color Beyond Kandinsky: Response to Several Questions on 3 April

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

Response to Several Questions on 3 April

What a juicy day! Not to take up too much space here, I'll offer some brief responses to several questions that have been posed today.

On Buddhism—It's not really accurate to say that Buddhism is not a transcendent spiritual practice, though it's certainly not an example of the sort of vertical transcendence we are accustomed to into the West. Rather, it's a spiritual practice that illuminates nonduality and also transcends the mundane mind by showing meditators a glimpse of the incredibly dynamic, subtle field of energy/matter arising and passing away, arising and passing away every fraction of a second. Also, the Buddhist concept of karma is far more complex than the reductionist version known here (i.e., you do something good or bad, and it comes back to you). Instead, what Buddhist meditation teachers mean by karma is the interplay of all the dynamics in the universe, past and present, coming into play every moment, a "mind-blowing" totality far beyond the ken of the human comprehension. That is a transcendent dimension of reality.

On Steiner's influence on artists—There were two exhibitions on this in Germany last year (can be Googled): "Rudolf Steiner and Contemporary Art" at the Kunstmuseum in Wolfsburg and "Rudolf Steiner—Alchemy of the Everyday" (re historical modern artists) at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein.

On why Kandinsky went geometric—Not that the other influences mentioned weren't important, but the main reason was that when he had to leave Germany (being a foreign national) at the outbreak of WWI and return to Russia, what he found in the avant garde artists' scene back in his beloved Moscow was an all-encompassing fascination with the concept of sacred geometry (regarded as an illumination of the invisible reality and a path to evoking a new society). The Constructivists and Malevich considered Kandinsky a bit of an old fogey, but he was clearly influenced by their deep attraction to sacred geometry. He maintained his [really great, I feel] organic abstract style in his paintings till 1920, but when he returned to Germany the next year and took a position at the Bauhaus, he changed entirely to geometric abstraction for the rest of his life (though he introduced some biomorphic forms among the geometric shapes during his last decade, in Paris).

On why artists stopped talking and writing about esoteric spirituality after WWI—The sacrifice of almost an entire generation of young men (poured into the idiocy of trench warfare for more than four years [in the last two years of that war, life expectancy in the trenches was two weeks]) was a trauma that shattered European faith in Enlightenment promises of the progressive perfecting of society. Among the avant garde, there was reaction against "cosmic wallpaper" (as Van Doesburg and Grosz called Kandinsky's pre-war paintings) has an art that had proven itself powerless not only to bring forth a new society (as the artists had hoped) but even to stop the carnage in the trenches. The new priest was to be the engineer and the architect; the new path to deliverance from "materialism" was to be the clarity of their diagrams and blueprints. (However, this did not mean that that dozens of the "greats" of modern art lost interest in the spiritual, only that after the late 1920s they largely kept quiet about it, while still exploring it in their art. I have found that they often wrote about it in late-life letters and journal entries.)

On Malevich's spirituality—too long a story for here, but the short answer is that it was a combination of his Russian Orthodox formative experiences (he loved the medieval Russian block-form cross), the esoteric charge around sacred geometry, and his sense of his own role as a spiritual/aesthetic visionary. Here's the closing of a poem he wrote:


The live Spirit carries the flame
further and further and all see
the star and the sun already dead
for in the new transformation it
is not necessary.
In the new miracle there is no
Sun, no stars.
The light of Paradise
has gone out.
The era of the new beginning has dawned.


  1. Thanks, Charlene. This is an incredibly rich post, and it's deepened some thoughts I had about some of these topics, jogged my memory on others, and given me a lot of great things to track and consider more thoroughly.

    I'm glad you brought up the general misunderstanding of karma in the West. It's a very nuanced topic, especially when you start looking at it in terms of things like Madhyamaka (middle way) philosophy and its arguments that emptiness and dependent co-arising are two inextricable sides of the same coin. The concept is starting to gain ground in the West with the increased presence of scholarly books on Nagarjuna and on later Tibetan interpretations of his writings, but there's still a long way to go before cliches about karma are defeated.

    I also really like your description of attitudes after WWI and their effect on openness toward spirituality in art. It rings very true to me.

  2. I want to echo Jeff's response to this post, Charlene, by expressing my gratitude for your bringing new depth to our understanding of Buddhism, among other things. To me (and I'll admit that I've always been partial to the Hinayana or "lesser vehicle" school), Buddhism has always seemed particularly non-transcendent, in the sense that it stresses the here-and-now, rather than the there-and-then, dimension of salvation. But now that you've introduced the distinction between a vertical transcendence and another kind (I don't want to say horizontal), I have a better understanding of how we might conceive of transcendence differently.

    I also appreciate your pointing out the difficulty that ensues from our conventional Western notions of things like karma and reincarnation. These misconceptions no doubt contribute greatly to the suspicion of -- and resistance toward -- the spiritual in contemporary culture (certainly among intellectuals).