Concerning Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Tom W. Hartung
Aug 13, 2017 · 6 min read

Concerning the Spiritual in Art, written by Wassily Kandinsky and first published in 1912, is one of my favorite books. True confession: lately I have been reading it over and over!

And sometimes when I read it, it makes me want to shout out parts of it for all the world to hear and marvel at! It always inspires me, and it’s rather like my own personal bible.


Kandinsky starts the book with this:

Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated. Efforts to revive the art-principles of the past will at best produce an art that is still-born.

Some people bitch and moan about getting older. These people need to realize, that the older we get, the more we have seen art and culture evolve!

Sure, there are occasional setbacks — but art never fails to evolve, to keep moving, ever forwards and upwards!

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…. 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.

All you victims of gerascophobia out there need to open your eyes to this: witnessing the evolution of culture in general and art in particular, like life itself, is priceless.

The appropriate reaction is not fear, but gratitude!

He sees and points the way. The power to do this he would sometimes fain lay aside, for it is a bitter cross to bear. But he cannot do so. Scorned and hated, he drags after him over the stones the heavy chariot of a divided humanity, ever forwards and upwards.

Can I tell you a secret? I would love to someday be that human being who comes to the rescue!

The Triangle

Kandinsky’s triangle is something I think all of us know, but only a few of us know we know it. If you’re not one of the few, no worries, here’s your Wake Up call:

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.
The whole triangle is moving slowly, almost invisibly forwards and upwards. Where the apex was today the second segment is tomorrow; what today can be understood only by the apex and to the rest of the triangle is an incomprehensible gibberish, forms tomorrow the true thought and feeling of the second segment.

Am I the only one who feels like the triangle is stalled today? Maybe because everyone’s got their heads stuck in their cell phones?

At the apex of the top segment stands often one man, and only one. His joyful vision cloaks a vast sorrow. Even those who are nearest to him in sympathy do not understand him. Angrily they abuse him as charlatan or madman. So in his lifetime stood Beethoven, solitary and insulted.

I can think of a few names of people to add to Beethoven’s here. It just so happens that I love Art History so yes, I can think of quite a few….

In every segment of the triangle are artists. Each one of them who can see beyond the limits of his segment is a prophet to those about him, and helps the advance of the obstinate whole. But those who are blind, or those who retard the movement of the triangle for baser reasons, are fully understood by their fellows and acclaimed for their genius. The greater the segment (which is the same as saying the lower it lies in the triangle) so the greater the number who understand the words of the artist. Every segment hungers consciously or, much more often, unconsciously for their corresponding spiritual food. This food is offered by the artists, and for this food the segment immediately below will tomorrow be stretching out eager hands.

I predict a lot of readers will move on at this point.

Sienkiewicz, in one of his novels, compares the spiritual life to swimming; for the man who does not strive tirelessly, who does not fight continually against sinking, will mentally and morally go under.

It’s impossible for people buried in their phones to swim, is what I’m thinking.

Such periods, during which art has no noble champion, during which the true spiritual food is wanting, are periods of retrogression in the spiritual world. Ceaselessly souls fall from the higher to the lower segments of the triangle, and the whole seems motionless, or even to move down and backwards. Men attribute to these blind and dumb periods a special value, for they judge them by outward results, thinking only of material well-being. They hail some technical advance, which can help nothing but the body, as a great achievement. Real spiritual gains are at best under-valued, at worst entirely ignored.

If you’re looking for the “tl;dr” version, this is it! If you don’t believe me, check out the original!

No worries, you can read it on your phone! That’s what I do sometimes!

Spiritual Revolution

Fifty years after Kandinsky wrote this book, we had Che Guevara and The Beatles.

But despite their patent and well-ordered security, despite their infallible principles, there lurks in these higher segments a hidden fear, a nervous trembling, a sense of insecurity. And this is due to their upbringing. They know that the sages, statesmen and artists whom today they revere, were yesterday spurned as swindlers and charlatans. And the higher the segment in the triangle, the better defined is this fear, this modern sense of insecurity. Here and there are people with eyes which can see, minds which can correlate. They say to themselves: “If the science of the day before yesterday is rejected by the people of yesterday, and that of yesterday by us of today, is it not possible that what we call science now will be rejected by the men of tomorrow?” And the bravest of them answer, “It is possible.”

Fifty years after Che Guevara and The Beatles, it feels like maybe all the good revolutions have already been taken.

But hey, maybe that’s just me!

“To those who are not accustomed to it the inner beauty appears as ugliness because humanity in general inclines to the outer and knows nothing of the inner.”

I wonder what this inner beauty looks like. I’ve seen some damn ugly stuff in my day! Surely it can’t be as ugly as all that?

The Pyramid

Now here’s the rub: where Kandinsky sees a pyramid, I see isolated info-silos.

“And so at different points along the road are the different arts, saying what they are best able to say, and in the language which is peculiarly their own. Despite, or perhaps thanks to, the differences between them, there has never been a time when the arts approached each other more nearly than they do today, in this later phase of spiritual development.”

Huh. This may have been true 100 years ago, but today I feel nothing could be further from the truth.

Suddenly, Kandinsky’s cosmicness fades. Oh wait, we’ve just hit the bottom line!

Every man who steeps himself in the spiritual possibilities of his art is a valuable helper in the building of the spiritual pyramid which will some day reach to heaven.

And here we get the CTA: the Call to Action. He makes it sounds so easy! I read this, and “now I know, just what I have to do.

Part II

The second part of Kandinsky’s book is much different from the first. It’s good, but a bit more down-to-earth, and hence a bit less powerful.

So this is a good place to stop.

I might write an article about Part II someday. But for now, I’m thinking would be best focus on trying to move the triangle ever so slightly, in my own unique way.

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