In Search Of The Ultimate Art
A few disclaimers before we get into this:
1) I'm not one to proclaim what is or is not “The Ultimate Art” and I probably wouldn't trust anyone who did. But I'm at a loss at what to label it at this time. Perhaps, it be better to give it a name as a certain type of art-making (like say impressionism, cubism, abstractism, etc.). What that name ought to be though I'm not entirely sure yet.
2) I'm not at all religious and this post will touch upon a number of religions in a way that may (or may not) come off as blasphemous to some. Please don't be offended.
3) I'm still actively thinking about all this, so this post is by no means a concrete declaration as much as it's an in-progress exploration.
REVOLUTION AND RELIGION
photo: Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt – Pulitzer Arts Foundation
Looking at what we call “Abrahamic Religions” (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), it seems quite clear to me that all three rose out of massive social movements (whether the origin stories are based on historical fact or fiction is not the point, the point is what the stories themselves embody); Moses lead a slave rebellion, Jesus undermined the Roman Empire and disrupted a major income-generating event in Jerusalem, and Muhammad threw a wrench in Mecca's economy by renouncing their multi-deity belief system (and the idols they produced and traded in). It seems to me that there's a strong correlation between the economic disruption of the ruling class through massive social upheaval and the birth of new faiths. Typically, very much based on the ethos surrounding that particular upheaval or as a necessary tendency to break away from the dominant faith of the time that came before said upheaval.
France certainly experienced serious (and even violent) de-Christianization during the French Revolution, giving rise one might say to the “Faith of Reason”. Following the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union sought to stomp out all religious practice and instead establish what it called “Scientific Atheism”, but one could say the actual new faith that took hold (at least for a time) was that of Communism, with Marx and Lenin held as its saintly prophets. It doesn't seem like anything nearly as close applies to the American Revolution, which either: a) Completely obliterates my argument, or... b) Indicates that the American Revolution may not have been that revolutionary after all?
(Although, there is something to be said about the rise of American Freemasonry, at least for a time.)
On the other hand, there may be something to be said about American democracy taking on religious attributes. How “The Founding Fathers” are often talked about in the country's official narrative and grand monuments such as Mount Rushmore and the Lincoln Memorial reek of holy adoration. Not to mention the American constitution, which is only ever brought up in sacred terms quite akin to the Bible.
In more recent(ish) times, the rise of New Age spirituality coincided with the American counterculture movement in the 1960s, an era that also brought with it the Civil Rights Movement, anti-War protests, and arguably one of the most major cultural revolutions in the last 100 years. It may not have brought about the actual revolution demanded by its generation, and it could be for that reason that none of the New Age faiths that rose in its wake took hold on a truly mass scale.
It is also my understanding that the 1920's saw an explosion in Occult movements, the same decade that gave us Women's Suffrage, the Harlem Renaissance, and Jazz.
Now, we may not be living in “Revolutionary Times” per se, but I doubt anyone can deny we've been living a period of serious social upheaval for at least the past decade. Between the Arab Spring, the many Occupy movements, Me Too's, Women's Marches, Climate Marches, Ukraine, Hong Kong, and Black Lives Matter , we're likely living in an era where major change is about to occur (unless the efforts to squash it continue to succeed), and if my theory is correct, with that comes a spiritual awakening that leads to the adoption of a newfound “religion”. I imagine the seeds for what such a religion might look like should already be evident to some degree around us, but I'm not entirely sure I'm able make them out.
Although I've certainly gotten a whiff of cultish feels in spaces that—while never advertising themselves as places of a particular faith—operated eerily similarly to houses of worship. Spaces like SoulCycle, CrossFit gyms, and the occasional yoga studio. Not saying any of these exercise establishments or regiments are bad, but if you're in a room with a group of people repeating the same bodily movements to the rhythm of music and the inspirational oration of a guru, with the added psychological manipulation of choice lighting design, we're basically in the vicinity of Religious Rituals 101.
EROTICISM AND REVOLUTION
photo: Rich Lam/Getty Images – Toronto Star
I'll say this bluntly: the best sex I ever had was when high on the euphoria and adrenalin of revolution. The second best sex I ever had occurred in a delirium of art-making. It should be noted that regarding the former, my method of revolution involved some form of artmaking, and so any sex that was had at the time was very much charged by both Art and Revolution.
