This was written in May, 2013, and appeared in The Heretic Magazine, Volume 4 (http://www.amazon.ca/The-Heretic-Magazine-Volume-4-ebook/dp/B00ELOHY9Q). Recent conversations and attending a performance of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties have provoked this re-publication.
‘Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life’ Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
How would you feel if your child told you she wanted to be an artist: a musician….a writer…an actor…a painter…a film-maker? Would you consider it your duty to try to dissuade her from a potential life of marginality and destitution? What would your parents have done had you threatened them with artistic intentions?
A poet and visual artist who I have watched struggling for years to make ends meet, announced recently, her voice full of guilt, failure and resignation, ‘I cannot support myself with my art’. I’ve heard this for decades, from the mouths of literally hundreds of artists, in tones varying from rage to despair to jaundiced humour, but this time for some reason it hit me and hurt.
Art indeed serves to ‘wash away from the soul the dust of everyday life’… but where did all this dust come from in the first place?
From handprints on cave walls in Lescaux to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, from low chants in darkened huts to the winged auditory geometry of Bach, from our hunter-gatherer predecessors decorating their implements with prayer and paint to the mesmerizing horror of Christian Passion plays, from the fashioning of the first clay vessels to the terracotta armies of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the act of creation – of imagining something into existence – has for most of our human story walked hand in hand with the honouring of the deities. In this humble way, we approach divinity. We, too, are capable of creating – of investing the material world with our intentions and transforming it through our will, be our creation a child or a song or a thought woven with others to make a story.
What has happened to separate us from the transcendent process of creation? When did we stop having faith in the power of our imaginations?
When we are inseparable from nature, we are inseparable from Magic and Wonder…. Perhaps this state of living in balance with our natural surroundings, the time of Turtle Island[i] or of the Central European Kurgan (Barrow) Culture elaborated by Marija Gimbutas[ii] (and much-disputed), was indeed our Eden – a time of childhood innocence when Art did not exist as separate from Life. If so, does this really mean that the modern state of alienation and separation from nature is one of adulthood and maturity?
As societies became more agricultural and sedentary, they grew in complexity. To the increasingly specialised, essential roles of baker, smith, midwife, shepherd and priest were added the furniture-maker, jeweller, architect and scribe. As we were fruitful and multiplied, labour became more and more specialised, land and resources became a source of conflict and the circle of equals shattered into a pyramidal hierarchy where patriarchal values prevailed. As a hierarchy of skills was established, families and clans settled into grooves of expertise – family names such as Smith, Boucher and Carpenter hold the imprint of the family’s former utility in the larger community. The priest, the rabbi and the shaman provided spiritual intervention for the masses that were too busy with the business of survival – with baby-having, raising and feeding, ensuring the continuity of the community on the physical plane – to deal with the requirements of often temperamental deities. Natural leaders and organisers rose to the top of the hierarchy, and often shared beds with those who possessed – or professed to possess – the ability to connect to other dimensions – to see the future and speak to The Gods.
Those at the pyramid’s apex became patrons of artists and craftspeople, and Art came into the service of Ego[iii].
The first advertising campaigns were initiated by rulers wishing to impress their particular version of reality on the minds of the ruled. Within the wax and wane of societies due to weather, war and disease, times of bounty and the accumulation of wealth provided the material and leisure for creating art. A major criterion in the assessment of the cultures we unearth archaeologically (from under layers and layers of dust…) is the art they produced….
Many moons ago when such things were still possible, I helped a friend unpack several huge crates of artifacts that he had brought from Papua New Guinea – the last items of the sort allowed out of the country before they laid down laws against the theft of their cultural heritage. Among the thousands of unbelievable items (ex. a necklace of human fingers) were many spirals of pig tusks used as bracelets. A man’s status was measured by the number of bracelets his wives wore, as in order to have the tusks grow into full circlets they had to come from caged pigs whose tusks would not be worn down from foraging and would eventually grow around and back through the jaw of the animal. A wife (who also had to be fed) was employed just for the task of chewing food for the pigs and feeding them by hand. Art, in the service of hierarchy….
