The Search for Meaning: Inner Motivation

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How art communicates is a complex subject. There are no simple right or wrong answers. In the first installment of this three-part series, we explored how self-awareness is essential to the creative process. In this installment, we will expand on that, delving into the writings of Wassily Kandinsky, who sought an art language that has its motivation in the “soul” of its creator.

I am an incessant fiddler by nature. I am fascinated by detail and cannot leave well-enough alone — a (not so) recovering perfectionist. It is true of me when I wash a car, clean the bathroom or paint a watercolor. In a review of one of my shows, a critic once wrote something to the effect that I am obsessed with formal perfection. Although I hope there is more going on in my work than that, I suppose I am guilty as charged. I was born and raised in New York City, but now live in the country with barely a neighbor in sight. I don’t mind social situations, and I usually do fairly well in them, but truth be told, I am most comfortable by myself. I thrive in the space in which I can think my own thoughts. I prefer to experience my surroundings in quiet. I try to live in the moment, but often reflect on the loss of loved ones past, present and future. I am generally content, but I am always aware that sorrow may be just around the corner. This is my personality, for better or worse, wherever it came from. It should probably come as no great surprise that I make the kind of art that I do.

The early abstract painter and theorist, Wassily Kandinsky, published an essay in 1911 titled Concerning the Spiritual in Art. It is a philosophical treatise that can be more than a bit pedantic and, at times, strident in tone, but it contains some powerful observations that make it more than worth pondering.

“A work of art has two elements, the inner and the outer. The inner is the emotion in the soul of the artist; this emotion has the capacity to evoke a similar emotion in the observer. Being connected with the body, the soul is affected through the medium of the senses — the felt. Emotions are aroused and stirred by what is sensed. Thus the sensed is the bridge, i.e., the physical relation, the immaterial (which is the artist’s emotion) and the material, which results in the production of a work of art. And again, what is sensed is the bridge from the material (the artist and his work) to the immaterial (the emotion in the soul of the observer).”

Essentially, Kandinsky advocates for an art that springs from an inner need in the artist and communicates with the viewer through a metaphysical process that goes something like this: First, an emotion must well up within the artist, in the soul. It then becomes conscious and is given form by the artist, resulting in a work of art. The work of art is a physical thing, but it is also the trigger point that begins a reverse process in the viewer leading from the art object back to the soul of the viewer, the center of emotion. This is how art communicates subliminally from the essence of the artist to the essence of the viewer via the art object itself.

Terms such as “spiritual” and “soul” carry all sorts of baggage with them today. Kandinsky and others of his era used these terms liberally, but they carry connotations today that may be difficult for some, or they at least complicate issues in which we may otherwise find agreement. For the sake of this discussion, let us strip away religious trappings and notions of the eternal or the sublime. If we can wade through the dogma and presupposition, both Kandinsky’s and our own, we come to an essential premise: What is meaningful in a work of art and what will continue to communicate down through the ages originates in the inner being of the artist. According to Kandinsky, for a work of art to be transcendent, it must proceed from this “inner need,” because that is what imbues the work of art with its force or spirit. If there is no initial stirring within the artist, the works that result will be void, regardless of their outward form.

Early Sunday Morning,1930, by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas, 35 3/16" x 60 1/4".

Early Sunday Morning,1930, by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas, 35 3/16″ x 60 1/4″.

From the Soul of the Artist
While Kandinsky was a champion of non-objective art, Edward Hopper was the staunchest of American realists. Hopper showed little sympathy for abstraction, but interestingly enough, the painting philosophies of the two artists share a common thread. In a 1939 letter to Charles Sawyer, who organized of an exhibition of Hopper’s work, Hopper wrote:

“My aim in painting is always, using nature as the medium, to try to project upon canvas my most intimate reaction to the subject as it appears when I like it most; when the facts are given unity by my interests and prejudices. Why I select certain subjects rather than others, I do not know, unless it is that I believe them to be the best medium for a synthesis of my inner experience.”

