“In a conversation with an interesting person, we endeavour to get at his fundamental ideas and feelings. We do not bother about the words he uses, nor the spelling of those words, nor the breath necessary for speaking them, nor the movement of his tongue and lips…”1
In this post and the next we shall take a pause from Gadamer and take a tangential aesthetic interlude.
In Part II of Concerning The Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinsky discussed a pre-occupation with interpretation, that sought to discover the ‘meaning’ of a painting. Against this pre-occupation he hoped that future artists might be allowed the freedom to paint without such a burden:
“The spectator is too ready to look for a meaning in a picture… 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. Instead of allowing the inner value of the picture to work, he worries himself in looking for ‘closeness to nature,’ or ‘temperament,’ or ‘handling,’ or ‘tonality,’ or ‘perspective, or what not…”2
Kandinsky’s point being that one should learn to stand beside the work of art and allow a flow to emanate from it rather than trying to contain the painting within a previously learnt system of concepts and theoretical constructs. Of course, there is our ever-present ethical lesson to be gained when thinking about how we regard, and react to, works of art because there is a parallel to be seen in terms of how we regard, and relate to, each other. As if to highlight that parallel, Kandinsky shone a light, but from the other direction than the one we usually take. His flow was from others to art as opposed to ours that flows from art to others.
“In a conversation with an interesting person, we endeavour to get at his fundamental ideas and feelings. We do not bother about the words he uses, nor the spelling of those words, nor the breath necessary for speaking them, nor the movement 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 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.”3
Now, if we were speaking in logical terms it could be levied against me that my use of Kandinsky leads to a circularity of argument. To explain; if I use our relation with others to prove how we should be with art, which, in turn, I then use to prove how we should be with others, my argument would be circular and therefore illogical. However, logic be damned, because what is at stake here is not logical proof but that there exists similarities and lessons that can be absorbed from one set of circumstances to another. Our experiences with art can inform, rather than prove, our experiences with each other and vice-versa. As always, I am not looking for proof, but for clues. There is a marked difference to be aware of here and one that will persist throughout our time together, because ethics is not a science. However, neither is it an art. It is an endeavour. But we shall say more of this much, much, later. For now, we must get back to Wassily.
Whether Kandinsky was looking forward to the kind of abstraction and pure artistic language found in the mature work of artists like Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still is something we could speculate upon. Instead, though, Kandinsky’s importance at this particular moment is determined by the focus he brought to the mode of spectatorship, because he asks us to reassess how we look at and encounter our world. In so doing, Kandinsky places under question, within an aesthetic context, the hegemony of rational enquiry: a radical and innovative manoeuvre.
Susan Sontag, in Against Interpretation, takes a no-nonsense approach to this hegemony: “In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.”4 By saying so, Sontag begins to indicate where her allegiances lie, and then she goes for the throat:
“Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”5
The point, made extreme in this case, being the neutering effect that interpretation can have upon its subject, the ever-silent work of art. Beware the false voice of the ventriloquist. Any potential that a work might possess is covered over just as if it were swiftly and surgically removed, by the intellectual cut and thrust of interpretation, to leave a docile and ineffectual shell. Hence, Sontag refers to interpretation as the taming of art: “By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”6 In addition, such ‘taming’ can be seen as demonstrating and touching upon potential issues of fear within the spectator: fear that the work might unsettle the balance of power that they have achieved in their life and overturn their safe, comfortable existence.
Jeanette Winterson, in her essay on Gertrude Stein in Art Objects, exposes this issue by presenting a thought experiment in which a writer tries to create something genuinely meaningful, and not just bland and repetitive:
“Suppose there was a writer who looked despairingly at her readers and who thought: ‘They are suspicious, they are conservative. They long for new experiences and deep emotions and yet fear both. They only feel comfortable with what they know and they believe that art is the mirror of life; someone else’s or their own. How to smuggle into their homes what they would normally kill at the gate?”7
How does an artist get past this ‘conservative’ fear and demand for art to be subservient? How does one re-enchant the world of the child who, in a Kandinskian allegory, learns and acquires knowledge about the fire that once captivated his imagination? Perhaps, the answer to both these questions lies latent within art such as Rothko’s and Still’s because they seem to submit to no intellectual interpretation and yet hold our gaze as we stare in to their worlds? Briony Fer, in her discussion of Jackson Pollock helps show the way:
“What Pollock makes visible in ‘Out of the Web’ is the spectator’s failure to master the visual field. We can wish it were different by attempting to restore a subject matter to the picture, or by maintaining an ideal viewing position, or even by focussing instead on the ideological cargo of cold War-mongering that came to be identified with Abstract Expressionism; but these are just so many compensations for the damage done, not only to the surface of the painting itself, but also the spectator’s field of vision.”8
Although, discussing ‘the cut’ of this work by Pollock, Fer’s words on the spectator do resonate with the classic work of Pollock and his chums, Rothko and Still. In these works, the spectator has their ‘mastery’ taken away and hopefully something other than their post-primitive intellect engaged. Maybe it is their imagination? Maybe it is their feelings or deep emotions? The point is that their way of seeing has been confronted and their ‘mastery’ questioned in order that something other might be presented before them. The content of this other, of course, in order to preserve its power over the spectator, must remain unspecified. There has to be a forever unknowable dimension to the work if the spectator’s ‘mastery’ is to be removed. However, the stability of this requirement is fragile, due to the nature of that which we use to attempt ‘mastery’ constantly seeking to regain control of the situation. Our ever-restless minds chew, churn and chomp in desperate attempts to wrestle understanding from the paint and canvas before us. It can feel like a test that we must persevere at or risk walking away empty-handed in a gloom of despondency at our lack of intelligence. But this chewing, churning and chomping is wrong. We do not approach a car with a knife and fork trying to decide where best to take our first slice and neither should we approach a work of art trying to carve it up into bite sized portions for our meagre intellects to digest. Instead, we are being asked to do something else by the classic works of Pollock et al.
