The following is a paper I recently wrote for my 19th century philosophy class in which I use the philosophy of Schelling and Donald Kuspit (a contemporary philosopher/art critic) to try and find some guidance in a struggle against materialism. Hope you enjoy:
Kuspit, Kandinsky, and Schelling: The Spiritual in Art
Donald Kuspit, a contemporary American art critic and philosopher and the 19th century German philosopher, both face, what I will argue, is a common struggle in the arts. In Schelling’s time he set himself in opposition to the ideology of neoclassicism which was thought to be an aesthetic embodiment of rationalism and enlightenment ideology. It was the art of the French revolution and based its cannons of beauty and values in antiquity. In his work “Concerning the Relation of Plastic Arts To Nature” he questioned the commonly assumed relationship between nature and art and re-establishes the dynamic in a way which goes beyond the mere appearance of nature towards it’s spiritual essence, and life energy. Kuspit’s struggle is not against neoclassicism but the art of the latter half of the 20th century, which includes pop art through postmodernism. He does this through a lecture given at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2003, in which he is reconsidering the Abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky’s book On the Spiritual in Art. On the Spiritual in Art is a book in which Kandinsky tries to capture the spiritual in art against an increasingly industrialized and modernized world. Through a reconsideration of Kandinsky’s work Kuspit evaluates our current situation here at the dawn of the 21st century. So in this paper there will be three time periods discussed. There will be the rise of romanticism (19th century), the beginning of modernism (late 19th early 20th), and our current time which I consider the bleak wasteland left over after postmodernism ran its course (21st century). What brings these three times together is what Schelling, Kandinsky, and Kuspit have in common, and that is that they are all opposed to materialism in their own way and see salvation from that materialism in the spiritual.
Donald Kuspit brings into question our modern conception of art not by talking about how the spiritual plays into the creation of art, but by exposing the result of it's absence. He begins by addressing why we ought to bother reconsidering Kandinsky's book. Kuspit states that despite the fact that Kandinsky's book which was published 1912 we ought to be reconsidered is not for historical purposes, or because it was a text that was hugely influential on 20th century art, but because it address the problem of how to generate and articulate what Kandinsky called "the all-important spark of inner life," or as he also called it " . . . of innercessity." Kuspit feels that addressing this spark of inner life is something we in the present must address as well and this binds us to Kandinsky's struggle. The spark of inner life to Kandinsky was the inner core of spiritual experience. Kuspit recognizes that in Kandinsky's time "what was meant by spiritual was self evident to his audience." This is not the case anymore. Kandinsky and his audience both had there conceptions of the spiritual "anchored in religious tradition" but today there is no religious tradition to sustain a common conception of the spiritual. Kuspit states that "when Kandinsky described how he came to the idea of the spiritual in art - when he said he realized that 'the sensations of color on the palette' could be 'spiritual experiences,' and that's right out of Hegel." (Kuspit)
The spark of inner life could be experienced in churches according to Kandinsky and he wanted to capture this religious experience, which was common whether you were in a Russian Orthodox or a Catholic Church as he said. He wanted to merge artistic and religious experience. Kuspit states that "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." For Kandinsky work had to be seen through "spiritual eyes" which were eyes that could intuit innernecessity and did not get caught on the surface, seeing only the physical material or outer necessity. He spoke of his tendency toward the hidden, the concealed, and what he meant by it was his ability to see the spiritual concealed in the material, or in other words, the emotional reality behind the material appearances of the world. Kandinsky wrote "I want people to see finally what lies behind my painting."
This duel nature of inner and outer necessity in Kandinsky is by no means original to him and in my opinion is a manifestation of mind-body dualism. From here we will go back in time to Schelling.
