Monday, August 04, 2008

Kandinsky's 3 "Mystical Necessities" for Art (3)

In my last entry I discussed Kandinsky's theory that the artist "must express what is peculiar to oneself," proposed as one of the three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value, and I suggested that this may be an impossible challenge to meet since I cannot think of any human attribute that is not shared. In trying to come up with a related set of principles that I felt I could agree with, I came up with:

1. Art of lasting value tends to have qualities that are both personal and universal.

Before I go on, I want to sneak in a second principle, one that was also mentioned in my previous entry:

2. It often causes us to reflect on the subject in a different way (Perspective).

And, while I'm at it, I'll add a couple more:

3. It speaks to us; people (but not all people, necessarily) feel a connection to it.

4. It often touches on the mysterious.

I think that #3 is self-evident (but I'd welcome input from anyone would like to suggest otherwise!); most of us value an art work because we feel a connection to it. I think this is where the notion that "art is in the eye of the beholder" comes from.

I touched on the quality of mystery in part 2 of this series. What I'm getting at is the idea that it is one thing for art to grab our attention, and it is another to hold it. There needs to be something there that makes us want to continue our engagement with the art, and perhaps that thing, or at least one element of that thing, is mystery. The Mona Lisa is a good example of this. What the heck is she half-smiling about? It's a mystery, but maybe if we stare at it long enough…

5. It often touches on the sublime.

Maybe #4 and #5 are two aspects of the same thing, but I made a separate entry for 'the sublime' because of the number of times I have heard people refer to God in reference to art; for some, great art is evidence of the divine, or at least of the way divinity is expressed through human creations. An art work that is highly valued is often said to be greater than the sum of its parts, and perhaps this is because it touches on the sublime, a quality that is difficult to quantify.

6. It usually demonstrates technical excellence.

I throw "technique" into the mix because it's one of my pet causes as a music teacher. The better your technical skills, the better equipped you are to create the kind of art you imagine. Are there 'great' works of art with poor or even average technique? Perhaps; both 'greatness' and 'technique' are qualities that are debatable (although the former more than the latter, I think), but it seems to me that most art referred to as 'great' also demonstrates excellent technique.

Kandinsky's second "mystical necessity" is that the artist "must express what is peculiar to one's own time," and that is something I think is undeniable. What makes it particularly interesting in our time is that post-modernist art often draws on the art of periods other than our own, but in a way that usually is distinguishable from the art of earlier periods. I do this in some (or much?) of my own compositions; "Dream Dance," for example has sections that evoke (for me, at least) the music of Bach, Haydn, Phillip Glass, Scott Joplin, and Gershwin. In my programme note for the piece I call it an example of "Poly-stylism" because of this, but a composition that mixes styles in this way could not have been written in any period other than our own.

Here's the way I'd put it:

7. It is recognizably of its own time.

Kankinsky's third "mystical necessity" speaks to a transcendent quality in art, which he calls "the pure and eternally artistic which pervades every individual, every people, every age, and which is to be seen in the works of every artist, of every nation, and of every period, and which, being the principal elements of art, knows neither time nor space."

He rather goes over the top here, does he not? In any event, I think I understand what he means, and I mostly agree with it, although I think it is important to add tha but it's hard to think of art that is felt to be meaningful to "every individual, every people, every age," etc. The Taj Mahal might come close to this kind of pan-cultural ideal, but for the most part, it seems to me that art's appeal tends to have a strong element of culture-specificity. The art of Beethoven, Kandinsky, and yes, even yours truly are not held in equally high regard in all parts of the world (or even within western culture), and, conversely, it has only been in the last few decades that many people in our culture have begun to appreciate and value music from non-western cultures.

Here is my wording:

8. Its appeal transcends some cultures and periods.

And that's all for today, and, probably for my Kandinsky-inspired discussion as well!
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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Kandinsky's 3 "Mystical Necessities" for Art (2)

(For part 1 on Kandinsky's theories, see previous entry)

