On Occult Art
Occult Art! What is it? and does it matter?
So what is Occult Art? It is art that is borne of an insight which results from engaging in occult activity and exploring occult world views. What may surprise the general observer is that these activities and world views are consistent and coherent. There are different occult systems, but most have striking similarities. Comparing occult systems is like looking at road and rail maps of the same country. They look different, and imply different ways of getting around, but they map the same territory and share many of the same features. The art produced as an expression of these occult systems is a window through which we may glimpse the world of the occultist. Just our views of everyday reality has much in common with those around us, occult art shows us that the perceptions of occultists have shared features too.
So what are the common themes of these occult systems, and how are they expressed in occult art. Foremost is the view that there are other realms aside from the mundane world which we might refer to as the real world. Often these other realms are referred to as "astral", and it has been an abiding concern of occultism to map these realms, and to explore them. Much Occult Art records perceptions of these other realms, sometimes referred to as the astral world.
"Whoa!" I hear the materialist shout. "Tripe! The world that I touch is the real world, talk of other worlds is silly nonsense." The question as to whether the astral realms have an objective existence or not is actually one which occultists spend little time thinking about. Many assume it does, and then get on and explore it. Others may accept the uncertainty, but counter that it is useful to suspend disbelief and act on the assumption that the astral world does indeed exist out there. In relation to art the question is barely relevant. Any enthusiast of art accepts the importance of the realm of the imagination. The astral realm might be considered a special case of the realm of the imagination. Very special in fact. To the occultists who are working it is immensely more important than any idle day dream. The astral realm for the astral traveller is a world in which archetypal truths can be encountered with great clarity, unobscured by the distractions and confusions of everyday life. Indeed the occultist may regard the astral world as the truth behind the "real" world. It is thought that events in the astral world will, in due course, manifest in the physical. This is true of the microcosm, whether it be an individual or an object, and of the macrocosm. It has been the abiding concern of the occultist to map that which lies behind the physical world. The Kabbalists description of the Tree of Life by which the Universal Life Force descends into physical manifestation is surely one of the most elegant and sophisticated world views available to the occultist. The Genesis myth and the story of the Fall of Man are enriched when interpreted Kabbalistically. This makes occult art so very important for the occult artist. Not only can the image be a vision of a greater truth than can be captured by any camera, the very act of creating a picture of an astral perception in itself manifests something from the astral into the physical. It mirrors the microcosmic act of incarnation which brings a child into the world, and the macrocosmic act of the Creator. No wonder some religious traditions are so sensitive about graven images!
So Occult Art can be a window upon the astral realm. But what is it that we see in the window? This appears to be partly expected, and partly unexpected. The occult views and practises of the artist may involve meditative techniques utilising visual images, and the memorisation of sophisticated systems of symbolism. No surprise that these beliefs and practices provide a visual vocabulary that informs the visions, in fact they are intended to do so. Indeed some of the art presented here is, in itself a meditation upon an acquired symbol, a personal working of a shared image. Some of these shared symbols are called Gods and Goddesses, have titles, attributes, particular associations, a special nature, and are represented in a recognisable way. Here occult art mirrors the religious art of previous ages. Indeed, the Gods and Goddesses are often drawn from ancient pantheons. It may surprise the general observer to find that, for instance, the Egyptian Gods and Goddesses live today in the imagination of modern occultists. The modern conception of these deities differs from that of the Ancient Egyptians, but even deities have to keep up with the times. Indeed modern conceptions of a God or Goddess may utilise ideas drawn from modern science. Some occultists suggest that the Gods are bit older now, and their sometimes complex inter-relationships have changed!
Modern occult art is, however, radically different from the temple art of the ancient Egypt, or that of the modern day Hindu or Buddhist. These traditional forms of religious art portray deities according to a precise iconography, common to all artists working that tradition. The beings portrayed by occult artists too have a shared iconography but it wholeheartedly embraces the modern artistic ethos that champions the nobility of individual perception and expression. This is a source of excitement for the viewer, familiar images can be portrayed in unexpected ways, but the potential for occult is greater than this. The images portrayed can be a surprise not only to the viewer, but also to the artist! Just as the physical world can present us with unexpected sights, so the occult artist may experience, and record, visions upon the astral that are equally unexpected. Indeed the creative process of much occult art is intended to bypass the conscious mind. The materialist may accept this, while denying the objective existence of astral realms. While denying all but material reality the perception of astral travel might be seen as a useful way of exploring the imagination, and beyond that a useful tool for encountering the unconscious.
Some feel that it is pointless to wonder whether the experience of astral vision is a purely internal musing or a real glimpse of another realm that truly exists beyond the viewer and can be visited by others, just like a street or building in the physical world. They note that Jung long ago observed that our unconscious and the symbols by which it knocks on the door of our conscious mind are shared. He referred to the "collective unconscious". If the practices of the occult artist access the collective conscious, then his or her visions may be glimpses of something which is part of us all and greater than any one of us. The "astral realms" would indeed exist beyond the individual's imagination, it would part of the Universe that we all share. The astronaut visits places which are part of our Universe but which most of us do not get to see. The occultist, or "psychonaut" (to borrow Pete Carroll's term) may glimpse aspects of the unconscious which we all share and which has relevance to us all. Their art allows us to share those glimpses.