To begin, I feel Schelling offers a great interpretation of the visual arts:
For plastic art, according to the most ancient definition, is wordless poetry. Without doubt, the author of this statement meant to imply that, like those spiritual thoughts, it should express ideas whose source is the soul, not, however, by means of speech, but, like silent nature, by configuration, by form, by sensuous works which are independent of it. Plastic art, therefore, manifestly occupies the position of an active link between the soul and nature, and can only be comprehended in the living centre between the two of them." (Schelling, 324)
This definition applies well in past times but seems dated in our far more secular age. The link between the soul and nature which the plastic arts occupy brings into question the commonly held principle that art should imitate nature. Schelling feels that this principle is too vague (Schelling, 325), and many artist who try to imitate the whole of nature fail to "achieve a conception of what nature's essence is. (Schelling 324)" Schelling states that "there are almost as many notions of it [nature] as there are different modes of living. (Schelling, 325)" I think it is important to keep in mind Schelling's era and remember that he is revolting against neoclassicism. There is no explicit evidence of this but I think that it is a sound contextualization of Schelling's standpoint. It is also important to recognize that the values of neoclassicism were so institutionalized that not only one's formal education in the academy was influence by it but architecture and sculpture which served political purposes (such as Washington DC and many capitals across the United States) all adhered to neoclassical principles. This is not explicit in Schelling because the problem is addressed through criticism of antiquity itself which neoclassicism claimed to get it's values and cannons of beauty from. He states that:
To them, nature was not merely a dumb, but an absolutely dead image, to which even inwardly no living word was innate: an empty scaffolding of forms of which an equally empty image was to be transferred to the canvas or hewn in stone. This was the right theory for those ancient, crude peoples who, since they saw nothing divine in nature, brought forth idols out of it; while to the perceptive Hellenes, who everywhere felt traces of a vitality operative essence, true gods emerged from nature. (Schelling, 325)
The last line about the perceptive Hellenes counters could be used as a counter argument to my statement that he is going against neoclassicism, except for the fact that he could be making an exception for the art of the Hellenistic period, and on the whole his views on art, as you will see in the conclusion of this paper don't support the neoclassical appropriation of Hellenistic art.
He continues that artist do not simply imitate the perfection of nature, which is a common notion in the idealized forms of art derived from classicism, but the imperfections of nature as well. Then he asks "But what is each thing's perfection? Nothing else than the creative life within it, its power to exist." He then continues, "If we do not look at things in terms of their inner essence, but only in terms of their empty, abstracted form, they in their turn say nothing to our inner being; we must set our own minds, our own spirits in operation before they will answer us."
I believe there is a direct parallel between Kandinsky's spark of inner life and Schelling's inner essence, as well as Kandinsky's spiritual eyes and Schelling's statement at the conclusion of the previous paragraph. I believe that it is safe to say they are talking about the same category of experience one has while looking at art. I will illustrate Schelling's entire system eventually but before doing so I want to first address some of the issues addressed by Kuspit which answers we can find guidance towards in Schelling's system.
Kuspit feels that another reason for reconsidering Kandinsky is the necessity of re-affirming the spiritual in art and awakening from "the nightmare of the materialistic attitude in art as well as society." He states that materialism has become a plague in both. To Kandinsky impressionism to materialism's climactic statement in art, but as Kuspit says, he did not have to see Pop art (Kandinsky). I think this is interesting because one may assume that Kandinsky would identify with impressionism, appearing as a derivative and sharing a common appreciation for liberated color. What I think this shows is that Kandinsky may see the representation of material reality as materialism itself. I think that this is a failure and generalization on his part to recognize the true relationship between inner essence and material reality. Schelling in his own time, does not make this mistake as as stated above this will all come to light when Schelling's system is illustrated.
The following passage has stuck with me because it calls out the failure of our contemporary culture in a very important way:
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 alternative—spiritual people are supposed to be naïve—and 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. (Kuspit)
In this passage I think that Kuspit clearly illustrates the necessity of sincerity in art if it is ever to go beyond materialism. On top of this there is also the issue of being a consumer culture. Since the corporate sponsorship of art, without corporate legitimation of art's significance, without commercial value, art in our culture has no historical or cultural value as well. Business materialism treats art as a commodity before anything else, and this is normal enough except for the fact that it has become a work of art's primary identity and its market place value is its primary value. Kuspit states that "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."
