Six-fold Ma’atian Mind-by Kyle Fite (private collection)
Vessels Of Vision
The Gnostic Artist As Magician Of The Crossroads
By Kyle Fite
“My adepts stand upright; their head above the heavens, their feet below the hells.”
These words, taken from Aleister Crowley’s Liber Tzaddi, describe an exalted state of consciousness belonging to the Magician who performs his Art from a place between polarities, functioning as a type of bridge between the worlds. We find this theme exemplified in many great figures epitomizing the shamanic ideal. In Vudu, Papa Legbha is Lord of the Crossroads. Hermes, as patron of Alchemy, embodies the union of Sun and Moon, the Above and Below. Abraxas and Baphomet, familiar to the Gnostics and Templars, fuse the sundry elements and kingdoms of nature into an androgynous whole. Bisexual figures, such as Loki, and those who roam between the Realms, such as Odin, also typify this theme of bringing together forces generally compartmentalized-and contrasted-as opposites.
Abraxas instructs young art student on how to “pull it all together”
The English Artist and Poet, William Blake, observed, in his Marriage of Heaven & Hell:
“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”
In Blake’s vision, these elements are to be wed, their “love-play” evoking the activity wherein movement from one extreme to the other turns to dynamic development and serves the growth principle underlying the rise and fall of human life on the planet. The vision is ultimately mystical and cosmic, bringing together the great polarities of temporality and eternality or Being and Non-Being.
It is the intent of this essay to examine how this recurring theme of polarity and unity relates to the Artist as Magician. The work of the Magical Artist is not simply to focus on some “arcane” subject matter for depiction but rather a process which allows him to create and bestow his work as a type of shaman. Both the creative act and resultant artistry function as gateways between the realms in that they evoke and partake of the fusion point which is the natural home of both magician and artist.
William Blake knew how to “Break on through to the Other Side!”
To begin, we must ask: What, precisely, is “Magical” or “Occult Art?” Simple depiction of something we might regard as “magical” does not seem to warrant such a definition. This would be better understood as illustration whose subject happens to be something we regard as “arcane,” be it an archaic symbol culled from an old tome or figures shown engaging in ritualistic operations. These sorts of pictures adorn the cover of many popular books on magic and are often examples of generic illustration or graphic design. It requires neither understanding nor the active play of any occult energy to generate such images.
“Magical Art” should, by definition, partake of the quality or energy of “Magic.” It holds and radiates its own charge, something beyond the bounds of mere depiction. It is the difference between a pleasing sculpture and a fetish object in which it said that a spirit resides. The aesthetic of the latter becomes a vehicle for its indwelling force or intelligence.
Now, a firm and definitive demarcation between “Magical” and “Non-Magical” art is not entirely possible. Any attempt at doing so will crash and burn as quickly as the aesthetic conundrum as to what constitutes art itself. After a manner, all art, even the utilitarian illustrative work we mentioned above, partakes of some sort of “magical method.” But we do distinguish between such work and that art which translates the power and intelligence connected to a transcendent region of consciousness as a living verity. Therefore, we must assert and seek out certain qualities found in the generation of-and participation in-given works of art, qualities which satisfy and express the shamanic impulse and mystical need of the individual.
The Art of Sean Woodward in which aesthetic content is put into ritual use
We now need to establish what the magician is, what constitutes his “Magic.” As there is great variance in understanding these simple words, we wish to achieve some degree of clarity from which to proceed.
We find in the great magical figures alluded to above that element of “in-betweeness.” There is within these mythic personas an integrative network bridging the gap between areas of experience typically held at bay from one another. These gaps are established by the observation and reinforcement of contrast. Although this contrast is necessary for our world to maintain its existence, it remains a double-edged sword. On one hand, it provides consciousness with a field of operation whereby its unfoldment and evolution may occur. On the other, it forms the material prison of some Gnostic philosophies by subjecting limitless spirit to the limiting conditions of a dualistic universe functioning in space and time. The Artist as Magician steps outside of the confines of the latter description to serve the former.
Returning to Liber Tzaddi, Crowley wrote:
“I reveal unto you a great mystery. Ye stand between the abyss of height and the abyss of depth. In either awaits you a companion; and that Companion is yourself. Ye can have no other companion. Many have arisen, being wise. They have said ‘Seek out the glittering image in the place ever golden and unite yourselves with it.’ Many have arisen, being foolish. They have said ‘Stoop down unto the darkly splendid world and be wedded to that Blind Creature of the Slime. I who am beyond Wisdom and Folly, arise and say unto you: achieve both weddings! Unite yourselves with both! Beware, beware, I say, lest ye seek after the one and lose the other!”
