color Beyond Kandinsky: Response to Charlene

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

Response to Charlene

I find your words about the dissolution of the mechanistic/dualistic worldview very encouraging, Charlene, and it’s good to hear a sanguine view from “your quarters” (i.e., from the disciplines of philosophy and religion). The emergence of so-called new paradigm science is something I’ve been following with great interest for years (the writings of David Bohm, Fritjof Capra, Ilya Prigogine, and Gregory Bateson, in particular, have given me great hope for a new systemic/holistic/ecological worldview). But I must say that I’ve also been a bit dismayed by how little the broader culture seems to have absorbed the new thinking – and, sadly, even more dismayed by how far art has strayed from any serious engagement with it. The “new” paradigm is getting on in years, and meanwhile our fate as a species is looking grimmer with each passing year.

The issue of the art world’s chilly reception to anything related to the spiritual is perplexing, but I think you’ve put your finger on the core problem: the persistence of the modernist project of “liberation from nature” and salvation through science and technology *at nature’s expense*, which carries with it certain refusals (of the body, of the environment, of, as you said, tradition). I might also add that there seems to be an element of misogyny inherent in the modernist project (someone somewhere has linked modern art with the “rhetoric of virility”), which associates anything spiritual with weakness, passivity, etc. And then there is the current disdain for metaphysics so endemic to academic postmodernism. But all this said, I do see signs of hope – particularly in the younger generation’s concern for the environment. I’m not sure the ecological crisis is broadly considered a spiritual problem, but I could be wrong.


  1. Look at some of the artists that are generally considered spiritual, Joseph Beuys being one of the most important recent examples. His body of work relates to Shamanism, the real "old time religion." Beuys helped start the Green Party in Germany. Beuys creative engagement with Nature, such as the planting of 7,000 Oak Trees, was a spiritual as well as sculptural performance/action. To cite a more recent example, Julia Butterfly Hill is an artist that spent over 2 years in a tree to prevent it from being cut down. Although her work is not well known in the art marketplace, the vigil was widely reported. For her it was spiritual activism.

    To dust off the "new paradigm" check out recent advances by Clare Graves and Don Beck's work in Spiral Dynamics, and the integral vision of Ken Wilber. Ken has brought together many "orienting generalities" that point beyond post-modernism and integrate the world wisdom traditions. Any artist can benefit from studying his multi-perspectival view.

    A curious anomaly in today's "chilly reception" to spiritual art is the prevalence and popularity of psychedelic imagery in many artists works. Think of Murakami's mushrooms, or Rist's video swirls or Fred Tomaselli's embedded leaves. Not that the majority of psychedelic art is spiritual, but there is a connection. See Johns Hopkins study on psilocybin. Perhaps the neo-psychedelic wave, now fueled by ayahuasca instead of LSD will lead courageous artists to explore an earth honoring non-dual spirituality, bursting with visionary sacred archetypes enough to kick the psycho-evolutionary cultural pedal to the metal. I've always felt that the redemptive mission of Art is the uplifting of humanity beyond it's self-destruction. That is a spiritual mission.

    Taney, thanks for furthering these great conversations.

  2. Thanks, Alex, for this illuminating comment. I'm glad you've brought figures like Joseph Beuys and the contemporary "spiritual activists" into the fold. I'll have much more to say on these later, when we take the official turn into artistic practice. But until then, your observations about the prevalence of psychedelic imagery in some contemporary art and the "newer new paradigm" are much appreciated.

  3. @Taney. Don't be too dismayed by how little the broader culture seems to have absorbed spirituality. I see (well, hear) strong spiritual trends in Trance Music culture for over 10 years now.