color Beyond Kandinsky: Final Thoughts 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 9, 2011

Final Thoughts from Barbara Braathen

Barbara Braathen, a reader who submitted an eloquent statement early on in the symposium, has offered some final thoughts on our project. I'm deeply grateful for her contributions. Here's what she said:

Interest in the Spiritual in Art has risen and fallen a number of times over the last hundred years, and is treated differently and in varying intensities in different circles. It was exciting to hear about the techno-garde lingo of the 90s… spirituality peeps over the horizon again!

My belief is that the spiritual is what provides art with value. This would be the loosest possible appraisal of the spiritual, viz., that it is pleasurable, it stimulates the imagination, and it is expansive. The art realm, the entire realm, and all works of art participate in the spiritual in this manner.

I disagree with Alex Grey that in order for an artist to deal with mysticism in art, the artist must have a mystical experience. After 50 years of interest in this subject, perhaps my mystical experiences (not counting those regarding art) might add up to five seconds. The mystical experience is in the making of the art, not exactly in purveying the content of spirituality. One artist referred to the "numinosity" of the making experience, a sort of bond between self and other…. When ordinary time does not pertain as one is lost in the process of creation. This unity, this placement of self within the whole, can be felt as well when apprehending the work of art. It's a mystical process… not the conscientious engagement of mysticism as a topic.

My belief is that, until recently, artists have always known that their enterprise was on spiritual, and valuable, ground. All the cheeky inventions of the avant-garde—for which we must be humbly grateful—were made because the artist worked with total confidence that whatever was produced was for "higher" purposes. The spiritual content of art might be left unsaid, unexamined, and unacknowledged, but it existed as an unquestioned given. Even the turn to machine aesthetics was for a utopian, harmonious society, a visionary quest; this was not non-spiritual.

The nervousness, uncertainty, and doubt about much of today's art production is, I believe, because that lifeline, the spiritual in art, is ignored, even disparaged. The teachers of art and art history listened too hard and ultimately believed hook, line and sinker, in the party line of nihilism. Yes, Duchamp broke open the field of materials in art, bringing in the realm of the ordinary. But Duchamp was an occultist. If, as an art student, you learn only that he took any object and claimed it as art, voila… and you can do it too…. This is only part of the truth.

When did it become forbidden to mention the word spiritual regarding art? The interesting formalist trajectory, begun with Manet in the 1860s, terminated in the 1970s with body, process, installation, and new media art. Coming off the decade of the 60s, where Pop, in joke form, and Minimal, in silent mode, reacted to the passions of Abstract Expressionism… we had already by the 70s almost a decade of marginalizing the spiritual in art. Cool prevailed, and still does. Since then, there have been other major developments to absorb. In the 80s, the cult of the personality, of social circles, and entertainment columns became more important than talking about the work itself. Then, in the 90s and 00s, the extraordinary expansion of the once-tiny art market into the global and corporate player it now is. Art is participating in the larger culture of the spectacle on a scale unheard of previously. There is now so much art and so much art activity, there is no way to know everything, there is no way to go to all the art fairs. We are not only overwhelmed with data, but the contemporary art world is now a large social circle of interdependents who don't want to offend each other… so there is no judgment. Coolness is reinforced by the era of political correctness. But I view this cynicism as skin deep… not even beginning to penetrate the value of the spiritual.

In this large circle, there is no "high art". Because the "spiritual" rests upon values determining "higher" realms, perhaps this is why the spiritual is not addressed. Or perhaps nothing much is being expressed… better silent than wrong? I paraphrase here a statement made some years ago by Philippe de Montebello in Art Newspaper as an aside during an interview: "It seems that in the field of contemporary art, people do not feel free to comment." Curious, because as far as I know, the spiritual is about achieving ultimate freedom…. And so is art.

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