[This is a re-post of an article from two-years ago which I’d forgotten I’d written, but rediscovered while looking for one of the images in it. I defend the notion of the spiritual in art in a hardball, rational and reasoned, fashion with no reliance on superstition, religion, or any variety of feel-good, wish-washy, wishful thinking.]
“Not only is the universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.” ~ Werner Heisenberg.
I recently received an email in which someone addressed the sticky issue of me sometimes using the word spiritual (often in combination with psychedelic like this psychedelic/spiritual) in describing my art. Yes, I realize for most people this is going to be an enormous red flag, and I understand perfectly why. I will share my response to his letter here, and some more observations, to explain in a brief, clear, rational way how the spiritual can creep into art, and how it’s anything but fluffy bullshit for those who can’t handle reality. Quite the opposite.
Before I launch into this I’d like to offer that merely existing and being conscious is a spiritual experience (a state of heightened awareness/self-awareness) which we take for granted. If your house cat were suddenly to experience the full brunt of your sense of being, knowledge, and understanding, it would be an overpowering spiritual experience for the cat. The spiritual in art is art which addresses or better yet conveys a quality of self-aware beingness, especially if it’s a heightened, altered, ecstatic, or unprecedented state…
Relatedly, for a century a large portion of the art world has worshiped the inert object (ex., “The Fountain”) as unadulterated reality, and the surface of a painting as the entirety of the content (think Frank Stella), but, a much better and more satisfying argument could be made that consciousness is the seat of reality, and that opens up a whirlwind of imagination and the yet unimagined. It’s also not so F’ing boring. Perhaps ecstasy is a better goal than banality. I find the boring to be boring, so I’ll go for the ecstatic.
The above picture by Alex Grey is not just a painting, but a statement. When I saw this reprinted in black and white, in a book, while browsing in a bookstore, I was floored. Some will see an elaborate illustration of an idea which they may suspect is so much bullshit. Others will see the successful conveyance of a profound and transcendent state of consciousness.
I was so impressed by this painting that I wrote to Alex, and lamented that I’d never seen anything by him in my art education through an MFA. He is persona non grata in the contemporary art world, not because of his limitations, but because of those who decide what is and isn’t valuable contemporary art, and worthy of your attention. What the gatekeepers of the art-world believe is that Alex doesn’t have a sophisticated enough model of reality in his head, and thus is irrelevant.
Everyone who is anyone in the art-world knows that quotidian existence is all there is, there is no such thing as originality, transcendence is impossible, painting is washed up, and thus the job of the artist is to make witty comments on popular culture, and the shiny surface of a Koons Balloon Dog or the flat colors of a Warhol print ARE reality, with no hidden meanings. First we must accept the banal, and quotidian existence as reality in its totality, and then we have a wry self-awareness of this which comes out in camp and other humor, but ultimately art must now serve a political agenda of fighting against power.
That is merely another belief system, much more cynical and limiting, but it is the official one. Thus, if you say that your art has a spiritual dimension, unless you can lodge that in with a sort of decadence and hyperbolic ironic remove, you are obviously incapable of dealing with reality, in which case anything you produce is useless to the more philosophically astute.
I beg to differ, and I argue that the cynical position is a self-placating fantasy and a reductionist model of the universe that is fashionable, but sterile. Neither is it philosophically paramount, but merely a comfortable and unexamined cynicism rarely going much beyond the level of realizing the Tooth Fairy doesn’t really put money under your pillow while congratulating oneself that Alex Grey presumably believes in the equivalent of the Tooth Fairy.
I don’t attach “spiritual” to any particular belief system, but rather more rationally to the phenomenon of consciousness itself, and the expression thereof. This might be any imagery that evokes a strong sense of conscious being, and thus I would include a lot of Van Gogh and Francis Bacon (and Bacon is an avowed atheist existentialist). I would also exclude clichéd depictions of mere traditional spiritual subject matter which does not evoke the presence of a heightened state of awareness, or a closely observed and conveyed rather ordinary state (which is extraordinary that it exists at all).
