Reconsidering the Spiritual in Art
Thank you. It's a great pleasure to be here in sunny Virginia. I appreciate the welcoming weather. It's a great pleasure to be at Virginia Commonwealth once again. I've been here before, in fact several times. It's always a pleasure to see Howard Risatti again, an old friend, and someone whose work I very much admire. I want to thank Adam Welch for the particular invitation, and the Graduate Student Association as well.
Now, let me say what I'm doing here. Obviously the titleand you see this from the poster as wellis a reference to Kandinsky's very famous and influential essay, in German it was "Geistige in der Kunst." I use the German word deliberately because the word "Geist" in German has a whole different resonance in history than the word "spiritual" in English. Spiritual sounds a little sappy in English. When we say somebody is spiritual, we're not certain if we're giving them a compliment or being ironical, in English. But in German if you say somebody's a "Geistiger Mensch" that's a true compliment, somebody deep, reflective, and serious.
Now, this paper is coming from a number of different points of view, or trying to address a number of different issues. First, I think it's high time to re-evaluate twentieth-century art in a serious way. It's been scholarly done to death, so to say, everything's been analyzed. There are lots of books on Kandinsky, and people associated with him; his influence has been widely acknowledged. He's a truly famous, major figure. In my humble opinion, ultimately more of a revolutionary than Picasso. André Breton, who was not known for kindness, praised Kandinsky, I'm quoting Breton, "as one of the most exceptional, greatest revolutionaries of vision," which I think is quite an extraordinary statement. I'm not sure that people have fully gotten the whole of why he's so exceptional.
Now, one of the things that I think is going on in Kandinsky's art, and in On the Spiritual in Art, is an effort to deal with an issue that was raised in Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind, which was published just about a century earlier. Phänomenologie des Geistes, it's sometimes called, phenomenology of mind, sometimes spirit, there are various translations in English, phenomenology of consciousness. And Hegel, if you read it very carefully, reaches a curious point. He goes from sense experience, okay, very particular sense experience, to pure ideational spiritual experience, and he argues that the climax of spiritual activitylet's use that wordis the spirit knowing itself and coming and becoming itself. And then suddenly, having said that, he flips right back into sense experience, and he says the spirit knows itself most through sense experiences. So we have the idea of spiritualized sensing, so to say, implicit in Hegel, the whole thing starts over again, and I think Kandinsky is trying to address that moment.
Now, I think there's something else that's very important that's going on today. I'm very interested in maintaining what I call the spiritual impulse in art, and I frankly think it's disappearing. For me the debate in art is symbolized by the difference between say Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer. I found it a wonderful relief to see Kiefer's recent show at Gagosian Chelsea. I found it a wonderful antidote in relief from the show by Richter which is now at the Museum of Modern Art, which is now in San Francisco. You can buy a book [Richter 858] for one hundred and twenty five dollars, it has an aluminum sleeve on it, it's the ultimate hype of an artist. There are eight reproductions in it, two texts by prominent artists. It's a very slick production. I've written about both of these people. For me Richter is the ultimate in the spiritless, cynical artist. I have a piece at artnet.com where I wrote a lot, which is called "Gerhard Richter D.O.A." It didn't make me many friends, but I'm getting too old to worry about that. Then I have another piece on artnet.com called "The Spirit of Gray" which is on Kiefer. The subtext was the last ripple of the German Wave, "Deutsche Velle," as it was called when it happened. Anyway, Richter is spiritless, Kiefer is spiritual, and one of the last holdouts. The last show was dealing with the Kabala, with an interesting text on it by Harold Bloom. It was sensationally well received.
You may be awareif you're not, I'll make youthat Richter has sharply attacked Kiefer as too pretentious, too much into the sublime, among other things, okay. I think that's a mistake, so that's one thing I want to address. The other thing I think that's happening, and that Kandinsky stands right in the middle of, is that we're at a moment of a paradigm change, as it's called, it's been going on for a while in the history of art. I believe that the idea of fine art is dead or dying. The idea of fine art which emerged in the eighteenth century, symbolized by Kant's aestheticsand there was no concept of aesthetics in traditional philosophyand then by the discourses by Reynolds, that that's on the way out, it's going. I think art is becoming very ideological, and it's less interested in mediating this special experience called the "aesthetic," which you can get outside of art but which is intensified and more concentrated within the, so to say, closed circle of discourse which is art.
