color Beyond Kandinsky: The abandoned spiritual ideals of modern art

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


Sunday, April 3, 2011

The abandoned spiritual ideals of modern art

Before our current session draws to a close this evening, I thought I’d re-present an interesting question that came up in one of our recent threads, lest it become buried in the archive prematurely. The question seems fundamental to what we’re trying to accomplish here, in the sense that in order to move forward we need to have an adequate understanding of how we arrived at our current situation. The question is: Why were the spiritual ideals of modern art, embodied so powerfully not just by Kandinsky’s enterprise but also by Mondrian’s and Malevich’s, abandoned? What was the shift that occurred after which artists felt they could no longer seriously (or at least openly) pursue spiritual ideals in their work?

Joseph has cited art for art’s sake as a probable cause and has implicated figures such as Barbara Rose in its rise. Although I agree with this, I think we would do well to push the question one step further and ask: How to account for the widespread appeal of art for art’s sake on the part of the artists who took it on and the larger art world that embraced it? To what complex of attitudes or unconscious desires did it appeal? Could a sense of failure, of art’s impotence in the face of the great tragedies of the twentieth century, be a part of this?

I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts on this from either our panelists or our reading audience. The question currently has us stumped.


  1. I will speculate that this psychic lock down occurred when artists turned away from the unconscious mind (sought via automatism in Dada, Surrealism and AE) and towards the conscious mind in Formalism, Hard-edge painting, Color field painting, Minimalism and Pop art. The why this happened may be as stupid as market saturation for AE.

  2. That's an interesting shift in orientation you point out there, Joseph: from unconscious to conscious, and it seems right to me. I may be pressing the issue too hard, but my question remains: why? I'm going to suggest it may have had to do with a resurgence of the need to control (i.e., one's own mind, one's environment, other people, etc.). I'm reminded of Wilhelm Worringer's book Abstraction and Empathy, with its thesis that links the tendency toward rigid, geometrical forms and a fundamental sense of existential insecurity. Do we seek in art what we lack existentially?

  3. The first world war seemed to have a tremendous effect on the spiritual--the Dadaists, especially those in Berlin (Hausmann, Baader, et al) blamed the German Expressionists and their excessive concern with The Spiritual for the War and current state of German culture.

    I have also thought about what motivated Malevich to retreat from abstraction and return to figuration later in his career. I wonder if that is related somehow to the state of the spiritual.

    Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual has a tremendous impact on American artists, though, during the first few decades of the twentieth century, and I wonder if the American artists approach the Spiritual through a particular Emersonian/transcendental approach to Nature that is particularly receptive to the Spiritual at a time when it wanes on the Continent. What this might mean is that there are two careers of "The Spiritual" at this time, a Continental one and an American one.

  4. Dan, you bring up a topic that seems crucial to our current session (and the next), and this is the perception held by many that concern with the spiritual is escapist or indulgent -- that it is unconnected to the "real-life" concerns of things like poverty, hunger, violence, etc. -- , making its pursuit in art seem frivolous at best. The example you cite of the German Dadaists blaming the German Expressionists' concern with the spiritual for the war is an extreme case, but I think that sentiment is still operative today in many circles.

    I wonder if there is any truth to this perception. I'm personally inclined to deny it, and to assert that engagement with spiritual concerns *is* engagement with real-life concerns, but I think the question is worth asking. There are figures such as Suzi Gablik who have pushed for a re-engagement with society in art and whose vision for a new spiritual art has artists out of their studios, away from the rarified concerns of "spiritual" painting and drawing, and out acting *in the world*.

  5. @Daniel: if possible, I'm eager to hear what your voice on the impact of Christianity on the spiritual art. In particular, the rise and fall of different schools of Christianity and the split of doctrines...

  6. Seems to me we need to then trace German Expressionism to its root in German Transcendental Idealism, basically the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and his immediate followers. The basis of the aesthetic idealist movement, which manifested in the art and poetry of the period, was largely Kant's transcendental idealism. Kant had upheld that the phenomenal world is produced a priori by the activity of consciousness reacting on an external reality which cannot be known. The constancy of experience is accounted for by the very fact that the world as we know it is only the sum total of phenomena. This becomes the basis of the universal validity of certain principles of explanation, for example space and time become subjective and thus ideal. Taken together they form a mould in which we shape the impressions coming from an unknowable, transcendent reality.
    Thus with Kant the imagination is celebrated as a "creative transforming of the real into the ideal."
    Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) was the first representative of the transcendental idealistic movement to articulate an inner aesthetic development of the mind. Thus Lessing situated idealism directly in aesthetics. Thereafter, the German librarian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) applied transcendental idealistic ideas to the visual arts.

  7. On the basis of Kant's transcendental deduction Friedrich Wilhelm Josef von Schelling interpreted the process of development in a purely ideal manner, as the unconscious opposition of the absolute to itself. Schelling, whom H. D. Schenk in his book The Mind of the European Romantics characterizes as being "self-intoxicated on metaphysical speculation", worked out his identitatsphilosophie by extending to consciousness the view that conscious subject and object are identical. The sum-total of existence then becomes the absolute as perceived by itself. With Schelling the absolute comes to consciousness in order that we may enjoy the pure aesthetic contemplation of the unity of mind and nature.
    It should be remembered however that already by 1800 many spheres of life had proclaimed their independence from religion, as politics first exerted its autonomy followed by economics and science; a trend which lead up to Théophile Gautier's (1811-1872) celebrated declaration of the l'art pour l'art (art for art's sake) ideal in his 1852 poetic book Emaux et Camées.
    The immediate result of the aesthetic-metaphysical system of Schelling was a revival of the poetic production known as Romanticism.