Reflections on art

The Quintessence of Art

There is a moment in the life of an artist when he stops to look around, to take in and analyse his position in the ever changing modes of the art world. It is a moment of introspection, of questioning the underlying motives behind the need to present oneself to the world in this way. Why and to what purpose and where is the legitimacy of assuming this role?

It can be a difficult moment, often discouraging but it can also be a turning point, a time for reorientation. But as in the Grail Castle of the Arthurian legends, it is all a matter of posing the right question – whom does the Grail serve?

By 1992 I had been working for over 25 years with no or little feedback from the public, ignored by all aspects of the cultural scene; so I paused a while to try to understand what it was that drove me along such a lonely path that, to all intents and purposes, was leading me nowhere.

I started by observing my contemporaries, those artists who were fortunate enough to be integrated into the system of galleries and who, be it modestly, manage to make a living from their work. It was immediately evident that their talent lay as much in their ability to market themselves as in their artistic endeavours. Self marketing and working with the media is a notable part of art school training; a quality I sadly lack having, perhaps foolishly, abandoned college after my first year.

I then turned my attention to those artists appearing regularly in the media, the rock stars of the art world celebrated by public institutions and promoted by the most prestigious galleries on the international stage. Putting aside any judgement on the quality of their oeuvres, I was struck by the dominant cerebral quality of their work, so often reflecting the prevailing intellectual arrogance of Post-modern times.

Here I saw the artist centred around his Ego, standing on a pedestal like some national hero with the unique objective of being admired from afar. Was it for this, for the admiration of others, that I had been striving to achieve for all these years? Was art nothing but vanity? It became evident that, if I was to continue along this lonely path, I must look beyond the hollow reality of art today.

By looking back at the role of the artist through history I hoped to find a more acceptable motive for my persevering in this direction. It is immediately noticeable that the further we go back through art history, the role played by the artist loses progressively its egotistic nature. Recent history shows the artist much as he is today but with an essential difference: he is working for the rich merchants or he is in the service of the aristocracy and it is these wealthy patrons that he is putting on a pedestal, not as yet himself. Further back still he is the vassal of the Church engaged in asserting the authority of Rome on an illiterate population but he has also an additional mission; that of purveying a spiritual message.

And then we come to what appears to be the end of art history, as though a wall has been erected to protect us from some unnameable danger.

It became clear that art history deals almost exclusively with the Christian era and that beyond the wall lies a mysterious otherworld that for some reason was seen as a threat to the Christian Church. Throughout Europe Christianity was imposed by the sword by an expanding Roman empire, driving the ‘wild’ Celtic tribes into the far reaching corners of the land and in some cases actually building walls to keep them at bay as with Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. By exchanging a pantheon of gods and goddesses representing the many aspects of nature for one jealous God who, contrary to their pagan ancestors, gave Man dominion over all things including nature itself and in so doing shifting the consciousness of Man, alienating him from the natural world. The consequences of this monumental change in mentality has resulted in the catastrophic situation of the planet today. It occurred to me that it might also be responsible for the slow degradation of the artist’s role in society, leading to the shallowness of today’s art.

The first thing that comes to mind when researching art forms in prehistoric times are the Palaeolithic cave paintings such as those found at Lascaux. Images such as these, painted over 17000 years ago, are often located in places that are reached only with great difficulty and they are nearly always to be found in total darkness which suggests that they were in no way intended as decoration but were destined to serve as ritual images for magical purposes. This would imply that the ancestors of the artist were shamans. If we assume this to be true we must suppose that art has to do with  survival and that the artist is an intercessor between his tribe and their gods, between Man and nature.

Being of Scots/Irish descent, I felt naturally inclined to pick up the thread from these Palaeolithic shamans in the pre-Christian Celtic culture that was once spread over the entire continent and that has been miraculously preserved in the far reaching corners of Europe where Christianity arrived at a later date and in a more gentle fashion and where many pagan traditions were eventually absorbed into and preserved by the Celtic Church.

Whilst researching evidence of shamanic practice in Celtic culture, I stumbled upon Robert Graves’ book ‘The White Goddess,’ an extremely dense and scholarly study of Celtic mythology in which the author attempts to dissect and analyse what is perhaps one of the oldest texts to have come down to us: the Song of Amergin. Taken from the Irish Book of Invasions, it was first written down in the early medieval period but originally it was believed to have been sung by to the bard Amergin of the Milesians as he set foot on Irish soil in 1268 BCE. It is an epic poem, a magical invocation of nature, where each phrase, word or even letter provoked a meaning for those instructed in the secret art. It was a time when knowledge was transmitted orally between the initiated, the teachings of the hermetic tradition being encoded within the signs of a symbolic language.

