When I create an artwork, especially when I create an artwork without a safety net, that is working without a plan, working through intuition, it is often only after the work is finished that I can discover any real meaning. My discovered meaning, then, holds about as much weight as any meaning discovered by my audience. This, to me, is the difference between creating an art object and a work of art that lives, breathes, and has a life of its own, beyond my intentions. This, perhaps, is where the possibility of creating something that might be greater than one's self may lay. How strange it is to look at these works, works that you yourself have created, with a sense of wonder. It is a mystery. What is the origin? Where does such work come from? What does it mean?
The older I get, the more comfortable I've become with the mystery. I used to rage inside like Ahab, out to destroy the symbols of our suffering. Not so much anymore. I still ponder and ask the unanswerable questions, such as why mankind is inflicted such unrelenting and undeserved misery and sorrow, but I don’t torture myself over it anymore. There are some things that we are not meant to figure out. We have to get over it, we have to get comfortable with ambiguity, else we’ll destroy ourselves.
Many artists and art critics today have abandoned the notion that artists are somehow special. Perhaps they are not special. Instead, with art in the expanded field, we have artists taking on pedestrian pursuits – artist as scientist, artist as data collector, artist as food service, etc. These artists do not soar . . . not like the old art heroes of old, anyways.
What made these old artists special? They were professional Shaman, Seers, Healers, and Seekers of ecstatic truths. They were Voyagers, Pioneers, and Visionaries . . . Artists with a capital “A,” in service to the mystery. The notion of the artist as Seer, in modern Western Art, dates back to the early German Romantics. Before that it was championed by the Greeks who would use poetry, song, and art for magical and prophetic purposes. Yes, artists are different from most people, at least that is the way it use to be.
The Unknown manifests itself through the open mind.
The closed mind is personal.
The open mind is impersonal.
When the mind opens, something original can come
In. The open mind is not something that can be
Learned or switched on at will. It happens naturally.
The Visionary Artist can access what some shamans call the Dreamtime, that is they can access realities where the past, present, and future co-exist simultaneously. I often see this kind of vision manifested in work of the abstract expressionists. Many lay people ridicule abstract expressionist work, claiming they can do the work themselves. This is definitely not so. It requires a certain type of vision that can not be taught, nor can the artist force the vision onto their work. It is a gift and it happens, or doesn’t happen, naturally.
“I say that the true artist seer, the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty, is mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own human conscience.” J.D. Salinger
If there is a problem with abstract expressionist work, it is that it doesn't always translate to the audience. Some people are just more sensitive than others. Painting abstract expressionist work is the recording of an event, of a vision, more than it is a final product. The modern artist uses the art making process to heal themselves, and if the end result, the finished painting, also heals an audience, so much the better. The shaman, however, must use their art to heal their community. Their work must translate their vision to a lay audience.
The Seer by Alex Grey
From the caves of Altimira
To a New York studio,
The Seer has inspired the artist
With Vision’s unceasing flow.
The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Magus through ages untold,
Transmuting the lead of matter
Into bullets of spiritual gold.
The ego picks up the weapon of art,
Childlike, it plays with the trigger.
Blowing the head off it’s contracted self,
Awareness is suddenly bigger.
By slaying the ego and stunning
The chatter of thoughts as they rise,
Great art shuts out distractions
Delighting the heart through the eyes.
The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Revealing the Mystery as form,
Advancing our civilization
By inventing and destroying the norm.
The redemptive Sorceress, Art
Can heal the nausea of being,
Opening vistas of hope and beauty,
Revealing deep patterns of meaning.
The function of art is to stop us
And take us out of our skin,
Unveiling the spirit’s pure nakedness
Without beginning or end.
The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Gaze fixed on primordial perfection.
Radiance emerges from emptiness,
Each point of light etched with affection.
The boundless Void, open and formless
Is the basis of all creation.
Visions appear and then dissolve
Reinforcing this realization.
From beyond the vision descends
From within the vision arises
Coalescing in the divine imagination,
Source of continual surprises.
The Seer is the soul of the artist
The Maker is the artist’s hand
In the studio their conversations
Translate a timeless command.
These dialogues of Maker and Seer
Weave together matter with soul,
Consecrating the practice of art
As speech of the ineffable.
Art making transforms the artist,
And to any hearts truly under
Creation’s intoxicating spell
The Seer transmits holy wonder.
