color Beyond Kandinsky: Response to a first crack

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

Response to a first crack

Jeff, you touch on so many interesting points. On the issue of “new paradigm thinking,” I can certainly understand the wariness on your part. Although I think Bohm has *not* been discredited in the way others may have been, I can appreciate the skepticism with which people greet the science-meets-spirituality issue. There’s been a lot of watered-down literature in that arena, but the same can be said of any genre. For me, Gregory Bateson is about as rigorous as they come, so I’ll remain sympathetic to the effort until the day he’s discredited (which I suspect we will not see!). (Few people other than Bateson could get away with a book with the subtitle “Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred.”)

I really appreciate that you brought up “the urgency to push us beyond what we know” in reference to Kandinsky’s enterprise, because that, to me, is his most lasting legacy. Save for those who believe that the universe is ultimately knowable – and that we’ll one day arrive at that summit of knowledge – I don’t see how the impulse to push beyond the known and marvel at the unknown will ever be obsolete. I like what Huston Smith has to say about this: “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder."

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Theosophy and Anthroposophy, about which I know little.


  1. On the mash-up of Eastern philosophy and Western physics; it seems to me that there is sufficient meta-materiality in Western science alone (e.g. dark matter, dark energy, dark flow) from with which to draw the inspiration to create something beyond the known. In that sense, nonobjective abstraction is the least interesting aspect of Kandinsky’s work and writing for me (as we know well what that is). I prefer thinking about his theory in terms of the “concrete” (I believe he preferred this term over the term “abstract”) when he wrote about the abstract as an energy that is “deeper down, … subject to the common laws of the cosmic world.” That might sound like something to do with dark matter and/or dark energy, to me. Anyway, I don’t think we can avoid the question of novelty that you raise. I might even have to ask, just how has the tourniquet of modernist anti-spirituality allowed us to tolerate things that are intolerable in art, such as the current situation of market value superseding artistic value? One might go even further and say that the world we have today - full of war, corruption, elitism, pollution, poverty, epidemic disease, human rights abuses, inequality and crime - is the result of anti-spirituality (if we discount the corrosive aspects of organized religions). I wonder what artistic strategies and techniques have power today in a confrontation with anti-spirituality? What art today produces the joy of connectedness?

  2. love those questions. let me just take this one: "I wonder what artistic strategies and techniques have power today in a confrontation with anti-spirituality?"

    I found this historical chains of "mirror":

    the Venus symbol (♀) is depicted as Venus's hand mirror(a circle with a small cross below it). Its meaning in western Astrological terms is Divine spirit (circle) over matter (cross);

    paintings with mirrors tend to be very attractive, for example, The Arnolfini Portrait+ Las Meninas;

    some abstract expressionist's paintings are called "the mirror of the soul";

    given the mirror's reflective property, a feedback loop or an iteration of a function/map is analogous to a mirror. A mirror becomes a metaphor of a means to constantly/repeatedly look into oneself, and improve oneself.

  3. We have indeed been tolerating the intolerable, Joseph -- in art and elsewhere. In thinking about all this, I keep coming up against a seeming contradiction, which is this: There seems to be both a decidedly anti-spiritual aspect to the modernist project (i.e., the mechanistic, materialistic, positivist, secular strain) *and* an emphatically transcendent, idealist, or metaphysical strain (embodied in the notion of the "march of progress," the various Utopian visions, ideas about salvation through technology, etc.). So it's not that the modernist project was anti-spiritual per se, but that it was (is) anti-spiritual in the particular sense that we're trying to get at here (i.e., "embodied" spirituality). This seems important, in the sense that to many of our contemporaries, "the spiritual" still connotes an obsession with the nether world -- some fictive realm beyond the here and now -- to which our earthly problems are utterly unrelated. take a stab at answering your question, I would say that any art that grounds us in this world, the world of our bodies, in such a way that we become extraordinarily aware of our inextricable connectedness with nature, other people, inanimate matter, and the larger whole (however that may be conceived) would do it. To me, much contemporary art is decidedly anti-spiritual in that it addresses itself primarily to *thought* -- to the exclusion of the body -- even if it thinks it's addressing "spiritual ideas." "Spiritual ideas" is oxymoronic anyway; to me, there is only "spiritual experience."

  4. @Taney: I'm just thinking that spiritual ideas and experience can hardly be separated. Maybe I'm wrong. Yet I think it's partly what mind philosophers and neural scientists are doing now. Perhaps, spirituality can be "embodied" and disembodied at the same time?

  5. Interesting point, Yuting. Is there a difference between, say, swimming and the idea of swimming? It seems fairly clear there is, but I suppose on a neural level they may be one and the same? I'm dubious...

  6. based on my very limited knowledge of this subject, I would take this example as saying:
    we have the idea of swimming because we sense our movements, skin contact with water... when we swim, we can't do it without any idea of swimming, otherwise, we will sink or float(until suffocated). it's just my thinking...

