«Ouvri bayi pou’ moi Ouvri bayi pou’ moi I Must be given words to shape my name To the syllables of trees I must be given words to refashion ...»
Kandinsky in Govan: Art, Spirituality, and the Future
Kandinsky and the Spiritual Task of the Artist Today
Rick Visser‘s Keynote Conference Address
October 22, 2011, Glasgow, Scotland
Rick Visser has kindly allowed it to be posted in the form of this PDF to the
conference website but he retains copyright. Any further significant
reproduction beyond teaching, scholarly or personal use should first be
cleared with him. Rick followed on from presentations by the Chief Medical
Officer for Scotland and Edinburgh University’s Professor Christina Lodder and was followed by Tom Block, the Rev Dr Georgii Zevershinsky, Mark O’Neill and Helen Kyle. He brought the first half of the day to a close in a way that many found profoundly moving - both from the intellectual content and his depth of presence.
Ouvri bayi pou’ moi Ouvri bayi pou’ moi I Must be given words to shape my name To the syllables of trees I must be given words to refashion futures like a healer‘s hand I must be given words so that the bees In my blood‘s buzzing brain of memory will make flowers, will make flocks of birds, will make sky, will make heaven, the heaven open to the thunder-stone and the volcano and the unfolding land.
Att Att Attibon Attibon Legba Attibon Legba Ouvri bayi pou’ moi Ouvri bayi pou’ moi... 1 Good morning everyone! What I just read was an excerpt from Caribbean poet Kamau Braithwaite‘s beautiful poem, Negus. It is a kind of incantation that the gate of communication may be opened between us.
According to Kandinsky, the driving force of the creative process must be what he calls inner necessity. Kandinsky says, ―All means [in painting] are sacred when they are dictated by inner necessity. All means are reprehensible when they do not spring from the fountain of inner necessity.... The artist must be blind to ‗recognized‘ and ‗unrecognized‘ form, deaf to the teachings and desires of his time. His open eyes must be directed to his inner life and his ears must be constantly attuned to the voice of inner necessity.‖2 One of Kandinsky‘s major contributions was to make it clear that theory must always follow practice, a view that seems completely reversed in today‘s art world. The starting point, reference point and ground of our work, should not be theory but inner necessity, the groundless resonance of the soul. Works deriving from ideas are not works of art in the way Kandinsky understood art. What he was after was something that operates at a deeper more direct level. ―Any theoretical scheme, says Kandinsky, will be lacking in the essential of creation—inner need for expression—which cannot be determined.
Neither the quality of the inner need, nor its subjective form, can be measured or weighed.‖3 Though artists working from inner necessity may be inspired by spiritual, religious, and philosophical ideas, in their actual work they must cast all these away. The right hand must not know what the left hand is doing.
Kandinsky says that pure painting will affect the soul by its own original means of expression, by means of paint, color, form, the distribution of lines and planes, and their interrelations, in and of themselves.‖4 For Kandinsky, this was not a rejection of the material world, as is often thought, but its spiritual, sacred fulfillment, expressing the inner depth of the material plane in terms of its direct resonance with the soul and expressing that sacred resonance in paint, in color, in line, in form.
I will come back to this in my discussion of fundamental imagination but first I want to speak to the issue of what spirituality actually is, or perhaps what it is not, because many artists (and many others) shut the window and pull down the shade when the word spirituality is mentioned.
The American poet Mary Oliver has a perfectly beautiful prose poem that reflects this.