Within these poetic verses we find the adept not only reconciling the worlds but achieving complete union with all forms of life, for “ye can have no other companion.”
We have here something of a triad. The above and below are united within the one consciousness. But the one consciousness is also united with both the above and below. We are not speaking solely of dissolving the opposites into unity but rather achieving the Gnosis of unity’s union with duality!
When this is understood, the magician may shift from zone to zone at will. Loki, a male giant, may become a female horse. In the Christian Mysteries, Spirit may be transmuted into physical substance via the Mass. In the realm of art, pictures and paintings may become gateways to realms beyond those of which their material elements are made.
Blake knew this and wrote of his own art:
“If the Spectator could Enter into these images in his Imagination approaching them on the Fiery Chariot of his Contemplative Thought, if he could Enter into Noah’s Rainbow or into his bosom or could make a Friend & Companion of one of these Images of wonder which always entreats him to leave mortal things as he must know then would he arise from his Grave, then would he meet the Lord in the Air & then he would be happy.”
If one may enter into such a work of art, it follows that its denizens may also enter into our own world! Furthermore, we are not simply dealing with entities as such but energies of which the art may serve as transmitter.
Michael Bertiaux, in his Voudon-Gnostic Workbook, elaborates on this theme of artist as magician in the paper entitled “What do we mean by the science of Gnostic physics?” He outlines 16 points which provide clarity and direction for the “Gnostic Artist” whose work is to embody the function of the magician. This paper would serve as a wonderful meditation and guide for any artist who is pursuing this approach to their work.
“The Gnostic artist is also a magician for he materializes thought forms in all that he does. These materializations are not always conscious, hence he is also a type of medium.”
This is a very important point as it indicates that the artist-magician is doing much more than representing esoteric concepts in visual forms. This would be a wholly intellectual endeavor and the Gnostic-artist is concerned with the formation of a vehicle through which actual energies may pass. The methods of Surrealism are implied in the latter portion of this statement.
“The Gnostic artist is also a magician when he allows the divine energy of creative and cosmic illumination to enter into his multi-dimensional consciousness and thus awaken the angels of their inspiration, which reside in the higher mind fields.”
Both the creation of the art and the experience of its content draw from these “higher mind fields” and it is this double action which constitutes the magical nature of the art.
Perhaps the most important statement in Bertiaux’s paper is this:
“Each work of art comes alive and lives according to the rules whereby he has brought it into existence… There exist certain spells for causing certain things to happen in each Gnostic universe. Each artist must know these if he is to be a Gnostic artist…The Gnostic artist is both a mystical magician and a magickal mystic because he experiences both the total form and total content of each and every universe which rises from his creativity as a work of art.”
Artwork by Rev. Michael Bertiaux, uniting Worlds at the Crossroads
This connection between magic and mysticism is critical to the artist tapping the “higher mind fields” and then imbuing his work with its life. Hence, we began this essay by addressing the theme of the polarization and unity in the higher god-forms. These beings may all be considered Masters of the “Crossroads,” that is to say that metaspace in which magic and mysticism fuse into a single art.
The magician is first a mystic for he has apprehended the nature of the perceived universe. This is “Lila” or illusion. The notion of permanence is apparent only and seen to have no basis in the perpetually changing energy fields of life itself. Beyond this illusion is the Gnosis of the energy field in its fullness and totality. One experiences something of Cosmic Unity which is beyond the conditions determining the play of Lila in the perceived universe.
The question, then, becomes what to do with the illusory universe. Many mystics, having perceived the changing and temporal nature of the world, have sought refuge in the changeless principle. From Buddhism to Christian Gnosticism, there has been a retreat into the fullness which may be called everything from Nirvana to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The world, however, must have some basis, some origin or source whereby it comes into being. If the changeless principle is all pervasive it follows that the insubstantial and changing universe is one with it. Thus it is has been written that Samsara is Nirvana and “Earthly Desires are Enlightenment.”
