The Sacred and the Profane II: Modern Art’s New Embrace of the Occult

Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, Madonna’s Like a Prayer, and more recently, Serrano’s Piss Christ. Is this art?

For some years now the general public—as well as many highly educated people—have been at a loss to comprehend the twentieth-century phenomenon known as Modern Art. For the common man a visit to a gallery or museum dedicated to contemporary art is a harrowing experience that can produce disorientation or even severe shock.

Webster defines art as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination, especially in the production of aesthetic objects.” But does it apply today? An artistic elite, ambiguously credited and with access to the media, has established a new criterion for aesthetic appraisal.

The process began to unfold during the late nineteenth century after the last great manifestation of European art, when the Impressionists spoke passionately to the public while the art establishment and critics, out of touch with the reality of the times, berated artists and public for their spontaneous sentiment and fin de siecle enthusiasm.

The elemental shift in the purpose, the very nature, of art and artist was formally established when Pablo Picasso, George Braque, and Wasilly Kandinsky, the founders of Cubism and Abstraction, moved from the realm of nature and observed reality to the realm of subjective creativity and picture plane reality. These men ceased to regard art as a reflection of the divinely created order and instead conceived it as a causa sui project of the “creative artist.” The dictionary definition of art no longer applied—now there were as many aesthetics and realities as there were artists.

Having broken with the traditional past, various groups—cenacles, schools, brotherhoods—formed to pick up the pieces and usher in the New Age of Freedom. The Futurists, Suprematists, Dadaists, Vorticists, Surrealists, to name but a few, vied with each other for attention. In Germany between the wars, the Blau Reiter and the Bau Haus attempted to reground aesthetics in “sacred” geometry.

Art for art’s sake was born. The groups claimed that underlying all great art was a purified essence which only the educated, sensitive soul could see. An entire subculture was born of neo-gnostic creators and their promoters, who reveled in their self-appointed mission epater la bourgeoisie.

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 50 brave souls who lived in bohemian squalor, misunderstood and rejected by the boorish American middle class. In the 1950s, Greenberg picked up Jackson Pollack, while his rival critic Harold Rosenberg discovered Willem de Kooning.

Action Painting was born. The tack changed: “It’s not what you paint, it’s how involved you are that counts.” By the following decade, the whole concept of Abstract Art had abstracted itself right out of existence with Minimalism. And Reinhardt’s Black on Black painting, which being nothing is about as far as you can abstract anything, gave the final coup de grace to the movement. The public was left properly bewildered.

“Art,” we were told by critics such as Greenberg and Leo Steinberg, writing in prestigious media journals, “challenges previously held assumptions”; “great art forces us to abandon our most cherished values.” By now, it appeared, aesthetics had little at all to do with art. Art was simply the product of artists who in turn were the visionaries of the future.

Franklin W. Robinson, director of a museum attached to the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the most eminent art schools in America, recently expressed 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.” Thus the artist in the twentieth century has become the active agent of change; he has assumed not only a didactic position of leadership but a sacerdotal role as well. Without skipping a beat, the intelligentsia changed the object of art from beauty to challenge and revolution. This logic led inescapably to the desecrations of Scorsese, Madonna, and Serrano.

What in the world will come next? Has this revolution in art an ultimate objective? As G.K. Chesterton has reminded us, the word “revolution” is derived from the Copernican term referring to a complete circle effected when a body moving around a given point returns to the original position.

What then is the position to which the purveyors of modern art would have us return? The following quotations are suggestive in this respect:

His works are redolent of secrets of the ancients and mysteries of the cosmos.

Raw animism pervades myth-laden sculpture.

Each piece taps the rich mythic heritage borne of the human desire to engage the sacred. Here the artist functions as shaman, divining that which is hidden, revealing connections between cultures, ultimately locating our humanity in the project of transcending the material world.

The three separate quotations come from recent Arts sections of two nationally renowned U.S. newspapers—which two is irrelevant, as are the art or artists being reviewed. The quotations simply demonstrate a broad trend, which is amply documented. The trend is a spiritual awakening, very real and emotional, that seeks to satisfy the deepest yearnings of the human soul, starved by the materialism of both capitalism and communism. The good news, then, is that man has rediscovered the spiritual dimension of his nature; the bad news is that not all that is spiritual is necessarily good.

According to the authors of The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890-1985, a voluminous catalogue prepared for a show of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum, the common denominator of the modern art hanging in the most prestigious galleries and museums today is the producers, all of whom are believers in, and practitioners of, the occult. And, according to Maurice Tuchman,‘ the organizer of the exhibition and catalogue, all manifestations of the occult hold several ideas in common:

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); everything corresponds in a universal analogy, with things above as they are below.

The catalogue’s list of artists who dabble in the occult is a who’s who of modern art—Jean Arp, Jasper Johns, Wasilly Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Eduard Munch, Georgia O’Keefe, Jackson Pollack, among a host of others. (Noticeably missing are Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, both considered sell-outs and successful materialists by the establishment.)

The spiritual sources of these artists are listed in an ample glossary: Alchemy, the Cabala, Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism, Paracelcus, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism, Swedenborg, and Theosophy. There is no mention—anywhere—of traditional Christianity or Judaism as a source of inspiration of the artists or their works.

In Man and His Symbols (edited by Carl Jung), a book used in our art schools since the 1960s and fundamental to understanding modern art, psychologist Aniela Jaffe said that modern artists were concerned with something far greater than a problem of form and distinction between “concrete” and “abstract” art. “Art had become mysticism,” a mysticism “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.” In the religious language of Christianity, it is called the devil, for “the devil too has a dual aspect.” For the occultist, Lucifer the bringer of light and Satan the destroyer are one and the same. Thus modern art, in the positive sense, “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.”

In the words of Paul Klee, one of the patriarchal figures of modern art: “Even evil must not be a triumphant or degrading enemy, but a power collaborating in the whole.”

Clearly, then, cult and culture go hand in hand; art today, as throughout history, is intimately tied to religion. The late curator of Oriental Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Ananda K. Coomarswamy, put it succinctly: “Let us tell them the painful truth, most of these works of Art are about God, whom we never mention in polite society.”

Just as Indian art reflects its Buddhist or Hindu underpinnings, and Romanesque and Gothic art project Christian faith and hope, and Renaissance art reflects the humanism of the day, so also much of twentieth-century art reflects underlying currents of what can only be described as the occult worldview. Once the Judeo-Christian revelation of a transcendental God Who is other than, and creator of, a separate creation endowed with free will is rejected, and the Hindu model of a monistic creator-creation is substituted, then occult or New Age thinking is the logical result. In this view, all is God, all came from God, all (good and evil) will eventually return to God.

Is this a passing fad or is it a genuine paradigm shift in American—or indeed worldwide—religious experience? The authors of Religious Movements in Contemporary America (1974) point to a trend in favor of more “personally enriching” religious experiences that do not set at odds a divinely established system of dogmas and code of conduct with the individual’s aspirations to “self-fulfillment.” These range from Afro-American rituals involving spirit possession to Wicca feminism, Spiritism, Scientology, and Hare Krishna-type mysticism.

Let the believer 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 Tiberius, 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.” New Age art is the latest attempt to bring him back.


  • H. Reed Armstrong

    H. Reed Armstrong is a sculptor and Professor of Fine Arts with the International Catholic University, Notre Dame, IN. He has written articles and reviews for Crisis, Communio, Latin Mass, The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, and most recently, the Review of Metaphysics. Much of his sculptural work and writings may be seen at his website: A.G. DEI Art.

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