spiritualism in modern art to his interest in medieval icons.  For many early modernists, Kandinsky among them, primitive folk art could serve as a transitional bridge to modernism.  This was politically problematic, however, insofar as Russia’s Nicholas II attempted to turn such icons to his political advantage by using them as a means of aligning himself more closely with the people.  But theosophy, which Kandinsky was influenced by, had been suppressed by the Russian state.  In so doing, Nicholas II had also revealed the falseness with which he identified himself with icon imagery.  Both theosophy and icon art shared the common tenet that there is a hidden, spiritual meaning to be discovered in reality, and a rejection of the former amounted to a rejection of the latter.

The next panelist was yours truly.  The scope of my presentation was part historical, part philosophical.  One of the essential tensions that runs through Kandinsky’s text is between materialism and spiritualism, which I describe as the problem of positivism and the problem of life respectively.  In broad terms it is a statement about the sort of epistemological claims that science and art are capable of making.  Part of Kandinsky’s rejection of materialism can be seen, at least in part, as a rejection of the positivistic epistemology that undergirds some forms of the scientific endeavor—especially when that epistemological standard is used as a means of addressing the question of the value of life (which was a thoroughly spiritual, and thus artistic affair for Kandinsky).  It is also pertinent to note the degree that this tension permeated the intellectual atmosphere of the late 19th and early 20th century, especially in the writings of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein.

Todd Cronan was the final panelist, but was unfortunately not able to attend.  His paper was read by Charles Palermo.  Cronan focused on what he terms the ‘affective formalism’ in Kandinsky’s work.  This doctrine asserts, roughly speaking, that a work of art is not a vessel in which the artist inserts his or her internal feelings.  Rather, Kandinsky believed that the artist and the artwork should serve as a conduit for expressing a ‘sense of the world’ which would become manifested in the painting.  Thus the viewer, as a receiver of this sense of the world, was an essential component in this equation.  And even though Kandinsky was committed to the interpretation of the beholder as being more-or-less equivalent to the art work’s meaning, he seems to contradict himself by also simultaneously holding the opposite position—namely, that the artist should give no consideration to the response of the viewer.

This session was well attended; approximately 75-100 people were in the audience.  Perhaps this is a signal that the question of the spiritual in art (which has been somewhat lacking in postmodernism) is due for a reawakening.

1 Comment

  1. Arlinda Henderson said on 3 Mar 2012 at 3:44 am:

    Glad to see such a turn out, wish I was there. I think you are right about spiritual reawakening, in everything, not just art. Also, if Nietzsche ‘killed’ God, it was in order to reveal god.