color Beyond Kandinsky: Alex Grey on mysticism and entheogens

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


Friday, April 1, 2011

Alex Grey on mysticism and entheogens

One of our readers, Alex Grey, has made a significant contribution to this session with his comments. Because he brings up a number of issues not yet addressed by the rest of us, and because his views have sparked some interesting dialogue/debate, I'm reposting some of his comments below followed by some of the comments on his comments.

Alex says:

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.


  1. 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.

  2. Alex says:

    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...

  3. To which Joseph says:

    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.

  4. The question of the relationship between science and the spiritual is something I'm keenly interested in, and it seems to be coming up repeatedly in these threads in one guise or another. However divergent Joseph's and Alex's views may be, they seem to have one thing in common, and this is their persistent appeal to science for either reconciliation, verification, or validation. I'm wondering if the spiritual *needs* to be reconciled with or verified/validated by science in order to be considered real or taken seriously. While I realize that recent science has revealed a world far more complex, paradoxical, nonlinear, and interesting than we had ever imagined, I wonder about the inherent limitations of scientific knowing and whether this epistemology is appropriate for the apprehension of things like value, meaning, quality, etc. (i.e., all the things that make up *experience*).