color Beyond Kandinsky: Mar 30, 2011

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, March 30, 2011

Response to Charlene


I find your words about the dissolution of the mechanistic/dualistic worldview very encouraging, Charlene, and it’s good to hear a sanguine view from “your quarters” (i.e., from the disciplines of philosophy and religion). The emergence of so-called new paradigm science is something I’ve been following with great interest for years (the writings of David Bohm, Fritjof Capra, Ilya Prigogine, and Gregory Bateson, in particular, have given me great hope for a new systemic/holistic/ecological worldview). But I must say that I’ve also been a bit dismayed by how little the broader culture seems to have absorbed the new thinking – and, sadly, even more dismayed by how far art has strayed from any serious engagement with it. The “new” paradigm is getting on in years, and meanwhile our fate as a species is looking grimmer with each passing year.

The issue of the art world’s chilly reception to anything related to the spiritual is perplexing, but I think you’ve put your finger on the core problem: the persistence of the modernist project of “liberation from nature” and salvation through science and technology *at nature’s expense*, which carries with it certain refusals (of the body, of the environment, of, as you said, tradition). I might also add that there seems to be an element of misogyny inherent in the modernist project (someone somewhere has linked modern art with the “rhetoric of virility”), which associates anything spiritual with weakness, passivity, etc. And then there is the current disdain for metaphysics so endemic to academic postmodernism. But all this said, I do see signs of hope – particularly in the younger generation’s concern for the environment. I’m not sure the ecological crisis is broadly considered a spiritual problem, but I could be wrong.

Answer to Taney's Question


Actually, Taney, academic departments of religion are not the place to find the cutting edge. I would say that the dissolution of the dualistic worldview, though, is a phenomenon that informs the contemporary interest in the West in Buddhism and other Asian spiritual orientations, as well as the spreading influence of ecological thought, or the realization of the interrelated nature of reality, which is gradually transforming our institutions and systems of knowledge. Nonduality in the modern West has received a boost, as well, from the new physics, complexity studies in science, and recent discoveries in relational physiology. In the past few decades many people situated in organized religion have sought out neglected teachings in their tradition about the perspective of nonduality (such as the medieval mystics in Christianity or the Sufi poets).

As for your surmising about the cool, or concerned, reception in the art world you received to the idea of this symposium, as you wrote in your initial essay, that reaction is probably partially related to the canonical narrative in art history: with the first exhibition of the Impressionists in 1874, art took a courageous leap into the modern project, away from all that was rejected (religion, tradition, community ties, extended family obligations, the "tyranny of nature"). With nearly everyone in the art world schooled in that perspective, any talk of "the spiritual" seems to be a step backwards into superstition, cowering before priests or rabbis, and sinking into muddled thought. In addition, of course, there is the horrendous record of many religious institutions. Some people today find it easy to separate a spiritual practice, or quest, from all that; others hold that any such separation is an illusion and that any interest in spirituality is dangerous or, at the very least, unsophisticated and not serious.

Response to Max and Charlene


I’m grateful to Max for introducing the Asian dimension into our conversation and to Charlene for bringing up the legacy of Theosophy. Both are so important to an understanding of “the spiritual then and now.” I wonder, Charlene, if you can tell us if the movement you describe away from *either* immanence or transcendence alone in favor of something else—some more viable and healthy alternative to the dualism—is now the prevalent thinking in religious studies departments within academia. I would suspect that it is, but from my vantage point at least, the art world has not entirely caught on to this. This may be one reason for the current suspicion of the spiritual within the art world—i.e., that to many people the spiritual is still manifestly tied to the realm of elsewhere and otherwise and thus wholly unrelated to matters of “real life.”

Immanence as well as Transcendence


As the focus of this symposium is "Going Beyond" the views Kandinsky presented about art and spirituality in one book, On the Spiritual in Art, it's important to realize that he was strongly influenced during the eight years or so of journal entries that became that book by the enthusiasm among young artists in Germany and elsewhere then for the spiritual orientation called Theosophy. (Before and after that period, Kandinsky's main spiritual orientation was Russian Orthodox Christianity.) When Mme. Blavatsky framed Theosophy in her two major books, Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), her goal was to jump in front of the "parade" formed by the huge following that Darwin had. She trumped Darwin by announcing that the evolution he describes is merely material but that the evolution she describes is far larger, greater, more subtle, and encompasses "the merely material." This idealist, anti-material bias to the spirituality in Kandinsky's book is still available in many quarters (in fact, Theosophy itself still lives), but with our planet in extremely serious ecological peril, attention to transcendent levels of being without attention to the physicality of our existence and that of the entire Earth community is irresponsible and destructive. The idealist orientation is clearly something we need to "go beyond."

