Art and the Transformative Vision

Blake_ancient_of_daysIt’s hard not to look at the contemporary art market and see it as superficial and transitory – much of it comes across as the self-indulgent product of egotism; self-conscious attempts at irony that degenerate into meaningless banalities; a smug postmodern sensibility obsessed with its own cleverness without saying anything insightful. “Art” – however debased and misapplied the word has become in today’s materialistic world – is no longer interested in offering a transcendent vision of something innate and timeless. Instead, at best it serves as a loud, demanding punctuation mark, as immediate as the latest Google trends – a reflection of the short-term memory of the digital age more concerned with what is “in” than what is “within”.

Art, in this sense, can be seen as the culmination of mankind’s regression away from a unified psychological attitude in which reason and emotion – left and right hemisphere thinking – are fully integrated; towards the complete domination of the cold rationality of the scientific age, with no room for unfettered creativity, only the sanctioned “art” of the marketplace where the artist themselves have become commodities, personalities every bit as disposable as TV celebrities and pop stars.

José Argüelles refers to this duality in the history of artistic expression as “techne” and “psyche” in what is perhaps one of the most radical and significant books on the subject: The Transformative Vision: Reflections on the Nature and History of Human Expression. It is an ambitious work, to say the least, spanning the course of history and examining the changing role of art in the context of history, culture, psychobiology, Jungian psychology and the sciences. For Argüelles, the forces which have defined the development of the Western world are responsible for nothing less than the near-total detachment from our ability to make contact with the “transformative vision”; a world where mankind has become trapped by the ideologies of reason and science which limit consciousness and thereby the ability to express that which stirs beneath the rational mind.

An illustrative example of this process is the introduction of the single-point perspective in painting and its proliferation during the Renaissance, coinciding with the rise of the “Great Artist”. As perspective-based art stands for the growing perception of mastery and domination of the world by mankind, so too does the rise of the artist as commodity – those with the wealthy and influential patrons in the church or, more tellingly, bankers and merchants such as the Medici family – mark the beginnings of what was to become an almost complete rejection of the archaic, psychic forms which came before. As the artist began to master nature through painting and sculpture (albeit it in a subjective sense in which the position of the viewer was paramount) so too did Western society seek to dominate and exploit the environment under the guise of progressive humanism as it moved towards the industrial age.

At the same time, the subject became mired in the human experience – the “great men” of the ages – be it the grand portraits of men of influence or the neoclassicism which characterized the Age of Enlightenment. This drive towards historicism – dictated by the linearity of time and the causal nature of human history – further embedded the Western mindset in a tradition at odds with ancient modes of thinking and was consolidated by the establishment of academic artistic institutions, rendering “art” the preserve of elite intellectuals and depriving the masses of legitimate access to their own creativity. These academies, as Argüelles puts it, were “the basic conditioning factor of visual perception in the Western world” – not until the Impressionists was art reluctantly and somewhat tentatively dragged in new and bold directions.

There were n0table exceptions throughout this period – men who achieved something of the transcendental in their art and could be called visionary: William Blake’s mystical prophecies and cosmological visions in response to the deadening effects of the Leviathan that is the technocratic state; Goethe’s alchemical works inspiring a reunification of the feminine and the masculine (just as Blake created his Illuminated Works, so too did Goethe end his life with the words, “more light!”). But these visionaries were the exception, destined to live on the margins of a world dominated by materialism. Some, such as Vincent Van Gogh, would be perceived as so radical by the forces of artistic reaction as to be “suicided by society”, which subsequently, without a trace of irony, decides to worship them posthumously, almost apologetically for failing to appreciate their vision while they were alive.

