Modern Art and the Occult
Hamilton Reed Armstrong
The following is an edited and updated version of an article that appeared in Crisis Magazine in February 1990
It is increasingly clear that, by and large, the general public finds so called "Modern Art" both incomprehensible and repellent. An enormous chasm divides ordinary people and the dominant purveyors of culture. Today a visit to a gallery or museum dedicated to the art of the twentieth century is a perplexing experience that according to ones sensibilities can provoke amusement, ridicule, or perhaps even "severe shock" as was openly advertised at the 1999 Saatchi "Sensations" exhibition in New York. The reason is that Webster's dictionary definition of art as "the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects" based on a tradition inherited from Ancient Greece, no longer applies.
Portrait of Olga
Nude descending a staircase
For reasons known perhaps only to themselves, an ambiguously appointed intelligentsia with access to the media has established an alien criterion for the appraisal of art. The process has been unfolding since the late nineteenth century when during the last great manifestation of European art, French Impressionism, a divide evolved between the general public and the reigning elite. The Impressionists spoke passionately to the public while the art establishment and critics, having lost touch with reality, berated both artists and public for their spontaneity, sentiment and optimistic fin de siecle enthusiasm.
Leaving its philosophical roots aside for the moment, the shift from the focus on art as a reflection on the beauty of a divinely created cosmos to the cult of what might best be termed, "Art for the Artist's sake" can be traced to some of the most famous 20th century painters. Picasso and Marcel Duchamp with their distorted views of humanity and Wasilly Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian as founders of Abstraction set the stage and led the way. These "artists," along with a host of others, abandoned the realm of nature and observed reality in favor of the realm of subjective creativity and picture plane reality. The artist's canvas became a world unto itself as the work of an individual genius involved in his own causi sui project. There thus arose from this paradigm shift as many aesthetics and as many realities as there were artists.
Once the break with tradition occurred, groups, societies, schools and brotherhoods formed to pick up the pieces and reformulate art. Futurists, Suprematists, Dadaists, Vorticists, Surrealists and others, vied to impose their views. In Germany the "Blau Reiter" group, and then between the wars the "Bau Haus" attempted to reground aesthetics in "sacred" geometry. Each group claimed that underlying all great art is a purified essence that only the educated sensitive soul can see. An entire subculture was born of neo-gnostic creators and their promoters who reveled in the hubris of their self-appointed mission to "shock the bourgoisie". By the 1940s New York critic Clement Greenberg was speaking of:"purities," "essences," "formal factors," and "logics of readjustment." He lamented that the future of American art lay in the hands of fifty brave souls who lived in bohemian squalor, misunderstood and rejected by the boorish American middle class. 1. In the 1950s Greenberg espoused Jackson Pollack while his rival critic Harold Rosenberg picked up Willem de Kooning. Action Painting was born and the accepted emphasis changed from the "picture plane reality" of each canvas to: "It's not what you paint it's how involved you are that counts." In the words of Harold Rosenberg, "The big moment came when it was decided to paint...just to paint. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from value - political, aesthetic, moral." 2. By the following decade the whole concept of Abstract Art had abstracted itself right out of existence with Minimalism. Ad Reinhardt's paintings of Black on Black, which, being nothing, is as far as you can abstract anything, took the movement to its logical conclusion in a negation of nothing. In the prophetic words of founding father, Malevich, " Now with pride we spit on you." 3. The public, which had tried to understand, was left in bewildered confusion.
As time progressed, however, so did the indoctrination as to the new role of art. In the established media journals we were told by critics such as Clement Greenberg and Leo Steinberg, that Art "challenges previously held assumptions," and that "Great art forces us to abandon our most cherished values." The director of a museum attached to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, Franklin W. Robinson, expressed succinctly the prevailing ideology: "Among the many things that art does for us all is that it challenges us, it demands that we rethink our assumptions about every issue in life, from religion to politics, from love and sex to death and afterlife." 4. In their words, the artist in the twentieth century emerges as the active agent of cultural change; he assumes not only a didactic position of leadership but a sacerdotal role as well. The artist's task is no longer making an object of beauty but challenging us to both political and spiritual revolution.
According to the authors of The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890-1985, a voluminous catalogue prepared for a show of Modern Art at the Los Angeles County Museum, the common denominator of the Modern Art hanging in prestigious galleries and museums today is the preoccupation of its producers with occult spirituality.
