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. Continue reading