So I think Kandinsky is bringing together the spiritual idea of art with the aesthetic idea of art, or let's say the spiritual impulse, and trying to unite them. Okay, so these are some of the things I'm going to do. And I'm going to show works which you're probably familiar with, and I will talk a little bit about them and say things I'm sure you're familiar with from Kandinsky.
But then what I want to do is to shift it a bit, perhaps in terms that may be a little too general, but it's hard not to be general in the context of such a talk, is shift it a bit and try to talk about just exactly what is meant by the spiritual impulse keeping the spiritual alive.
I also have to say that there's a subjective motivation behind this talk. As one gets older, one becomes aware of sickness and death. One becomes aware of what Buddha was aware of when he left the closed garden of his pleasures and went out in the world and saw a sick person, a dead body, and he couldn't believe these things existed. That began his spiritual pursuit of enlightenment, and you might say the sub-question, as it were, of this talk is, Can art still offer spiritual enlightenment as Kandinsky thought it once did, or was capable of doing? You may disagree with that, you may not do it. I remind you that Kandinsky, along with Malevich and Mondrian, were all spiritual artists by their own testimony. This has been forgotten. Nobody takes their writing seriously. A while back Hilton Kramer said, "Oh, it's all just about formal innovation, and impulse, and spontaneity." But it's more complicated. The issue is whether it is still possible to re-present, represent, spiritual impulse without the traditional iconography, that's what they were trying to address. So without further ado, I'll begin.
It is almost a century since Kandinsky, Wassily Kandinsky
wrote On the Spiritual in Art. Why reconsider it now? It was written,
published in 1912 by Piper-Verlag, and there are a number of essays related
to it done in 1910, 1911. Not simply because of historical reasonsnot
simply because it was time to take a fresh look at a text that had profound
influence on twentieth-century artand some people regard it as the
climax of symbolist thinking in artbut because art faces the same
problem now, at least in my opinion, that it did then: namely, how to
generate and articulate what Kandinsky called ". . . the all-important
spark of inner life," or, as he also called it, ". . . of innernecessity."
As he said, " It is the core of spiritual experience." The problem
is even greater today, in my opinion, than it was in Kandinsky's day:
what he meant by the spiritual was self-evident to his audience. Today
it is not so self evident. For Kandinsky's audience, and for Kandinsky,
its meaning was anchored in religious tradition. Today there is no religious
tradition to sustain it. Thus, when Kandinsky described how he came to
the idea of the spiritual in artwhen he said he realized that "the
sensations of colors on the palette" could be "spiritual experiences,"
and that's right out of Hegel, as Kandinsky saidhe described how
he felt as though he was taking a "stroll within a picture, that
he was surrounded on all sides by painting, whenever he entered a church.
He was a very smart man, very, very, introspective and knowledgeable about
himself, and he said how he wanted to recapitulate, in part, the experience
of walking through a Russian Orthodox Church, which is full of pastel
colors, and anybody who's been in Russia, has gone to some of these churches,
there's a wonderful group of them outside, right outside of Moscow, you'll
know what he was talking about.
It didn't matter whether it was a Russian Orthodox
church or a Catholic church, as he said. The experience was the same whether
it was in the Moscow churches or the Bavarian and Tyrolean chapels: it
was an artistic experience of religion and a religious experience of arta
sense of the easy and seamless merger of religious and artistic experience,
their inevitable reciprocity. The interiors of the churches and chapels
that Kandinsky visited are brightly and intricately colored, as he was
quick to appreciate, so that the excitement of color and of inner life
converged. Color and feeling were inextricable: sense experience was spiritual
experience and spiritual experience took sensuous form. That is, the external,
visible phenomenon of color seemed to be a spontaneous manifestation of
the internal, invisible phenomenon of feeling. Feeling needed color to
become consummateand if you think of Matisse's remarks in his 1908
essay, same kind of thing, he talks about the fascination of color, the
instant effect of itfeeling needed color to become consummate and
color needed feeling to have inner meaningto be more than a chemical
matter of fact. Kandinsky insisted, as we know, that certain colors and
certain emotions necessarily went together. They were not simply arbitrarily
or culturally associated but essentially connected, as he argued in the
chapter on the "psychological working" or emotional "Effects
of Color" in On the Spiritual in Art.