Despite an expected penchant for the exotic, Crowley would find fields of inspiration in the natural world as seen in this landscape
By dissolving the notion of a fundamental divide between unity and duality (which only creates a new duality), the magician is able to experience and bring eternity into time. Illusion is coeval with perception and perception is acted upon to initiate further change in the universe. This particular change, however, is not automatic and following the unconscious rhythms of nature. Instead, it emerges from the will and direction of the magician. This will and direction is liberated through the enlightenment which harmonizes the individual mind of the mage with the cosmic mind of which all seemingly isolated areas of consciousness are seen as part.
We are able to see with more than the Human Eye
The states of Gnosis described above cannot be induced by the simple application of a specific one size fits all formula. Furthermore, even describing such a state stretches the capacity of language. Hence, Gnostic literature inevitably becomes poetic, moving towards the crossroads between the mind’s intellectual comprehension and the direct knowing of the deeper mind or heart. It is like the challenge of describing how to ride a bicycle-and then going on to give expressing to the thrill and experience of the same. Along the way, the intellectual understanding must melt and surrender to a type of feeling or intuiting which brings things into alignment.
Beyond the challenge of guiding one into such a state, there is a wonderful simplicity as the actual process clicks into place. One has no longer simply imagined an experience. One has experienced and known it. It is now infusing the consciousness. In the case of Gnosis, consciousness is transformed into a vehicle of superconsciousness. Dualities are seen in context of the Unity that sustains them as that same Unity is understood in its dualistic manifestations.
From this “Interzone,” we engage with our art. Perception is enhanced and forms are generated within this crucible.
For myself, the recognizable image is offset with abstraction and symbolic form. It is crucial that these forms be more than metaphor. They need to carry their own charge or life outside of the individual mind. Blake got at this when he emphasized that his work was not “allegory” but “Vision.”
The Coinologist by Kyle Fite-The lifepulse of any theme may fuel form, transforming both
The symbols-or sigils-thus generated may begin with a definite thought or intention. As Crowley wrote: “Every intentional act is a magical act.” There is, however, the question of how successful or how powerful the magic or spell will be. At times, this intentionality rises from deeper levels within the psyche to impose its form or energy via automatic technique as we often see in the drawings of Austin Osman Spare.
In my own working method, the symbol or image, once projected and “objectified” on paper must then be vivified or “woken up.” Here the original idea or impetus dissolves into a wholly aesthetic embellishment of form.
The artist is now overriding the intellect. Salvador Dali once admonished artists to never think about painting while painting. As paradoxical as this may sound, it points us in the right direction. Only the artist-as magician-can bypass the confines of mental comprehension to establish himself as a bridge between the outward activity and the inward reality. Similarly, the British Magician, Kenneth Grant, offers these words: “It is immaterial whether or not the artist is consciously aware of the direction of his work. It may even be essential to its accomplishment that he is not aware, for an artist manifests his creative power (Shakti) only in his absence.” It is no surprise to find in Grant’s works a tremendous regard for the imagery of the surrealists.
Dali’s work reminds us that LOOKING is LISTENING
Returning to the notion of the Shaman, we are not exclusively concerned with the creative process for the Gnostic-artist, crucial though it may be. Its reflex is a birth into the world whereby it rises into an independent life. To be strongly imbued with vision and power is to see it communicate to the minds of others, above and below the threshold of the conscious and reasoning mind. The artist is therefore opening gateways whereby human consciousness may ripple into a more expansive field of action. He is a type of evolutionary agent in time and space, forging links between areas of experience which, if held at bay, would otherwise gravitate towards stasis and stagnation.
Such breakthroughs necessitate destruction of old patterns. Hence, surrealism’s precursor was the Dada movement, which could be extraordinarily violent, blasphemous and wholly irrational. It was the breaking down of aesthetic limits and viewpoints in a grand sense, tearing the whole edifice down, spurred on by some inner intensity and vitality. From the ruins, surrealism moved of its own volition to the exploration of the psychological roots of image and form. This not only opened the gates to exploring Freudian themes but began to give rise to images generative of their own iconography. The heart of religion and magic was being excavated from its prison of dogma and returned to the cauldron of its birth.
Ernst Fuchs, in whose “Spiritual Surrealism” the Sacred and Sensual are wed
Thus we find the Artist-Magician as an essential figure in the modern era, the shaman not entirely embraced by the tribe. Reason, repression and control still abound in the form of Archons who, equating change with destruction and having no awareness of life beyond their isolate form, wield massive weaponry against the unkillable spirit that pulses at the heart of Life. Without liberty or death, the Terra becomes a torture chamber of endless agonies for this spirit. Hence arise the Gnostic visions of a world-prison from which one must escape.
