Monday, July 16, 2012

The Spiritual in Art: Kandinsky, Murdoch, and Abhinavagupta

(Wassily Kandinsky, ‘Arab Cemetery,’ 1909)
At PrawfsBlawg, Marc DeGirolami writes of a small (but ‘charming’) exhibition of works by Wassily Kandinsky at the Guggenheim. You might be wondering: how does one justify such a post at a law blog? Well, Professor DeGirolami informs us that Kandinsky “was a successful lawyer and law professor—he had even been offered a chair in Roman Law at the Universität Dorpat—when he suddenly abandoned the law and applied to art school in Munich.” And how to account for the specific subject of his post? For those who may not know Marc, he is a Catholic law professor and legal theorist who regularly blogs at the Catholic legal theory blog, Mirror of Justice, hence the interest in Kandinsky as an “anti-materialist artist” (which does not mean ‘anti-matter’) and the curiosity regarding Kandinsky’s avowed philosophy of art:

“Among the items in the exhibit are some really neat first editions of his work, Concerning the Spiritual in Artand Painting in Particular, published in 1911. When I got home yesterday afternoon, I found a translation here. Kandinsky had ambitious ideas about the power of art to achieve spiritual illumination—and in some ways to replace traditional religion for future generations. He had some very critical things to say about ‘materialism’ in art, as well as the idea that art was to be enjoyed for its own sake.”

Marc proceeds to quote from Kandinsky’s book by way of offering a taste of his writing, which inspired me to return to the work in toto, an online version of which Marc helpfully provides us.

Herewith my comment to Marc’s post (slightly edited and with additional material):

The passages from Kandinsky’s book (which are merely representative: there are others as well) following the quoted material from Iris Murdoch and the introduction to Abhinvagupta’s rasa theory below reveals how the Russian artist’s “triangle” is borrowed from or relies in essence upon Plato’s well-known (at any rate, at one time) metaphorical allegory of the Agathon and the Cave (and thus its vision of ‘the Good’), including the use of the “divided line” by way of representing levels of knowledge (and experience) and dialectical ascent through processes of imagination, belief, thought, and vision involving corresponding images, objects, models, and archetypes (recalling with Murdoch that Plato’s allegory involves both a dialectical ascent out of the Cave and a descending return to the darkness of the Cave by the person—here, the philosopher, and in Kandinsky’s case the artist—who has attained the vision). The ascent and descent can be formulated as the problem of the “One and the many,” and with Kandinsky it’s rendered as “the working of the inner need and the development of art is an ever-advancing expression of the eternal and objective in the terms of the periodic and subjective.” Of course there’s no little irony in the reliance on Plato, given the Greek philosopher’s spirited critique of the art and artists of his time, nonetheless, as Murdoch has demonstrated, Plato’s understanding of the true purpose and value of art was fairly complex even if rather limited in articulation. And of course, as Murdoch reminds us, Plato “was himself a great artist.” Kandinsky agrees with Plato that “bad” art revels in personal fantasy (in a pejorative if not Freudian sense) at the lowest section of the triangle wherein imagination has yet to be purified through dialectical ascent toward the Good, a process that is in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity, and (yes, true) realism. Murdoch herself makes connection between the “sovereignty of the Good” and art in her seminal essay, “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts” (which should be read as in its early published form together with ‘The Idea of Perfection’ and ‘On “God” and “Good”’). As Murdoch says,

“A great deal of art, perhaps most art, actually is self-consoling fantasy [at times, involving a perverse collaboration between the artist and the spectator], and even great art cannot guarantee the quality of its consumer’s consciousness [i.e., everyone needs to make the ascent toward the Good, not just the artist]. However, great art exists and is sometimes properly experienced and even a shallow experience of what is great can have its effect [e.g., it may inspire us to move in the right direction as it were]. [Good] art…affords us pure delight in what is excellent. Both in its genesis and in the enjoyment it is a thing totally opposed to selfish obsession. It invigorates our best faculties and, to use Platonic language, inspires love [eros] in the highest part of the soul. [….] Art is a human product and virtues as well as talents are required of the artist. The good artist, in relation to his art, is brave, truthful, patient, humble…. [….]

“Art then is not a diversion or a side issue, it is the most educational of all human activities and a place in which the nature of morality can be seen. Art gives a clear sense to many ideas which seem puzzling when we meet them elsewhere, and it is a clue to what happens elsewhere. [….] Good art, unlike bad art, unlike ‘happenings,’ is something pre-eminently outside us and resistant to our consciousness. We surrender ourselves to its authority with a love which is unpossessive and unselfish. Art shows us the only sense in which the permanent and incorruptible is compatible with the transient; and whether representational or not it reveals to us aspects of our world which our ordinary dull dream-consciousness is unable to see. Art pierces the veil and gives sense to the notion of a reality which lies beyond appearance [i.e., Kandinsky’s ‘materialism’]; it exhibits virtue in its true guise in the context of death and chance.”

