Monday, May 23, 2011

Just finished reading...

...CONCERNING THE SPIRITUAL IN ART by the abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky.

After being on my “To Read” list for decades, I was surprised to find that this 1911 book is actually more like a pamphlet. What starts as a sort of clichéd rant about “philistines” (although Kandinsky does not use that word specifically) and the sad state of affairs concerning the commercialization of art and the art world, we get to Kandinsky’s view of spirituality, which, according to him (and greatly influenced by the teachings of the occult medium Madame Blavatsky), is shaped like a triangle. The "common" is at the bottom and the higher one goes in the triangle, the more refined and spiritual the art (and the intentions of the artists) becomes. His assessment of the art world and his analysis of culture seems quaintly antiquated. I couldn't help but wonder what he would think of the art world and culture at large now. The theory he put forth was that the art of the future will be purely abstract so as to portray inner states of spirituality, but how would he react to Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde or Koons’ vacuum cleaners under glass or gargantuan balloon animals in steel? He wrote so confidently about a coming art form that only seems to have been swallowed up and digested by the “future”—our present. The current conceptual art world seems to be light years ahead of what he foresaw. I feel like such art would confound him. It would not make any sense to him.

The rest of the book is dedicated to a breakdown of color, shape and composition. Again, not only was he reacting to what was around him at the time and the level at which art history had reached at that moment, but he also wrote from a clearly Euro-centric point of view. He issued edicts about the psychological nature of colors, proclaiming that black means death. But of course we now know that psychological reactions to color are contingent upon culture. For example, black may be a death and mourning color here in the West, but in China, the color of death and mourning is white (or yellow for Buddhists), a fact that was obviously unknown to Kandinsky. From our current position, his theories and suppositions in this book seem sadly provincial and outdated. It seems slightly comical because of the force with which he issued these theories and suppositions. A seer he was not.

Recommend? If you are interested in art history or the work of Kandinsky, have at it. But it is something that can easily be missed.

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