Tag Archives: philosophy of art

manifestos 2: concerning the spiritual in art

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.

©Steven Schroeder

manifestos 1: I am for…

Claes Oldenburg insists that his 1961 “I Am For…” is not a manifesto, and we have every reason to take him at his word. He sees it as poetry, specifically as an ode; and well before the final “I am,” the object of praise is clear. This is a song of the self in the spirit of Whitman (Oldenburg later cited Whitman and Ginsberg as inspirations), and that makes it quintessentially American. In 1974, he told curators at the Walker Museum in Minneapolis that “There’s a lot of literary intention in that, so many of those things are said for the sound of them, and I don’t necessarily believe all those things. But I, at some point, might believe them. … It’s the sort of thing American artists are expected to say, because they want to embrace everything and they want to honor the muse of democracy. I don’t always feel that way.” (For now, let’s set aside the fact that a statement is not disqualified from being a manifesto if its authors don’t always believe everything it contains. Being human, we never believe everything anything contains all the time; so manifestos, wisely, do not demand unwavering and consistent belief. Let’s also set aside, for now, saying what one is expected to say. Making a poem of it makes it possible to think of the “I” as the voice of “American artists” rather than the voice of the writer, which effectively stands it on its head.) The impulse to embrace everything is akin to John Cage’s “here comes everybody” (which Cage properly attributes to James Joyce, quintessentially Irish – and appropriating it as American is as American as cherry pie), though how that relates to democracy is a bit more complicated than honoring its muse.

What I find interesting about the “I am for” refrain is that it defines function as well as desire (or stance). As it turns out, the “I” of the poem is for just about every human activity – and the “I” of the poem is for art. This is an ode to the artist by the artist, effectively saying to art that “I am at your disposal” and describing every human activity as art. So the artist is, in effect, at the disposal of every thing human beings do whenever and wherever we do it.

While it may not be a manifesto, the first six repetitions of “I am for” launch statements that are sufficiently manifesto-like to account for the widespread embrace of this ode as a call to action.

1. “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than…” both calls for and circumscribes “something other.” What the “I” of the poem is for is art that is political-erotical-mystical and that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum. Whether the objection is to sitting as such or to sitting in a museum is a legitimate question. (One might well ask the co-creator of a work like Spoonbridge and Cherry if art that sits on its ass outside the museum is ok.) But if art can sit on its ass, it must be an embodied being capable of action (and inaction). The question, it seems to me, is not simply about the artist and what s/he does but also about the place (and placing) of art: where does art take place? What is the significance of placing art? Not only who does it but who places it – who puts it in its place?

2. “I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art…” implies that the action or inaction of art (and therefore of the artist?) should be unselfconscious. Or, perhaps more accurately, that it should not be done as “art.” So in much the same way that art should do something other than sitting on its ass, it should do what it does as something other than art. (There is also the more problematic possibility that it should do this only until it grows up. But the old, thankfully, cannot kill the young forever.) This extends the image of art as an embodied being by making it a being capable of knowing (and naming) what it is doing. (Here again, the artist, it seems, stands in for art.) The question is about the consciousness of art and the artist: what does art know? How? Who knows what art is?

3. “I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap…” both calls for an art that is everyday and characterizes what happens everyday as (mostly?) crap. The point seems to be that art should be ordinary rather than extraordinary, for the people rather than for an elite. That it “still comes out on top” seems to run counter to that call (or at least to raise the question “on top of what?”).

4. “I am for an art that imitates the human” implies that art is not human (otherwise it would be imitating itself, which, I suppose, could explain the attitude many people have toward arts such as poetry, which is sometimes suspected of endlessly imitating itself). Imitating the human may be necessarily comic or necessarily violent. Note, though, that neither “comic” nor “violent” applies to art itself but rather to the human it is called to imitate. That imitating the human means doing what is necessary is telling, whether that is comic or violent or both. (Severn Darden explored the third option – both – brilliantly in his “Oedipus” skit.)

5. “I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself…” refines #4, but it also introduces the possibility that we are now talking about more than human life. Why imitation of “the human”? Why not imitate nature in its manner of operation (Cage/Coomeraswamy)?

6. “I am for an artist who vanishes…” suggests that the artist disappears (or should disappear) into his/her art (presumably understood in this case as a practice, not an object). The artist disappears into what s/he does. And what s/he does (see #2) does not know it is art (though it is unclear whether the one who does it knows). That the artist “vanishes” and turns up “in a white cap painting signs or hallways” raises the question of whether the one who paints signs or hallways in a white cap (as opposed to the one who paints “art” in a studio?) is invisible. Identification of the artist with the practice of art and identification of the practice of art with being human leads to art and artist disappearing into humanity. (This is an important theme, closely related to the discussion of alienation that has developed around Marx’s “fetishism of commodities.”)

I return to Oldenburg’s “ode to possibility” because it was recently cited as an inspiration for transforming the way a gallery with which I have been connected works. A close reading, a reading through, leads me not to answers but (as I would expect) to familiar questions, not only about how galleries and museums work (or should work) but also about how art works (or should work) and about how artists work (or should work).

How galleries work (or should work) is not the same question as how museums work (or should work), though they are related questions, both concerned with the work of art as object (a work that is the product of work) and, particularly in the case of the gallery, the object of art as commodity. How artists work is influenced by (and may come to depend on) the object and how it works, and who determines how (and where and when) it works.

After reading through, I am not much closer to knowing how museums work (or should work). But I do have a sense that Oldenburg believes they should work differently because the way they work now (or in the “now” of 1961) distorts the work of art, the work of the artist, and the artist who works. (His language is less explicit than Ginsberg’s lament over minds destroyed by madness, but there is an undeniable kinship.) This distortion is not unique to art, and one of the virtues of Oldenburg’s “ode” is that it turns our attention to the work of institutions designed to contain work. That has been of particular concern to critical theorists since the late 18th century, especially in the field of political economy, which has roots that reach back to much earlier philosophical and theological discussion of vocation.

The theological roots are evident, for example, in Marx’s critical reading of religion in the 19th century, which is probably as relevant to Oldenburg’s ode as his critical reading of political economy. (Marx boils it down to two sentences, the second of which, at least in the United States, is usually quoted – or slightly misquoted – in isolation: Die Religion ist der Seufzer der bedrängten Kreatur, das Gemüt einer herzlosen Welt, wie sie der Geist geistloser Zustände ist. Sie ist das Opium des Volkes. The sigh, the heart, the soul, the opium…

The opium without the sigh, the heart, and the soul strikes me as a more radical version of Oldenburg’s art sitting on its ass in a museum. And particularly if Oldenburg is saying what “American” artists are expected to say (or were expected to say in 1961), that seems about right. (We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit, from another manifesto, written a year later in Port Huron, Michigan, comes to mind.) But, as Marx notes, the presence of opium may be an indicator of real suffering; and attending to that real suffering turns our attention to the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. (Oldenburg’s “political-erotical-mystical” gestures in this direction.)

The museum is a church, the gallery is a market. One of the great challenges for revolutionary thought since Marx has been to move beyond simply identifying these mechanisms of containment to determining what is to be done with them (and this includes the ecclesiology of writers like Leonardo Boff and the “market socialism” of writers like David Schweickart). If that is the challenge Oldenburg lays down in this ode, now more than half a century old, it is still well worth addressing.

©Steven Schroeder