Can sacred art be ugly? Can it seem even to be against the sacred? There are a couple of contemporary manifestation of religion and imagery that might cause us to ask these questions.
In India, today, poster images of Hindu goddesses Saraswati, Durga and Lakshmi have begun being displayed in public as part of the “Save Our Sisters” campaign. Little unusual there, you night think. But these images show the goddesses with bruises and black eyes.
In Australia this month, an exhibition of the art of — among others — occultist and Freemason Aleister Crowley and Rosaleen Norton (a lesser-known occult figure of that country) has opened — with The Sydney Morning Herald noting that the former was once described “by one [Victorian] Sunday newspaper as ‘the wickedest man in the world’.”
There are degrees of art and religiosity, and degrees to which they intersect. First there was sacred art, then religious art, then came profane art, asserts the Traditionalist school of esotericism, founded by Rene Guenon. Sacred art means images that embody sacred, eternal principles — the yantra, mandala, the Names of Allah in Islamic calligraphy, and so on. Religious art illustrates Divinity through pictures of saints, prophets, and so on. It explains the sacred to us, rather than enabling us to enter into — in a Gnostic sense — the sacred by meditating upon it. Profane art is what we generally have today — illustrations of humanity, of unconventional ideas or unusual perspectives, advertising graphics, and so on.
Whether we’re looking at Miley Cyrus’s “twerking” or Tracy Emin’s award winning art piece “My Bed”, contemporary artists desperately want to shock us, but generally fail to do little or no more than titillate the general public or shock a tiny minority of prudes. This is generally because Western society has privatized the sacred. And a society without a sense of the sacred can rarely be genuinely shocked. It lives predominantly, after all, for entertainment.
In contrast, religious art, like religious and Gnostic rituals, contain the shocking within them. The image of Christ on the cross is a prime example. It seems to contain within it a moment of terror that there might be no God, at least no God available to us. And, to some respect, it seems to contain a seed of the then-future Western atheism within it. Hence Nietzsche asserted, about God, that “We have killed him — you and I.” It is a fundamentally Christian sentiment. Hence, also, “communist” thinker Slavoj Zizek asserts that one can only think through atheism within the context of Christianity. The two are, for him, inexplicably intertwined [video].
This moment of acting against Divinity — specifically, and paradoxically, as a way of drawing closer to Divinity — exists elsewhere.
At its most mediocre and modern level — a remnant of something more profound, perhaps — we have, in some circumstance, Catholic and Jewish “guilt.”
At a more profound level, we have the Panchamakara of Left-hand Hindu Tantra, in which the disciple makes use of the five forbidden substance — wine, meat, fish, parched grain or money, and sexual intercourse — either symbolically or literally. In the former case, the practitioner may offer forbidden grain to an icon of the Deity, purifying it by his intent and action. “Intercourse [in this context] is the union of Shiva and Shakti,” says David Frawley in Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses, “the cosmic male and female forces within the psyche. Intoxication is partaking of the bliss of pure consciousness.”
In Sufism, likewise, wine — haram (prohibited) in Islam — is frequently used as a symbol of being intoxicated with the Divine, and appears often in the works of Sufi masters. To cite one instance of its use by Rumi:
Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a king, and choose the purest.
Drink the wine that moves you
As a camel moves when it’s been untied,
And is just ambling about.
This attitude is somewhat reminiscent of Crowley’s approach to “Magick” and mysticism — and certainly Crowley knew about Sufism. But he invoked Christian imagery in a way that seemed, and was, blasphemous to society. For the English occultist, such imagery represented contrary ideas, with, for example, the Christian “Whore of Babylon” representing — in an admittedly very dark image — something akin to a deity in Tantra. (And certainly, Crowley knew of Hindu and Buddhist esotericism, as well.)
In one of his most obscure works, The Scented Garden of Abdullah, The Satirist of Shiraz, Crowley draws on Sufi symbolism to express his own understanding of mysticism. Whether the work is successful in this regard or not, Crowley regarded it as one of his most important works. It was, however, published under a pseudonym, and the majority of the copies of the book were burned by British Customs, who regarded it as obscene. In the modern age, it is difficult to see anything in the book’s rather dry language and not entirely successful expressions of the mystical. But, the work drew on Sufism, especially the Sufi notion of intoxication, while invoking homosexual love — something that doesn’t sit well with Islam. But Crowley was not writing a Sufi text, but one that merely used Sufi symbolism to express his own personal views. (In his Book of Lies, he had invoked Masonic symbolism for the same reason.)
In our own time of widespread New Age spirituality (even if it isn’t often called that), we might see nothing wrong with taking the sacred for our own expression. Indeed, it might be even somewhat popular — think of all the “Jesus is my Homeboy” t-shirts, and True Religion “Buddha” logo, etc. A few years ago, artist Matthew Barney used the symbols of Freemasonry to express, not Masonic beliefs, but his own, in a series of movies called the Cremaster Cycle. Visually interesting, though certainly very ugly, the problem with this appropriation is that ideas worked out and expanded upon over the centuries are exchanged for something less interesting, far less complex and nuanced, and far more fleeting. Instead of inviting us to lift the veil and see the sacred in the ordinary, it turns fantasy about the mundane into the highest, and expels the sacred.
The campaign by Save the Children India is intended to highlight the issue of domestic abuse. It is a serious issue, and images of Hindu goddesses with bruises will no doubt have some impact on the psyche. I fear, though, that it will not have the impact desired. Like so much art, it illustrates, more than anything, modernity’s violence against the sacred. The goddess is reduced to a battered woman, the sacred to a poster campaign. No matter its intention, it may well prove to be little more than another psychologizing and dragging down of the sacred. What battered women in India need is to re-sacralize the ordinary, and for men to see in them the holy. As Rumi said, “Any wine will get you high. Judge like a king, and choose the purest.”