In August 1981, Paul Thek writes to Franz Deckwitz from New York:
I am doing more newspaper ptgs, interesting, mind stopping, and super BRAT, but still I miss the good painting of Ponza, the eternal painting, while here in "civilization" I want only to do BAD painting, to shock and hurt them, I don't want to console them here etc etc but it hurts MY spirit ALWAYS to do the bad painting, so I miss Ponza and eternity.
With love I draw what I hate. Harold Town
Somehow over the years, I have become a more critical artist, loving to draw on the things I hate, and sometimes seeking to shock and produce Bad Painting. I, too miss the eternal painting, on such themes as life, death, rebirth, all the things that make up the Great Mystery. Is the creation of Bad Painting a critical response to the absurdities of modern life, or symptomatic of it? I really don’t know anymore.
Damn the city, damn “civilization.” Philadelphia could sometimes be hard on the spirit. New York would have killed it completely. I hope Atlanta will be better.
Why is the contemporary art world afraid of the romantic myth of the artist as solitary genius author? Reason has killed the mysticism and emotion of art, killed off the artist’s celebration of mystery and magic. In its place is pure rationalism. Rationalism is both frightened and embarrassed by the artist’s assertion of imagination and emotionalism in art, frightened and embarrassed because emotions and the imagination are by nature, personal and unquantifiable.
Back in 1950, Lionel Trilling forecasted future art practices when he wrote in the preface to The Liberal Imagination, “[liberalism’s] vision of a great enlargement and freedom and rational direction of human life . . . drifts toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination . . . in the very interest of affirming its confidence in the power of the mind . . . inclines to constrict and make mechanical its conception of the nature of the mind.”
Today the rationalists rule the art institutions, the schools, the critics, the galleries and museums. For the most part, these institutions refuse to acknowledge that an artist can lay claim to some irreducible mystery and magic. Contemporary art must be logical, responsible, and well-behaved. Who will champion the artist now, if not the art institutions? The visionary artist is without a home.
In an article for the New Republic, Jed Perl writes, “It is all well and good to say that cool heads should prevail. Art, however, is by its very nature overheated, hot-headed, unreasonable – and, dare I say it, sometimes illiberal. Without ardor there is no art.”
In my earlier and more abstract work, I liked to explore notions of the spiritual sublime. There is some truth to be mined there. I like the notion of Zen Buddhist attitudes in art, that the very act of creating, as well as contemplation on the end result, can bring mental calm, enlightenment. So it is with Sufism, a mystical sect within Islam. Whiling Dervishes spinning until there is a total loss of all conscious thought, only union with the divine, and their music inspiring us to transcendence. I am also indebted to Gnostic and mystic Christian beliefs for deepening the mystery.
It was all there at the beginning with me. When I was 19 I had a powerful dream. It took place during my first bout of deepest, darkest, soul shattering, black howling depression. I was taken away to a dark place, my body surrounded by spirits. They took apart my body, piece by piece, and examined each part, arm and leg, flesh and bone, head and heart. I was scared and in a lot of pain. But these same spirits later put me back together again, only I was different in some way. I had somehow changed. I felt I was in possession of a powerful secret, that I could use this secret to access hidden corridors in my mind to produce meaningful works of art, and that this art would always be true.
Soon after, I was reading a book on Shamanism by Piers Vitebsky. I was shocked to learn that this dream is very common, and it signals an initiation rite by the spirits for newly minted Shamans throughout the world, but especially among those peoples found in Inner Mongolia and the steppes of Asia. But that dream was a long time ago. I don’t have magic powers and my art can not heal people (at least not literally). Over the years my art has become more about this world than any alternative reality or vision.
Perhaps one day I will return to it. I still believe there is some magic involved in making art, and that the artist is somehow special, different from most people who are only pedestrians when compared to artists, with their ability to take spiritual leaps and find ecstatic truths, especially when tapping into the Jungian notion of the collective unconscious.
Ah, but it is a double edged sword for those with this ability to conjure up ecstatic truths. Modern societies do not have room for magic anymore. This is even true in the contemporary, post modern art world, where there is a favoring of conceptual conceit over anything that smacks of spirituality, or anything divined from the heart. Such work is deemed anachronistic and not worthy of investigation. Maybe one day this will all change. . . .
“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” Francis Bacon