The peddling of ideas became its new domain – the ‘realism’ of classical antiquity was based on the ideal proportions prescribed to the human body and architecture. Tweaking the portrayal of Life through Art to fit these ideals, the most accomplished artists were able to trick the eye into thinking it was seeing something Real. Techniques of layering, colouring and perspective enhanced the ruse that turned two-dimensional images into 3D Reality – an oval into something we knew was round. Ruling powers of religion and state footed the bill for artistic endeavours and expected compliance with respect to their subject matter and treatment.
In the visual arts, architecture, music and writing, realities other than what was furnished by the dominant power were encoded in geometry, gematria, numerology and allegory, and served, straight-faced, to the masses. We have become aware lately from a prodigious number of sources of the heretical hidden messages passed on through time by such artists as da Vinci, Poussin, and the builders of Europe’s gothic cathedrals. Even Plato got in on it, hiding Pythagorean teachings in his Republic![iv]
When the Baroque style (1600 – 1750) was devised to awe the masses into passivity, artists countered with the jesting frivolity of the Rococo. When the Age of Reason and Enlightenment made Science and material reality the new God (in the eighteenth century), Romanticism insisted on the primacy of inspiration and emotion over logic, and elevated the ideal of the common man (from the end of the eighteenth century to the present).
Eventually, with the advent of industrialisation and the ingraining of the work ethic (the aberrant notion that one had to work very hard not only to survive, but also to deserve to live) into the masses, generations of noses kept close to the grindstone developed a myopic, material vision of the universe.
Craftspeople imbuing each distinct item of handiwork with personality and meaning were supplanted by the anonymity of the assembly line, producing military rows of identical products to be consumed, not loved. Reality had contracted bit by bit from multidimensionality to the tactile, three-dimensional material existence that has become the Normal of our modern condition.
Through our descent into isolation and alienation from the natural world and the predominance of survival instincts based in fear, artists have been spiritual renegades and fire-keepers, keeping alive the embers of … Something… barely remembered, but with aching poignancy.
Democratic notions swept the western world in the nineteenth century, inspiring European economic and political imperialism to march and manoeuvre into the parts of globe that they had not yet claimed (Africa, China and Polynesia) as India and the Americas moved through stages of rebellion and self-identification.[v] The new middle class created huge consumer demand for material goods – slavery was abolished when cheap labour became another resource necessary to the exploitation of the recently expropriated wealth of Africa.[vi] The Arts now became accessible to anyone who could afford classes, attend events in the new concert halls created to accommodate larger audiences[vii], or go to a museum, where the collections previously sequestered in aristocratic homes had gradually become available to the public.
If I were one of those Crazy Conspiracy Theorists, I might be prone to suspect some ruling power of fueling the persisting Romantic worldview that has inspired such diverse and profitable phenomena as Valentines’ Day and racial profiling[viii]. It is not a stretch to see the ideals of the Romantic era persisting in the cheery fluoride smiles and ‘family values’ of Republican U.S.A.’s Tea Party elite, who clearly still believe that Anyone can become President.
Realism – the unembellished representation of reality found in the work of Courbet, Millet and Goya, of de Balzac and George Sands and Mark Twain – was a reaction against the pablum idealism of the Romantics, and it, too, still has its devoted proponents ‘telling it like it is’.
Then the Impressionists came along, evoking revulsion and derision as Art strayed from the classical tradition and the easy grasp of the public.
The history of modern art is also the history of the progressive loss of art’s audience. Art has increasingly become the concern of the artist and the bafflement of the public. Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)
At the end of the nineteenth century, perception began to climb, bedraggled, out of the box in the root cellar and to shake off the dust of materialism.
With the explorations of Surrealism, Symbolism and Cubism, it seemed that imagination was once again breaking free of the emotional and intellectual chains that had bound it for so long, returning to the geometric forms and simultaneity of multidimensional perception. Indeed, Picasso and Braque are said to have derived their inspiration from Tribal art.
To imagine is to see and to see is to render transparent; that which is imagination is not the creator of illusion, but the illuminator of reality.