Personal experience aside, it seemed to me that a kind of sexual liberation was taking place in Egypt circa 2011 in the wake of its revolution, at least in some of the circles I ran in, and I suppose only for a time.
The French Revolution came with its sexual liberation, as did the Roaring Twenties and Swinging Sixties in America. I suppose it makes sense that a movement for Liberation must also bring with it sexual liberation. But then that theory heavily contradicts with the “revolutions” of the Abrahamic religions. Unless of course, the revolutions themselves were far more liberal at their inception, with a conservative narrative projected onto them hundreds of years after the religions inspired by them were codified under what had become far from progressive societies (this can happen even in a far more condensed fashion; take the Iranian Revolution for example, which was notoriously liberal at its onset prior to being co-opted by Khomeini and his militants).
Eroticism seems to have played an important role in the belief systems of antiquity though. A recurring feature in much Ancient Egyptian art and architecture is the Lotus flower. Often reduced in museum texts to the symbolism of renewal it embodied, Egyptian Blue Lotus or Sacred Blue Water Lily (otherwise known as Nymphaea nouchali var. caerulea) is in fact an aphrodisiac that also has psychoactive properties. Now, we're not talking about an indigenous plant that might've occasionally featured as a hieroglyph here and there. Most columns that held up entire temples of worship and festivities were crowned by lotus-shaped forms (or otherwise, papyrus-shaped forms), and in fact many survive today. This is a clear acknowledgment by a people of the important role played by a plant in the foundation of their entire civilization, not just symbolically, but in actual function as well.
The Dionysian Orgies of Ancient Greece of course are well known, and may have inspired things like Eroto-comatose Lucidity and other forms of “Sex Magick” practiced in modern times. In India, one only needs to look at the kama-related reliefs and sculpture in old Hindu temples to see how important eroticism was to ancient Hinduism (prudified by British colonialism according to Indologist Wendy Doniger).
We've established that there seems to be a bit of overlap between revolution and the birth of new religions (or at least the search for heightened spiritual consciousness). And there are instances of overlap between revolution and eroticism, as well as occasional overlap between eroticism and spiritual practice. One only needs to recall Woodstock 1969 as a case-in-point for overlap between all three: revolution, spirituality, and sex.
CONSUMPTION AND SPIRITUALITY
The Lotus Flower is quite commonly depicted in the act of consumption on many an Ancient Egyptian wall, walls that belong to some place of spirituality; typically either a temple or a tomb. So we can say there's a strong link between heightened spiritual exploration and the consumption of psychoactive substances (which, in this case, also double as sexual stimulants). It is said that prior to the mass popularization of coffee, it was primarily used by the Sufi mystics of Yemen (probably late 15th century) during late night chanting rituals to induce themselves into a state between alert wakefulness and restful sleep. The Bacchanalia of Ancient Rome were festivals of wine, freedom, intoxication, and ecstacy devoted to the God Bacchus and based largely on the Dyonisian festivals of Ancient Greece that came before. In the modern era, occultist Aliester Crowley wrote on the “Psychology of Hashish”, a substance of which the oldest surviving mention of is in a pamphlet published in Cairo in 1123 CE, accusing Nizari Muslims of being “hashish-eaters”. Although mentioned derogatorily, the Nazaris are in fact an Islamic sect known for having championed human reasoning (which may not have been appreciated by more conservative Muslims, and hence, the derogatory “accusation”).
1960's America is of course notorious for the proliferation of LSD and Amphetamines. Combined with the Free Love, New Age spirituality, and revolutionary aspirations and protest movements, it's hard not to see an obvious overlap between all these areas. That's not to say that one can't exist without the other. After all, how many people have in fact been heavily intoxicated on hashish without ever experiencing an inkling of spirituality or thought of rebellion or cared for sexual liberation? Way more than the contrary for sure. But I think what I'm trying to get at is that there seem to be very particular scenarios that combine all these elements into a kind of perfect storm. A sum that is far greater than its individual parts so to speak.
Notice however that I didn't title this segment “Drugs” or “Intoxication” as is often the case with this sort of thing, because that would be awfully reductive and would negate the effects of all the other things we consume that shape our psyche. Which, if you ask me, is basically everything. Our moods aren't solely shaped by the drugs and alcohol we may or may not ingest, but by everything that enters our body. Food isn't exclusively a matter of nutrition or sheer hunger-suppression. Certain foods and flavor combinations will make us feel comforted, fresh and energetic, tired and bloated, or heck even euphoric sometimes. Awareness of food and its affects, and conscious utilization of the magic of perfect flavor(s) is of the essence.