Now the public who read On the Spiritual in Art when it first appeared in 1911, and also the Blaue Reiter Almanac, the Blue Rider Almanac, when it appeared a year laterthe second edition appeared in 1914, and that was the last edition, which he and Franz Marc, who was a close friend, edited togetherthus understood what Kandinsky meant when he declared that "their principal aim [was] to awaken [the] capacity for experiencing the spiritual in material and in abstract phenomena." It was, to repeat, a religious experiencean experience of inner life. Church-going induced it, that is it forced one back on one's inner life, in forgetfulness of the outer worldthe world outside the sacred space of the churchand the picture is a kind of sacred space for Kandinsky, and Kandinsky thought that abstract painting induced it, as well, if only because in entering an abstract painting one turned away from "the external aspect of phenomena," as he said, toward what he called "feelings of a finer nature." And he makes quite clear he's not speaking about ordinary feelings, for example the kind of feelings that Munch talked about, anger, anxiety, and so forth. He's talking of a different kind of feeling altogether that you . . . he did not associate with what you might call natural existence. What mattered for Kandinsky was what he called the mood, Stimmung, or spiritual atmosphere, his terms of the work, and he has a very interesting footnote deploring the fact that the word mood or Stimmung has become so banal and conventionalized, not its material or outward aspect. The work had to be seen with what he called "spiritual eyes"eyes that could intuit innernecessitynot eyes that could see only physical material or outer necessity. When Kandinsky spoke of "my tendency toward the hidden, the concealed," he was talking about his ability to see the spiritual concealed in the materialthe unfamiliar emotional reality behind familiar material appearances. As he famously wrote in a letter to Will Grohman, the great German scholar, in 1925, "I want people to see finally what lies behind"that's Kandinsky's emphasis"my painting."
On the Spiritual in Art begins with a long
diatribe against what he called "the long reign of materialism, the
whole nightmare of the materialistic attitude, which has turned the life
of the universe into an evil, purposeless game." Another reason for
reconsidering, and, as I hope to show, the necessity of re-affirming the
spiritual in art, or the spiritual possibilities of art, if you want to
put it more modestly, is that we have not only not awakened from the nightmare
of the materialistic attitude in art as well as society, but materialism
has become a plague, indeed, the reigning ideology in both. Kandinsky
thought that Impressionism was materialism's climactic statement in art,
but then he never saw Pop art, which began the ascendancy, not to say
dominance, of media-derived art, which is the situation we're in today.
The attitude of Pop art is so materialistic, however ironical its materialism
is supposed to be, and I have my doubts about that, that it is virtually
impossible to find any spark of inner life in it. One can make the same
criticism of Warhol's "Marilyn Monroe," and maybe the reality
of Marilyn Monroe as well, who Billy Wilder said he was not sure if she
was a human being or a synthetic creation, synthetic plastic, he said,
as Redon made of Manet. Redon, who wrote some rather brilliant criticism,
said Manet's figures lacked "soul"inner life is what he
meant. There is certainly none in Andy Warhol's media mannequins, which
is what he paints and what our celebrity society is saturated in.
One of the reasons that Kandinsky was concerned with
inner life is that it registers the pernicious emotional effects of outer
materialistic life, affording a kind of critical perspective on materialism
that becomes the springboard for emotional transcendence of it. The inability
of Pop art to convey inner life, which is a consequence of its materialistic
disbelief in interiority, and especially spirituality, which is the deepest
interiority, indicates that Pop art's irony is at best nominally critical.
Irony in fact mocks belief, even as it spices up materialism, making it
seem less banal, that is, populist, thus giving Pop art the look of deviance
characteristic of avant-garde art. I dwell on irony because it is opposed
to spirituality, not to say incommensurate with it, and also its supposedly
more knowing alternativespiritual people are supposed to be naïveand
because irony has become the ruling desideratum of contemporary art, if
you're not ironical, you're not in, apparently redeeming its materialism.
This itself is ironical, for contemporary materialistic society and its
media have discovered the advantage of being ironical about themselves,
namely, it spares them the serious trouble of having to change. This suggests
that irony has become a form of frivolity. It is no longer the revolutionary
debunking understanding it once claimed to be, for example, in Jasper
Johns' American flag paintings, but an expression of frustration, of stalemate,
I would say.