It seems that in order to enable the possibility of new experiences in the spectator one must be an artist of the subversive and conjure manifestations that resist intellectual categories. The point being that if something can be categorised and explained than it becomes dead and no longer capable of rendering new experiences to anyone. This is the terrible curse of the mind, as Kandinsky’s ‘grown-up’ child makes clear. Mystery and the unknown are chased and harried into the far corners of existence, as the light of enlightenment emblazons upon the world massacring the shadows of the nameless. Wonder is eradicated and replaced with certainty and confidence.
Thinking back to Gadamer and his regard for the importance of play, in that it is representative of experience as something undergone. We can see the contrast with certainty and confidence being representatives of experience as something one has; a distinctly lesser form of experience in his eyes. One needs to play with art and not stand before it processing it in such a way that one can later say ‘Yah, I absolutely get Rothko. His sublime rectangles of fuzziness, nesting one on top of another, remind me of a shop window display of Burlington socks… all those colours, yah.’ Gadamer, please save us from pontificating, witless, imbeciles who will insist in placing works, such as Rothko’s or Pollock’s, within their own tiny worldview. Art is there to open doors, not to have them slammed in its face.
Perhaps, though, we should go back to Winterson for assistance because she has got a point regarding smuggling. Sometimes, if one is going to create a work of art that is going to afford a future spectator the opportunity of play, it has to be smuggled past the gate and the machine-gun turrets set to kill. The problem is that a lot of people just can’t entertain the idea of anything too radical because we are scared. Consequently, we want to stick to the safe comfort zones we have constructed for ourselves, reading straight-forward genres of fiction, listening to tried and tested classics and pausing in front of representational art when mooching around galleries. As Winterson describes “we can feel safe with facts. You can introduce a fact to your mother and you can go out at night with a proven fact on your arm.”9 The implication being that you daren’t introduce you mother to Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange: far too risky. “Bring on the Trojan Horse,”10 is Winterson’s rallying war cry, and this is exactly what she discovered in Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which deliberately obscured the boundaries between fiction and reality due to Stein making “all the people around her into characters in her fiction.”11
By daring to blur the factual lines between fiction, biography and autobiography, Stein smuggled with stealth and ingenuity, only revealing what she had done in the very last paragraph. (You’ll have to read it yourself). Suffice to say, that for Winterson, “the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is an act of terrorism against worn-out assumptions of what literature is and what form its forms can take.”12 Crucially, what Winterson found, in Stein’s black leather glove slap to the face of Literature, was that the form of the art mattered most. Alter the form and you’ll confront people, upsetting the narrow-minded and enriching the open-minded. The hope being, of course, that the art will find the open-minded ones and give them something that they never had before: new experiences, feelings and thoughts. As Winterson said, “The riskiness of art, the reason why it affects us, is not the riskiness of its subject matter, it is the risk of creating a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking.”13 However, new ways of thinking don’t come cheap, and there is often a cost to be borne, normally by the artist who gets misunderstood, ignored, or branded a charlatan. Sometimes, though, the cost is borne by the spectator or reader who realises the importance of what they have just witnessed, encountered or read. This is a worthwhile cost, though, because it helps them alter, broaden and shift their way of thinking, seeing or being and in doing so, one hopes, they become wiser for it.
As ever, there is the transferable lesson that can be applied to ethics if we can only learn from these thoughts upon art and our engagement with it, because why shouldn’t an encounter with another human offer just such the same possibilities for personal growth?
Perhaps, though, the last words should be Winterson’s because in them she shows how far the possibilities of opening up could go: “When we let ourselves respond to poetry, to music, to pictures, we are clearing a space where new stories can root, in effect we are clearing a space for new stories about ourselves.”14
- Kandinsky, W. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Translated by M. T. H. Sadler, Dover Publications, Inc. New York, 1977, 48.
- Sontag, S. Against Interpretation, Vintage, London, 2001, 7.
- Winterson, J. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, Vintage International, New York, 1997, 49-50.
- Fer, B. On Abstract Art, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1997, 97.
- Winterson, J. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, Vintage International, New York, 1997, 49.
- Ibid., 50.
- Ibid., 51.
- Ibid., 50.
- Ibid., 52.
- Ibid., 60.