Marketing materialism has given art more visibility and prestige in our contemporary culture than when it had in the past when it served religion and aristocracy, and this may be seen as a positive but:
. . . 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 . . . Corporate headquarters are not churches, even though their decoration with works of art are attempts to give them spiritual significance. (Kuspit)
Another conflict we must also take into account is the fact that materialism does not stop at simply the value of art in our culture and the institutions which endorse art, but also the fact that material itself has become so emphasized that there is no possibility of looking at any inner spiritual essence. Kuspit feels that the art critic Clement Greenberg's theory of modernist painting is the final intellectual stage of the despiritualization of art, in which it is reduced to nothing but material medium. Kuspit states that "Such materialistic reductionism, involving the complete objectification of art—it 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." It is amazing how the simple distinction of whether the inherent feeling of a painting is in the medium, or whether it is in the inner essence which the medium captures, ultimately leads to dramatically different ideas about not only the process in which art is made, but of its worth to us as viewers. If we believe that it is all just a arrangement of materials it has no deeper impact on us than that. If we believe that a work of art penetrates down further into the spiritual, we believe that it is penetrating something greater, something which includes us, and in Schelling flows throughout all of nature. Sadly this notion of art as being the arrangement of material has set a limitation to how far people believe they can push art, and to what degree they can experience it (this too is addressed by Schelling).
The following passage is a question which is posed by Kuspit in light of all this, which I believe Schelling offers the answer to:
Question, are there works of art that are made today that do not walk on the crutches of avant-garde habit, that do not have the tone of avant-garde convention, that one can return to again and again as a resource of inner life? How many works of art made today require a second glance? There are no doubt works that seem emotionally powerful, and even deep, but rarely does one find a work in which the emotion and the medium seem one and the same. (Kuspit)
Instead of the term material Schelling uses the word form and in Schelling form is the exterior of an object. Lets begin by returning to art as an imitation of nature. Schelling states that if an artist were to simply copy nature he would get nothing more than a mask, but not works of art. (This is still an issue people have with much contemporary art where facility at rendering takes the place of quality in people's judgments.) For Schelling the purpose is not to simply capture the form of nature but its inner essence. He states that "the artist ought indeed to emulate this spirit of nature, which is at work in the core of things and in whose speech form and shape are merely symbols, and only insofar as he has apprehended it in living imitation has he himself created something true." He continues that the so-called idealization of nature seems to spring up from a manner of reasoning in which it is not truth, beauty, and goodness, but the opposite of these that that are real. He continues that if the real were the opposite of truth than the artist would not have to idealize it but destroy it in order to create something good and beautiful. It took a moment for me to come to grasp what Schelling means by this but I interpret it as saying that the real is what exist in nature, and truth is the idealized form, than we would have to destroy and replace with our idealized forms what exist in the world to get what is true. This seems to me to reflect modernist architecture in which theories of maximum efficiency dominate over aesthetics and the necessity for a city to grow organically. He continues by stating "how could anything except truth be real, and what is beauty if it is not full and complete existence? Accordingly, what higher purpose could art have either than to depict that which exist in nature and in fact? Or how could it set itself the task of surpassing so-called real nature, since it would be bound always to lag behind the latter? For does it impart sensually real life to its works? (Schelling. 332)" In short I take Schelling to be saying that art which is idealized nature, is not above nature.