Let's examine Kandinsky's three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value.
The first is a concept that I suspect most would agree with: An artist must express something personal through their art. Kandinsky goes even further, however, by writing that what the artist expresses must not only be personal, but "peculiar to oneself."  
But what is unique to any of us?  I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure that there is absolutely no attribute that I possess that is not also possessed by other people.  We (or at least most people I know) like to think of ourselves as unique, but I would suggest that it is the combination of traits we possess that makes us and others feel that we are, and it is this combination of traits that makes up our personality.
I'm fine with the idea that there is a connection between one's personality and one's artistic creations, but I'm proposing that it is impossible to "express what is peculiar to oneself," because nothing is.
Just for fun, I'm going to flip Kandinsky's first 'mystical necessity' to:
1.  Every artist, as creator, must express what is universal.
I'm not sure I agree with it 100%, but it seems to me that it is true of much artwork of lasting value.  I recall reading at some point that most songs are love songs.  If true, the reason for this would seem to be obvious; love is something that we've all experienced, and something that affects us profoundly. It is as close to a universal experience as there is.
But so are basic bodily functions, and you don't hear too many songs about being hungry, or needing to pee.  You may conclude from this that there is a vast, untapped market for songs relating to bladder control (the "I had to pee but the teacher wouldn't let me" blues, for instance?), but my own take is that a quality in addition to universality must be present for my above statement to have some validity.  
What to name this quality?  Perhaps 'poetry,' or 'mystery,' or simply 'something that causes us to reflect on the subject in a different way.'  And perhaps this quality, whatever you wish to call it, is tied in with the personal, which would bring it back to the territory covered by Kandinsky's first 'mystical necessity.'
Speaking of which, I don't know about you, but whenever someone says you "must" do something,  my natural inclination is to refuse and/or do the opposite.  I am not a fan of imperatives, I guess, which is probably part of the reason I became a composer.  So when I read Kandinsky's three 'mystical necessities,' I notice they are all 'must' statements and right off the bat there is a part of me that bristles at being told what I must do.
My amended wording of #1 would be something like this:
1.  Art of lasting value tends to have qualities that are both personal and universal.
And perhaps mysterious too, but this is getting long, so I think I'll leave it at that for today.
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Friday, July 25, 2008

Kandinsky's 3 "Mystical Necessities" for Art (1)

Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) is one of the best-known 20th-century artists (he is regarded as the originator of abstract art), but he did not begin painting studies until he was 30. Kandinsky had previously studied Law and Economics at the University of Moscow and was evidently very successful, because he was offered a professorship (chair of Roman Law) at the University of Dorpat (Estonia).

And I thought I was a late starter… [ 3 ] ←

In addition to his accomplishments as a painter, he was also a theorist with strong convictions about the role of art and the artist in society, and more painting-specific issues such as colour theories (he believed that certain colors have an affinity for certain shapes; see more here).

My friend and fellow composer John Oliver recently wrote a blog ("Artist's Statement") in which he cites Kandinsky's three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value: The Personal, The Ephemeral, and The Eternal. This topic—the role of the artist—fascinates me, and it's something I try to get my students to think about, so I will follow my own advice about not getting too hung-up on originality (from my July 19-21 blogs) and reproduce John's Kandinsky quote below:

     1. Every artist, as creator, must express what is peculiar to oneself (element of personality).
     2. Every artist as a child of his time, must express what is peculiar to one's own time (elements of style ...)
     3. Every artist, as servant of art, must express what is peculiar to art in general (element of the pure and eternally artistic which pervades every individual, every people, every age, and which is to be seen in the works of every artist, of every nation, and of every period, and which, being the principal elements of art, knows neither time nor space).

I will also add another quote from the same booklet, entitled "On the Spiritual in Art" (the publication date of which I have seen listed as 1910, 1911, and 1912 at various places on the Internet). Kandinsky also wrote:

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.

Okay; lots to think about there, but this is getting long, so more later!

  • [ 3 ] I decided to become a musician after finishing my BA (humanities) degree. The decision was a rather odd one, in retrospect, because I could barely read music and couldn't play any instrument particularly well. Recognizing that my severe lack of musical skills could get in the way becoming a musician, I began the formal study of music (rudiments) in my twenties, and continued on weekends, evenings, and off-hours while working at a variety of jobs (bus information operator, stereo/electronics sales, department store sales clerk) over the next 15 years, leading eventually (and improbably) to a doctorate in composition. [ ↑ ]
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    Monday, July 21, 2008

    Originality and the Collective Unconscious

    My theory is that, on some level, artists tap into what Jung called the collective unconscious, referred to as "a reservoir of the experiences of our species," [ 2 ]← for the sources of our inspiration. The ways in which art becomes realized differ according to culture (both musical and sociological), experience, means, personality, and multiple other factors, but I think at the deepest level we're all drawing from a common well, which is perhaps one way of explaining why many of the same feelings or moods are expressed in art repeatedly.

    It doesn't surprise me when I hear similarities between two musical compositions; given the restrictions of the tonal music system and the structural limitations of most pop music, what surprises me is that blatant rip-offs don't happen more often.

    The whole concept of originality in art is complex and, I think, often misunderstood. It is often a factor that enters into the evaluation of art, which means it is perceived to be of value, but the reality is that if people started creating works that were truly groundbreakingly original, few people would like them, because there would be nothing there that they could relate to. There has to be something familiar about art for most of us to like it. And yet, if art is too familiar, we tend not to like it because it feels like a cheap imitation of something else.

    So, some originality = good; too much originality = Weird!

