color Beyond Kandinsky: Apr 6, 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: www.beyondkandinsky.net.


SYMPOSIUM SCHEDULE

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


CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD COMPLETE SYMPOSIUM TRANSCRIPT

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Artist in Society: Individualism and Personality

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Suzi Gablik (Has Modernism Failed?) argued that a key tenet of modernism is the idea of "uninhibited individualism," which she suggests can only progress at the "expense of the strength of common beliefs and feelings." In other words, such individualism is inherently antisocial. At the same time, she states that artists have a responsibility to be a moral presence in the world and suggests that such moral authority requires that artists make themselves into "exemplary beings," individuals with the charisma to influence society by positioning themselves outside of the dominant culture. She ends up saying that it all comes down to the quality of the individual: "to recognize truth is not a matter of talent but of character."

I wonder if the artists in our midst care to comment about the either: 1) the role of the "personality" of the artist in today's art culture; or 2) the importance of the "moral" authority of the artist?

Response to Session IV: The Artist in Society

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(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?

Any and all personas serve art.

(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?

The avant garde is alive and well. It always is.

(3) What role might activism—environmental, political, social—play in a new spiritual art?

This is essential. The example of Ai Wei Wei is pertinent here. His art and his life, his political actions, are one. He is the example.

(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”—or interior dimension—of our culture?

"Anonymity is humility; it does not lie in the change of name, cloth or with the identification with that which may be anonymous, an ideal, a heroic act, country and so on. Anonymity is an act of the brain, the conscious anonymity; there's an anonymity which comes with the awareness of the complete. The complete is never within the filed of the brain or idea."

Krishnamurti, "Krishnamurti's Notebook", page 10.

(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?

"Creation is never in the hands of the individual. It ceases entirely when individuality, with its capacities, gifts, techniques and so on, becomes dominant. Creation is the movement of the unknowable essence of the whole; it is never the expression of the part."

Krishnamurti, "Krishnamurti's Notebook", page 11.

Relatedness and embeddedness are a fact of life. We all live in one community.

The Observer Is the Observed

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Max is right. Attention is of paramount importance. How can one speak of the spiritual in art without being able to pay attention to it in such a way that the spiritual dimension becomes manifest? I mean the spiritual dimension of the art *and* of the beholder, which amounts to the same thing, because, as Krishnamurti said, “The observer is the observed.”

Brice Marden tells the story about how Jasper Johns came to his studio once, in the early days of Marden’s career. Marden had been working on a long painting, which was hanging on the wall. The sun was setting and cast a big shadow across the painting. The two painters sat there looking at the shadow slowly, imperceptibly moving across the canvas. It seemed to Marden like hours have passed as they waited for the shadow to go off the canvas. The moment it went off the edge, Johns looked at Marden and said, “That was nice”.

Nathaniel Dorsky’s films, to me, are a manifesto of “just seeing”.

The analytical, critical phase cannot replace the “just seeing” phase of an aesthetic experience, I posit the two are mutually exclusive, although both are necessary. This may have something to do with the way our brains are built, with the way our cognition works, with the division of the brain into two hemispheres, fulfilling different but complementary functions, etc.

There are probably countless ways of “entering” a work of art, in order to properly see it.

In my own experience, I have observed that one needs to get out of the way of the artwork. The all-knowing ego/self is a barrier as it keeps on imposing, layering itself over the work.

It is like inviting a guest (artwork) into one’s house (one’s own being). One then plays host to the artwork’s guest. Now if I open the door and invite the guest, but all the while I keep talking and making assumptions, and comparing and judging and analyzing, taking the guest apart before it can come inside, the guest does not feel acknowledged for what it is, it abhors such a situation and pulls back, refusing to enter. If, on the other hand, I open the door and, letting go of myself with all my prejudices and opinions, allow the guest to just be, just stand there in front of my door, i may be ready to receive my guest properly. The guest, for its part, may now be ready to come in.

It is not guaranteed, even then, that it will come in, that an act of pure seeing will take place. But it may happen that one will experience the work of art as if alive within one’s own being, in fact, in some sense, becoming the work.

From that perspective a proper critical analysis may take place.

Session IV: The Artist in Society

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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?

The End of the Overtly Spiritual Period of Modern Art

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The avant-garde artists in many countries felt they were on a spiritual quest to "save civilization from materialism" from the late 1880s until World War I. It's true that the Symbolist aesthetic of the 1880s petered out, but the quest went on with various new aesthetic approaches for another fifteen years. The big shut-down came after WWI, with the turn toward the machine aesthetic (art deco in design, geometric abstraction in painting) and hard-edged rationalism. In its early years after WWI, the Bauhaus was a pocket of hold-outs of spiritual painters (Klee, Kandinsky, and others), but as Gropius was forced in the direction of having to distance the school from pre-war "cosmic wallpaper" and to accept more and more industrial commissions over the years, as did the subsequent directors, the mission and the ambiance of the Bauhaus changed entirely.