He continues that works of art appear endowed with life only on the surface but in nature life penetrates deeper and is entirely blended with substance (Schelling, 333). In other words nature in nature form and essence are the same. An expression I've heard that captures this is function before form. So respond to Kuspit's statement that rarely emotion and medium rarely are one in the same, in nature the two are always the same. The following further illustrates this point and is one of the main factors in Schelling's aesthetics:
In any case, if form were necessarily restrictive to essence it would exist independently of it. But if it exists with and through essence, how could the latter feel restricted by that which it creates itself? Violence might certainly be done to essence by form which was imposed upon it, but never by that which flows out of itself. It is bound rather to rest satisfied in the latter and feel its existence to be autonomous and self enclosed. Definiteness of form in nature is never a negation but always an affirmation. Generally, of course, you think of a body's shape as a restriction which it undergoes; if, however, you were to turn your attention to creative energy, it would strike you as the bounds which this latter sets itself and within which it appears as a truly meaningful force. (Schelling, 334)
Because form and essence are in nature in harmony, in art this must be duplicated. He states that beauty is distributed evenly throughout nature and art cannot begin at as deep a level as nature so it must capture a part of nature in which beauty is manifested and evolved. Schelling states that art demands a certain fullness of beauty, not a single note, or even a chord, but the whole choral melody of beauty, and he sees the human body as the highest manifestation of this (Schelling 335-336). I initially disagreed. I thought well this is subjective and other individuals such as Kandinsky see the inner essence, or the spiritual as being at it's greatest manifestation when freed from representational form (not to be confused liberated from in it's totality which would reduce Kandinsky to the materialism he is at odds with). This brought to my attention the fact that the spiritual in Kandinsky is not rooted in nature as strictly as it is in Schelling. Kandinsky paints universals, as opposed to instances of form. I do not see them as in any opposition but as seeking the spiritual essence of life in varying degrees. Then again Kandinsky was opposed to the impressionist (calling them materialistic when I see at least Money, and a few of the others as capturing the harmony between form and essence which Schelling describes in an incredibly powerful and moving way) and I seriously doubt Schelling, if he was alive to see Kandinsky's work, would appreciate it. It is a privileged position I have to unite them together under the same goal of finding the spiritual in art. Out of this comes a new understanding of nature and spirituality which takes precedence over abstraction and representation bringing them together under the same principle.
Schelling's view of the human figure as the most highly evolved manifestation of natural beauty seems also to be anthropocentric, but if taken down a notch it makes a lot of sense. We humans are what is most intelligible to one another. We know each other more than any other animal. So the human figure is a great starting place in learning to express the inner essence of nature because it is the most clearly expressive. I know this from experience as an artist and recognize that the figure can be a doorway into understanding gesture, form, grace, struggle, and beauty in itself, which can then taken in as universals, which can then be applied to other objects. This is not a rule by any means, but generally true enough to where I think it is a good argument for the necessity of drawing the human figure in one's education of art. And the way it lends itself to those universals even directly connects it with abstraction. So again, Schelling and Kandinsky are not so far apart.
The way in which Schelling feels beauty is achieved is stated in the following:
The outward face or basis of all beauty is beauty of form. But since form cannot exist without essence, the presence of character as well can be seen or felt wherever there is form. hence, characteristic beauty is beauty in its roots, from which alone beauty as fruit can subsequently come into being; essence certainly outgrows form, but even so the characteristic still remains the ever effective fundament of the beautiful.
The most noble man of knowledge . . . likens the characteristic in its relation to beauty to the skeleton in relation to the living figure. (Schelling, 338)
So it is through form that we get character and character leads us to beauty. My way of understanding this is to think to myself, beauty runs through all of nature as he said, and so the characteristic of natures individual forms is an extension of that beauty, but since we experience the plastic arts as form, this characteristic is our foundation to which we connect with the universal that is beauty. Ultimately the character of form is the bridge between man and beauty.
There is a lot more to be said about Schelling's aesthetics, but for this purpose of this paper I believe that this is a good stopping point.
Kuspit concludes his lecture with the following:
I am suggesting that the future for a spiritual art looks bleak—although there are spiritual artists working today, I believe, truly spiritual work. But then again, as Kandinsky and Marc demonstrate, only a few artists are needed to affirm its possibility, and it was never meant for more than the happy few, despite Kandinsky's utopian, not to say delusional, belief that it would lead everybody out of the materialistic wilderness. The question today is where are the few artists who are ready and willing to reaffirm the spiritual, and, more crucially, who can convince us that their art does so—that it is a beacon of transcendence in dark materialistic times. How is an artist to keep alive the idea of transcendence in a world in which it has become trivial, passé, incomprehensible? Kandinsky had a messianic complex, behind which lurked a martyr complex—and this is quite demonstrable—but neither is any guarantee of transcendence today. It is a difficult task to think of transcendence, let alone assume the reality of mystical experience, in a world that seems to have usurped and manipulated our subjectivity and whose deterministic hold on our lives seems more complete than ever. It is a world in which it is hard to gain a critical distance from the determinisms which shape our existence—to take a critical stand against the external forces that seem to determine even our inner lives. Every critical analysis of some determinism, personal or social—every effort to transcend it by analyzing its structure and effect, for such analysis affords transcendence when it is made out of internal necessity not simply out of intellectual curiosity, as Spinoza argued—quickly becomes another deterministic theory. I think it is more difficult than ever to be a spiritual artist, but in my opinion, it is the only kind of heroic artist that makes sense in threatening modern times, as Kandinsky makes clear. (Kuspit)
I believe that this lengthy passage is most important and illustrates just where we are today. Schelling states that "a different inspiration falls to the lot of different epochs" and "to try to draw sparks from burnt-out ashes and kindle from them a universal blaze is a vain endeavor. (356)" This is what the art world is now, burnt-out ashes, and Kuspit which the above passage clearly illustrates, I believe would agree. So where can we go from here?