For Kandinsky modern materialism was evident in "the
turbulent flood of technological inventions that has poured forth,"
as he noted in "Whither the 'New' Art?" which was published
the same year as On the Spiritual in Art and also the obsession
with "the accumulation of material blessings." We live in America
and know what that's all about. But he never experienced, Kandinsky never
experienced, the blind faith in technology as the solution to all human
problems nor the wealth, however unequally distributed, of our business
society (which as we clearly have realized from the recent corporate events
is a swindle). It is possible to argue that in art, which is what we are
concerned with, materialism has completely swept the field. People think
of art in completely materialistic terms, what does it cost, what is it
going to bring on the market, and the joke is that the real galleries
are the auction houses. So that searching for the inner life of a work
of art or expecting any art to have spiritual significance is like searching
for the proverbial rare needle in a haystack. There is usually no concealed,
to think of Kandinsky's idea, spiritual point in most contemporary art,
nothing unexpected that would sting the spectator's spirit into self-awareness.
To put this another way, there is little that is sublimewhich was
an idea that Kandinsky also usedabout contemporary materialistic
art, that is, little that would awaken the capacity for experiencing the
Materialism has increased exponentially in art and
society since Kandinsky's day, as the business ideology of today makes
clear. I think Warhol's idea that business art was the most important
art and making money was business puts it on the line quite explicitly.
As he said, he passed through this thing called art, whatever that was.
Business materialism is evident in the eagerness for corporate sponsorship
of art. One may say corporate legitimation of art's significancewithout
a corporate sponsor, without commercial value, no historical and cultural
value. Business materialism is also evident in the implicit belief that
the work of art is a commodity before it is anything else, part of the
consumer society, normal enough. That is, its commodity identity is its
primary identity, or to put this another way, its marketplace value is
its primary value. It seems more and more foolish and farcical to speak
of a work of art's internal necessity when it seems designed to cater
to, even ingratiate itself with external necessity. It is harder and harder
to know what one is talking about when one does so. It is harder and harder
to claim that a work of art can be a spiritual experience, however much
such artists as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, I'm sure you know the
difference here, insisted that one was missing the point of their abstract
art if one viewed it materially. They were not mere technicians of color,
to use a term that has been applied to Rothko, but spiritual provocateurs.
Ironically, marketing materialism has given art more visibility and prestige than it had when it served religion and the aristocracy. It is a two way street: business's enthusiastic endorsement of avant-garde art's professed autonomy is business's covert way of asserting its own autonomy, that is, its belief that, like art, it is answerable and responsible only to itself. By supporting art, business appropriates art's supposedly intrinsic value and claims to advanced consciousness. Ours is a business culture not a religious culture, and it is impossible to find spiritual significance in what Warhol called business art. I submit to you that Warhol's art is a celebration of business, which is in part why it sells. It is certainly a long way from the color mysticism of the interiors of the churches that Kandinsky visited and that his early abstract works struggled to emulate. Corporate headquarters are not churches, even though their decoration with works of art are attempts to give them spiritual significance. Warhol's Gold Marilyn Monroe, which I showed you before, 1962, is also irreconcilable with Kasimir Malevich's abstract icons, which he compared to spiritual experiences in a desert, the proverbial place to have them.
In contrast, Warhol's work epitomizes the business
materialism of the crowd, it's what I call crowd art. Ironically, Warhol's
cynical attempt to turn the dead actress into a sacred presenceand
she was very good business, like Elvisreinforces her profaneness
and spiritual insignificance. Gold is either filthy lucre, or, alchemically
speaking, ultima materia, that is, the ultimate sacred substance, and
Warhol's perverse fusionand perversion is another major strategy
in art, and irony is part of it in contemporary artperverse fusion
of its opposed meanings in the socio-cosmetic construction of Marilyn
Monroe is the ultimate materialistic nihilism. It is the exemplary case
of the confusion of values that occurs in a business society, and that
Kandinsky fought against.