And so here with Amergin we have an illustration of an intercessor between Man and nature – an original artist. I felt that I should somehow involve this poem in my work in such a way that the conscious intention of this magical invocation of nature should, at all moments, be an integral part of the creative process. I decided that the substance of each and every painting would, from this time onwards, be created through the successive inscription (in the manner of palimpsests) of all or part of this poem as a kind of ‘litany’ – the object of this constant reiteration was not to give a legibility to the poem but rather, by consciously invoking its underlying quintessence throughout the entire creative process, to infuse the work with ‘intent.’

But for this ‘intent’ to exist, to be more than just the result of a symbolic act, it became necessary for me, the artist, to ‘Be’ what I was doing. Art is not about imitating, nor is it about appearances, art is born from the knowledge of what is; it is about Being. And so, quite naturally, this particular path that I had chosen in my quest for the meaning of art, prompted me to investigate the art of the Celtic poets with the result that for a number of years I became a student in a Druidic Order, training to be a Bard.

I do not pretend that this is the only way to apprehend the meaning of art. It is a personal interpretation that reveals more of the anxiety of being an artist than it answers the question of Art itself. All true artists attempt, at some time or another, to come to terms with their craft, to give meaning to their work and this can take many different forms. Some fail and pay the price; others go on to illustrate the human story through the ages, each one reflecting the shifting values of their time.

What I see as the shallowness of today’s art is simply an illustration of the times in which we live. It does no more than express the lack of social cohesion and the heightened individualism of a society governed by market values. Artists who endorse these values through their artistic interventions, thus providing them with a cultural alibi, become quite naturally the chosen elite by the system they extol.

To set oneself aside from the dominant ideology of one’s time by criticizing a system and its elected members, one takes the risk of being exiled from the cultural arena, of provoking the derision of ones contemporaries, of being accused of arrogance or stigmatized as a mystique. But it is the price that I must pay if I am to remain true to what I now believe to be the quintessence of my craft.

My Place in the Puzzle

A Reflection on Today’s Art Scene

The quarrels that have plagued the world of art over the last decade or so, animated by philosophers, critics, art dealers, the organizers of exhibitions and other assessors of today’s cultural scene, compels me to examine the place that I have been allocated as an artist in this confused and turbulent debate.

Art is determined as a result of both the customs and conventions in force at the moment of its creation. This has no doubt always been the case. Ever since the 18th century all philosophical discussions in relation to the Arts issued from Kant’s theory of aesthetics but in the 20th century it was swept aside with the emergence of postmodernism and new paradigms of appreciation. The artist was henceforth free to experiment diverse forms of artistic expression no longer restricted uniquely to the fine arts. The detractors in this debate – those who continue to defend a Kantian approach to art – accuse the new administrators of the art world who benefit from the complaisance of critics, galleries in vogue and public institutions; to be an institutional elite that decrees “from on high” the quality or the mediocrity of an oeuvre and to act as a sanction to any-old-thing in a system where the cultural sphere is ruled by market values. On the other hand the partisans of an art hitherto relieved from the constraints of aesthetics have no scruples in accusing their antagonists of defending obsolete theories which were responsible for a pernicious and sacrosanct form of art. This new approach encourages a secular art, firmly allied to economical and political transformations; to the development of new technologies and to that of the media. In other words an art freed of all complexes, definitively liberated from the incumbent tradition of the metaphysics of beauty.

It has thus become necessary to establish new parameters of evaluation. This is where the difficulty lies. Numerous theories succeeded one another but none of them achieved a consensus. Transgression being in vogue, all systems of evaluation are put to the test by the artists themselves who continuously reinvent the conditions of their newfound liberty.

As an artist who works on canvas in a more or less traditional way, it is not surprising that I should be automatically catalogued a conventional painter, defending conservative values and opposed to any new interpretation of art. I might not be in the carriage with the artists elected by the assessors of the art of the moment, but that does not mean that I have been left behind on the platform. Art history has a long record of artists reacting against the dominant artistic manifestations of their time: the Nouveaux Fauves, the Trans-Avant-Gardes, the Nouvelle Figuration to name but a few who reacted by revisiting past values and bringing them onto a contemporary stage. When confronted with the remonstrations of my fellow “conventional painters” it is clear to me that this is not my place. By clinging to the Kantian theory that art is to do with the judgement of taste, they impose codes of subjective acceptability to all works of art, restricting creativity to conform to conventions laid down two hundred years ago; their sermons in defence of aesthetics portray beauty as little more than an ingredient in a recipe that has remained unchanged since 18th century.

Many aspects of today’s art arouse my curiosity and I follow with interest the ever growing spheres invested by contemporary artists but I often find it difficult to reconcile the products of their interventions with my personal perception of art. This does not arise from a lack of aesthetics on their part or the allegations claiming the death of art* but rather from a deviation from what I believe to be its fundamental nature: an expression of the creation of the universe inherent in the recurring cycle of love, life and death in a celebration of universal consciousness.