  7. Kandinsky was motivated by moving art away from idea - the Symbolist movement - and into "concrete" spiritualist values. Perhaps this is like swimming while remembering that you are swimming.

  8. @ Response to a first crack

    Hi, Taney. Thanks for the response. I tend to agree with you on Bohm. His work always seemed a lot more grounded than that of a lot of other people working along the same lines. Unfortunately, I don’t know Bateson’s work very well at all, but it sounds like it’s worth looking into.

    I’m working on something about Kandinsky, Steiner, and related topics; I’ll probably have it ready for posting sometime early tomorrow.

  9. @ Joseph & Yuting -- It seems to me that one has to have an idea of swimming in order to swim, but that one doesn't have to swim to entertain the idea of it. Analogously, you always have certain ideas about the spiritual when you're having the experience, but the ideas alone don't constitute or induce the experience. That said, there are those studies that report that the same biochemical changes occur in subjects who "merely think" about experiences as in those who actually experience them. I'm sure things are a lot more interesting on the neuro-physiological level than we now realize. In any case, I like the idea of swimming while remembering that you are swimming. That seems to speak to the strange gift we have of experiencing things while watching ourselves experience them, of being both "inside" and "outside" at the same time by virtue of self-consciousness.

  10. Before an artist can make authentically spiritual art they must have a mystical experience. This would explain why we see so little spiritual art, the mystical experience is a rare phenomenon. Same with critics, dealers, curators, historians - how can they identify or comprehend and "re-evaluate" the spiritual in art without a profound encounter with the Numinous? Once a person has such an experience, it changes their perspective on everything.

    The qualities or categories of a mystical experience are:

    Unity. There is a dissolving of ego boundaries and a feeling of oneness with the Cosmos. Self is experienced as pure vast network of awareness.

    Transcendence of Time and Space. There is a loss of usual references of time and space. Time seems eternal or even that one is "outside of time". The infinite becomes visible, palpable.

    Deeply Felt Positive Mood. There are feelings of blessedness, joy, and peace, and a sense of unconditional love. The uniqueness of these emotions is in the level to which they are elevated, the intensity of the experience.

    Sense of Sacredness. There is an intuitive sense of wonder and peace, a sense of special value, and a feeling of the holy and divine.

    Subjective Nature of the Experience. The knowledge seems conveyed not through words, but through the experience itself, and there is a certainty that this knowledge is authentic and direct.

    Paradoxicality. When attempting to explain the experience to others, there are frequently logical contradictions in explanations, such as emptiness in which one simultaneously feels full and complete, or a dissolution of self in which something of the individual remains to experience the phenomenon. There is both separateness from and unity with the surroundings.

    Alleged Ineffability. The experience seems to be beyond what words can define. Logical descriptions or interpretations are incapable of accurately describing the experience, partially due to the paradoxical nature of the phenomena. This is why art and music have been the language of mysticism for all religious traditions.

    Transiency. The actual time spent in the mystical state is temporary. A return to the everyday surroundings occurs after a short period, whether through sudden awakening or a gradual shift of awareness to the immediate environment.

    Persisting Positive Changes in Mood and Behavior.

    There are now scientifically proven, repeatable means to accessing the Mystic Experience, but not until we have significant numbers of people in the artworld visiting those realms will things change much.

  11. Alex, I appreciate your input on the mystical experience. I wonder: You mentioned in a previous comment something about the capacity of certain hallucinogens to induce the experience ("entheogens," as Huston Smith calls them). I wonder if you could say a bit more about this. I ask because it appears to be the consensus that the entheogenic experience is as "real" and as transformative as the one achieved "naturally" (aren't chemicals natural, I always ask?). This, to me, suggests a possible neurophysiological basis for the spiritual experience, which in turn suggests a rather materialist take on the phenomenon. Perhaps this issue has been laid to rest in certain quarters, but I do find it interesting and relevant.

  12. @Taney. I think the effort made by neural scientists is to correct the notion that "one doesn't have to swim to entertain the idea of it". If one is born blind, he would never know how a tree looks like. He needs to sense it through his visual sensor to have an idea of a tree. An idea does not make sense without a nervous system. from this perspective, I think there is no separation between the inside and outside.

  13. @ Yuting -- Ah yes, let me correct myself: I meant that one doesn't need to *be swimming* to entertain the idea of it. But I see your point. Indeed, ideas do not just "come down" to us from some other realm, nor can they be generated without embodiment. I believe we're on the same page here -- indivisibility of the bodymind! So, sticking to our analogy, ideas about the spiritual are impossible without prior experiential (i.e., bodymind) knowledge of it. But can they occur in the absence of the immediate experience of it? That's the point where we might be in disagreement.

  14. yes, indivisibility of bodymind is exactly what I tried to say. About that question, I think Alex just told us some Ideas of the mystical spiritual without the immediate experience of it. Maybe I've trivialized it, I think the answer should be yes.

