Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The visionary art of Alex Grey and Ken Wilber’s integral theory

Alex Grey is a painter/sculptor/performance artist whose work deals with issues such as death, spirituality and the synthesis of life’s polarities. His work integrates knowledge from diverse sources such as art history, science, religion and philosophy. Grey is also an author of books such as The Mission of Art (2001), in which he analyzes the history of art and his personal journey (especially in relationship to spirituality).
Ken Wilber is an author, psychologist and philosopher, mainly concerned with the evolution of human consciousness and the discovery of the transcendent self. He has developed an “integral vision” which incorporates elements from Eastern and Western scientific and spiritual traditions. Wilber defines the term “integral” (Ken Wilber: Thought As Passion, 2003) as following:

The word integral means comprehensive, inclusive, nonmarginalizing, embracing. Integral approaches to any field attempt to be exactly that-to include as many perspectives, styles, and methodologies as possible within a coherent view of the topic. In a certain sense, integral approaches are “meta-paradigms”, or ways to draw together an already existing number of separate paradigms into an interrelated network of approaches that are mutually enriching.

Wilber describes integral theory (The Marriage of Sense and Soul, 1998) as a pluralistic approach which embraces important ideas from various disciplines/wisdom traditions, and also includes the major levels of existence such as matter (physics), body (biology), mind (psychology), soul (theology) and spirit (mysticism). He uses the term “The Great Nest of Being” to describe these various levels of existence- as seen in the diagram each level/dimension envelops and integrates the other levels/dimensions, much like a series of concentric circles.

Wilber’s integral art theory includes existing modern and postmodern theories and also incorporates “consciousness” or a spiritual dimension. For Wilber (Sacred Mirrors, 1990, p.14) the experience of spirituality which can be evoked when contemplating art is an “experience (of) nonduality, the union of the subject with all objects and the discovery of universal or transcendental awareness”.
Integral art theory incorporates major art theories (intentional, formalist, reception-and-response, symptomatic) into a single, “holonic” model. Very much like “The Great Nest of Being”, it can be visualized as concentric circles of enveloping theories and interpretations. In Wilber’s opinion (The Eye of Spirit, p.102), "any specific artwork is a holon, which means that it is a whole that is simultaneously a part of numerous other wholes. The artwork exists in contexts within contexts within contexts, endlessly."
These contexts include (2001, p.121):
-the original intent of the maker, which may involve numerous levels of the psyche, both conscious and unconscious
-the formal relationships between elements of the work itself
-the history of reception and response to the artwork
-the wider contexts in the world at large (economic, technical, linguistic, cultural).
Wilber says (p.121) that each context “brings with it a new meaning, a new light in which to see the work, and thus constitute it anew…any particular meaning of an artwork is simply the highlighting of a particular context.”. Therefore, Wilber points out, there is no single correct interpretation of art, but a multitude of contexts/ viewpoints; each theory (p.102) “is part of a nested series of truths.”
For the author Keith Martin-Smith (, integral art "sees a continuum of sliding truths, sliding contexts, sliding meanings. These, though, do not land the artist and the critic and the viewer in aperspectival madness, but rather orient them to an important insight: there is no single standard for great literature, great art, great music, etc".
Grey embraces Wilber’s “integral vision” as he attempts to interweave multiple aspects of existence in his work (physical, emotional, spiritual etc.). For him (Transfigurations, 2001, p.102) integral art is:

A work of art that integrates…the greatest range of form and content and the greatest span of being to serve the greatest good. The most inventive and harmonious diversity of forms, sounds or sensations; the broadest type of content including scientific truths, deep emotions, moral questions, and the complete span of being from matter, body, mind, and soul to spirit.

In Grey’s painting “The Soul Finds Its Way” one can see his interpretation of death, mainly influenced by Tibetan Buddhist theories. A recurring motif in his work is his “X-ray vision”, where numerous layers of the human body’s material and spiritual components are pictured. Grey says (2001, p.104) that his work “bridges the different levels of reality; the physical anatomy of Western medicine interlaces with subtle energetic systems of Eastern medicine”. For Grey (2001, p.128), dying is the dissolving of the essence of five elements (earth, water, fire, air and space), one into the other, which manifests with definite external and internal signs; after bodily death the human soul either becomes one with “Universal Awareness” or reincarnates into another physical body.

                                            Grey, A. (2001) The Soul Finds Its Way

Grey says (The Mission of Art, p.207) that the creation of art can be a spiritual practice:

A spiritual practice is an activity that enables you to develop the qualities of mental clarity, mindfulness of the moment, wisdom, compassion, and access to revelations of higher mystic states of awareness…An artist’s craft can become a contemplative method and his or her creations can provide outward signs of an inner spiritual journey.

Wilber suggests (The Eye of Spirit, p.122-126) that not only the creation but also the contemplation of art can be a spiritual experience as it “suspends our will” and our “egoic grasping in time comes momentarily to rest.” He describes spirituality in general (The Integral Vision, 2007) as an attitude of love, compassion, understanding, and a form of awareness or transrational intuition which can be experienced by everyone (a subjective, transpersonal experience of the sacred- unique to every person). For him, spirituality represents (Integral Psychology, 2000, p. 130) “the very highest capacities, the noblest motives, the best of aspirations; the farther reaches of human nature.” As examples of spirituality (2007, p.28) he cites cases of “peak experiences”/ altered states of consciousness/ “mystical” experiences (such as feeling united with nature, experiencing a sense of primordial emptiness, sensing universal love, becoming one with the “flow” of things etc.).


Grey, A. (1990) Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey. Inner Traditions International.
Grey, A. (2001) The Mission of Art. Shambhala Publications.
Grey, A. (2001) Transfigurations. Inner Traditions International.
Smith, M. Art, Postmodern Criticism, and the Emerging Integral Movement. Available at:
Wilber, K. (2007) The Integral Vision. Shambhala Publications.
Wilber, K. (2003) ‘Foreword’ in Visser, F. Ken Wilber: Thought As Passion. State University of New York Press.
Wilber, K. (2001) The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad. Boston&London: Shambhala.
Wilber, K. (2000) Integral Psychology. Shambhala Publications.
Wilber, K. (1998) The Essential Ken Wilber. Shambhala Publications.
Wilber, K. (1998) The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. New Leaf.

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