I see a parallel between my own teenage angst and quest for truth, and the Modernist yearnings for the pure essence of art. The Modernists are as a whole, representative of the teenage years of historical art. Breaking away from the protective parental structure of the Classical and Academic Realist movements, and searching for fresh ways to assert their newly forming subjective responses to change, the Modernists define themselves, like a rebellious teenager, by the past that they push against, and the future that they embrace. In this paper I will explore the essays of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, and examine the questions they were asking almost a century ago in the context of my own contemporary culture, and practice. Through this process I will strive to answer the question, “Has Art grown up?”
In my reading of Theories of Modern Art, I was particularly engaged with Wassily Kandinsky’s essay, entitled,“On the Problem of Form”. Kandinsky is addressing the question of which artistic movement, representation or abstraction, best defines the purest essence of art. He argues that regardless of what “form” art takes, it must answer honestly to both its chronological context and the inner life of the artist, two elements that I see as inseparable.
The form is always bound to its time, is relative, since it is nothing more than the means necessary today in which today’s revelation manifests itself, resounds…The form is the outer expression of the inner content (Chipp 156).
This argument is particularly appropriate for consideration in contemporary times, as artists reach across disciplines, cultures, and time lines to find the voices that best display their intention. In their introduction to the 2008 Whitney Biennial Catalog, Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin speak to Kandinsky’s question of form, and how the solution to that question has not necessarily been reached in a linear fashion, if it has been reached at all.
Within the vast, variously differentiated field that we (perhaps absurdly) continue to yoke under the single term contemporary art, certain prevalent, often interrelated practices to us seem particularly germane to the moment. Many of the projects presented in the 2008 exhibition explore fluid communication structures and systems of exchange that index larger social, political, and economic contexts, often aiming to invert the more object-oriented, ends-driven operations of the art market. Recurring concerns involve a nuanced investigation of social, domestic and public space and its translation into form-primarily sculptural, but also photographic, cinematic, and so forth- which in turn catalyzes social practices extending beyond the exhibition space (Huldisch, Momin 32).
Paul Klee foreshadowed this contemporary concern with systems of exchange and interrelated practices in another Modernist essay. In his “Creative Credo” of 1920, Klee speaks to the interconnectedness of all things, an organization of movements that converge in the act of creation. Klee goes so far as to call art, a simile of [the Biblical act of] Creation (Chipp 186). Klee’s perspective, while heavily biased toward graphic art, joins Kandinsky in his quest for truth in artistry through a filter of morality and spiritualism.
By including the concepts of good and evil a moral sphere is created. Evil is not conceived as the enemy whose victories disgrace us, but as a force within the whole, a force that contributes to creation and evolution. The simultaneous existence of the masculine principle (evil, stimulating, passionate) and the feminine principle (good, growing, calm), result in a condition of ethical stability (Chipp 185).
I am intrigued by this quote and the emphasis that Klee’s search for the truth of art seems to put on balance. The formal elements balanced against spontaneity, the narrative balanced against abstraction, and here, the balance of male and female energy, framed in language reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. This quest for stability makes sense as I learn more about the competing influences within Modernism, of which Klee’s practice was centered. Far from having outgrown these concerns, questions of balance are often in the forefront of contemporary artists’ thought as well: technology versus tradition, inclusion versus alienation, public versus private, nationalism versus diversity. How we balance ourselves against these competing influences and more, is where our truth is revealed.
Another interesting tangent from the 1920s that reaches across the boundaries of generations into current times and my own contemporary art practice is Klee’s awareness of art as a mediated form of communication.
Formerly we used to represent things visible on earth, things we either liked to look at or would have liked to see. Today we reveal the reality that is behind visible things, thus expressing the belief that the visible world is merely and isolated case in relation to the universe and that there are many more other, latent realities. Things appear to assume a broader and more diversified meaning, often seemingly contradicting the rational experience of yesterday (Chipp, 185).
Yes, we are revealing the “reality behind the visible things” today as well, but that is a subjective interpretation now, as it surely was in Klee’s time.
Despite my nostalgic and emotional connection to the Modernists, I ask myself what my art means beyond its visual and emotional echo of the Modernist aesthetic. I am currently trying to communicate beyond the pictorial references that I have become so attached to – I want the surface to hold marks that evoke memory and imagination in the same way that the dreamy narratives of Chagall, or the energized woodcut portraits of Max Beckman evoke responses. I want to jump from the launching pad of so much history into the arms of my own moment’s very contemporary longings. Yes, the same questions of essence and purity are present for artists working today, including myself, but these questions are mediated by the quickly changing definitions of what essence and purity really are. With so much of our reality being mediated by technology, industry, commercialism, and cultural exchanges at the speed of light, how we define Truth has becomes nearly impossible to describe beyond our own personal boundaries.
As I explore Modernist essays and read academic reactions to contemporary art, I wonder if Art continues to be in the wild throes of adolescence? As artists we continue to ask and re-ask the same questions of ourselves. What gives what I do meaning? Where is the Truth in my experience? How do I best communicate my intention? The form may change, but the questions do not. The problem of Truth is best considered as a circular quest that begins and ends with the artist. We are the mediators for the viewing public. The public and all that surrounds and comes before, mediate us. We can only take responsibility for our own truth, and that truth is not out there, but inside each artist.
The Truth that a 20th century seventeen year old yearns to release is primitive in its relationship to the centuries of history that attracted it, but it is that connection between generations that is worth examining now. The effect of the Modernists is still being felt by working artists today. For myself, I know that I am pushing back against different things than they were, due to the expanse of time that separates us, but many of their questions are familiar and resonate with me. I thank the Modernists for leaving behind the path of their search, for reflection, as I work through both philosophical and technical questions of meaning and communication for myself. The History of Art may never completely outgrow adolescence, but in my lifetime I look forward to the continual maturation of my practice of art.
Works CitedKandinsky, Wassily. “On the Problem of Form.” Theories of Modern Art. Ed. Herschel B.
Chipp. Berkley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968.155 – 171. Print
Klee, Paul. “Creative Credo.” Theories of Modern Art. Ed. Herschel B. Chipp. Berkley, Los
Angeles: University of California Press, 1968.182 – 187. Print
Huldisch, Henriette; Momin, Shamim M. Introduction. “2008 Biennial Exhibition.” New
Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 32 – 36. Print.