Ultimately, The Transformative Vision is about a final return to the archaic in which the transcendent, spiritual goal of art and its function in the process of individuation comes full circle; where techne and psyche are reintegrated in a process of complete unification. As Argüelles puts it, ” [the] modern techno-historical society abolished the right to vision as well as the ritual for gaining it with a fearful and self-righteous vengeance, thus ensuring its own fantastic rise to power but also sealing its own doom. In denying the validity of the vision and the vision-quest, modern society denied itself any rebirth short of the apocalypse – an event its own shamans and visionary prophets, exiled to the sidelines, have continually foretold and prepared for.”

15 Comments on "Art and the Transformative Vision"

  1. BuzzCoastin | Aug 14, 2013 at 12:45 pm |

    the Jungian take on art is interesting & slightly different from Jung’s
    for Jung
    art was a means of self exploration & individuation
    more than once Jung said
    he wouldn’t be a Jungian unless he was Jung

    “Travelers, there is no path, paths are made by walking.”
    Antonio Machado

    • Andy Dilks | Aug 14, 2013 at 4:03 pm |

      I’m working on an article about Jung and the creative drive having read his book (or rather collection of essays) The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature on a recent long haul flight – endlessly fascinating man

      • BuzzCoastin | Aug 14, 2013 at 4:49 pm |

        I’ve read his Collected Works twice
        some works more than that
        at the time I was very interested in Jungian thought
        I utilized some of his ideas on art as therapy
        and some pretty interesting art came from that
        but eventually I realized what CG realized
        you gotta find your own way on your own
        that’s the real art

        • Andy Dilks | Aug 16, 2013 at 8:11 am |

          Indeed – for me that’s one of the outstanding aspects of Jung’s writing – his total lack of assumption that he is “right” about anything and the beautifully humble manner in which he expressed his ideas (compare and contrast to the arrogance of Freud).

  2. Is this a self conscious attempt at irony? Rampant hipsterism masquerading as relevant? Doodles over saturated with color? where do i fit in oh internets!? WHERE!?!?!

    • energyscapes | Aug 15, 2013 at 12:29 am |

      I have no idea where “you” belong–but I think your art would be very cool on some bare boring buildings in my city.


        • energyscapes | Aug 15, 2013 at 3:18 pm |

          I have NO doubt u kanz!

          • damaging property with graffiti is illegal.
            one must respect other people’s property and the ordinances of municipal government.
            these are the fundamental aspects of civilization.
            graffiti is clearly an activity associated with general deviancy, drugs, illicit sexual behavior, anti-establishment groups, anarchism, etc.
            We cannot condone the apparent wide spread phenomenon of urban street art, as concerned citizens we must be ever vigilant in the upkeep of purity and generalized banality that we hold so dear.

          • energyscapes | Aug 22, 2013 at 12:28 pm |

            illegal art builds
            minds graffiti poetry
            streets strewn with Osip Mandelstams galore
            when respected art poem motivates murder
            insipid vapid vacant lots
            banality bludgeons brains
            fear stymies
            bleaches pure

  3. It seems like he’s drawing a false dichotomy. A lot of highly realistic, technically sophisticated art is, at the same time, transcendent and/or visionary (e.g., George Inness, Rockwell Kent). To create a realistic landscape painting, for example, you have to spend a considerable amount of time observing nature, thinking about what is beautiful and why; it’s a kind of meditation. Also, in a good piece, everything is deliberate; there is symbolism in the type of flowers chosen, in the phase of the moon, and so on; there is an esoteric meaning for the viewer to explore.

    In visionary art, the visionary experience is the subject of the art, but all good art involves a kind of visionary journey as part of its production.

  4. Ted Heistman | Aug 15, 2013 at 4:10 pm |

    Beautiful article Andrew. What is your take on genres such as “outsider art” and “low brow”?

  5. energyscapes | Aug 16, 2013 at 8:11 am |

    When you let yourself engage in non-linear thinking you move into an infinite universe of possibilities and interconnectedness without boundaries of time, space, and place. O yeah, the four horsemen are a’coming.

  6. ManwithnoCountry | Aug 17, 2013 at 4:40 am |

    Museum art is propaganda, for at least a very large part.

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