Eliphas Lévi (nom de plume of Abbé Louis Constant, 1810-1875)
Perhaps the imagination is on the verge of recovering its rights. If the depths of our minds conceal strange forces capable of augmenting or conquering those on the surface, it is in our greatest interest to capture them. André Breton, Le Manifest du Surréalisme, 1924
The expanded perceptions of Impressionism and Cubism at the turn of the twentieth century were partnered by the Spiritualist movement, the increasing popularity of
Theosophy and its many off-shoots, the revolutionary discoveries of Nikola Tesla and the ‘active imagination’ techniques of Freud, Jung and Reich. World Wars I and II could have completely plunged humanity back into fear-fed survival mode – some might argue that this is exactly what did occur… and I would even forgive a Crazy Conspiracy Theorist for suspecting that this was one of the major occult purposes of the exercise.
It is in times of greatest physical constraint and terror and the least personal liberty, however, that we seek freedom in other dimensions. This fact has been used infamously in the programming of sleeper intelligence agents and assassins, torturing them until the personality shatters into pieces that can be variously programmed and strategically reawakened. My experience is that what differentiates between the terror that destroys and the terror that inspires transcendence is one’s perception of isolation or connectedness.
When we are deeply rooted in an awareness of interconnection, we don’t drift away into madness.
Cultures that remained close to the earth and the interdependent web of nature never lost the understanding of other dimensions of being; they conserved the social roles that dealt with negotiating between realms, honouring their artisans, midwives and shamans. The Hopi, the Dogon, the Innu and Sami; the Hmong and the Haida; the Raoni, Quechua, Aymara and thousands of other peoples indigenous to the Amazon; the Cree, Mi’qma and hundreds other First Nations throughout N. America; the Samoans and the Maori – indigenous civilisations who retained their traditional earth-based spirituality (and were not assimilated or massacred) maintained styles of expression that freely mingle the fabulous with the three-dimensional quotidian. It is actually startling, though perhaps not surprising, when one considers ancient knowledge and recent scientific forays into the collective unconscious[ix], how very similar are the symbols and subject matter amongst the indigenous peoples of the planet[x].
There has been much said lately about the prevalence of entheogens in ancient and shamanic cultures: the Egyptians’ blue lotus, peyote for the desert nations of the Americas, psylocibin and amanita muscaria mushrooms, cannabis, sacred tobacco, opium poppies, mead and wine, datura, ephedra, kava-kava, ayahuasca for the shamanic tribes of the Amazon, betel nut and leaf in Asia and Oceania – all have helped humans transcend mere survival and remain connected with other realms of existence.
Creative expression that is fueled by these ‘plant teachers’ portrays the highly-subjective other-dimensional experiences and insights of the artists.
The predominance of the fantastical in aboriginal art has lead many researchers to the conclusion that plant medicines have been of utmost importance to human culture … and evolution.[xi]
Archaeologists, anthropologists and ethno-botanists in turn have scratched their heads and asked “What on earth were they on?” It may be important to note here that the simple diet of most indigenous cultures augments the effect of consciousness-altering compounds in plant medicines – eat only vegetables and fruit for a while, and then drink an espresso to see what I mean! Complex diets laced with chemical preservatives, fertilisers, genetically-modified Frankenfood and ‘flavour (i.e. mood) enhancers’ have deadened our sensitivity to the naturally-occurring buzz of entheogens. The slippery slope that began with the coca in Coca-Cola and the refined sugar that has infiltrated just about every processed foodstuff, then continued through McDonald’s and Starbucks, has descended vertiginously in the past few decades. Becoming habituates of chemically-induced realities, we have been pushed, desperate for sensation and the rekindling of connection in an alienating world, into the arms of an android Morpheus: LSD, MDMA (Ecstasy), PCP, DMT, 2C-B (Nexus, CBs) – an alphabet of escape from the world as it has become.
The Medical Discoveries Forum (© 2013 Advameg, Inc.) states: Hallucinogenic compounds often cause people to see (or think they see) random colors, patterns, events, and objects that do not exist. People sometimes have a different perception of time and space, hold imaginary conversations, believe they hear music and experience smells, tastes, and other sensations that are not real.[xii]
Of course, Advameg, Inc. (‘reaching over 20 million unique visitors per month’) knows what is real and what is not real – all sensible, practical, down-to-earth, responsible adults do… right?