Here’s the letter I received:
I like your art, you are definitely creative and have imagination. I saw a post referring to your art as “spiritual,” yet it seems that nearly everything you have created is humanoid. I have no idea how you come up with what you create, but it seems doubtful that life beyond Earth (or beyond the physical for that matter) would be humanoid at all.
Another thought, some say that people have glimpses of the divine in dreams, trips, astral projections, and who knows what else. However, I would be wary of making that–whether from your own experience or others–your go-to for reference material, because there will always be a scientific/psychological narrative that, while maybe unsatisfying, can explain it all away (dreams are merely the unconscious relieving its tension), and believing in the reality of the /spiritual/ narrative of these experiences seems naive, or at least not intellectually rigorous.
And here’s my response [with a few edits]:
First off, I’m glad you like my art.
You wrote: “it seems that nearly everything you have created is humanoid.”
Do you consider aliens humanoid? My art is filled with aliens, monsters, robots, shadowy creatures, emanations, and so on.
“believing in the reality of the /spiritual/ narrative of these experiences seems naive, or at least not intellectually rigorous.”
Yes, a lot of my art has a spiritual dimension, and, no, it’s not naive or not intellectually rigorous, though I can completely understand why it would appear to be so. There is so much territory here to cover that I don’t even know where to begin. I might have to write a blog post about this, because doubtlessly most people feel the way you do, and only a tiny sliver of people who ARE intellectually rigorous are also going to know what I’m talking about, and know it’s not some superstitious hokum or a self-placating placebo. It’s the opposite. Reality is greater and scarier than we can merely conceive with our intellects, which operate via oral/written language (linguistic structures). I would argue that it’s a comfort to think that we are merely flesh and blood and the world operates by natural laws (the laws of physics), and, well, we’ve pretty much got it figured out.
I’m guessing you haven’t read William James (perhaps America’s greatest philosopher), Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception or similar literature. And we’d have to assume that all those Hindus and Buddhists meditating for decades are not tapping into anything other than, let’s say, stimulating a certain section of the brain. Same goes for all the tribes which use potent psychedelics in rights of passage. Carl Jung we’ve gotta throw out in his entirety.
I suppose it’s time for me to do a post explaining some of this rather than just skirting around the issue, because well-meaning, intelligent people such as yourself, who want to get at the truth, will mistakenly think I am harboring soft-headed, fluffy ideas because I can’t handle reality.
But it is not satisfactory for me to not address your questions at all here, and not at least give some hints at why I am being absolutely rigorous intellectually.
First, I give you a conundrum which I’m guessing you may not be aware of. Did you know that science cannot find consciousness? I learned this reading a scientific book on brain/consciousness about a decade ago, and this is still true as far as I have found reading articles and watching videos on the topic. Consciousness cannot be located in any way, and thus according to science, there is no direct evidence that it exists. For this reason, some people even claim that consciousness does NOT exist. And here we might step over to philosophy because science is primarily concerned with the objective and not the subjective. When Rene Descartes questioned himself about what is the only thing we can be sure of, his ultimate answer was that he existed to ask that question. This is directly confronting the phenomenon of “consciousness” which is commonly understood as the awareness of being aware. An insect is aware, but does it know it’s aware? We have the secondary self-awareness.
You may be thinking that, duh, consciousness is a property of the brain. I largely would agree with that. Nevertheless that doesn’t help that it can’t be found, and this is according to science. Thus the one thing that philosophy, or subjective self-inquiry can hold as absolutely, irreducibly true is also the one thing that science can’t find at all. That’s a conundrum, and a whopping one. In essence it says that your fundamental existence doesn’t even exist.
You may or may not know that the supposed “hard question” when it comes to consciousness and science is how an immaterial consciousness can cause a material body to move and follow its instructions. This breaks the laws of physics. Some, like Sam Harris, conclude that it’s impossible for immaterial consciousness to direct the body, therefore we don’t have free will because the body, being material, is merely and entirely subject to natural laws, in which case anything it does is the inevitable consequence of preceding actions in a domino effect leading back to the Big Bang (or model of the inception of the universe of your choice).
[Addendum. Here note another grand conundrum. Either there was a first thing in the universe which arose out of nothing, which is impossible, or there was always something and no beginning, which is also impossible. Both violate the law of cause and effect. The inception of the universe and the ability of your immaterial consciousness to control your material body are scientific impossibilities.]
