color Beyond Kandinsky: Session IV: The Artist in Society

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


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Session IV: The Artist in Society

Our fourth and final session, which begins today and runs through tomorrow evening, will set its sights on an issue that echoes throughout Kandinsky’s book and that continues to haunt serious artists in our time—namely, that of the role of the artist in society. Whether as prophets or visionaries serving as beacons to a benighted world, as in Kandkinsky’s case, as “interventionists” seeking to bridge the gap between art and life, as with such figures as Joseph Beuys and John Cage, or as champions of art’s utter autonomy such as Frank Stella, the role of the artist remains as fraught and problematic as it was a century ago. With a view toward opening possibilities for how a new spiritual art might position itself within the larger culture, I pose the following questions:
  1. Shaman, seeker, prophet, visionary; genius, eccentric, cultural rebel, renegade: Have these roles gone the way of the Modernist dream? What kinds of alternative roles can we conceive for the artist, and how can we work toward their implementation?
  2. Has Kandinsky’s enterprise of defiance and revolt—his self-appointed role as “spiritual warrior”—been rendered suspect by contemporary sensibilities, or is there still a place for an oppositional avant-garde in contemporary culture?
  3. What role might activism—environmental, political, social—play in a new spiritual art?
  4. What is the role of the personality of the artist in today’s art culture? Has the person of the artist displaced the former role of his/her work, and in what ways might this be damaging and/or beneficial to the “spiritual atmosphere” of our culture?
  5. Does the supreme value placed on the individual that is such a large part of the legacy of Modernism continue to disincline artists toward work that engages questions of relatedness, or our embeddedness in the larger whole? Are these latter engagements seen as "weaker" pursuits, suited only for the less talented and ambitious?


  1. Daniel A. SiedellApril 7, 2011 at 8:40 AM

    As extreme as the spiritual roles are, it seems that a recovering or reviving them might offer an needed antidote to the cynical unbelief in art that dominates the contemporary art world, which might give artists a purpose for making art that is more than reflecting the confusions of society.

  2. Dan, your comment brings up the age-old question about whether art is a mirror or lathe to culture. I'd say it can and should be both. While there is certainly something of value in art's reflecting societal ills, it seems to me that it should also have a more active, creative, and inspiring role. The distinction breaks down anyway when one thinks of the reinforcing effect that being constantly reminded of one's failures and shortcomings has -- i.e., that it tends to perpetuate them. So by "merely" reflecting, art is in fact further shaping culture, whether knowingly or not. I myself don't need to be further reminded of the fragmented, confused, cynical, and base aspects of our culture in art, since I'm treated to all these every day in just about every other sphere of culture.

    I wonder how we can work toward a reintroduction of some of the spiritual roles for art in a way that won't seem like a recapitulation of the failed utopian ideals of the past.