color Beyond Kandinsky: A first crack at internal necessity

The year 2011 marks the centennial of the publication of Wassily Kandinsky's classic text, On the Spiritual in Art. Inspired by this anniversary, this project set out to explore the place of the spiritual in contemporary art and to propose a challenge to the current devaluation of the inner life that prevails within the art world in our market-driven era.

Beginning on Wednesday, March 30th, 2011, a ten-day virtual symposium moderated by Taney Roniger and Eric Zechman was held in this forum. The symposium closed on the evening of Friday, April 8th. Below is the full record of the proceedings.

Panelists invited to participate were: Suzanne Anker, Laura Battle, Connie Beckley, Anney Bonney, Deirdre Boyle, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jeff Edwards, James Elkins, Max Gimblett, Tom Huhn, Atta Kim, Roger Lipsey, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Joseph Nechvatal, Daniel Siedell, Charlene Spretnak, David Levi Strauss, Alan Wanzenberg, and Pawel Wojtasik. For participant biographies and other project details, please visit our site:


March 30th–April 1st: Session I: The Spiritual Then and Now

April 2nd–April 3rd: Session II: The Changing Shape of Art

April 4th-5th: Session III: Art and Its Audience

April 6th–April 7th: Session IV: The Artist in Society

April 8th: Conclusions


Thursday, March 31, 2011

A first crack at internal necessity

Hi, everyone. The conversation is off to a great start. I’m particularly glad to see that Charlene brought up Theosophy, and dealt with it so thoroughly. I have some additional thoughts about Theosophy and Kandinsky that I’ll present later. I also want to address Taney’s initial questions about transcendence and digital technology. However, looking at my first draft of this post, I see that its already pretty long, so I’ll save those things for later.

I’m probably a little unqualified to comment too deeply on the discussion that’s growing here about new paradigm thinking, mainly because although I love the sort of integrative approach it proposes, I’ve soured on a lot of the expressions it’s taken. Though I’ve read David Bohm and Fritjof Capra, it’s been years, and in the intervening time I’ve come across a lot of solid criticism from within the scientific community.

Capra in particular often gets a lot of heat for constructing grand but shaky theories out of material derived from diverse disciplines, both scientific and religious. Though some people seem to feel that different disciplines shouldn’t be mixed at all (shades of Stephen Jay Gould’s argument that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria”), many point out that Capra’s conflation of things like Eastern religion and quantum physics (in his classic The Tao of Physics) or Gaia theory with thermodynamics and chaos theory (in the more recent The Web of Life does disservice to all of these fields by flattening them out into half-digested Cliff’s Notes versions in order to emphasize their supposed similarities. I’ve seen similar criticisms leveled at Ken Wilber’s integral theories; several years ago there was a devastating critique of his use (and radical misunderstanding) of current evolutionary theory within his larger arguments on the evolution of spirit into material form.

After seeing way too many well-argued criticisms of this sort, the skeptic within me eventually won out over the interdisciplinarian, at least in this case. However, that’s not to say that I think different realms of knowledge should stay in their own compartments. I guess my perspective is that as exciting as new paradigm thinking is, it needs to be handled with a lot more care and precision.

If I were a complete naysayer, I wouldn’t be a participant in this symposium. Some of Kandinsky’s best ideas arose from the drive to reach across different systems of knowledge in the quest for new tools for artistic and spiritual self-expression. (I’ll come back to this in a later post, in which I plan talk about Kandinsky and Rudolf Steiner.)

Before that, though, I’d like to set out some of my own thoughts on the relevance of Kandinsky’s writings (or perhaps his attitude) to artmaking today.

Over the years, I’ve fallen into the habit of considering On the Spiritual in Art in light of the nonobjective abstraction that barely existed while Kandinsky was writing it, but which was just around the corner (and which he was trying to write into being). It’s hard to look at Mondrian’s rectilinear compositions or Robert Delaunay’s swirling arrangements of color and not think of the book as an interpretive gloss to their painting. Just yesterday, though, I had that approach knocked out of me, at least a little.

I took one of my classes on a field trip to MoMA to see the new “German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse” show, and while looking at the paintings and prints on display (including a 1909 painting by Kandinsky that falls right in the middle of his shift from folk painting to pure abstraction), I was floored by the palpable sense of boundary-pushing that seemed to emanate from so many of them. It wasn’t just a matter of creating a new way of portraying figures, or using color, or making a statement about society; all of the above seemed to reflect the impulse to carry art in a direction so new that no one was quite sure of what it would look like. I was struck by the thought that these artists were the real audience for Kandinsky’s book. Writing for his peers, he created something that was as much an incantation to evoke the future or art into being as it was a manifesto aimed at the outer world of critics or other artists.

After seeing the show, I flipped through On the Spiritual in Art one more time, and suddenly found myself able to grasp something that had been elusive before. During my recent reread of the book, I was a lot less interested in Kandinsky’s specific assertions on the effects of color in the latter half than in his comments on how various painters (Matisse, Picasso), poets (Maeterlinck), and composers (Wagner, Schoenberg) were all working in their own ways not only to drastically expand the vocabularies of their respective art forms, but also to push them into completely uncharted territory, free not only of tradition and material limitation, but of anything that gets in the way of pure expression. Under Kandinsky’s lens, even matter becomes a hindrance to expression, at the exact same moment that it’s absolutely essential for it.

I was reminded of something that jazz musician/poet/pop gesamtkunstwerk technician Sun Ra once said. He repeated it several times throughout his life, and this is my best-attempt paraphrase: “The possible has been tried and it’s failed. It’s time to do the impossible.” Whenever I revisit On the Spiritual in Art, I always sense a similar urgency to push us beyond what we know, because it hasn't taken us where we need to be. Although I feel like a lot of people either turn their noses up at such utopianism or tuck it away as a guilty secret, it may be the single most important element in Kandinsky’s book. Artists are still striving to create something beyond the known, and the existence of a book like this—no matter how outdated it is in many ways—seems important, if only as a source of reassurance that the quest for something more in art is neither completely crazy nor depressingly futile. A handful of students I've had who have cited the book as an influence in their own artmaking seems to support this.

Theory and criticism and occasional pronouncements on “ the end of art” aside, art still gets made, and a lot of it comes from the same impulse to create the uncreated that drove Kandinsky. After decades of pronouncements that painting is dead, painting is as vital as ever, and it coexists with art in an almost dizzying array of other mediums. Part of the proliferation has to do with the gallery system and the art market, of course, but overemphasizing that obscures the tremendous range of techniques and approaches that artists are conjuring up to set their visions before the world. I can’t think of a better living image of Kandinsky’s idea of internal necessity.

1 comment:

  1. The problem I've always had with Charlene is that despite her sincerity and the brilliance of her ideas, they remain inaccessible to those who can benefit from them the most.

    I hope she continues to find ways to more DIRECTLY influence the oppressed masses other than forming liaisons with minority scholars and expecting US to do the dirty work for her.

    ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES AND 'GET IN THERE', Charlene! majorem dei gloriam..