    By the way, I am not arguing against weird music. In fact, I'm all for it! Sometimes, anyway. I'm just saying that the more original the music, the more alienating many folks will feel it to be.

    My feeling is that while originality in art is important, it is probably not a good idea to become overly concerned with it. The main goal for an aspiring composer is to develop craft, which simply means a musical vocabulary, so that we can say what we want how we want. And since we are all inherently similar and disimilar, the result will be both somewhat original and somewhat not, which is okay. If the composition is well crafted, it will hopefully speak to some people, and possibly many.

  • [ 2 ]Jensen, Peter S., Mrazek, David, Knapp, Penelope K., Steinberg, Laurence, Pfeffer, Cynthia, Schowalter, John, & Shapiro, Theodore. (Dec 1997) Evolution and revolution in child psychiatry: ADHD as a disorder of adaptation. (attention-deficit hyperactivity syndrome). Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 36. p. 1672. (10). July 14 2007. [ ↑ ]
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    Saturday, July 19, 2008

    How Important is Originality in Art?

    How important is originality in art? I think most people would agree that it is an essential ingredient; if an extremely talented painter were to create a version of the Mona Lisa that was indistinguishable from the original it might sell for a few hundred (or a few thousand) dollars, whereas if the actual Mona Lisa is as close to priceless as possible for a painting. Two identical works of art; one original, and one a reproduction, but the first is much more highly-valued than the second by virtue of its originality. The Mona Lisa's (and Da Vinci's) iconic status doesn't hurt either…

    But there are cases where a lack of originality seems less crucial to the value ascribed to a work of art. Many artists have created numerous variants of the same thing, or similar things -- consider Monet's approximately 250 paintings of water lilies (as well as his London Houses of Parliament, Poplars, Haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, and Mornings on the Seine series), Degas' extraordinary penchant for dancers as a subject (more than half of his vast output of paintings, drawings, and sculptures is devoted to the activities of the ballet dancers and dance students), or Georgia O'Keefe's paintings of flowers — all highly regarded, but, thematically, not particularly original.

    If you enjoy visiting art museums when you travel, there is a reasonable chance you may have seen Rodin's "The Thinker," his most famous work, and one of the most-recognized (and most-satirized) sculptures ever. The original was 27.5 inches high, but there are over 20 additional casts of the work in various sizes, most of which were executed by his apprentices, as I understand it. Their lack of originality does not prevent them from being prominently displayed (and hence valued) in museums around the world.

    The paintings in Monet’s Houses of Parliament series are both similar – each is of the same subject, from the same vantage point, and on the same size canvas -- and dissimilar – each view represents a different time of day (which alters the lighting) and a different atmospheric conditions (hazy, foggy (or smoggy), different cloud formations). The point, as it relates to originality, is that Monet did not attempt to paint a series of completely different (and therefore highly original) paintings; he wanted to paint the same thing repeatedly in slightly different ways, and we value each individual painting highly nonetheless.

    These examples, and many others, would suggest that the role of originality in evaluating art is sometimes relatively minor.

    Stravinsky is supposed have said “good composers borrow, great composers steal,” [ 1 ]← which is itself an adaptation (or theft?!) of T. S. Elliott’s “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” from Elliott's essay on English dramatist Phillip Massinger (1920). It is a clever line, the merits of which are of course debatable, but for me the point is that artists are influenced by one another, and part of the way we discover our own artistic voices is by emulating or appropriating, to varying degrees, the work of others.

    Music if filled with elements common to different composers within an historical period and sometimes across periods. When we study tonal harmony, we learn that in the "common-practice period" (roughly 1700-1900, in Europe), there were guidelines governing the way in which chords progressed. These guidelines have numerous restrictions as well as some freedoms, but the fact that there are guidelines of any sort means that originality in chord progressions was not highly valued.

    Other common elements from that period include the widespread use of a limited selection of musical forms, chief among them sonata form, as well as rondo, binary, ternary, and theme & variations, the use of Alberti bass accompaniment figures (although it had numerous variants), an extremely-limited selection of cadence types (virtually every composition from that period ended with an 'authentic' (V-I) cadence), phrase lengths and structure (although numerous exceptions can be found), and writing for commonly-found ensembles such as the string quartet.

    And yet, despite the restrictive nature of these common elements, thousands of wonderful works were written. There is originality to be found in all great (or even good!) works to be sure, but, as with Monet’s parliament paintings, the differences are often fairly nuanced.

    •More tomorrow!

  • [ 1 ]Although there are numerous attributions of this quote to Stravinsky all over the web, I have not come across any that actually cite a source for it. Did he actually say this? Or is it a sentiment that hacks the world over like to attribute to a famous composer in order to justify theft of intellectual property? [ ↑ ]
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