Art as rhetoric

Boris Groys
Particular Cases

In light of recent discussions about art as knowledge production and the ways art should or could be taught, it seems fitting to look back at the early days of modernism. Avant-garde art was not yet taken for granted then, having instead to be legitimized, interpreted, and taught. One influential example of such a strategy of legitimization is Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). The book posits an equivalence between art production, art theory, and art teaching, in order to render art rational and scientific, with the aim of establishing it as an academic discipline. Over the course of his artistic career, Kandinsky made various attempts to give an institutional form to his ideas. Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) both the group and the almanac of the same name — can be seen as the first such attempt. Following his return to Russia from Munich at the outbreak of World War I, and especially throughout the postrevolution years, Kandinsky engaged in extensive institutional activity, teaching as a professor at Vkhutemas (Higher Art and Technical Studios, from 1918), as well as founding and directing the Moscow Institute of Artistic Culture (InKhuK, 1920-1921) and GAKhN (State Academy for the Scientific Study of Art, 1921). During his time at the Bauhaus, from his appointment in 1922 until its closure in 1933, he pursued his analysis of art as a science and academic discipline, as reflected in Point and Line to Plane, a theoretical treatise published by the Bauhaus in 1926.

The rigor and determination with which Kandinsky pursued the academicization of art has often been overlooked due to misunderstandings caused by his choice of words. His use of “the spiritual” is a prominent example, since it implies certain religious themes and attitudes that he did not necessarily share. Rather than “the spiritual,” it would be better to speak here of “the affective.” Kandinsky’s book begins with a distinction between art as the representation of eternal reality and art as a means of conveying emotions and moods. Right at the beginning of the book, Kandinsky claims that the representation of external reality leaves us cold as viewers. He describes a typical exhibition of the time:

Animals in sunlight or shadow, drinking, standing in water, lying on the grass; near to, a Crucifixion by a painter who does not believe in Christ; flowers; human figures sitting, standing, walking; often they are naked; many naked women, seen foreshortened from behind; apples and silver dishes. […] The vulgar herd stroll through the rooms and pronounce the pictures “nice” or “splendid.” Those who could speak have said nothing, those who could hear have heard nothing. This condition of art is called “art for art’s sake.”1

This description clearly shows that what Kandinsky found irritating about naturalist painting was its formalism. When the motif is dictated from outside, all that matters is how it is executed — the formal skill of the artist. Kandinsky opposes this formalist vision of art: only when one has defined what art is can one inquire into the how.

For Kandinsky then, art is a medium for conveying affects. Rather than portraying external facts, art should visualize and transport inner states of mind. Consequently, he makes inner necessity the criterion for evaluating art: a picture is successful if it adequately expresses specific emotions and moods. And if a picture does this, it is of no consequence whether or not it is a faithful rendering of external reality. A picture may be figurative or abstract — what matters is that it uses only those forms and colors needed for the visualization and efficient transmission of certain emotions. The greatest misconception with regard to the notion of inner necessity is that it is often understood in Expressionist terms, as an inner urge compelling the artist to paint this picture and not that one. The most important aspect of the argument is thus overlooked: for Kandinsky, the emotions and moods reside not in the person but in the picture. The ability of the picture to express and transmit certain moods to the viewer has nothing to do with whether or not the artist “actually” experiences the mood in question. Which is why Kandinsky later spoke of inner necessity in more functional terms: it is purely a question of which means an artist considers necessary to infect viewers with a mood, to create an emotion in them. The artist is a specialist in the production and transmission of emotions, not their subject. Looking back, Kandinsky states that “brainwork” needs to “outweigh the intuitive part of creativity” ending, perhaps, with “the total exclusion of ‘inspiration’,” so that future artworks are “created by calculation” alone.2

In this light, it is clear why Kandinsky equated art and art theory: he wanted to develop a visual rhetoric that would be similar to discursive rhetoric. One should not forget that rhetoric was one of the principle academic disciplines. Ever since the early Sophist schools in ancient Greece, there has been an interest in how particular beliefs, views, emotions, and moods can be transmitted to others. This question was(and remains) especially important to lawyers. Before deciding to make a name for himself as a painter, Kandinsky worked as a lawyer. So he knew only too well that the truth of a matter and the way this same truth is communicated are two different things. The communication obeys rules of its own, and it was the rules of art, understood as a visual rhetoric, that Kandinsky sought to reveal through his own art and writing. This task is indeed both artistic and scientific. If an artistic portrayal of affects can be “calculated,” then it can also be taught and learned. All of Kandinsky’s paintings can thus be understood as teaching materials, examples of how visual rhetoric works. This is also the significance of the remarks on the psychological effects of colors and forms that make up the greater part of Concerning the Spiritual in Art. They can be read as prolegomena to the art science of the future, framed as a study of the rules of visual rhetoric.

