Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Kandinsky's Theories (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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2 comments:

Heidi said...

I think number eight is all too general. As you mention, music hardly ever transcends "all people". In fact, there is a very violent movie (which I can't remember the name of) that, for its climatic ultra-chaotic and violent scene uses Indian spiritual music intended for meditation. It seems to Western cultures the microtones of so much world music is inherently tense while of normalcy and beauty in that culture. From my limited scope of world music (much thanks to the courses Music 4440, 3014 and 3015) music is so much less universal than I had ever percieved. This is especially easy to overlook when across the world we have symphony orchestras and music of many cultures increasingly incorporate elements of western pop. It's easy for us to mistakenly think that music is a universal language.

Philip said...

I think that music can transcend cultures and ages. I guess that was a bold, vague and kind of boring statement all at the same time... But the way I see it, and by using Heidi's example, this Indian spiritual music is effective in our culture, as well as in the Indian culture, but it has different effects in each. It seems that the difference is in the listener. In the same way that in our culture two different people can relate to a single piece of music in different ways (because they're different people), people of other cultures can react to music in radically different ways.