Although I do not, and few do if any, understand Schelling enough to say I am fully confident or even full agree with him, I have gathered enough to think that his relationship between inner essence and the universal beauty and spirit in nature, and it's relationship to form is a good place to start. We must rid ourselves of our categories which limit our interpretation of objects to not cannons of beauty but cannons of purpose which are equally as harming. The expression function before form comes to mind and by recognizing the function that comes before the common forms throughout nature we can re-connect with what Schelling is talking about. There are common features throughout all of humanity and all of nature and by recognizing these universals we are recognizing a piece of the larger essence of nature and if this can be recognized and captured in art we are making great progress in capturing and expressing the essence of life itself.
In conclusion, on a personal note, my father always told me when I make a mark to always be expressive, and descriptive. This I believe is the full embodiment of what Schelling is talking about. Things are beautiful and aesthetically what they are out of their inner necessity to survive. Beauty is not arbitrary. Aesthetics come out of manifestations and evolutions of nature. So when my father gave me this advice I took it as something essential to making good drawings, now I realize it is essential to understanding the whole of natures construction. So earlier today when I was in the studio drawing the model I tried to keep Schelling in mind. I thought of the beauty and grace of the mark to not just be the form of her arm but the essence of her being. At that moment my heart stirred with weight and my insides felt like they were burning in the most enjoyable way. I realize that this feeling is the inspiration which has always been there alongside me pushing me forward. It has always been the sensitivity which allows me to grow as an artist, before by accident, and now with the help of Schelling, Kuspit, and Kandinsky, by my will. An art teacher of mine years ago told me I was dipping little by little into the universal, and now I know what he means.
Reconsidering the Spiritual in Art, Donald Kuspit". Blackbird Archive: an online journal of literature and arts.
Schelling. "Concerning the Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature." The True Voice of Feeling. Patheon Books.
New York: 1953. 323-364.
I'd like to add that in addition to this I have realized that the relationship between the object which I try to capture in my art and myself as an artist are a Hegelian one through the art. The object participates in a dialectic with me and the result of that dialectic is the work of art. If done well the form is not just as Schelling states the essence of that object with its form but my essence as well. (The object can be an internal object as well. We are a pluralism of selves so the dialectic can be between the I and the me, the I and it's actions reflecting the me, so to be put simply, we exist often as our own objects and in art can be our own object to engage in a dialectic with.) So when I make a mark, I make a marriage, between myself and my object. We are both bound together. If I paint your portrait when you look at it, you are not simply looking at who you are to me, but in turn who I am to you. This fits well with an earlier construction I made with Pierce's semiotics in which a work of art is a sign for both the object and the subject, and that relationship then becoming through its presentation to an audience an object, which serves as a sign between the artist and the audience. Relationships grow. We are in a fractal of dialectics.
One last addition is the idea of compassion which was discussed earlier in class when covering Schopenhauer. He argues that we are all together in a cosmic struggle and that our rational constructs are an illusion we must get around, and on the other side of that illusion is boundless compassion where we suffer together. I wouldn't limit this to just suffering, and I would say that the bounds of compassion is debatable, but I do believe that this compassion is synonymous with the kind of dialectic stated earlier because it is essential to capturing form and essence. Andrew Wyeth was wise when he stated that he can only paint as far as he can feel.