Art has been used extensively in ancient spiritual traditions to communicate ineffable, non-conceptual reality. Images and symbols have often been used by spiritual adepts to communicate and transmit states of being and other-dimensional experiences that resist verbal expression.
Subtle realms are represented by geometrical forms – sacred geometry is considered in the highly developed Buddhist, Hindu, Kabbalistic, Islamic and Gnostic traditions to be the structure underlying the conceptual world formed of mind and emotion.
On the wall-surface of whatever appears, I paint the vision of non-duality With the brush of meditation. Holding the teachings on the inseparability Of emptiness and appearance, I am the master artist, ‘The Lotus-Born’. Padmasambhava, 8th century, CE
The secret Dzogchen, or ‘Great Perfection’, teachings, considered the highest level of Tibetan Buddhist Tantra and traditionally only transmitted through a verbal ‘whispered lineage’, were transposed in an intricate visual master class of symbol and metaphor to the walls of a cave within the Lukhang temple in Lhasa (most likely in the seventeenth century, as the Renaissance was winding down in Europe) for the purpose of transmitting the inexpressible to the most accomplished initiates. Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, has stated that these murals ‘are examples of how art – in its highest manifestation- can reveal a path that words can never fully express’.[xiii]
In the past couple of years, I’ve been to many urban centres in Europe and the Americas, and what I’ve seen is exciting.
Art has spilled out into the streets – artists like Banksy[xiv] and street performers of everyilk stimulate and provoke; more and more green spaces and urban gardens nourish and beautify; people are breaking from standardised ways of dressing, expressing themselves more freely through colour and design; architecture is becoming ecological, humane and even fun… and music is everywhere! The overwhelming message is of the Oneness of the human family and the preciousness of this Earth, in active resistance to forces that seek to keep us sedated, digitalised consumers, controlled and under surveillance. It is deliciously subversive – even heretical….
On a recent trip to New York City, the awareness of Art as a requirement to empowered human existence came to me with razor clarity. In the 1970s and ‘80s, New York was a nest of every imaginable sort of violent crime – the ‘Broken Windows’ policy, dealing immediately with ‘disorder’ in order to leave no foundation for the more serious crimes to feed upon, is credited with turning the city around[xv], although perhaps for other reasons than the proudly right-wing creator of the program believes. It is at the very least not only the menace of a heavy police presence controlling the populace that brings down the crime rate. Symmetry, order and beauty in the external environment instill a feeling of peace within us – all Zen Buddhist art forms and much modern architecture derive from this truth.
If you scrub some of the dust from everyday existence, Light shines through, innate and enduring.
This visit to the Big Apple was in the full bloom of Springtime, when the city was awash in blossoms and golden light. Buskers transformed the subterranean subway darkness into conviviality and wonder; architecture surprised and delighted at every turn; meals and theatre and galleries and museums each served to inspire active Presence and gratitude…. We ended up in the Rubin Museum by pure intuition, where spiritual artwork of staggering power and importance is displayed, all from the Himalayan region. I gasped with disbelief as I entered a small room created to replicate in exact detail the Lukhang temple murals – my instinct was to try to cover the walls somehow, to stop other visitors from coming in, to protect the secret Dzogchen teachings from uninitiated eyes. Then I realised that at least here, they were safe from the ravages of inclement weather and politics… and I understood that it is Time.
The linear understanding of human evolution, one with a beginning, a middle and perhaps an end, has been more and more convincingly challenged by evidence that is still on the fringes of acceptability, but is steadily accumulating weight and credibility. Humanity’s trajectory through space/ time is beginning to look a lot more like a circle or spiral than a nice straight line from past to future through the present, and the gradual unveiling of just who we have been and are once again becoming requires more than just a tiny paradigm tweak.[xvi]
The deep elation that we feel from any act of creation, from love-making to the sensory arts to the imbuing of existence with symbolism and significance, is the ecstasy of Alchemy[xvii] – it is the taste of Oneness that comes from the union of dualities inherent in the acts themselves. The creative coupling of sexuality is a manifestation of the universal principle of evolution through duality to Oneness. Masculine and feminine energies and forms are brought together to manifest something new – the whole planet is alive through the mystical union of opposites: the Sacred Marriage.
