color Beyond Kandinsky: Comments from Barbara Braathen

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


Saturday, April 2, 2011

Comments from Barbara Braathen

One of our readers, Barbara Braathen, has just submitted the following, which needs no introduction:

Checking the dictionary for "spiritual," it is defined as that which is incorporeal, etheric as opposed to physical, supernatural, sacred. To disassociate art from the spiritual is somewhat disingenuous, since the art-situation, however embodied, alludes to feelings, concepts, theories, possibilities, projections, or just memory itself, all non-physical. (I loved Atta Kim's discussion of the point in Kandinsky's writing.) For instance, while Donald Judd expressed an aversion to both illusion and allusion in art, his work nevertheless provides unique, valuable, and memorable experiences of simplicity, purity, and fineness itself. One of the panelists in this symposium, Suzanne Anker, bases her artwork on science and, by her statement here, eschews the spiritual; nevertheless, her work brings to our awareness science's incredible advances into the nature of nature, how we are composed, and confronts us, in aesthetic form, with the mystery of our own being. It appears that once one ponders the deeper issues of any work of art, one enters the realm of the ineffable, the spiritual.

In the 60s, when I was in school, and in a circle of young and ardent artists in Los Angeles, it was still acceptable to discuss the spiritual in art. This too was a period, perhaps like the early 20th century, when explorations into Mme. Blavatsky, Bishop Leadbeater, Annie Besant, Rudolf Steiner, the eastern religions, and then for us, Gurdjieff, AA Bailey, and many other mystics, were of great interest. We dabbled in channeling through automatic handwriting, lifted tables in séances, amplified our studies with the occasional psychedelic (discovering how truly unreliable are appearances), and witnessed Swami Satchidananda, at close range in a living room, in meditation levitating about four feet off the floor. I became convinced of the substantiality of the incorporeal, to say the least.

At that time, each exhibition of new art and each issue of Artforum were like powerful jolts of lightning, shaping the exciting present and charging up the future. There was a term often used in referencing contemporary art, viz.,"The Mission." Art's "Mission" was to open vision, to heal the heart, to feed the mind, to transcend all fetters into the freedom of the new and the creative, to perceive inventions from artists in order to be able to face challenges in a novel world with novel mental and emotional tools. Perhaps "The Mission" embodied the last dying gasp of the idealism which fueled modernism…but for us this was art's turf, and it was spiritual in nature, expansive into the unknown terrain of the soul, whether individual, collective, systemic, or cosmic. Bruce Nauman said it in 1967, in blazing neon, tongue-in-cheek or not: "The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths."

Sometime early in the 80s, not only did the future stop looking so exciting, but it was clear that the word "spiritual" as applied to art was absolutely unacceptable…and "The Mission" had entirely disappeared from discourse. I winced when you mentioned, Taney, that you were often met with pity upon bringing up this topic. Pity!!! I have always pitied those not interested in the spiritual mysteries which are of such great fascination to me…. But you learn to not bring up the topic, and eventually to appreciate the other side of thought.

I still believe that art has the power to change the individual, the culture, and the future, and that it inhabits a highly honorable, sacred field. Whether the artist's concern is political, phenomenological, descriptive, symbolic, scientific, cynical, decorative, aleatory, comical, conceptual, illustrative, numerical, whether the art installation is an accumulation of detritus or one of Platonic solids, and no matter what the artist claims, all art is essentially spiritual.


  1. Thanks for posting this on Barbara Braathen's behalf, Taney. It's beautiful, and surprisingly poignant.

    I love the way she describes the experience of Judd's art; it's very close to the way I've often approached it.

    As I've mentioned elsewhere in this symposium, I would push the decline of spiritual idealism among technophiles back another 15 or 20 years, but for the art world I think she's got the timing right.

  2. I would like to modify the last sentence a little bit :" art is essentially spiritual" and cultural... I think "culture" is the place that technologies jump in. Art is for the living people (will be the discussion of the next section), and speak to living generations through evolving languages--technology. I can't deny the possibility/power of many kinds of mysticism. However, I don't accept Bruce Nauman's point:"The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths" for many reasons, for example, it's hard to swallow the meaning of mystic truths and he severely biased the responsibility of an artist(will be discussed in the end section)in the mystical category that belongs to the spiritual at large. and yet, it says nothing about the culture...

  3. @ Jeff: Yes, I found it quite a beautiful statement.

    @ Yuting: I'm fairly sure Nauman had his tongue squarely in his cheek with that statement, but it's certainly a view that others take very seriously. I'm looking forward to hearing what everyone has to say about the role of the artist in a few days, as this is an issue that haunts us all, whether we're aware of it or not.