What I am arguing is that the spiritual crisis of
the contemporary artist is greater than Kandinsky's. Kandinsky knew art
was in spiritual crisis, whereas today's materialistic artist doesn't
see any spiritual crisis. All that matters is materialistic success. I
want to just call attention to something, interrupt myself. Earlier this
week I received an announcement of new books from Prestel-Verlag, which
is a German firm located in Munich, with offices also in New York, and
one of the books is called The Eclipse of Art: Tackling the Crisis
in Art Today. It's written by Julian Spalding, who is the former director
of the Glasgow Museum and also the man who founded the Ruskin Gallery,
the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Art, [of] Religious Life and Art, and
the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art. I have to say this struck a resonance
with me because my next book, which will be out, Cambridge University
Press, early next year, is called The End of Art, and I'm taking
this in a different way than he is. I'm arguing that we now are in a situation
of "post art," as I call it. That's a term that Alan Capro introduced
earlier on, and I sort of run with it and do a variety of other things.
So there are a number of people, Spalding is one, I am another, and there
are other people I can mention, who feel that something is "wrong
in the state of art today" as there was in Denmark way back when.
The spiritual crisis in art today is more comprehensive than it was in Kandinsky's time, all the more so because what Jacques Barzun called the modern religion of arthis Crest lectures many years ago, an absolutely brilliant book of lectures on art, written in the seventies, as I say, his lectures that he gave in Washington. However private religion it was, and thus more of a cult, is defunct today, however much its vestige lives on in the pseudo-sacred space of the modern museum. I was recently reading about the new Dallas Museum, and apparently you have huge walls with a single work on it, like a sacred experience. I hope it works.
Kandinsky could fall back on the religion of art, and contributed to its growth, but today it seems quaint and simplistic, which is why many contemporary scholars and interpreters ignore the spiritual writings, as I said, of Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian, regarding them as so much claptrap beside the point of the actual works they produced. The last religious works of artthe so-called purist works, and this is my interpretation of them and one possible interpretationthat Clement Greenberg advocated and analyzed, have become history, marketplace as well as art history. Even more crucially, Kandinsky's assumption that colorthese are his termstransmitted and "translated" emotion, that inner life had a necessary material medium, universally accessible and instantly expressive, has fallen by the wayside. The relentless materialization and mediaficationif I can invent a wordof art, which are accessories to its commodification, has stripped it of the sense of subjective presence so basic to Kandinsky's belief in spiritual experience, leaving us with what from Kandinsky's point of view is the shell of art rather than its spiritual significance. The point I am trying to make is that there is no longer anything hidden or concealed or behind art, as Kandinsky expected there to be. It is all up front: what you see is what you get, as has been famously said by Frank Stella as well as Andy Warhol. Stella, I think strips, along with Ellsworth Kelley, strips abstraction of its spiritual import, reduces it to what I call empirical abstraction, spectrum, or think of the "Spectrum Works" of Kelley, for example. If what you see is what you get, then art has lost its internal necessity, that is, its subjective reason for being, and becomes completely objective or external. One no longer experiences it, but theorizes, theorizes about its material structure and social meaning. Think how much theory props up art today. I am in complete agreement with the famous art historian and museum director, Friedlander, who said that when theory rises up, creativity is on the way down, at least for the artists, if not for the theorists. In other words, belief in the spiritual has been completely uprooted and destroyed in most contemporary art. The idea of the spiritual as such has become meaningless in the art world, thus completing the process of the despiritualization or demystification of art that began with Cubism and climaxed in post-painterly abstraction, as Greenberg thinks.
In a senseand I'm going to contradict
myself, what I said before about GreenbergGreenberg's theory of
modernist painting is in fact the final intellectual stage of the modern
process of despiritualizing art, which in the last analysis is reduced
entirely to the terms of its material medium. Such materialistic reductionism,
involving the complete objectification of artit is a case of what
Whitehead called "misplaced concreteness"is evident in
Greenberg's assertion that "the great masters of the past achieved
their art by virtue of combinations of pigment whose real effectiveness
was abstract," and their greatness is not owed to the spirituality
with which they conceived the things they illustrated so much as it is
to the success with which they ennobled raw matter to the point where
it could function as art." Greenberg, Stella, and Warhol have more
in common than one might imagine: they are all radical materialists. For
them the spiritualist effect of artthe sense of spiritual intimacy
it can achieveis a case of misplaced materialism, that is, a naive
misreading of art's physicality. For them the spiritual is an epiphenomenon
of art's manipulation of matter, and as such a misapprehension of art.
