Art and Its Power to Change

True art surprises us, calls on us to set ourselves in motion, takes us to the limits of the familiar, and demands that we change. Art relates to the middle realm: the artistic element lies between thinking and volition, between the sensory-physical and the supersensory-spiritual. This middle realm is a space of instability, of the search for balance and transformation.

It is precisely because the essence of art is this dynamic middle that it appears as an enigma. Art strikes us first in the realm of feeling and experience and is not easily deciphered by thinking. It is not difficult to achieve clarity about the poles of thinking and volition, research and practical activity, but what lies in between initially eludes thinking. It is not surprising that it wasn’t until the eighteenth century, with Alexander Baumgarten’s Aesthetica, that aesthetics emerged as a new discipline. In what Rudolf Steiner called the “age of the Consciousness Soul,” which began with the Renaissance, it became possible for the first time to understand the unique position of art. However, what we do not eventually penetrate with thinking forfeits its place in life and culture.

Art is positioned in the middle between the sensory and the supersensory. Artistic activity elevates the sensory to the supersensory by creating a space where the spirit, “enchanted” and quasi-locked up in the material world, can fully reveal itself in the material element and be transformed into a work of art. Therein lies the transformative task of the future: every work of art is a piece of the world transformed by the human being, that is to say, the artist.

Art and Freedom

Art enables a new approach to life that is purely devoted to the artistic medium and the process of creating or viewing without any external purpose. In the artistic process, it is precisely not the intention and goal that are essential for realising the work of art, as is the case in everyday life or other professional fields. On the contrary, in Steiner’s sense, if artists were only to realise their conceptions, no true art would come about. We would then have what is now misleadingly called art as a product of artificial intelligence.

Imre Kertész at Villa Waldberta, Feldafing, 1992. CC BY-SA 4.0

What artists produce as a creation is not only determined by their intentions but has come into being through a dialogue with uncertainty over which they have no control. At the beginning, for example, as a painter, I first apply a colour to the canvas and then question, “Will I get an answer? Can something unavailable to me through my will connect with my impulse?” The answer will come, and if it doesn’t, I have to wait until it does.

The uncertain cannot be forced; it does not subordinate itself to my intention and power and appears at an unexpected and unpredictable time.

Thus, the creation of and with art is often characterised by boundary experiences. It is a life on the threshold, sometimes accompanied by serious illness. Being an artist is thus a particular form of existence that has these boundary and threshold experiences, these experiences of death, as a condition for something to come into being. Something which finds its reflection in the transformation of matter is wrested from the sphere of the spirit by the art-creating individual. At the same time, boundary experiences give us the strength to endure archetypal human experiences, illness, old age, and death, to grow through them, and to mature inwardly.

Art and Organisation

In a diary entry from 1963, Imre Kertész draws attention to a transformation that gives rise to new conditions for the artist and their objects. Kertész describes how, as of the beginning of the twentieth century, social life has been subordinated to narrowly defined forms of organisation, regardless of the ideology that governs it. These are “closed communities of life, interests, and the intellect in which the life of the modern human being takes place as if in a well-insulated glass bulb.”1

Life determined by an external order represents a violation of human nature—something that Kertész, describes as a necessary development, in the sense that it is a challenge to defend and preserve humanity under these circumstances: “The person living an organised life is not suffering but a ruler, because this idea is suggested to them and certain indications also point to it: they have the power of the state, they apparently reshape society and nature, they are the absolute master of unprecedented material goods, their technology is more powerful than any deity that has gone before, and after taking possession of the earth they will, sooner or later, also take possession of the cosmos. They are the hero of heaven, earth, and the cosmos, and it seems as if human progress were nothing more than the development of technical science and state organisation. We will not talk about the great error that this represents now.”2 The price is individuality and destiny. They are given up in favour of material prosperity, equal rights, security, and the “foundation of a safe life” as well as a certain predictability of life.

Kertész shows the consequences of the loss of reality and the experience of meaning. If people have to take less independent responsibility for their material and moral existence, they lose their independence and self-efficacy. This is accompanied by an elimination of the archetypal human experiences of illness, death, and love. “The individual life is nothing more […] than a symbol, the symbol of a prescribed, homogeneous existence, without variations, aberrations, adventurous possibilities, in short, without its own destiny on which a person can work.”3 It is precisely such a destiny, a person’s suffering, and struggles in the tragic situation of not knowing and the encounter with the self that ensues, that alone can be the subject of true art. Otherwise, art only serves the self-affirmation of the alienated and conformist individual and removes itself from its spiritual task.

Kertész concludes: “Perhaps we have to live through such a serious lack of responsibility for the sake of social responsibility and the agonies of a guilty conscience for the sake of a new humanity that can be based on nothing other than the deep knowledge of ourselves. And this bitter task is now incumbent on art alone, because science has turned to technology and thus to power.”4 But what is art guided by, and how does this view relate to Steiner’s understanding of art?

We want to reflect on these questions together during the Goetheanum World Conference in the forum “On the Transformative Power of Art.”

In the theme forum ‘On the Transformative Power of Art’ during the Goetheanum World Conference, we want to explore these questions together.

Translation Christian von Arnim

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Imre Kertész, Heimweh nach dem Tod. Arbeitstagebuch zur Entstehung des “Romans eines Schicksallosen” (Homesickness for Death. Working Diary on the Creation of the “Novel of a Fateless Man). Munich 2022, p. 108.
  2. Ibid, p. 115.
  3. Ibid, p. 110 f.
  4. Ibid, p. 119.

Letzte Kommentare