In Indian aesthetics, and speaking in this instance with regard to the art of poetry, the great Kashmiri Śaiva philosopher Abhinavagupta (c. 950-1015) argued that, properly conceived and executed, a poem’s cognitive content allows our own mental states to be objectively perceived by awakening latent memories, impressions or dispositions. The resulting rasa experience (on ‘rasa’ theory, see Chari’s book) is said to be self-validating (or –certifying) (svatah prāmana, the notion that the validity of a cognitive episode or knowledge is present in the material that creates the object and that the awareness of this validity arises spontaneously with that episode or knowledge itself; for example, in Advaita Vedānta, awareness is said to be self-validating—and self-illuminating—such that the doubt ‘Am I aware or not?’ cannot occur). The self-validating character of rasa experience appears to countenance the idea that, in the end, such experience is a species of self-knowledge, in Abhinavagupta’s words, “a form of self-contemplation.” Thus “rasa as ‘aesthetic flavour’ comprehends both the arousal and development of an aesthetic emotion in the mind of the aesthete, as well as the objective components of the art object, which arouse and sustain that emotion” (Harsha Dehejia). This is one way we might makes sense of the psychological and epistemic mechanisms behind Murdoch’s claim that good art “affords us pure delight in what is excellent,” and why “Good art shows us how difficult it is to be objective by showing us how differently the world looks to an objective vision.” Indeed, this explains why art is capable of

“transcend[ing] selfish and obsessive limitations of personality and can enlarge the sensibility of its consumer. It is a kind of goodness by proxy. Most of all it exhibits to us the connection, in human beings, of clear realistic vision with compassion. The realism of a great artist is not a photographic realism, it is essentially both pity and justice. [….] [Good art] breaks the grip of our own dull fantasy life and stirs us to the effort of true vision. Most of the time we fail to see the big wide real world at all because we are blinded by obsession, anxiety, envy, resentment, fear. We make a small personal world in which we remain enclosed. Great art is liberating, it enables us to see and take pleasure in what is not ourselves.”

Rasa theory claims there are eight—or after Abhinavagupta, nine—basic (aesthetic?) emotions: sexual love, comic laughter, grief (includes pity), rage or anger, courage (the ‘heroic emotion’), fear, revulsion (or disgust), wonder (or amazement), and tranquility (‘the rasa of rasas’). It is such basic emotions, rather than the more numerous and simply occurrent or transient emotions (e.g., envy, intoxication, shame, and anxiety) that are capable of being expressed as corresponding aesthetic moods or rasas, although occurrent emotions or mental states can accompany, intensify, support, or contrast more basic, stable, and dispositional emotions. It can be argued that Abhinavagupta’s metaphysical preoccupations took his rasa theory beyond aesthetics proper insofar as such delectation or profoundly joyful experience is said to serve as a foretaste of the bliss of emancipation or moksa (as formulated within the terms of the ‘integral monism’ of Kashmir Shaivism).


“The spiritual life, to which art belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements, is a complicated but definite and easily definable movement forwards and upwards. This movement is the movement of experience. It may take different forms, but it holds at bottom to the same inner thought and purpose.

Veiled in obscurity are the causes of this need to move ever upwards and forwards, by sweat of the brow, through sufferings and fears. When one stage has been accomplished, and many evil stones cleared from the road, some unseen and wicked hand scatters new obstacles in the way, so that the path often seems blocked and totally obliterated. But there never fails to come to the rescue some human being, like ourselves in everything except that he has in him a secret power of vision.”

“The life of the spirit may be fairly represented in diagram as a large acute-angled triangle divided horizontally into unequal parts with the narrowest segment uppermost. The lower the segment the greater it is in breadth, depth, and area.”

“Painting is an art, and art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul—to, in fact, the raising of the spiritual triangle.”

References & Further Reading:
  • Chari, V.K. Sanskrit Criticism. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.
  • Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art. New York: Dover Publications, 1956 (1943, Luzac & Co., Ltd., as Why Exhibit Works of Art?).
  • Eco, Umberto. Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.
  • Gaut, Berys. Art, Emotion and Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Gonzalez, Francisco J. Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato’s Practice of Philosophical Inquiry. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998.
  • Iyer, Raghavan. “Agathon and the Cave,” in Iyer’s Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979: 37-49.
  • Kuspit, Donald. The End of Art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Masson, J.L. and M.V. Patwardhan. Śānta Rasa and Abhinavagupta’s Philosophy of Aesthetics. Poona: Bandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1969. 
  • Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good. London: Routledge, 1970.
  • Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (Peter Conradi, ed.) New York: Penguin Books, 1999.


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