Hopper used nature as his vehicle for communication. Kandinsky believed that communication could best take place through formal elements, such as color and line alone, and that abstraction was a more pure and universal language. But, might we say that regardless of the outward form, the actual subject of a work of art is the soul of the artist, however we choose to define that? Ideally, the landscape painter is not simply describing trees and fields, or factories and cities as they appear objectively, or through some learned skill set, but is using nature to reveal his or her subjective feelings about those outward elements. That is why two painters standing before the same subject will see it in two very different ways. Indeed, they should see it differently if they are each working authentically from within. An abstractionist is not simply concocting interesting formal possibilities. Both are seeking a synthesis of some inner vision — the expression of a feeling. Regardless of the outward form, the inner motivating force is the same.

Critics, theorists and artists often form opposing camps, denouncing and debunking each other with the fervor of religious zealots. Unfortunately, passion often comes equipped with its own set of blinders. There are some who reject the idea of art’s “spirituality” as nothing more than obfuscation — smoke and mirrors clouding the materiality of the work. But in an essay that revisits Kandinsky’s propositions, critic Donald Kuspit offers an animated defense of the spiritual:

“If what you see is what you get, then art has lost its internal necessity, that is, its subjective reason for being, and become completely objective or external. One no longer experiences it, but theorizes about its material structure and social meaning… This makes the artist a kind of chef who knows how to cook the material medium so that it is tasty and looks appealing, which gives it all the presence it will ever have and need to be credible — simply as art. The idea that the artist might invest his or her subjectivity in the material medium, which is what brings it alive —indeed, the idea that the artist might have a profound subjectivity, that is, experience the inner necessity of spiritual aspiration, and that the only person who can legitimately call himself or herself an artist is the person who experiences art as part of a personal spiritual process — is discarded as absurd and beside the artistic point…Kandinsky’s whole point is that art has to be inwardly alive or it is not worth the creative trouble…” 1

If we buy into this premise, at its most basic level it leads us to a practical question: Is this inner motivation something that an artist can develop? Is this a practice or state of being that can be learned or cultivated? I would say most definitely so. An artist does not have to be aware of, or even believe in such a process, to be a practitioner of it; however, as is clearly the case with Hopper and Kandinsky, awareness comes with artistic maturity. To be a practitioner, an artist must be moved by the spark of imagination, the inner stirring, and propelled forward by the senses. When this takes place, it is possible for the viewer, who has no relationship to the artist, to encounter a work of art and through this encounter experience an emotion similar to the artist’s original motivation. In this way, making art is indeed a mystical process that begins prior to the conception of a work and carries through to its completion and beyond.

Another variable that is a contributing factor in this communication is, of course, the state of the viewer. Just as the artist brings his or her emotions and intellect to the table, so too does the viewer. All artists are unique individuals with their own personalities, peculiarities and capacities, but the same can be said of all viewers. It cannot be assumed that all viewers will react to a work of art in the same way, nor will they always react in the way that the artist hoped or intended. Of course, Kandinsky was well aware of this. His work was the subject of scorn from many of his own generation who were unreceptive to the notion that a work of art could communicate meaning through form alone. Artists and viewers alike must try to keep our mind’s eye open, or we may miss something that might otherwise enrich our experience. Art is indeed about learning to see.

I was having a casual discussion with my advanced students the other day, and I posed two simple-sounding questions to them. I did not ask for an answer or expect them to give me one. These were long-term questions that I hope they will reflect on over the course of their lifetime: “Who are you?” and “What do you want your art to communicate?” Recognizing that these questions have profound implications may help us in our quest to create an art that is meaningful. Believing that the object we produce is ultimately the conduit between our inner life and that of the viewer encountering it affords us an enhanced perspective.

1 Donald Kuspit, “Reconsidering the Spiritual in Art,” Presented as a Lecture at School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, 2003. Access the audio recording or transcript here.

Matthew Daub (matthewdaub.com) is a Professor of Fine Art at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. His watercolor paintings anddrawings have been included in numerous invitational exhibitions at institutions, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and most recently at the 185th Exhibition of Contemporary American Art at The National Academy of Design. Daub is also the director of ARTS SOJOURN (artssojourn.com)— an arts/travel company specializing in painting trips to Italy. He is represented by ACA galleries in New York City.

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