Perhaps the greatest distinction between the Theosophical questing of so many European artists in the early years of the 20th century and what is emerging now is the nondualistic understanding of "immanent" and "transcendent." Long seen as opposites in Western cultural history, transcendence is coming to be understood as "beyond" but not "above" the material plane we can see in every day life. What science calls "complex dynamical systems" has illuminated in recent decades the extraordinarily creative, complex, dynamic processes going on at every fraction of a second within, around, and through every entity in the universe. Our minds will never be able to map the endless networks of what I call "relational reality," so spirituality that seeks to commune with either immanence or transcendence now sees that they are not apart. This realization is not new to Eastern philosophy or indigenous cultures, of course; we were simply late coming to it in the modern West because of our dualistic and mechanistic worldview.

The artists of Kandinsky's time were, I feel, asking the right questions (Is there something going on in addition to the visible world?) but got caught up in answers that steered their spiritual path solely toward engagement with transcendence at the expense of engagement with immanence. On the other hand, it was apparently the right path at the time for Kandinsky since he arrived at those stunning pre-WWI paintings (his numbered Composition series and others). Esoteric spirituality, regardless of our views of it today, was a bountiful source of inspiration for a range of prominent artists in several countries at that time. We, however, live in a different time.

A response to Session I questions


(1) How have our ideas about the spiritual changed with the dissolution of the Modernist dream, in which Kandinsky's vision was so deeply embedded?

What dissolution?! The Modernist dream has deepened and magnified.

(2) How has the notion of transcendence changed? Is transcendence still viable in a largely secular, postmodern culture?

Yes. We know much more about the world's cultures. For instance: the phenomenal growth of American Buddhism; our understanding and study of Indian Gurus; and the emergence of current Indian Art.

(3) What might account for the deep suspicion -- or indeed denial -- of the spiritual shared by many artists and intellectuals in our culture?

Postmodernism, cynicism, parody, materialism, suicide. These nihilistic tendencies choose academic study and ritual in an effort subvert our collective spiritual connectivity. Spirituality is perception and clear perception delivers the truth. Krishnamurti delivers the truth. My primary school model was "seek after truth."

(4) How have attitudes toward nature, the material world, and the body changed since Kandinsky?

As art history moves forward artists have branched off into ever more specialized investigations into all things. New and old ideas are explored and enriched. Beauty is found and lost.

(5) In what ways has the rise of digital technology impacted our ideas about the spiritual? Does it present a new vision of transcendence or salvation?

The rise of technology has furthered the methods by which we can explore the spiritual. New dimensions are opened up and new ideas for us to play with. The vision remains the same: truth. Everything else changes around it.

(6) Are the Enlightenment principles championed by Modernity (i.e., rationalism, positivism, materialism, etc.) being superseded by a new, more spiritually-inclined worldview—or is the spiritual being rendered obsolete by a wholly new orientation?

"The spiritual" as a concept is incredibly broad and open. It cannot be rendered obsolete as it is in all things in some language or form in every culture on the Earth.

(7) Does science have a role to play in exploring new approaches to or understandings of the spiritual?

Yes, science has a role to play as does alchemy, in understanding aspects of the transcendent.

Follow-up to Joseph


I agree with Joseph’s suggestion that we move away from the limiting emphasis on the subjective inner life in our thinking about the spiritual. And I agree that David Bohm’s implicate order provides a beautiful model for a new approach, since it emphasizes our “enfoldment” within the greater whole (and, by extension, its enfoldment within each one of us). It seems clear to me that if we are to really move “beyond Kandinsky,” the latter’s Manichean dualism is the glaring obstacle. I am a bit cautious about taking all our cues from science, however. I say this not because I’m suspicious of science itself (least of all the kind proposed by “new paradigm” thinkers such as Bohm), but because it seems that the over-emphasis on (some might say glorification of) science over the last century has too often led to a dangerous scientism… But more on this later. I’m eager to hear how others might propose we rethink our definition of the spiritual.

Current definitions of “spirituality”


I wonder if we can agree on a current definition of “spirituality”—as it may have a somewhat different meaning to each of us.

Perhaps I will jump in here with some added focus on what some of the current thinking is on the meaning of “inner life” and “spirituality”, before contemplating how it relates to (and differs from) Kandinsky's older version.

A standard (inadequate) current definition of “spirituality”, might be, "a sense of meaning and purpose; a sense of self and of a relationship with that which is greater than self." This puts the emphasis on subjective feeling. However, objective science has recently shown how human beings are subject to the exact same ephemeral forces of nature as everything else. (See: David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order Add on to that, the emergence of the virtual: a secondary ephemeral state of interconnected relationships, also grounded in science (computer science). So, the medium by which the current spiritual is expressed, is Science, for the Scientific Method has allowed us insight into natural and virtual processes. Thus we can better understand (and feel) how we fit (or don’t) into the current system as a whole.

