1. If one reads Wassily Kandinsky’s Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1911) as a manifesto, the heart of the matter is spirit. The challenge is not to choose between “matter” and “spirit.” It is to go beneath the surface to the heart.
2. Kandinsky does not reject matter. He criticizes what he calls materialism for its obsession with the “how” (the body) which he says causes the artist to lose sight of the “what” – “the internal truth of art, the soul without which the body (i.e. the ‘how’) can never be healthy, whether in an individual or in a whole people.”
3. Nor does he reject “the object.” He rethinks both the subject and the object of art.
4. When he calls music “the most non-material of the arts today” and directs attention to the painter’s longing “to express his inner life,” he locates the inner life in an interplay of matter and spirit, an active engagement of subject and object. “Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”
5. When Kandinsky speaks of innere Notwendigkeit, he is not speaking in any simple sense of the interior of the artist. It would be more accurate to say that he is speaking of the “inner necessity” of art – not the appetite (or need) of an individual artist, but the necessity of the activity in which the artist engages the world, more nearly equivalent to qi than to hunger.
6. When Kandinsky speaks of music being “innate in man,” it seems to me that he anticipates recent research on the musical structure of human cognition. This is evident in his reference to “the position in which painting is today” – on the edge of making “art an abstraction of thought” and arriving at “purely artistic composition.” Here, composition is the act, the practice, of art – and it is cognitive.
7. He speaks specifically of “two weapons” at the disposal of painting – colour (which cannot stand alone) and form (which can stand alone “as representing an object” or “as a purely abstract limit to a space or a surface”). What it means for a limit to be “purely” abstract is not entirely clear – but, with or without imitation, it is a cognitive limit, an activity of thought. I suspect, as Piaget argued, that this begins as a concrete operation (built on sensorimotor activity) and develops toward abstract thought.
8. Kandinsky conflates form with line when he says that “in the narrow sense” it is “nothing but the separating line between surfaces of colour.” This narrow sense, he says, is its “outer” meaning. The “inner” meaning, the heart of the matter, is that “form is the outward expression of this inner meaning” (which sounds strikingly similar to the definition of a sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace).
9. In his discussion of setting art free, it seems the central question is who or what is playing the soul (the strings of the piano). Taken at face value, identifying the strings of the piano as soul makes the soul a material thing. But it seems clear that soul has more to do with harmony than with the strings themselves: it is a relation constituted by things acting on one another. The relation is itself in action, a process – constant form, varying circumstances.
10. Setting art free is more than breaking bonds: “If we begin at once to break the bonds which bind us to nature, and devote ourselves purely to combination of pure colour and abstract form, we shall produce works which are mere decoration, which are suited to neckties or carpets.” That even “pure” decoration is not lifeless means that there is no outer form without inner being, suggesting that form cannot stand alone after all.
11. Harmony highlights the musical structure of cognition, including the abstraction Kandinsky seeks in art. But when Kandinsky says “even music has a grammar,” he makes a move similar to the one Adorno later makes, though he undermines this to some extent when he says it functions as a sort of dictionary. More accurate, I think, is Adorno’s assertion that, while it is not a language, music is like language. And this carries over in Kandinsky into the suggestion that we approach painting (or a painting) conversationally, as a kind of dialogue. He applies this to the spectator, but I think it applies equally well to the artist. He speaks of the spectator who is “too ready to look for a meaning in a picture – i.e., some outward connection between its various parts.” And this brings greater clarity to his criticism of materialism and what it is he objects to when he criticizes materialism: “Our materialistic age has produced a type of spectator or ‘connoisseur,’ who is not content to put himself opposite a picture and let it say its own message… His eye does not probe the outer expression to arrive at the inner meaning.” Obsessed with the outer, the spectator fails to discern the inner. He or she dances on the surface rather than getting to the heart of the matter. But in a conversation with an interesting person, getting to the heart of the matter is the main thing: “We do not bother about the words [the person] uses, nor the spelling of those words, nor the breath necessary for speaking them, nor the movements of his tongue and lips, nor the psychological working on our brain, nor the physical sound in our ear, nor the physiological effect on our nerves. We realize that these things, though interesting and important, are not the main thing of the moment, but that the meaning and idea is what concerns us. We should have the same feeling when confronted with a work of art. When this becomes general the artist will be able to dispense with natural form and colour and speak in purely artistic language.” And, I would add, we should have the same feeling when we engage in the work of art. Note that the relationship with nature is not broken: it is restored and transformed into an ongoing conversation that involves the painting, the artist, and the spectator in dialogue in nature, which is no longer external, in the work of art.
12. When Kandinsky locates art above nature, it seems to me that he has in mind the kind of abstraction Aristotle discussed in his Physics – an “overstanding” as it were, that affords a critical perspective on the whole that is emancipatory. it is “hampered by external form,” but “as this is thrown aside, there arises as the aim of composition – construction.” The critical/constructive perspective he envisions is subtle – a “concealed construction” that “appeals less to the eye and more to the soul.” This also recalls Aristotle, for whom the soul is the form of the body, the health of which is a matter of harmony. Perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of a natural dialogue than of a dialogue in nature. It is marked by internal necessity, not necessity externally imposed.