They ultimately want to eliminate the idea that there is something spiritual
about art as dishonesty. Honest art involves the attempt to master matter,
including, for many artists, social matter. At best, to say that an art
is "spiritual" is simply a way of saying that its mastery of
matter is successful, or at least convincing to the viewer. This makes
the artist a kind of chef who knows how to cook the material medium so
that it is tasty and looks appealing, which gives it all the presence
it will ever have and need to be crediblesimply as art. The idea
that the artist might invest his or her subjectivity in the material medium,
which is what brings it aliveindeed, the idea that the artist might
have a profound subjectivity, and to be an artist you have to be
a certain kind of person, that is, experience the inner necessity of spiritual
aspiration, and that the only person who can legitimately call himself
or herself an artist is the person who experiences art as part of a personal
spiritual processthis idea is discarded as absurd and beside the
artistic point. Thus the apparently revolutionary materialistic conception
of art is emotionally reactionary.
There is another factor that makes art's situation today more difficult and desperate than it was in Kandinsky's day: the avant-garde has been conventionalized, not to say banalized. This is more than a matter of institutionalization: it is a matter of its bankruptcy. It has run out of creative steamthe age of artistic revolution and innovation is overand become redundant, feeding on itself, and not always to refine its principles and methods. A good part of what motivated Kandinsky was defiance of convention, as is evident in his pursuit of what he called "unrestrained freedom"you recall he spoke of this in the essay "On the Question of Form," which appeared in the Blaue Reiter Almanac. This begins, as he wrote, "in the effort toward liberation from forms that have already reached their fulfillment, that is, liberation from old forms in the effort to create new and infinitely varied forms." It climaxes in a sense of what he called "unbridled freedom" fraught with "active spirit"that is, feeling. "The feeling that speaks aloud will sooner or later correctly guide the artist as well as the viewer." I'll read that again: "The feeling that speaks aloud will sooner or later correctly guide the artist as well as the viewer." Well, what do you do if there's no feeling there? The problem is that what was once unripe new form has become overripe old form and no longer seems so infinitely varied, and what once seemed like emotional liberationfresh and unique and revolutionary feelinghas now become stale and pro forma. The avant-garde has reached its fulfillment, to use Kandinsky's language, and become decadent. And I think we are in a time of decadence in art.
The moment of unpredictability and improvisation
that was so important to Kandinsky, and that he struggles to achieve in
the abstract works produced under the auspices of On the Spiritual
in Artand I want to point out that the scholar Richard Stratton
has noted that this has a unique place , this essay, in the history of
avant-garde thinking, for Kandinsky's ideas were developed before
the art that exemplifies them was made, that is, On the Spiritual in
Art is prospective and prophetic rather than retrospective and rationalizing,
as many artists statements arethat this moment of unpredictability
and improvisation has passed and vanished, never to return. It is incidentally
worth noting that the root word of "improvisation" is, it means,
"not to foresee," which is not the same as accidental or spontaneouswhich
is the way Kandinsky's work is usually understoodby chance or by
impulse, and why improvisation is more enlivening than eitherand
Kandinsky's whole point is that art has to be inwardly alive, or it is
not worth the creative troublesince the results of chance and impulse
can be foreseen, however not precisely predicted.
As Franz Marc, Kandinsky's close friend and colleague, wrote in the preface to the second edition of the Blaue Reiter Almanac, as he wrote: "With a divining rod we searched through the art of the past and the present. We showed only what was alive, and what was not touched by the tone of convention." The problem of feeling alive in a society you feel is inwardly dead is crucial for modern existence. "We gave our ardent devotion to everything in art that was born out of itself, lived in itself, did not walk on crutches of habit. We pointed to each crack in the crust of convention""it's marvelous, these sort of inspiring words"only because we hoped to find there an underlying force that would one day come to light. . . . It has always been the great consolation of history that nature continuously thrusts up new forces through outlived rubbish." Well, nature itself seems like outlived rubbish in modernity, and especially post modernity. We are in a nature holocaust, as it's been called, an environmental holocaust, in the midst of it, and no new spiritual forces have come to light in art. Avant-garde art has become habitual, a dead letter with little spiritual consequence, however materially refined.