Like Sophism before it, rhetoric has always been viewed with suspicion on account of its ability to serve evil ends. Which is why Kandinsky repeatedly underlined the artist’s ethical duty to make sure his rhetorical forces serve the good. As history was to show, this warning was not unfounded. During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, Alphonse Laurencic, a French artist and architect of Slovenian origin, used the ideas in Concerning the Spiritual in Art to decorate cells at a prison in Barcelona where Francoists captured by the Republicans were held. Each cell looked like an avant-garde art installation. With the compositions of color and form in the cells, Laurencic aimed to cause the prisoners to experience disorientation, depression, and deep sadness. To achieve this, he relied on Kandinsky’s theories of color and form. And prisoners held in these psychotechnic cells really did report extreme negative moods and suffering due to their visual surroundings. One can say, then, that Laurencic had· a better grip on the meaning of Kandinsky’s treatise than many Expressionist-minded artists and art theorists, as he used Kandinsky’s ideas not expressively, but for a purpose — however dubious this purpose may appear in retrospect.

Traditionally, rhetoric has an implacable enemy: the claim to truth. Ever since Plato, it has been asserted that truth has no need of additional rhetoric, being persuasive on the basis of it own immanent evidence. In his first major treatise, Kandinsky claims that the effect of a picture on the viewer does not depend on the artist’s ability to truthfully portray the external world. A picture makes its impact solely thanks to the emotions it produces in the viewer via its composition — i.e., by specific deployment of purely painterly means. Later, Kandinsky was confronted with another, far more radical claim to truth: both the art of the Russian avant-garde (in particular the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich) and geometric abstraction in the West (like that of Piet Mondrian) once more laid claim to pictorial truth. But this time it was not the truth of referentiality, but that of self-referentiality: now, the picture was to explicitly manifest both itself and its medium. Kandinsky’s response was not unlike the strategy he had already developed in Concerning the Spiritual in Art; he wrote Point and Line to Plane as a critique of the new avant-garde dogmatism.

Instead of accepting the geometric constructions of the radical avant-garde as entities that are immediately evident, Kandinsky analyzed their geometric lines and figures as vehicles that transport specific affects. The point, in all of its variations (square, circle, etc.), is thus interpreted not as an elementary self-contained form, but as an element removed from its usual context in writing where it marks a moment of interruption: silence in the middle of speech.3 This meaning remains even when the point is placed on the “basic plane” of the picture. Moreover this independent position of the point, performing an interruption beyond what is usual, is interpreted by Kandinsky as a “useless, revolutionary state of affairs,”4 not a neutralization but a radicalization of the usual function of the point. Kandinsky de facto interprets Malevich’s Black Square (1915) — a black square inside a white square — as a symbol of the ultimate silence: death. The straight line, on the other hand, is interpreted as the manifestation of a specific constant force. Kandinsky writes, “The entire field of straight lines is lyric, a fact which can be explained by the effect of a single force from the outside.”5

Surprising as it may seem at first, this interpretation of strict geometry that negates its claim to self-evidence then permits Kandinsky to speak of jagged and curved lines as “dramatic” because they give the impression of being influenced by a number of different forces. Thanks to this transition from the lyric to the dramatic, the supposedly self-evident geometric construction is subsumed as a special case under the concept of composition. Once again, the principle of inner necessity prevails: rather than contenting himself with geometric forms alone, the artist must use all forms that allow him to express and convey specific constellations of forces and the corresponding affects.

Kandinsky is especially elegant and persuasive in how he undermines the avant-garde’s claim to address the specific media of the individual arts, in particular the medium of painting (a claim that, after World War II, was to extend far beyond these avant-garde beginnings, thanks especially to Clement Greenberg’s championing of the “flatness” of the “modern picture”). But Kandinsky shows that one can only speak meaningfully about the medium of the canvas if this basic plane is understood as infinite, or at least of indeterminate size. The basic plane of any individual painting however only ever has a single finite configuration, a specific form with its own expressive force, being limited by two vertical and two horizontal borders that are “lyric.”6 Moreover, the picture plane may be shaped like a square or dominated more by horizontal and vertical borders. Each of these configurations of the picture plane has a specific mood-generating effect. This critique of the usual concept of the medium, or the mediality of the medium, is indeed a profound and radical one. The medium only becomes the message if the medium is infinite — which it can never be. As something finite, the medium is subject to its respective particular form.

Kandinsky practiced his critique of art’s claim to truth in the name of a visual rhetoric understood as a positive science. This visual rhetoric aimed to study the artistic means that transport specific affects — with the goal of accurately calculating the emotional impact of art. But like discursive rhetoric before it, whose failure led to its demise as an academic discipline, visual rhetoric was not destined to last. Nonetheless, Kandinsky has shown that every artistic form is emotionally charged and thus also manipulative. There is no such thing as pure, autonomous, self-referential, and totally transparent art. For Kandinsky, behind all art there reigns a dark force that manipulates the viewer’s emotions. The role of the artist consists in taking control of this force — which can only be achieved partially. But at least the artist is capable of exploring the workings of this force — and thus focusing attention on it as such. Kandinsky’s visual theory remains just as relevant as it was in his day — however, not as a positive science, but as a critical analysis of art’s claim to truth.


1 Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. M.T.H. Sadler (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1977), 3.
2 Cited in Max Bill, introduction to Wassily Kandinsky, Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Bern: Benteli Verlag, 1952), 10-11 (trans. Nicholas Grindell).
3 Wassily Kandinsky, Point and Line to Plane, trans. Howard Dearstyne and Hilla Rebay (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1979), 25.
4 Ibid., 28.
5 Ibid., 67.
6 Ibid., 129.



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