The catalogue's list of artists who have dabbled in the occult is a "who's who" of Modern Art: Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Augusto Giacometti, Adolf Gotlieb, Jasper Johns, Wassily Kandinsky, Ellsworth Kelly, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Eduard Munch, Barnett Newman, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jackson Pollack, Ad Reinhart, Mark Rothko, and Albert Pinkham Ryder, among a host of others. Only Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, considered sell-outs and successful materialists by the self appointed establishment, are missing.
The catalogue also contains an appendix of the "occult" sources of these artists: Alchemy, Kabbalah, Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, Paracelcus, Jacob Boehm, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism, Swedenborg, Shamanism, and Theosophy, among others. Of traditional Christianity or Judaism there is no mention. The common denominator of all of these systems according to Maurice Tuchman, organizer of this exhibition and its catalogue, is that they all share the following world view:
"The universe is a single, living substance; mind and matter also are one; all things evolve in dialectical opposition; thus the universe comprises paired opposites (male-female, light-dark, vertical-horizontal, positive-negative), [sic] everything corresponds in a universal analogy, with things above as they are below; imagination is real; and self realization can come by illumination, accident, or an induced state." 5.
In Man and His Symbols a book edited by Carl Jung, and one fundamental to the understanding of Modern Art, psychologist Aniela Jaffe points out a reason for this interest in the occult:
"It must be realized that what these artists, Jean Arp, Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian etc.] were concerned with was something far greater than a problem of form and distinction between "concrete" and abstract," figurative and non-figurative. Their goal was the center of life and things, their changeless background and an inward certitude. Art had become mysticism... Their mysticism was alien to Christianity, for that "Mercurial Spirit" is alien to the heavenly spirit. Indeed it was Christianity's dark adversary that was forging its way in art. Here we begin to see the real historical and symbolic significance of "modern art." Like the hermetic movements in the Middle Ages, it must be understood as a mysticism of the spirit of the earth and therefore as an expression of our time compensatory to Christianity....As has already been pointed out, the alchemists personified this spirit as "the spirit Mercurius" and called it with good reason "Mercurius Duplex" [ the two-faced, dual Mercurius ]. In the religious language of Christianity, it is called the devil. But, however improbable it may seem, the devil too has a dual aspect. In the positive sense he appears as Lucifer--literally, the light bringer.. ...Looked at in the light of these difficult and paradoxical ideas, modern art [ which we have recognized as symbolic of the chthonic (earthly) spirit ] has a dual aspect. In the positive sense it is the expression of a mysteriously profound nature-mysticism; in the negative, it can only be interpreted as the expression of an evil destructive spirit. The two sides belong together, for the paradox is one of the basic qualities of the unconscious and its contents." 6. Jaffe goes on to quote one of the patriarchal figures of modern art, Paul Klee: "Even evil must not be a triumphant or degrading enemy, but a power collaborating in the whole." 7
Dr. Jung, himself, was perhaps the world's greatest theoretician of the occult. His attempts to resolve the internal dialectics of nature in terms of universal male and female principles were thoroughly promethean. Transforming the sexual theories his teacher, Sigmund Freud, he delved into the shadowy world of the medieval alchemists, the oriental Tao, and the Jewish Kabbalah to produce a vision of the individual human being and the cosmos as a dialectical union of two princples---the male (conscious, rational, heavenly) and the female (unconscious, intuitive, earthly). Jung ultimately embraced an amalgamation of Manechean dualism and the ancient Kabbalistic view of seeing material reality -yesh as an emanation of the unknowable first principle Ayn Sof thus rendering "God" the source of evil (restrictive matter -kelipot) as well as good (emancipating light-orot -- spirit -ruah). In his book, The Psychological Approach to the Trinity, Jung proposed that God (like man) in order to realize his ultimate "wholeness" ought to recognize his "dark side" and "reincorporate" within himself creation in its entirety. The devil, as prince of this world, Jung finds to be a "Son of God" just as Jesus; and this son is to be incorporated into the Trinity so as to establish the more symmetrical "Quartinary." 8 The influence of Jung on 20th century art and culture cannot be overstated.
Cult and culture go hand in hand, for today as throughout history art is intimately tied to religion. In the words of the late curator of Oriental art at the Boston Museum of Fine arts, Ananda Coomarswamy, "We must stop telling people about art, and start telling them what art is about. It is about God, whom we rarely mention in polite society." 9
Just as Indian art reflects its Buddhist or Hindu underpinnings, just as Romanesque and Gothic art project Christian faith and hope, or Renaissance art reflects humanism, so also much of twentieth century art reflects underlying currents of what can only be described as the occult world view. Once the Judeo-Christian revelation that a transcendent God, the Creator, is radically other than His Creation is rejected, occult or "New Age" thinking provides the needed substitute. Mysticism replaces both reason and revelation and man may simply follow the voice of his own god within. 10.