The problem with Harris’s conclusion is that he denies his direct subjective experience because there is not yet a satisfactory scientific explanation for it. So, according to science, not only does consciousness not exist except as perhaps an illusion which we have no control over (and we can’t even find the illusion), we also have no free will because it is scientifically impossible to have one.
When faced with the grandeur of these conundrums, it becomes difficult to argue, as you do, that any and all phenomenon within consciousness can be explained away.
Your concept of dreams is also extremely limited. I will just give you another hint here. Notice that your subconscious or unconscious has the power to create the illusion of a physical universe in which you are enveloped. You dream you are in a landscape. Now notice that your conscious mind does not have anything like this power. You can’t close your eyes and imagine a detailed, enveloping universe, in high definition. You don’t have the imaginative capacity. A dream can be so powerful that it scares the living crap out of you, but you can’t will the same experience using your conscious mind while awake. This should indicate to you that underlying the conscious mind is a staggeringly powerful imagination which we do not fully understand by a long shot, because we do not have the waking capacity to fathom it. To merely dismiss dreams as the conscious mind relieving tension, or the brain relieving tension (more accurate) supposes that the unconscious/subconscious is a mere after-effect of daily linguistic prattle.
Another way to look at it is that dreams are an opportunity to engage the unconscious mind, observe it, interact with it and learn from it. Some, like Jung, suppose the unconscious is broader and less individual than the conscious mind, and thus ones dream may be a dunking of one into a more communal unconscious soup. But it’s a matter of having the will, curiousity, and interest to engage them. Sometimes I do, and usually I don’t, but when I do there’s a lot to be garnered from dreams.
Your mere existence is spiritual. In all the universe we only know that humans and some animals are conscious, and that experience of beingness IS already fundamentally spiritual. But we can go beyond that into altered states of consciousness, and what happens when the intellect/ego is sidelined or incapacitated. It’s one thing for a scientist to have an opinion of, say, a subject who trips on LSD, or DMT, or Salvia Divinorum, but it is not the subjective experience. We can conclude that the chemicals altered the chemistry of the brain (note that during dreaming and waking the brain is bathed in a very different chemical cocktail), which is absolutely true, but it is a mistake to then conclude that the subjective experience is necessarily a muddied or irrelevant experience. One has to have the experience oneself to assess what it is. I can’t dismiss the visions someone has after imbibing Ayahuasca without doing it myself, or at least having some similar potent psychedelic experience.
Similarly, brain scans will show changes when a practiced meditator is deep in meditation, but we don’t know what the subjective experience is without having it ourselves. We can read or hear a description, but that is merely an argument in linguistics and reveals nothing of the experience. We could explain away the understanding gleaned by the most advanced Tibetan monk in his meditation by putting together sentences that argue he’s activated or quieted this or that part of his brain. In fact, as I mentioned in the beginning, we can explain away our very existence.
But everything I’m saying is a rational argument here, and the realm of the spiritual is experiential. True, your everyday, humdrum, daily grind is also inherently spiritual, but if you want to take on the spiritual yourself, you can, and in this very life you can have your socks knocked completely off and scare the living shit out of yourself by brushing up against it, because the whole of experiential possibilities are much greater than the human intellect. We placate ourselves with childish fantasy when we tell ourselves that all of reality is encompassed by our rational intellect in our daily lives. In fact, you are right that it is not intellectually rigorous to believe in that which is outside of the domain of the intellect, it has to be experienced directly outside of the parameters of the intellect.
I could say much more, but that is a taste.
I’m still skirting over some stuff for personal and logistical reasons, for now. But I think I covered some of the fundamentals. I’ll address the topic more in-depth and more personally at a future time.
Funding. Through Patreon, you can give $1 (or more) per month to help keep me going (y’know, so I don’t have to put art back on the back-burner while I slog away at a full-time job). Ah, if only I could amass a few hundred dollars per month this way, I could focus entirely on my art. See how it works here.
Or go directly to my account.
Or you can make a small, one time donation to help me keep on making art and blogging (and restore my faith in humanity simultaneously).