On Abstraction and Empathy, Wilhelm Worringer’s Fundamental Work
Aug 22, 2018
For anyone interested in understanding how spirituality came to be associated with abstract art, “Abstraction and Empathy: Essay in the Psychology of Style” (1907), by Wilhelm Worringer, is an essential read. It is along the same lines as the book “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (1911), by Wassily Kandinsky, which is frequently cited in art schools as a fundamental text for students studying the development of abstraction. But even though the two books both generally deal with the topic of art and spirituality, they approach the subject in significantly different ways. Kandinsky lays out clearly in his book the ideas he developed about the relationship between music and spirituality, and telegraphs his intent to find a way to express that same relationship through abstract visual art. Worringer does not write about the connection between visual art and music, but he does address how abstraction relates to spirituality in general. And he addresses the biases that people had towards abstract art at the turn of the 20th Century. The prevailing attitude at that time was that abstract art deserved less respect than representational art. Most critics, teachers, and curators believed that only artists who did not have the competency to perfectly copy nature turned to abstraction. We now know that is demonstrably not the case. Most of the biggest names in early abstraction—from Kandinsky to Malevich to Picasso to Mondrian to Georgia O’Keefe—were spectacularly adept at naturalistic painting. They turned away from it simply because they were searching for different, truer ways of expressing themselves. With “Abstraction and Empathy,” Worringer endowed abstract artists with the confidence to continue their avant-garde pursuits by successfully arguing that abstraction is equal in meaning and value to realistic art. He furthermore proved that abstraction is a fundamental expression of the human will to connect with the spiritual world, and established it as a cornerstone of human creativity.
Empathy VS. Abstraction
When an artist draws a picture that mimics objects in the real world, it can be said that that artist expresses empathy. They demonstrate their empathic relationship with their subject by copying it. But long before any of us ever learned to draw pictures that resemble the actual objects in our surroundings, we first learned how to scribble. Scribbling is an impulse. A scribble does not mimic reality so much as it expresses a feeling; a compulsion; a type of energy. Even after we learn to copy reality in our drawings, we still maintain that original urge to scribble. Sometimes we even admire our scribbling. We contemplate its qualities. We run our finger over the imprint made by the pen; we smell the ink; we flip the page over and notice the translucency of the paper, how the color of the ink changes when viewed from this side. Countless other sensations occur, because inherent in the scribbling experience is the realization that we did something. We added something to our world that was not previously there. We created.
The pleasure we feel from creating is undeniable. It is felt whether we draw, sing, dance, build, sculpt, sew, cook, fight, talk, write, or do any other type of imaginative activity. In “Abstraction and Empathy,” Worringer defines creative pleasure as essential to the human experience. He traces its origins back to the oldest known artworks created by human hands. Most importantly, he notes that some of those ancient artworks mimic reality, but most do not. Most are abstract markings, patterns, and forms. He notes that throughout history, that has always been the case: representational art existing side by side with abstraction. The Pyramids o the ancient Egyptians are not primitive forms created by artisans who lacked the talent to copy nature. We know that, because Egyptian paintings are full of aesthetic realism. The Pyramids were not realistic because they were not an attempt at empathy. They were an attempt to connect with what is unknown. They were an attempt at transcendence. All abstraction, Worringer believes, is an expression of that same impulse, to reconcile our fearful mortal existence with something unknowable: the spirit.
Renouncing Organic Life
The painful fact that humans seem never to want to face about organic existence is that everything dies. Humans know we are part of the natural world, and yet we are compelled to renounce it because it disagrees with our needs for endurance, safety, and control. In “Abstraction and Empathy,” Worringer points out that this dispute between our acceptance and our denial of our organic nature is the reason that throughout time we have simultaneously employed both empathy and abstraction in our art. He says that, “the need for empathy and the need for abstraction [are] the two poles of human artistic experience.” When we make art that resembles what we know objective life to be, we are projecting a physical attachment to the universe. Conversely, when we create abstract art we are projecting “a psychic attitude toward the cosmos.”
The philosophical framework Worringer built when he wrote “Abstraction and Empathy” has been relied upon for more than a century to help elevate the public status of abstract art. Worringer helps us understand that there is an essential human need to express that part of us that believes in the existence of the spirit. He gives us language to help us talk about our intuition that there are some mysteries about this life and this universe that cannot be unraveled. Those mysteries compel some artists to try to understand the hidden meanings that might lurk within every object, every material, and every process. “Abstraction and Empathy” and its philosophies may not help explain to skeptics the meaning of any one particular abstract artwork, but it can help explain the source of the will humans have towards abstraction, by framing it as a method of representing the objective world in a more spiritual way.
Featured image: Abstraction and Empathy: Essay in the Psychology of Style, by Wilhelm Worringer. Book cover.
By Phillip Barcio