  15. I don't think you've trivialized anything, Yuting!

  16. I do not disagree with (or discount) Alex's definition and approach to the spiritual in art, but it puts the emphasis firmly on subjective feeling. That is severely limiting, as, he points out correctly, "mystical experience is a rare phenomenon." And it is unverifiable to others.
    I think that if we are attempting to think out how ideas about the spiritual have changed (or may change) with the dissolution of the Modernist project in which Kandinsky's vision was so deeply embedded, then we must also look at objective and scientific approaches to it. This is the way of the New Atheism, specifically that of Sam Harris (the author of The End of Faith) based on his personal mystical/ecstatic experiences of the numinous.
    If the spiritual in art is only set in purely subjective feeling, then it is hard to see how it becomes strengthened. I think that the approach to spirit (vital energy) needs an objective and empirical approach also that is dependent upon the shared and repeatable. For me, the spiritual in art should not be THAT rare - as the spiritual eye recognizes that the human species is fluid, unified and connected in the way natural phenomenon is. And how we as humans fit into/are a part of the mysterious cosmological universe. From within a cosmological omnijective perspective, I think that Kandinsky's vision might expand, and so, new scenarios of spirituality might emerge that address questions that are asked of all those who think/create – especially artists – in the attempt to delineate the real phantasmagorical present.

  17. I agree with Joseph that the mystical spiritual is an extreme experience. The idea that the general spiritual can be put into scientific study is very alluring. So that we could have a continuum between the objective and subject.

  18. It's interesting that you mention the word numinous in connection with a more "rational" mysticism, Joseph, because I think it was Rudolf Otto (the one who coined the term "numinous") who defined mysticism as the over-stressing of the non-rational aspects of religion. I'm not familiar with Sam Harris's The End of Faith, but I'll be quite interested to read it.
    I tend to agree that the overemphasis on subjectivity is limiting and limited, but on the other hand I wonder how a spiritual experience (or any experience, for that matter) could fulfill the criteria of science (i.e., as you said, verifiability, repeatability, etc.). How can *experience* be rendered objective and empirical?
    It seems to me that, in spite of the fact that we're looking to transcend the dualisms inherent in the Modernist project, some things remain impervious to science. How can values and *meaning* -- so crucial not just to the spiritual but to art in general -- be objectified, measured, quantified, etc.? I clinging to an old and outmoded definition of science? Perhaps it is that science itself is changing, that it itself has gone beyond the Modernist vision.
    I do agree with you that the spiritual experience should not be altogether exceptional. In fact, it would seem to me that it's a capacity that lies dormant in all of us but that merely needs to be awakened and exercised. For help here I look to the historical Buddha, who was nothing if not a rigorously analytical empiricist. Was he not also profoundly spiritual? I doubt anybody would make such a claim!
    But Joseph, do say more about the "phantasmagorical present." That phrase comes up a lot in your work, and I'd love to hear you flesh that out a bit.

  19. @Taney: I haven't watched this documentary(The Spirit Molecule) yet, but I guess it's something people are searching :

  20. OK. I will post a new thread on the topic of the phantasmal character of electronic proliferation.

  21. Taney, you state, "This, to me, suggests a possible neurophysiological basis for the spiritual experience, which in turn suggests a rather materialist take on the phenomenon." I found an interesting quote from a neurophysiologist that speaks to this:

    "It is a fact of neuroscience that everything we experience is actually a figment of our imagination."

    —Susana Martinez-Conde
    Director of Laboratory of Visual NeuroScience
    Barrow Neurophysiological Institue

    (quoted from Scientific American, 2010)

    Taney,to quote Huston Smith again, "Reality is divinely ambiguous." That is, reality can be interpreted as a non-spirited material world or as fully saturated with spirit, or as the "imagination..." We make worldview choices based on our experiences. I guess God has always had compassion for agnostics and atheists. I was agnostic prior to my LSD experiences 36 years ago.

    LSD turns on a flood of imagination that feels like it is always just under the surface of perception. One closes the eyes and witnesses entire worlds with beings never seen before. The ornamental pattern language of every former culture and a few new ones flow like liquid self-transforming tattoos over all surfaces, which alternate between jewels and plasma as substance. Amidst all the imaginal overload, one's identity is redefined. The great Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi says that the imagination is where God meets God. This is our potential to realize. A spiritually inclined person who takes psilocybin in the the correct set and setting has a 65% chance of having a full blown mystical experience. (statistics from both Harvard Good Friday experiment and John's Hopkin's study)

    The impact of entheogens on our culture is one of the most profound and historically significant events, and largely unappreciated in our time. The artists journeying to mystic realms and painting or sculpting or making animations of the experience are birthing a new kind of sacred art, undreamed of in Kandinsky's time.

    I like the level of sophistication of the conversation in these threads that begin to grapple with the unfathomable complexities of consciousness.

    This intermeshing of body/mind in Taney and Yuting's thread points out the best way to contemplate Matter/Spirit. The difference between these dimensions is obvious, the material body is visible and measurable, but the inner world of consciousness is only visible to the inner eye, the spiritual eye of the self.

    The intersection of inner and outer worlds is where Ken Wilber's 4 quadrants come in handy...