Icons of the New Age
(deus est sphaera cujus centrum est ubique)
Belthane-the great goddess holds the secret "tara" to forge the fusion of opposites (black and white trees)
Kabbalistic diagram of fallen angels elevating man to his ultimate destruction
The rainbow (above) and the serpent (below) converge to bring forth the new "natural" man
The Great Mother strains to give birth to the new cosmic Christ with the aid of space aliens
Let the believer as well as the artist beware, as the old gods return, chaos comes with them. The New Age is not new, it is a return to the old. According to Plutarch, in the age of the Emperor Tiberias, the sea captain Thamus, rounding the Greek archipelago on the morning of the Solstice, heard from the island a great wailing and lament: "The great god Pan is dead." The New Age along with its art is the latest attempt to bring him back.
1. The influence of Steinberg, Greenberg, and Rosenberg on the burgeoning New York art scene of the 1950's are amply and amusingly documented by Tom Wolfe in, The Painted Word. (New York: Bantam, 1976).
2. Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters," Art News, Vol. 51, December 1952, P. 23
3. Kasimir Malevich, Essays on Art, 1916 p. 28. in Alain Bescanson, The Forbidden Image, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2000) p. 363
4. Franklin Robinson, The Washington Times, letters 7/20/1989
5. Maurice Tuchman et al., The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting , 1890-1985(New York: Abbeville Press, 1986) p. 19.
6. Aniela Jaffe, Man and His Symbols ed. Carl G. Jung (New York: Dell, 1964) pp. 306-7, 316-17.
7. ibid., p. 320
8. Carl Gustav Jung, A Psychological Approach to the Trinity Vol.11 of complete works, Bollingen Series (Princeton University Press)
9. Ananda K. Coomarswamy, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art (New York: Dover, 1956) p. 208.
10.[ Deus] est re et essentia mundo distinctus, et super omnia quae praeter ipsum sunt ineffabaliter excelsus. Const. Dei Filius, Vatican I cap. I ca 1-4 (Dogmatic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church)
(or) St. Thomas Aquinas on the Nature of God, Whether God Enters into the Composition of Things:
"On this point there have been three errors. Some have affirmed that God is the world-soul, as is clear from Augustine. This is also the opinion of those who assert that God is the soul of the first heavens. Again others have said that God is the formal principle of all things; this is said to have been the theory of the Almaricians. The third error is that of David of Dinant, who most stupidly taught that God was primary matter. Now all these contain manifest untruth, since it is not possible for God to enter into the composition of anything, either as a formal or a material principle."
ST, 1, 3, 8
That God is not excluded from His creation. Aquinas goes on to state:
"God is in all things, not, indeed, as part of their essence, nor as an accident, but as agent is present to that upon which it acts. For an agent must be joined to that on which it acts immediately, and reach it by its power; hence it is proved in [Aristotle] vii. that the thing moved and the mover must exist together."
ST, 1, 7, 8
The Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1. Ed. Anton C. Pegis (New York: Random House, 1945)
In contrast to the dogmatic teaching of the Church cited above and the authoritative view of St. Thomas there are "New Age" pantheistic currents even within supposedly Catholic circles. Teilhard de Chardin's and Karl Rahner's immanantist theologies are exemplars:
"No Spirit (not even God within the limits of our experience) exists, nor could structurally exist without an associated multiple, any more than a center without a circle or circumference. In a concrete sense there is not matter and spirit. All that exists is matter becoming spirit.
Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy (Harcourt Brace, NY, 1969) p. 162
"God and the grace of Christ are in all things, as the secret essence of each reality... He who accepts his own existence, and thereby his humanity, even though he doesn't know it, says yes to Christ.
K. Rahner...( Roma: Paoline II, 1967) p. 129
The basic tenets of "New Age" Christian theology might be summed up in the following hypothetical Creed:
"I believe in God, the hidden substance and mind of the Cosmos, and in Jesus Christ its most sublime manifestation in man. A perfected emanation of the Spirit, he was born of a physical mother, Mary, lived, suffered, and died under Pontius Pilate; but his risen power lives on in humanity. His essence having been always united to the divine source his human personality remains as exemplar and teacher of benevolence and wholeness.
I believe in the pervasive presence of the Spirit in matter, one catholic church of all spiritualities, the universal brother and sisterhood of humanity, the negation of evil, the fusion of opposites, and ultimate re-absorption in God, the ground of all being."