Let me state at the outset that Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art is a painfully obtuse book, at least in translation. It is a dense and difficult read. Yet it is lauded for presenting concepts that validated abstract art, and rejected the idea of “art for art’s sake” as a “vain squandering of artistic power” (16). Kandinsky was significantly influenced by theosophy, a pantheistic philosophical system based on mysticism that was steeped in the motto, “There is no religion higher than truth.” He asserted that all art needed to strive for spirituality, not in a religious sense, but out of a transcendent “inner need.” Indeed, Kandinsky says that “spiritual freedom is as necessary in art as it is in life” (62). A Russian painter and art theorist, Kandinsky published his short book in 1912 in German, with his own illustrations, as Über das Geistige in der Kunst, and the book has had wide influence in painting and aesthetic circles ever since. Perhaps, too, it may have some influence on haiku.
What follows is a selection of quotations from the book, in translation by Kandinsky’s friend, Michael T. H. Sadler, published in 1914 as The Art of Spiritual Harmony, with my commentary on varying applications of these quotations to haiku poetry. The message, I believe, is that haiku for haiku’s sake may also be a vain squandering of artistic power, that abstraction must be grounded in wonder and awe, and find organic form, and that the spiritual motivation and reward we often find in haiku arises out of our own inner need. Just as Kandinsky’s manifesto was a clarion call to reject materialism in favour of untainted spiritual transcendence, haiku poets might heed a similar call, no matter what their subject, and aim for spiritual freedom in their poems.