It is from the energy centre of the Heart, where all dualities are united in the creation of Oneness (the consciousness of unity and interconnectedness that we also call ‘Love’) that Art arises, from the pain and joy, the trauma and the ecstasy of our experience. Sexuality, Art and Spirituality are a continuum of Passion – that visceral longing that is the siren call of the ocean of Existence.
The role of the artist – to express the questions most important to us, to uncover hidden layers of significance in the world surrounding us, to see Life through fresh eyes and eventually to find the beauty, however poignant, in all Existence – is that of the awakening Human.
Whatever is sacred, Whatever is to remain sacred, Must be clothed in mystery. Stéphane Mallarmé, Art for All, 1862
This quotation from Mallarmé, a Symbolist, captures the essence of our duality. To define something as sacred separates it from the mundane; this is Light/Source/God, separate from daily existence. What is mysterious cannot be grasped and understood – something that is Known (think of the “biblical” sense as well) becomes mundane – no longer sacred.
When we place our Knowing in the Heart rather than the Mind, however, we disable the divisive analytical process and are capable of uniting the sacred and the profane. Both words/concepts then become meaningless, as does all polarisation of reality. (The concept of heresy then becomes irrelevant as well….[xviii])
For many years now I’ve had a recurring vision: a bare, elevated clearing is softly illuminated by the moon. The surrounding darkness is an apocalypse of devastation – burned fields and forests, the silhouetted outlines of razed cities and dried riverbeds, chaos and despair. I become aware of figures struggling toward the heights – they come limping and crawling, painfully… wearily. They are warriors – men and women from all ages of human history, their armour in shreds about them. As they reach the summit one by one, they form a circle. The remnants of armour fall away as they slowly straighten and stand tall, transformed into beings of Light. As the last warrior takes her place and closes the circle, the gathered Light bursts outward, radiating the world.
It is Time. It is Time….[xix]
[i] Although what is written about Turtle Island suggests that the idea comes from an Iroquois creation myth, there is also an oral tradition that this term refers to a time when ‘the Earth was one Earth, the People, one People….’, an impossibility according to the traditional scientific understanding of geographical and human history.
[ii] Gimbutas, Marija, The Language of the Goddess, Thames and Hudson, 2001
[iii] Dr. Carmen Boulter, www.pyramidcode.com
[v] 1857: India’s First War of Independence, the Sepoy (Sipahi) Mutiny; 1839-42 and 1856-60: First and Second Opium Wars in China; 1840 on: New Zealand annexed and Australia ‘developed’; 1867: Canada incorporated; 1861-1865:U.S.A. civil war; 1880-81 and 1899- 1902: Boer Wars (British initiated the first scorched earth policy and concentration camps); 1884 -85: Partition of (Scramble over) Africa; violent rebellions in South America lead to independence by the 1820s and boundary disputes since then.
[vi] Walter Rodney, Monthly Review, April 1970
[viii] The Romantics were notoriously, if seemingly contradictorily, racist. See William Blake’s Little Black Boy, 1789, and Richardson and Hofkosh, eds., Romanticism, Race and Imperial Culture 1780 – 1834, Indiana University Press, 1996
[ix] See the work of Rupert Sheldrake on morphogenic fields
[xi] See the work of Graham Hancock: http://www.gaiamtv.com/video/graham-hancock-ayahuasca.This interview humourously entitled, ‘Graham Hancock on Ayahuasca’!
[xiii] Ian Baker, The Dalai Lama’s Secret Temple, Thames and Hudson, 2000, p.15
[xv] George L. Kelling, ‘How New York became Safe: The Full Story’, City Journal 17, July 2009
[xvi] Dr. Carmen Boulter, The Pyramid Code, www.pyramidcode.com
Bibhu Dev Misra, ‘The End of the Kali Yuga in 2025: Unravelling the mysteries of the Yuga Cycle’, The Graham Hancock Forum, www.grahamhancock.com/forum/DMisraB6.php
[xvii] Sexuality relates to the 2nd chakra energy centre of the body, the sensory arts to the 4th chakra, and the reimagining of the world, to the 6th chakra – the Third Eye or Ajna centre.