This arousing knowledge is what I think of when I think of the “spiritual”—a realization (proven by science) that humans are deeply tied up within the powers of nature. This is a realization of immanence, of course: we are entangled and immersed within the energetic, ephemeral and phantasmagorical. Here the dogmatic transcendent relationship once typical of spirit (to body) no longer functions.

This immanent understanding presents a somewhat different spiritual worldview than Kandinsky's, as it forces on us the idea of invisible, phantasmal, interdependent connection.

This mode of understanding may suggest new (saner) modes of art achievement and productive perception (the seeing of free unity and equality as spiritual) as it does not need to see and recognize the outdated distinctions of national borders, races, religions, creeds or class.

Welcome 2


Welcome to the discussion, everyone. The "spiritual" as we are discussing it here is not necessarily connected with a specific religious tradition, but is an expression of (or recognition of) the existence of an inner life. It is a uniquely human capacity for perceiving the ineffable quality of existence, that which is hidden beneath the surface; it is an intelligence about or sensitivity to the relationships between the self and other, between the world that we perceive through our senses and the very personal nature of the senses themselves. The overarching subject of the conversation over the next 10 days is how artists working today relate with those experiences in their work and whether art and artists have a particular role to play in exploring that world and revealing it to others. I look forward to reading everyone’s thoughts about this seemingly hidden aspect of contemporary art, which at its core, is an acknowledgment of an experience of the sacred or transcendent.



As we open this forum to the public today I would like to welcome everyone to our online symposium, Beyond Kandinsky: Revisiting the Spiritual in Art, sponsored by the BFA Fine Arts Department at the School of Visual Arts. Before beginning, I want to extend my thanks to Suzanne Anker, Chair of BFA Fine Arts here at SVA, for her continued support of this project, and to each of the nineteen participants who have graciously accepted our invitation to gather here and share their thoughts about the spiritual in art over the next ten days. Thanks to this diverse group of accomplished artists, critics, and scholars, the forthcoming dialogue promises to be a dynamic and illuminating one indeed.

Each of our participants was asked to give a brief introduction outlining her or his background and relationship to our subject. Readers who would like to familiarize themselves with our panel before entering the dialogue are encouraged to visit the participants and statements pages on our website. Moderator essays introducing the project can also be found on the statements page. For further information about the project, see the homepage of our website:

The live component of our project, which is the focus of this forum, begins today and will run continuously through the evening of Friday, April 8th. Over the course of the next ten days we will be exploring the subject of the spiritual in art, using Kandinsky’s century-old classic both as a point of departure and as a framing device with which to gain a fresh perspective on our current situation. We will be addressing four interrelated topics, each roughly delineating one aspect of our subject and fleshed out by a set of questions at the start of each session. Both the topics and the questions are intended primarily to catalyze dialogue and to provide a structure for the discussion.  Participants are welcome to respond in any way they see fit, whether from their personal and professional experience or from a theoretical perspective. Excursions, deviations, and musings of all kind are encouraged.

Throughout, we’ll welcome moderated comments from our reading audience. Every effort will be made to place these in a relevant context within the flow of the real-time dialogue.

Without further ado, let me introduce our first topic: The Spiritual Then and Now. The last century was witness to so many enormous changes – changes that have no doubt been reflected in our shifting attitudes toward and ideas about the spiritual. Before we can begin to examine the place of the spiritual in art, then, it seems we would do well to examine the larger issue of the spiritual itself. The first problem that confronts us in this task is that there is today no real consensus about what the spiritual is. So, with a view toward defining the shape and scope of our subject, I pose the following questions and open the forum up to dialogue:

  1. How have our ideas about the spiritual changed with the dissolution of the Modernist dream, in which Kandinsky's vision was so deeply embedded?
  2. How has the notion of transcendence changed? Is transcendence still viable in a largely secular, postmodern culture?
  3. What might account for the deep suspicion—or indeed denial—of the spiritual among many artists and intellectuals in our culture?
  4. How have attitudes toward nature, the material world, and the body changed since Kandinsky?
  5. In what ways has the rise of digital technology impacted our ideas about the spiritual? Does it present a new vision of transcendence or salvation?
  6. Are the Enlightenment principles championed by Modernity (i.e., rationalism, positivism, materialism, etc.) being superseded by a new, more spiritually-inclined worldview—or is the spiritual being rendered obsolete by a wholly new orientation?
  7. Does science have a role to play in exploring new approaches to or understandings of the transcendent?