How does an artist differ from a mystic, then? Kandinsky was drawn to mysticism. He also believed in purity of heart for artistic means. “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.” (Proverbs 4:23) Throughout On the Spiritual in Art and Point and Line to Plane, Kandinsky made a distinction between the exterior, which he described as sign or materialistic or dead, and the interior, which he described as symbol or spiritual or life. To stay in touch with the “interior necessity” (one of Kandinsky’s favorite expressions), the artist must keep his heart.
The artist must keep his heart – develop his interior life – not for his own sake (“What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you, and ye are not your own?” – Corinthians) but for his art’s sake:
The artist is no Sunday’s Child of life: he has no right to a life without responsibility. He has a difficult task to fulfill, which often becomes a cross to bear. He must know that every one of his actions and thoughts and feelings constitutes the subtle, intangible, and yet firm material out of which his works are created, and that hence he cannot be free in life – only in art.
From which it is self-evident that the artist, as opposed to the nonartist, has a threefold responsibility: (1) he must render up again that talent which has been bestowed upon him; (2) his actions and thoughts and feelings, like those of every human being, constitute the spiritual atmosphere, in such a way that they purify or infect the spiritual air; and (3) these actions and thoughts and feelings are the material for his creations, which likewise play a part in constituting the spiritual atmosphere. He is a “king,” as Sar Peladan calls him, not only in the sense that he has great power, but also in that he has great responsibilities.
“The artist cannot be free in life – only in art.” That freedom in the act of creation is the payoff for the artist’s surrender of his life to his art. By keeping his heart, the artist is sensitive to what others are not, and his heart becomes an instrument on which life plays: “The open eye and the open ear transform the slightest disturbance into a profound experience” (Point and Line to Plane).
I believe Geoff Dyer pays John Berger a large compliment in his introduction to John Berger: Selected Essays. He links Berger with Shelley, Lawrence, and Orwell by “the way that they arranged their lives in such a way as to seek out the experiences appropriate to their respective gifts.” What unites the four writers is therefore “not a tradition but a trajectory.” Kandinsky seems to believe in a similar trajectory for artists, though Dyer speaks of experiences alone while Kandinsky focuses more on an interior work.
Both the mystic and the artist traffic in the interior, and both keep their souls not for themselves but to keep that traffic alive. The difference between an artist and a mystic may come down to their principal audiences. For Kandinsky, the artist’s principal audience is mankind, while the mystic’s principal audience is God.