Spirit, Art, and Culture
Cultural Modernism defined itself in the nineteenth century as an historical linear project steered by science and capitalism, a triumph over the past. The appearance of new railroads, steel mills, cars, and electricity stimulated a widespread belief that we had entered a fundamentally new and better era. The Futurist artists from 1909 took up this banner and emphasized speed, technology, youth, and violence in their art. But there were cracks in the monolithic creed which other artists explored, artists who searched for an underlying purpose in modern life and art. For them history was a tangled web, not an arrow-like trajectory and they extracted value from many other dimensions.
Today our culture resolutely believes in a divided mind that could be expressed as reality vs. dream or fantasy. Reality is composed of the Newtonian worldview where the body and universe is a machine. One-sidedly rationalist and patriarchal, its way of thinking includes normal alert functioning, rewarded by education, knowing things through the intellect rather than through other faculties of the mind, with a dismissal of direct experience. There is a tendency to pay attention to outward forms rather than to inner contents with a consequence of negative thinking, pessimism, and despair.
Unsatisfied with this, some contemporary seekers aim to reclaim the full spectrum of consciousness, by attending to kinds of reality keenly noted by the unconscious mind. They might learn to retain conscious memories of trances, dreams, highs, and meditations; value direct and inner experience; develop intuition---entering into what it wants to know, together with its opposite, remaining detached from what one wants to know; accept the ambivalent nature of things; might experience of infinity; may focus on process, how things are moving and how we best fit into them, rather than getting to a goal or outcome; may act to change things for the better in society.
Aligned with expanded consciousness is shamanism, a 30,000 year old world-wide tradition of purposeful integration of the intellect, emotion, and spiritual capacities. The Roman conquest of Europe and the later Inquisition sought to exterminate shamanism that had prevailed there. In small steps this lost knowledge has been returning to Western culture by many routes from ethnography, LSD research, and other fields exploring altered states of consciousness along with its means to realize totality and unity, to bridge opposites.
The physician and botanist Andrew Weil has pointed out how our brain's very anatomy is one of division. Ego consciousness is associated with verbal thought and seems related to the activity of the cerebral cortex, a thin layer of cells that covers the two hemispheres of the brain. The centers such as endocrine glands, immune system, placebo responses, and innate healing appear to be located far from the cerebral cortex in deep, midline structures such as the evolutionarily old brainstem. There is no direct path between the two brain structures. Accessing powers located in the deeper brain requires a roundabout way to connect them. Some ancient modes of connection include various spiritual practices, the (healing) placebo, and an engagement with gods and spirits.
Besides shamanism, another large domain of contemporary consciousness studies focuses on the transpersonal cosmologies of aboriginal peoples and ancient cultures. Deep experiences of these hidden dimensions changes our understanding of existence and the nature of reality, making it impossible to take seriously the basic assumption of materialistic science---that the universe is simply a history of evolving matter.
The primitivism facet of modern art began with Gauguin and has continued to this day. Besides alienation from machine mythology, it was positively inspired by the artifacts which surfaced in Europe by colonialist looting the “savage”, “rude”, “primitive” conquered cultures. Housed in museums of ethnography and shops they were discovered by modern artists. Some of these artists adopted aspects of style from these objects, but others felt a more profound connection to them. Miro wrote in 1936 “Each grain of dust possesses a marvelous soul. But to understand this it is necessary to rediscover the religious and magic sense of things---that of primitive peoples.” Picasso strongly felt that African sculpture functioned as a power object or fetish. He said that the function of art was to “give spirits a form” in order to build up the psychic strength needed to survive and develop in life. He also said what distinguishes certain paintings from others is “something holy. That's what it is. That's the kind of word you ought to be able to use, only people would get it wrong, give it a meaning it doesn't possess.” Aboriginal art is a source of inspiration for a large range of modern artists including Cobra and German Expressionism. In 1910 Nolde said, “Sometimes I have the feeling that only they (primordial people) are still real people, while we are malformed puppets---artificial and full of darkness.”
After WWI pre-historic art began to be accepted into world art, and new attention was given to American Indian art in the United States. Artist and art dealer John Graham said that it should be understood that the unconscious mind (to which they have access) is the creative factor, the source and storehouse of power, of all knowledge, past and future. Children in general and some artists tap into this source of inner power in different degrees, partnered and brought into artistic form with differing intellects and talents. Jackson Pollock was genuinely engaged with the unconscious, intent as he was on an archaeology of the self and a determination to surpass Picasso's Desmoiselles d'Avignon.
In the United States the MOMA exhibition in 1984, Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art, brought this subject into the spotlight and ensuing controversy. Since then there has been a great volume of research conducted in the study of consciousness which has revealed that primitivism is not a style, theory, or philosophy but rather a structure and level of consciousness, a primary human potential, which has the possibility to redress the unbalance in Western culture by bringing into awareness the transformative, evolutionary, healing, inspiration, creativity, intuition, deeper meaning, and its psychic landscape populated with its animal forms, ancestors, deities, and collective unconscious. To permit the self-discovery of these nonlocal realms, one must release the ego and its sense of importance, opening to love and empathy. An example of this in sports is when contemporary athletes practice “going into the zone” for superior performance.
Western culture is stuck at a crossroads of renewal or further catastrophic destruction. For art to play a role in its renewal, going beyond pop entertainment and the ornamental, it must engage the depths of meaning that have been discarded as trivial fantasy by our one-sided industrial and scientific beliefs. The mythic dimension doesn't flatten and explain as does science. Existing beyond the literal world, it provokes imagination, delights, puzzles, and deepens contemporary experience.
Diamond, Stanley. In Search of the Primitive.
Feinberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940.
Flam, Jack editor. Primitivism and Twentieth Century Art.
Grof MD, Stanislav. Non-ordinary States of Consciousness (video lecture)
Grof MD, Stanislav. The Cosmic Game.
Rubin, William editor. Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art.
Tucker, Michael. Dreaming With Open Eyes.
Weil MD, Andrew. The Natural Mind.