THE ULTIMATE ART
photo: Genius: Picasso – Trailer
Talking about Art with any kind of objectivity is a very difficult endeavor because the one thing most people can agree on is that Art is clearly a very subjective matter. What someone thinks of as bad art, someone else may declare as avantgarde. However, what is also true is that everyone has an opinion about what they think is good or bad art. Now I'm not going to go as far as to make any declarations about what constitutes good or bad art, but I will point out the kind of art that speaks to me versus that which doesn't. And I think it's fair to say that the kind of art that has nothing to do with anything we have discussed thus far is probably the type that will not speak to me. If, on the other hand, it involves one or more of the facets in question? Chances are... there might be enough in there to grab me.
So for example, even as a non-religious person I can still somehow be spiritually-overcome by a stunning temple, synagogue, cathedral, or mosque (not all of them, but the ones that transcend all the rest with a little overlap with themes other than spirituality). I can also attest to succumbing to spiritual feels in places not designated for worship (The Berghain in Berlin, November 2012). I can be as into a cheap but rebellious zine as much as a trippy Op-Art installation. Reading PROMOTHEA (a comicbook series by Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III) was something of magical experience for me (not throughout, but very much so in some parts) despite my utter disinterest in the Kabbalah (which informs much of the series' ethos). It occurs to me that one of the reasons I might've thoroughly enjoyed the 2004 incarnation of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA is that it is in fact heavily made up of the components I cite: Spirituality, Revolution, Eroticism, and Consumption too (this also rings true for BRAVE NEW WORLD, be it the book or 2020 television adaptation).
I should note, however, that “revolution” to me is simply the most extreme display of social engagement. So, if a work is simply “socially engaged”, well that sure as hell counts in my book.
Also, it should be obvious that when I say Art I'm not talking exclusively of the Visual Arts, but rather All the Arts: Music, Storytelling, Sculpture, Architecture, Performance, as well as all the Graphic Arts.
It's probably not a coincidence that each new spiritual awakening and/or rebellion brings with it noticeable changes in Art. Ancient Egyptian art is not the same as Coptic art which in turn is not quite the same as the Islamic art that emerged in the area. There are similarities for sure (the Lotus Flower is in fact a recurring motif throughout), and enough evidence to indicate gradual transitions rather than a sudden break, but still, there's the clear indication of new aesthetics coinciding with new social movements and the spiritual explorations they inspired. The 1920's saw the emergence of Modernism with artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian (both of who were involved in the occult by the way, and sought to tap into a kind of cosmically aware art), not to mention Dada, Surrealism, and the proto Conceptual Art of Duchamp (all of which was heavily steeped in various occult practices of the era). The visual culture of the 1960's was of course dominated by psychedelia, Op-Art, and Pop Art (the latter you can say sanctified Consumer Culture).
The thing that tends to happen though with the emergence of any new aesthetic that taps into a zeitgeist so to speak, is we tend to see declarations of it being the “new artform” that everyone else ought to embrace, follow, and even emulate. That of course is nonsense and has more to do with looking at Art through the lens of the fashion-du-jour than anything else. All approaches to Art anywhere in the world from across the ages are valid, and to me especially those that operate at the “ultimate intersection” we've been concerned with in this here post. Which means stylistically, no one art is holier than the other. It can be figurative or abstract or impressionist or whatever.
Although now I'm wondering if the “ideal style” of the so-called “Ultimate Art” going forward ought to bridge all these superficially opposing styles just to break down barriers and fuck with false hierarchies. Contrary to popular belief, making art isn't exclusively about expressing what you know is already in your head, it is sometimes a process of exploring what you didn't know was in your head, and maybe creating works of art that bring about both the conscious and subconscious is where it's at.
Hm. I may be onto something here. I think I may have come up with The Ultimate Formula for creating The Ultimate Art.
(Representation + Abstract Expressionism + Iconography) x (Spirituality + Revolution + Consumption + Eroticism) = The Ultimate Art
Okay, I may be taking a bit of a piss here. Just a bit. A lot a bit.
Not really though.
Maybe I just need to lose “the Ultimate Art” label to keep it from sounding so ridiculous.