Post colonial imperialism continues to affirm its hegemony over the international stage, imposing its models, tendencies and style, greedily helping itself to the riches of the third world – their cultures included – then selling them back transformed and revised according to the parameters of a neo-colonialist consortium. The outcome of this is that all artists who wish to be accepted by today’s art scene are obliged to conform to the contemporary ideology of the West where arrogance, a lack of commitment and subservience to the art market proliferates.

It is with this in mind that I anticipate, not so much a return to old values, but rather a re-initialisation of art with the universal principles of creation that are not restricted exclusively to occidental ideals.

Rather than looking towards Wall Street, would it not be healthier to turn towards certain cultures of the third world where art still enacts its primary role as a means of communication between Man and his gods: between Man and nature? It is with a humble and reverential approach towards the immensity of the universe and the miracle of life that the artist connects to the very essence of art. It is sad to note that an attitude such as this – the implication that art has a fundamental role to play in Man’s relation with the universe – is proclaimed obsolete, unworthy of consideration or at best stigmatised as primitive or naïve. I do not pretend that this is the only way to approach the arts. I defend only its legitimacy to be part of the artistic scene of today.

* The rupture of today’s art with the aesthetic tradition will have an undeniable influence on the future evolution of art history, but this said it remains to be seen whether this influence is irreversible. An art that has taken upon itself to reinvent its own criteria for evaluation and who’s only project is that induced by the free market, is it not destined to be absorbed to such an extent by cultural frivolities, fashion and the many aspects of communication that there will remain only an art replaced by its ersatz? The substitution of art by Culture and Communication announces the death of art but a death by substitution as it no longer relates to art itself but to its simulacra.

I was stirred to write this text after reading “La Querelle de l’Art Contemporain” by Marc Jimenez.

Levels of Perception within the Hidden Order of Art

What we feel when facing a work of art is an individual experience that is directly related to our capacity to receive the intentions of the artist and complete them within our own mental or emotional structure. A true work of art is an expression of the creation of the world and however contemporary and impenetrable it may appear to the layman, it should lend itself to a number of levels of perception so as to incite a response from the observer from within his or her own particular sphere of comprehension. Without going as far as Duchamp who declared that it is the onlooker who creates the work of art, we can at least say that it is by his unique interpretation of the work that the observer becomes its co-author.

The hermetic tradition for the transmission of knowledge on varying levels of consciousness worked in this way. The poetical invocations of the ancient Bards evoked simultaneously mystical meanings for the profane and magical knowledge for the initiated. Primitive writings were composed of signs evoking ideas. Both these means of transmitting knowledge had the advantage of obliging the receiver to think and to interpret the teachings buried within the words, using his own individual understanding of the hidden meanings enclosed within the signs of a symbolic language.

The imagery depicted in stone, found in churches and cathedrals, are the three dimensional equivalents of this hermetic language where the perceiver is called upon to decode the message at his own particular level of consciousness.

Teachings were transmitted in this way up until the end of the middle ages when symbolism was to gradually lose its esoteric significance, eventually depicting only its artistic and religious implications.

The hermetic tradition passed into the shadows safeguarded by alchemists, cabalists, secret societies and… artists. The artist who remains connected to the hidden order of art perpetrates this tradition intuitively through his work to this very day. By holding back that which may be completed by the onlooker, by suggesting rather than asserting his intentions; he encourages the spectator to contribute to the proposed work of art; his oeuvre being only half of the complete experience. In other words, a true work of art only becomes whole when we take it into ourselves.

The encounter can be subliminal occurring on an emotional plane or it can be a conscious intellectual experience as often happens when confronted with today’s contemporary art that conveys ideas and attitudes rather than feelings and which appeals to the conscious mind. But whatever form it takes and whatever the intention of the artist, the experience will be directly proportional to the onlookers level of perception, the work of art becoming the receptacle in which the hidden intentions of the artist and the acuity of the onlooker fuse together momentarily in a celebration of universal consciousness.

    Mystery and Meaning

    The Role of  Symbolism in Art

    Mystery is a central element of all works of art. It is not to be confused with mystification which is an act of deception; I am referring to the mystery that shrouds the archetypal library of our collective psych that emanates through the spirit of the natural world and which provides art with depth and meaning. It is not a mystery to be unravelled in a rational way but rather something to become part of; for where there is mystery there is imagination and imagination is the creative essence from which the entire universe evolves.

    It is this sense of mystery that draws us into a work of art, making us feel that we have been there before; an awareness that we are in the presence of something meaningful but whose signification eludes conscious recognition. Interaction of this kind, taking place on both a conscious and an unconscious level, is essential if we are to take the work into ourselves. This can only happen if it conveys some aspect of the fundamental nature common to all humanity.

