color Beyond Kandinsky: Immanence as well as Transcendence

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


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Immanence as well as Transcendence

As the focus of this symposium is "Going Beyond" the views Kandinsky presented about art and spirituality in one book, On the Spiritual in Art, it's important to realize that he was strongly influenced during the eight years or so of journal entries that became that book by the enthusiasm among young artists in Germany and elsewhere then for the spiritual orientation called Theosophy. (Before and after that period, Kandinsky's main spiritual orientation was Russian Orthodox Christianity.) When Mme. Blavatsky framed Theosophy in her two major books, Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), her goal was to jump in front of the "parade" formed by the huge following that Darwin had. She trumped Darwin by announcing that the evolution he describes is merely material but that the evolution she describes is far larger, greater, more subtle, and encompasses "the merely material." This idealist, anti-material bias to the spirituality in Kandinsky's book is still available in many quarters (in fact, Theosophy itself still lives), but with our planet in extremely serious ecological peril, attention to transcendent levels of being without attention to the physicality of our existence and that of the entire Earth community is irresponsible and destructive. The idealist orientation is clearly something we need to "go beyond."

Perhaps the greatest distinction between the Theosophical questing of so many European artists in the early years of the 20th century and what is emerging now is the nondualistic understanding of "immanent" and "transcendent." Long seen as opposites in Western cultural history, transcendence is coming to be understood as "beyond" but not "above" the material plane we can see in every day life. What science calls "complex dynamical systems" has illuminated in recent decades the extraordinarily creative, complex, dynamic processes going on at every fraction of a second within, around, and through every entity in the universe. Our minds will never be able to map the endless networks of what I call "relational reality," so spirituality that seeks to commune with either immanence or transcendence now sees that they are not apart. This realization is not new to Eastern philosophy or indigenous cultures, of course; we were simply late coming to it in the modern West because of our dualistic and mechanistic worldview.

The artists of Kandinsky's time were, I feel, asking the right questions (Is there something going on in addition to the visible world?) but got caught up in answers that steered their spiritual path solely toward engagement with transcendence at the expense of engagement with immanence. On the other hand, it was apparently the right path at the time for Kandinsky since he arrived at those stunning pre-WWI paintings (his numbered Composition series and others). Esoteric spirituality, regardless of our views of it today, was a bountiful source of inspiration for a range of prominent artists in several countries at that time. We, however, live in a different time.


  1. the second paragraph is particularly inspiring/challenging. So then, can we say that the spirituality becomes the intensity between immanence and transcendence. Even though the mind won't be able to map the endless networks, it could still find a path(following the intensity)to connect immanence and transcendence?

  2. Indeed, thank you for this succinct interpretation of Theosophy, Ms. Spretnak! I've read a little about Mme. Blavatsky (the sensation surrounding her ideas initially intrigued me as a college freshman) but could never get very far with them, and your synopsis deftly explains why.

    Yuting Zou, i think i am in your camp; perhaps that elusive definition of 'spirituality' lies somewhere in a resonance between immanence and transcendence. In another post i suggested that perhaps it was 'the connector between finite and infinite,' between intimate and universal. Perhaps we say the same thing? Either way, a call to stop swinging the pendulum to extremes sounds good to me.

    I think most forward-thinking artists have long since outgrown the transcendentalist dogma that 'elsewhere supercedes here' right along with the fundamentalist dictum that 'god gave man dominion over all the earth.' A notion of stewardship should never be confused with absolute power, any more than a yearning for one's idea of heaven should take the place of of awareness of the here and now.

    Thanks again, Ms. Spretnak, for the context!

  3. Perhaps Christopher Alexander's aesthetic metaphor (borrowed from physics) of a great artworks "tunneling" between dimensions, connecting the realms of immanence and transcendence is relevant. (see his "Luminous Ground" book) Holy objects or sacred sites resonate with presence, finite materials transformed by devotional labor and awareness to provide touchstones to the infinite.

    It's easy to see the appeal to Kandinsky of the non-representational and abstract possibilities of painting, largely unexplored at his time, to portray the transcendent non-material world.

    Today's sacred artist is challenged to find iconography that embraces all dimensions, matter, body, mind, soul, spirit - pointing to an evolutionary creatively enlightened mind that is dedicated to a sustainable relationship with Nature.

    The distinctions of immanence and transcendence are still important to note, lest we collapse the hierarchy of states of being. Non-duality honors and bridges both realms.

    The mystic view would assert that everything is spiritual since God is One, and we are ultimately that. To see is to see God seeing God. Yet, mostly we miss this truth, but are reminded when we contemplate "living centers of beauty" that provide special tunnels to Godself.

  4. This tunneling idea is appealing to me Alex, if it leads away from religion's and mysticism's monopoly on supernatural spirituality. In the post-modern age, we have the ability to look deep into our past and examine what our ancestors used to consider spiritual, and then compare those ideas to what we understand today. Much has changed.

  5. perhaps it will be shown by science, at some later date, that the tunnel doesn't lead away from religious or mystical thought but to it and vice versa. i think art will precede this revelation via intuition and we probably won't see it until after the fact. (btw, i don't know how to post with my name so i'm just choosing anonymous. my name is jennifer w. reeves)

  6. Always good to see (hear) u fighting as always, Charlene.