There are numerous currents with occult art, which that have a relevance beyond the individual artist. I will relate two that interest me, just as examples. They are by no means the most overt or
common. They are chosen at whim.
Austin Osman Spare is perhaps the best known occult artist, he died in 1956 something of a recluse. In his younger days his draftsmanship was applauded by the artistic establishment. However, in the 1920's, he rejected that world and returned to his native East End of London where he lived in modest circumstances generating pictures that have enthralled occultists to this day, and will for generations to come. He is particularly noted for the development of the technique of automatic drawing, where images manifest through the artist, rather than being consciously devised. He talked of his initiation into the Witchcraft, and talked of and drew Sabbats. The drawings are striking images of sexual cavorting figures, but are also deeply enigmatic. It is clear from how he spoke about the Sabbat that these were not actual physical events, rather it was a mind space, or astral realm, which could be visited and experienced. This harmonises with how present day witches operating in the Sabbatic tradition experience their Craft. Andrew Chumbley being a striking example. So we have a realm of the imagination, shared by a number of people, which can be experienced, and then recorded through art. Now this gets really interesting. In the 1920's Margaret Murray suggested that the Medieval accounts of the Sabbat were true and described the actual meetings of a cult which had survived from pre-Christian times. Modern historians rejected this, saying the accounts were false, being projections of the Inquisitors that their helpless victims were tortured into confessing to. All assumed that the accounts of Sabbats were meant to describe actual events in the real world, they only differed as to the truth of those accounts. But what if the medieval witches experienced the Sabbat as modern Sabbatic witches do now, as a shared mindspace that it was possible to access. Perhaps they used psychoactive drugs (flying ointment) applied to the mucus membranes in state of sexual excitement (riding the broom stick). We should remember that strict boundaries between dreams, imagination and reality are perhaps a modern innovation. Of course many of the accounts were born of horrendous torture, but perhaps this too can pitch the mind into strange realms. Of course the witch hunters had preconceptions as to the nature of the witch cult, which they then sought to confirm. But perhaps the Sabbat was an undercurrent of a conventional, sexually repressed society. The witch hunters sought out participants of that undercurrent, and others sought participation in the undercurrent. Modern historians have found fascinating medieval accounts of religious dream cults, which met in the dreams of its members. Also it seems that some witch hunters regarded the accounts of the Sabbats they heard as untrue delusions, however they regarded them as delusions fuelled by the Devil and executed the unfortunates who came to their attention never-the-less. What we may be looking at is a mind space, or astral realm, the Sabbat, which is perhaps the Shadow of conventional waking society. It is a realm that the occult artist can visit now, as it has been visited for centuries before us.
Another example. Contact with praeterhuman disincarnate entities has been an abiding concern of certain currents of occultism. In 1919 Aleister Crowley published his commentary on H.P.Blavatsky's Voice of Silence. He accompanied it with a drawing of a being called LAM. The implication being that this being was a member of an occult brotherhood of praeterhuman intelligences which inspired the work of both Blavatsky and himself. This image has fascinated many, it is a recurrent theme worked by a number of occult artists. The figure has a striking resemblance to the most common modern representation of aliens, sometimes called "the Greys". So we see an image published in an obscure occult journal, not reprinted until 1972 apparently influencing the popular conception of extraterrestrial alien intelligence. The popularity of sci-fi has made this image a major cultural icon. It has entered the popular imagination to the extent that is now a ubiquitous children's toy. This mirrors the fate of the little green men of yesteryear. In the 19th Century the Fairies, originally feared as powerful, unpredictable and occasionally malevolent nature spirits, became trivialised and prettified to amuse children. As an aside it has been noted that the tales of Faeries and aliens have common features. Modern UFO tales talk of abductions involving time differentials and genetic sampling. Faery tales described people being removed to the land of Faery, and the tradition of "changlings" where a human baby being secretly exchanged
for a Faery child is suggestive
of a genetic agenda.
Though Occult Art is informed by various belief systems, one certainly does not need to adopt these belief systems to appreciate the results. It can be regarded as a particularly confident and energetic genre of folk art. It has a complex and rich visual vocabulary. Indeed it hard to think of any other form of folk art that has anywhere near the same degree of sophistication in its iconography. Though some of its practitioners are clearly accomplished artists many are not, and they produce some of the most interesting images. These can be regarded as fine examples of Naïve art. The best Occult Art is truly startling, the images can be vibrant, deeply haunting, and very powerful. Like no other art form it seeks inspiration from beyond the confines of our conscious mind. Every now and then, it finds it.