Escape, however, is not found by rejecting the world. Instead, the Artist-Magician makes use of the creative means at his disposal to enter more deeply into the situation, stirring up and ultimately liberating the Light which has been overshadowed, not by outward circumstances but an inward darkness. The Artist is ever involved in a dual process: he is pushing himself to see with ever widening degrees of vision and he is bringing into the world objects and images which resonate with this Vision-power latent in all human beings.
In his talk, On My Painting, the German Expressionist Max Beckmann expressed this thought:
“What is important to me in my work is the identity that is hidden behind so-called reality. I search for a bridge from the given present to the invisible, rather as a famous cabalist once said, ‘If you wish to grasp the invisible, penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible.’ ”
I read these words as a teenager and was baffled by them. Twenty years later, they have become vital to my personal path as both an artist and a spiritual being. Alongside the paper on Gnostic Physics by Michael Bertiaux, this short essay by Beckmann should also be read in its entirety. It is one of the most profound, passionate and poignant statement a Gnostic-Artist might encounter. For two decades, Beckmann’s words have followed me, pushing me more deeply into their meaning. It is not an issue of familiarity or intellectual comprehension. Rather, one must know and live the spirit in this brief essay. It does not lead to some single point of “enlightenment” but opens a door into a hallway leading to further doors, continuing points of breakthrough, initiation and growth.
The Art of Max Beckmann, mingling the Mundane and Mythic in the alchemy of composition
As stated above, the Gnostic-Artist is not one who simply expands his own understanding and personal power as an independent being. His growing awareness of the unity of all beings, human and otherwise, infuses an ongoing creative work which is given to the human race as a type of gift. He, too, partakes of this activity. As Blake wrote (again, in his Marriage Of Heaven And Hell):
“The worship of God is, Honouring his gifts in other men each according to his genius, and loving the greatest men best. Those who envy or calumniate great men hate God, for there is no other God.”
Human society is in grave need of this shamanic activity especially in its present state of turbulence and uncertainty. I was once going through a difficult period in my life and came across a quote at my local library. I regret that I do not recall the author but the gist was this: When you are lost, go back to the time when you knew what you were doing and begin again there. The true artist is perpetually engaged in this process and his return to the “time of knowing” is transpersonal. As an artist, I know this to be true. I have created works that I have come to regard highly and works that I turn away from in time. Yet “time tries truth” and I find that particular works were simply midwifed by my hand. They arose from some resonance with the larger vision and therefore they can speak, independent of myself, to others on that same level. This is not a cause for self-regard but self-examination. A gateway was passed, a threshold crossed. Initiation is endless and one must always be a moving towards the next breakthrough. On one hand, we may have achieved a “mastery” of the level behind us. This mastery, however, propels us into the challenges of what lies ahead. We rely on the sum of our acquired wisdom and skill to navigate the difficulties at hand. In doing so, we look back to where success arose. It speaks to us from our past and offers guidance into the future.
Paul Klee-A True Gnostic Artist, he always knew what he was doing!
The Gnostic-Artist has been with us since time immemorial. The most ancient of artifacts and markings on the walls of caves show this. Image has been connected to experience and thereby amplified our adventure in the world. The subconscious mind does not distinguish between fact and fiction. It simply responds with attraction, repulsion or indifference. The conscious mind is overburdened with stimuli from an artificial environment, constructed to restrain those powers which initiate change. The whole scenario is one of love against fear with the great irony of fear’s agenda being so self-defeating. The woes it seeks to combat have been engendered from its own loins.
On the other hand we have the Magi. Millennia have seen the development of schools of thought, techniques of attainment, ways of walking the winding way. As these inventions ossify, the artist arises to follow impulse and intuition. His impetus is not an idea but an inspiration. He will be Dada to Convention and Surrealism to Dogma. Every member of this Cultus, whether he knows himself as such or not, is busy fashioning windows and gates into the Otherworld. Like Jacob’s ladder, powers from Beyond pass to and fro via these turnstiles Matter is becoming Spirit and Spirit is becoming Matter. These sublime transformations are not unlike William Blake’s view towards “a world in a grain of sand” and “Heaven in a wild flower.” Passing through these Gates is not an arduous task. It is simply a shifting of inner vision. As the New World comes into focus, we discover a proliferation of possibilities and a Vessel of Endless Vision to those who would drink from the same.
Baptism in the Holy Ghost by Kyle Fite (private collection)