The poem is called, The Word, and it begins like this: ―How wonderful! I speak of the soul and seven people rise from their chairs and leave the room, seven others lean forward to listen. I speak of the body, the spirit, the mockingbird, and the hollyhock, leaves opening in the rain, music, faith, angels seen at dusk--and seven more people leave the room and are seen running down the road. Seven more stay where they are but make murmurous disruptive sounds. Another seven hang their heads, feigning disinterest though their hearts are open, their hope is high that they will hear the word even again.‖5 Art critic and historian Donald Kuspit points out that it‘s not clear what Kandinsky meant by spiritual experience, ―that he never exactly defines it, beyond associating it with religion, and declaring it to be at the center of inner life.‖6 As he notes, too, part of the difficulty lies in the word spiritual itself. Over time, it has become a bit wooly and now carries an immense amount of baggage, often leading to confusion, apprehension, and misunderstanding. Many who would like to use the term are frightened off by the wide and sometimes bizarre range of claims and experiences associated with it. But Simone Weil—philosopher, radical visionary, and religious mystic—reminds us that ―the word spirituality doesn‘t imply any particular religious affiliation, or any affiliation at all,‖ and she reminds us that ―it must not be attached to any cause or movement, nor even to a regime, nor to a nation.‖7 In his important book on art and spirituality, True Perception,8 Tibetan meditation master, scholar, and artist, Chögyam Trungpa, makes a similar point. He says, ―Some people look at a painting and think it looks sacred and holy because it invites the sanity of a particular religious tradition. They immediately label it as deriving from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. But in fact, they regard the artist as having been indoctrinated into a certain faith and therefore able to produce a work of art in accordance with his commitment.‖ He goes on to say that this ―way of labeling works of art sacred is sacrilegious. It narrows it too much, cutting out the whole aspect of human dignity.... We are trying to go beyond that narrow sense of sacredness. A work of art is created because there is basic sacredness, independent of the artist‘s particular religious faith or trust.‖9 This basic sacredness precedes the secular/religious split. It is the groundless ground of both.
Though we may never know for certain what Kandinsky meant by spiritual experience, Keiji Nishitani‘s concept of fundamental imagination speaks powerfully to the level and character of experience we have come to associate with Kandinsky. Nishitani lived from 1900 to1990 and was widely regarded as the most authoritative representative of the Kyoto School of Philosophy,10 and is best known for his important book, Religion and Nothingness.11 Kyoto University professor, Keta Masako, notes that in Nishitani‘s view, art is an undertaking ―for expressing an event at the root point where fact is given and comes into existence,‖12 which means that such art possesses ―a fundamental tendency to get in touch with the original nature of ‗phenomena.‘‖13 One commentator, Hase Shōtō, describes this as ―a knowledge that has been opened up from within,‖14 one that involves the production of primal images from the ground where both self and world are opened up in immediacy, the locus of the profound mobility of imagination.15 Fundamental imagination arises either out of lengthy preparation in openness, patience, and quiet contemplation, or suddenly, ―out of the blue,‖ often experienced with undeniable and compelling force. Fundamental imagination is experienced as a gift and is received as a gift. It has the quality of grace and cannot be seized. Fundamental imagination is the expressive vitality of a quiet, open, receptive, empty, mind. Inner necessity, said Kandinsky, ―calls forth a longing, an inner compulsion.‖16 In all of this, the artist‘s only standpoint can be that of immediacy, what Nishitani refers to as ―the locus of absolute emptiness.‖ According to Nishitani, ―true emptiness is nothing less than what reaches awareness in all of us as our own absolute self-nature....
It is an absolute openness.‖17 Though it has been almost universally disregarded, it is important to note that Kandinsky said that an artist must not only train his eye but also his or her soul. This is not a small point, and I will argue here that it is extremely important, particularly in today‘s world, where the soul of art, and the soul of the artist, are both highly contested. Donald Kuspit‘s view is that ―Kandinsky‘s improvisations are in effect spiritual exercises... in the sense in which Loyola used the term, that is, artistic exercises meant to generate a sense of personal freedom and transcendence.‖18 This is very suggestive and is in line with the thought of another Tibetan meditation master and artist, Kongtrul Jigme Namgyal who also sees art as a spiritual practice. He says that working with the natural state of mind, transcending grasping and rejection, entrenched and ingrained habits, and insecurities of all kinds, takes tremendous bravery and tremendous confidence in one‘s own inherent sanity—a sense of freedom, nonconceptual awareness, and fearlessness beyond judgments—qualities that lend themselves not only to personal freedom and transcendence but also to greater sanity in this very troubled world.