    For the artist it is vital to keep this in mind at all moments during the process of creation. On a conscious level it is relatively straightforward: it is enough to remain within the universal theme of Birth, Life and Death and the vast spectrum of human emotion; but on a subconscious level it is a little less evident. In order to provoke a non conscious response from the onlooker we need to appeal to the unfathomable cellars of the psych where are gathered the entire repertoire of Man’s experience. One way to achieve this is through symbolism.

    Symbolism is the key to the archetypes contained within our collective memory. It is the means by which we are able to unveil the more obscure aspects of our psychic heritage that lie buried in the very distant past, perhaps as far back as Man’s first attempt to communicate his fascination for the natural world. By expressing his vision of life as a constant celebration of being he laid the archaic ground of the psych that lives on in us today, even though we live in what has now become a desacralized society.

    Many aspects of nature were attributed magical properties by our ancestors. Signs engraved on rocks suggesting the earth’s energy or graphical representations of animals on the walls of caves were more than mere evocations, they were iconographic invocations of the multiple manifestations of the earth spirit on whose munificence their survival depended. These images are our common heritage; they carry hidden meanings that speak directly to our subconscious. They are the mystery and the meaning.

    Primitive writings were also to evolve out of these magical pictograms illustrating the many aspects of nature, which developed gradually into representations of themselves as coded forms. For those instructed in the art of interpretation, meanings could be read from the signs that were more than just representation through words: each sign being a reciprocal of an archetype.

    Thus transmission by means of a symbolic language, regardless of whether it be through signs or through images, is a flexible process that conveys not only information on a rational level but also provides an intuitive understanding that is entirely personal as it involves the active participation of each individual at his/her own particular level of consciousness

    It is for this reason that I tend to use symbolic imagery and fundamental geometric forms in my paintings in an attempt to arouse, in the viewer, an intuitive perception of the archetypes that lie deep below everyday consciousness. The experience can only be of an individual nature as by delving into the reservoir of our collective consciousness and projecting back into the painting the data processed by the onlooker’s own unique experience of life, he/she completes the work, proposed by the artist, in an entirely personal manner.

ART AND SYNTHESIS

There is evidence to believe that, for many thousands of years, Man perceived the universe as a living organism in which all aspects of nature, himself included, were interrelated. This vision of life, which was the foundation of what was later to be known as Hermeticism, was to prevail right up to the 18th century. But, at the advent of rationalism, it was cast aside as an archaic notion unworthy of consideration. This regrettable change in mentality was to encourage the fragmentation of knowledge into isolated specializations, extolling analysis over synthesis; further dissociating Man from nature and provoking the divorce between the sciences and the arts.

It was, however, in the latter that Hermetic thought was to survive – in literature, music, architecture and, of course, in painting where Hermetic principles prevailed through the knowledge of harmonic proportion and in the guise of aesthetics: interrelationship being the ruling principle behind harmonious composition.

In Hermetic thought every act has its consequences. This is commonly known as the Butterfly Effect[i] and it pertains as much to the composition of a work of art as it does to the world of physics. The Butterfly Effect applies when a mark, however small, is added to the surface of a painting under construction. By complying with the rules of harmonic proportion it sets in motion a potential chain of actions in the development of the oeuvre. It is a question of balance – the inter-relationship between itself and all that surrounds it: the tiniest of alterations demanding a complete re-appreciation of the pictorial structure. It can be compared to the tightrope walker who, with every step, must reposition his centre of gravity to accommodate the innumerable variables engendered by his change of circumstances.

Art, of course, is no longer confined to the traditional disciplines of the past. Today it has invested the many domains proposed by recent technologies, fervently exploring novel grounds, inebriated by its newfound liberty. It is important, however, that the artists who follow these paths, in their eagerness to celebrate the new, do not cut themselves off from the reciprocality of their surroundings. Unfortunately many of them, through perhaps their fascination for the art market, are progressively alienating themselves from the interconnectedness of hermetic thought in favour of an ego-orientated intellectual materialism.

As a custodian of the Hermetic principals the artist is bound by compliance to aesthetic values. Acquitting himself of this obligation in the name of freedom, as an act of emancipation towards unrestricted creation, is an illusion. Art has nothing to do with intellectual prowess or even originality, it has to do with the experience of ‘being’ that can not be dissociated from the substance of nature itself.

(It is curious to note that, whilst a number of artists appear to be deserting their role as guardians of the hermetic tradition, many scientists, particularly those involved in nuclear physics or those researching hypnotism and depth psychology, after two hundred years of arid rationalism, are painfully finding their way back to the Hermetic principles).


[1]    The Butterfly Effect maintains that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings create tiny changes in the atmosphere which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale     phenomena and ultimately causing a tornado.