color Beyond Kandinsky: Daniel Siedell on the economy of the icon

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, April 7, 2011

Daniel Siedell on the economy of the icon

In an earlier thread, I asked Daniel Siedell if he would give us some further thoughts on what he calls the "economy of the icon" in his book God in the Gallery. Because Kandinsky's relationship to icon painting and veneration has not yet been touched on, and because what Dan says about it is relevant to our current topic, I'm reposting his response below:

Dan said:

The icon opens up an interesting divide in the history of Christianity, between the West and the East. The West never really gets what the fuss is all about with the icon and the violent iconoclasm that ensued in the eighth century. In the West icons/images, etc. are good for teaching and illustration. In the East, it is more profound; it is a matter of preserving the Incarnation of Christ and the connection of the spiritual and the material. The economy of the icon presumes this connection. The icon reveals the union of the divine and the material. One of the more interesting aspects of this tradition is the criticism that Eastern thinkers level against Western representational art, especially the Renaissance. This is also why there is a certain connection to the icon and abstract art. The Russian Pavel Florensky is an example. He sees the Renaissance as draining the spiritual (and divine) from the material with its excessive naturalism (perspective). Nature is not denied, it is pushed through to reveal its true basis as a spiritual reality.

The philosopher Jean Luc Marion has argued that the contemporary crisis of the image (his phrase) could be rectified by Nicaea II, which is the seventh ecumenical council that mandated the use of icons—a rather provocative and interesting assertion.

But the economy of the icon also includes its use. It is venerated—that is not just looked at but kissed, bowed in front of, touched, etc. Icons were present in churches but also in homes—little prayer corners. Malevich made use of the "prayer" corner as well in exhibiting his paintings.

Another aspect of the icon is the character of the artist, who must engage in fasting, prayer, etc. to be prepared to make the work. Tarkovsky's film, "Passion of Andrei Rublev" doesn't depict him painting a single icon.

I think that aspect of ascetical commitment to art on the part of the icon painter was extremely attractive to Kandinsky and Malevich—that the artist needed to have a certain kind of character in order to make spiritual art. But that spirituality is informed by a profoundly embodied sense of religious practices in and around the making and venerating of icons, a sense they had experienced both directly but perhaps most important indirectly.

Such theological discourse around the icon is clearly "religious," in the sense that it is shaped by public ritual, practice, etc. and for the purpose of establishing institutional boundaries. However, I'm interested in exploring how such thought, clearing shaped by "religion" can be exhumed from that context and made to serve non-religious needs, serve or illumine certain "spiritual" concerns in an explicitly secular cultural context.

1 comment:

  1. Yuting Zou said:

    "In the West icons/images, etc. are good for teaching and illustration." Is it true that in the northern Europe, the use of icon is minimized? Since you put it "The icon reveals the union of the divine and the material." will you explicitly say something about the problem of northern Christian religion (reformed doctrines, in my mind)?

    Yuting Zou said:

    Since then, there are many more divisions in the history of Christianity, probably not to do with Icons. @Dan, will you say more about how these "bifurcations" of Christianity affect the related aesthetics, or vice versa?

    Taney Roniger said...

    RE: "The economy of the icon presumes this connection [i.e., between the material and the spiritual]." This makes a lot of sense to me in terms of my ideas about presence. I also seem to remember your writing somewhere about the space in between presence and reference -- about how this "in between" is where meaning resides. I like this idea of the "in between" very much.

    Thanks for all your thoughts, Dan, and I'm glad Tarkovsky's "Passion of Andrei Rublev" made its way into the discussion. Perhaps some of the other panelists will comment on what you've said.

    Daniel Siedell said:

    William Desmond makes a lot of "in between," which he takes from Plato and the "metaxu." Desmond is a specialist on Hegel and a very original thinker who might be very helpful.

    Although the West (Latin Church) didn't know what the fuss with icons and iconoclasm was all about, the West however did believe that the Eastern defenders of icons were crypto idolaters. Charlemagne received a very bad mistranslation of the Nicaea II and that lingered for a long time and did in fact color Northern European understanding of images, effecting Luther even but more particularly Calvin and Zwingli and the "Reformed" branch of the Reformation. Leo Koerner has written a tremendous book on Luther and Lucas Cranach, entitled The Reformation of the Image that explores Luther's ambivalent attitude toward images. Even the humanism of Erasmus is iconoclastic and thus bears the Northern European attitude of skepticism of images, a skepticism that requires words to anchor them, discipline them.

    Christianity has unity but it is much more diverse intellectually and culturally (i.e,. "religiously") than is often acknowledged. The most surprising revelation is to encounter the Eastern tradition which at times seems to bear more kinship to Buddhism and Taoism than with contemporary Protestant Christianity. Although the different Christian traditions aren't defined by images, they can be distinguished by their views on the Eucharist and therefore on their views of matter. The higher the view of the Eucharist (whether Christ is truly present in the elements) the more friendly the tradition is to art and the image. So, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopalian traditions are much more open to imagery than Reformed (Calvinist), Baptist, and other Free Church traditions.

    Modernity as a cultural, social, and intellectual phenomenon seems very Protestant to me, which makes such artists like Kandinsky and Malevich (Matisse, too?) and their interest in icons to be evidence of some resistance to a purely materialistic view of the world.

    For a great introduction to the theology of the icon, Gabriel Bunge wrote a little essay on Rublev's Holy Trinity, translated by Andrew Louth and published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.