When done in this spirit, he says, paintings become blessings of what one has moved through: ego, fear, uncertainty, and insecurity. The spiritual process is (1) the moving through ego contrivances of all sorts, (2) trusting in creative mind, and (3) offering this to the world.19 And offering something to the world has a somewhat different tone than ―getting a one-man show.‖ Antoine Saint Exupery, author of The Little Prince, said that one sees clearly only with the heart and that what is essential is invisible to the eye. And if he is right, if that is true, then there is reason to consider abstraction as a powerful tool for exploring what is seen with the heart and not with the eye.
Clearly, there are many ways of approaching art and spirituality. But among all the various approaches,
expressionism as Kandinsky understood it, with its essential formlessness and freedom, may hold within it a most powerful way of attending these concerns. Could Abstract Expressionism be both a powerful art form that speaks to the needs of our time as an art form, and at the same time, act as a powerful spiritual discipline capable of awakening all who practice it and all those who view it with a fresh mind and open soul?
Perhaps abstract expressionism has not yet fulfilled its destiny. Perhaps today it can offer even more than it did at its cultural peak because it can now find its true role unencumbered by avant-garde pretentions, market pressures, and exaggerated and unhealthy demands for constant innovation. Rather than the near frenetic search for the new that drives so much contemporary art, perhaps the artist‘s focus should be on opening the soul—the new may take care of itself.
Abstract art can be a laboratory for the refinement and growth of the soul. It can be a spring to contemplation, a mode of apprehending and engaging reality at its deepest levels, and a portal to novel aesthetic experience opening up deep layers of feeling and meaning, often unnamable. In essence, its content is indeterminate, non-describable, and inexhaustible—just as we are.
To say that Abstract Expressionism has exhausted itself is wrong, at least in the way Kandinsky meant it. What has exhausted itself is the spiritual capacity of its would-be practitioners who became unmoored from its spiritual inspiration and from its central law: inner necessity. Its formlessness and freedom must always be subservient to inner necessity. In this sense, its freedom is not the freedom of the ego, the small self, to splash around and express itself in a kind of colorful, slap-dash, loosely organized, soap opera of surface urges and emotions. It is not self-expression at all. It is much more serious than that. It is a powerful vehicle for touching, engaging, and giving expression to the awakened state of mind, the fountainhead of inner necessity.
Whenever an artist works from this level of experience—groundless, indeterminate, and inexhaustible—the question of what is real may get severely rattled, partly because of the nature of the work (that it is without reference point), partly because of its relation to the larger world, and partly because the small self is wondering what is going on and where it stands in a process that seems to be unseating it. In Kandinsky‘s introduction to Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he speaks about the perception of reality in the age in which he found himself. ―Our minds,‖ he says, ―which are even now only just awakening after years of materialism, are infected with the despair of unbelief, of lack of purpose and ideal. The nightmare of materialism, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip. Only a feeble light glimmers like a tiny star in a vast gulf of darkness. This feeble light is but a presentiment, and the soul, when it sees it, trembles in doubt whether the light is not a dream, and the gulf of darkness reality.‖20 As artists, we must, in the midst of doubt and ambiguity, sense this tiny star as the reality it is, and then give expression to it in significant form. While the dominant tendency, both in ourselves and in those around us, will be to ignore it, to treat it as an illusion, or to pass it by as one might pass by a bird in a tree, oblivious to its song. And when we persist in this practice, we discover that the tiny star is actually an exceptionally bright light, and we will move toward it without fear or hesitation, seeing it as Nishitani says, as ―the opening of the horizon of eternity in the home-ground of the present.‖21 Not surprisingly, such work will place demands on its audience, too, for not everyone will be immediately capable of entering into its spiritual atmosphere. Kandinsky said that there are many people who are incapable of seeing the spirit even when incorporated in a spiritual form.‖22 Such seeing may require a special kind of attention. Simone Weil characterized this kind of attention as the suspension of thought, "leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object."23 She said that this kind of attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. And generosity is the virtue that produces peace.