The Purity of Slience
From Concerning the Spiritual in Contemporary Art by Donald Kuspit
The “spiritual” is a problem concept in contemporary art. When in 1912 Wassily Kandinsky published On the Spiritual in Art, the nature of spirituality in art was clearer than it is today. For Kandinsky the spiritual was identified with “the search for the abstract in art,” and it existed in opposition to “the nightmare of materialism.” Art was unequivocally regarded as “one of the mightiest elements” in “the spiritual life…a complicated but definite and easily definable movement forward and upwards.” Today art does not seem so mighty an element in spiritual life, and spiritual life does not seem so evident in art or in general. After three-quarters of a century of abstract art and the development of of an abstract art that seems to have deliberately purged the spiritual Stimmung (atmosphere) that Kandinsky expected abstraction to distill, abstraction itself has become materialistic and it is hard to know how artists can create works that have, in Franz Marc’s works, a “mystical inner construction.” The artist today seems to have less of Kandinsky’s “inner necessity,” less of an impulse for spiritual expression. The denial of the spiritual dimension of abstract art, its conversion into a purely formal, material, external enterprise, has made it into still another “art for art’s sake,” a “condition of art” that Kandinsky described as “vain squandering of artistic power,” a “neglect of inner meanings.”…Authentically spiritual abstract art does not so much “communicate” as “induce an attitude of communion and contemplation.” Authentically spiritual abstract art also faces an inherent conflict with another kind of material destiny, that brought about by its commercialization, its inevitable reduction to a luxury product. It is institutionalized not only as emptily decorative but as the most useless or ornamental or spectacular of consumer goods.
According to Poggioli, the purity of silence implies that art can free itself from the prison of things, the noisy sound of reality. Silence is also art’s way of suggesting its transcendence of the conditions of its creation and appearing to be self-created. Silence is an ever increasing process of distillation and condensation, purification. Max Kozloff, writing about Mark Rothko’s version of silent painting, that it is necessary “to find that lever of consciousness which will change a blank painted fabric into a glow perpetuating itself into the memory.”
The silent painting, contemplated in more than casual way, has a numinous effect simply by reason of its radical concreteness, its unconditional immediacy. This can be iconographically interpreted or not, but it is functionally mystical–that is, it is not the vehicle of communication of religious dogma but of a certain kind of irreducible, nondiscursive experience. Many of the silent painters who refuse their work an overt religious meaning are afraid that their art will be appropriated by a belief system, becoming a dispensable instrument of faith rather than an end in itself. It will thereby lose the full power of its negativity. The question of religious belief is separate from the question of spiritual experience, which is what silent painting engages.