Christina Rees and Neil Fauerso chat about the national surge in “progressive occultism” and art’s longtime relationship with the metaphysical.
Neil Fauerso: You sent me this excellent article, “The Rise of Progressive Occultism” by Tara Isabella Burton that, to summarize, posits that a variety of new age, pagan, and occult cultures and practices (including meditation, witchcraft, using sage, tarot cards, goddess worship, etc.) are on the rise, especially amongst millennials, who are wanting to create a political identity in opposition to the evangelical white nationalism of current conservatism.
It’s a very interesting article and I think the practice of this general pagan/occultism is as much, if not more, an aesthetic interest than a political praxis. It can be seen across media and expressions. Consider the increased popularity of twisted, Bosch-like hellscapes in painting; the revival of serious, occult movies like The Witch and Hereditary; consumer goods that extremely hip boutiques like Commend in New York or El Cosmico in Marfa carry (Palo Aanto; books about indigenous religion and ethnobotany); or even the tattoos on people… just look around the next time you’re at a hip bar or coffee shop.
There’s a lot to unpack with this, but broadly, what do you think of all this?
Christina Rees: I like how upbeat your intro to the subject is!
With that, I think this trend is utter bullshit. And depressing, and even dangerous. Much of it. It’s Dark-Age, let’s-disappear-up-our-own-assholes nonsense, right when we need everyone to be present and engaged with (an often hard and nasty) reality. Old white Republican men cannot be ‘hexed’ out of office. Glaciers cannot be ‘voodooed’ into not melting. I realize believing in astrology and voting are not mutually exclusive, but this occult trend just goes with what white evangelicals are doing, too, which is essentially a mass rejection of the Enlightenment. Not a good direction, no matter your starting point.
Let me put it this way: I often regret not going to medical school. I would have made a happy surgeon. And that goes hand-in-hand with my one caveat. I think western medicine’s dismissal of ancient and eastern medicine is a mistake. But in that case, I’m still only on board with empirical evidence of how these older systems work with human biology. By extension, I think humanity’s loss of connection to the natural world has led to obvious horrors for us and our planet.
Look: I know people are scared, and upset, and bewildered, and are looking for comfort or a sense of control in all sorts of new/old ways. But my feelings about this are the same ones I harbor about any religion. Those feelings are not good. Organized/commercialized/formalized mob mentalities centered on superstitions scare me.
But with that… extreme times can lead to some fascinating art! But I think the creative people making the really good stuff, even if they’re tapping into pagan/occult/witchy themes, are usually doing so as observers of it, not practitioners of it. Or am I off about this?
NF: So we can divide this broadly into thinking about occultism politically and aesthetically, and whether or not they are positive practices in each.
In terms of politically, I am a bit more sympathetic than you. First I would note that rise of occultism is a cyclical phenomenon. Burton in her article goes back to the late 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s with the invention of Wicca, interest in meditation and eastern religion, and astrology. But periods of occultism happen every few decades. The ’40s and ’50s with LSD experimentation, and the popularity of the mystic George Gurdjieff (Frank Lloyd Wright and P.L. Travels, creator of Mary Poppins, were devotees) in the late 19th century, the era of the romantic sublime, when artists such as Hilma af Klint performed seances to talk to the “High Masters,” back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with satanic black masses in Paris and the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein literally the result of an occult game. There’s a lot of factors that contribute to the ebb and flow of interest in occultism (specifically global traumas like wars and economic depressions), but a unanimous current is probably that existence is confusing and painful and people like to try out a lot of things to bear it.
I think the number of people who actually believe in a variety of occultism, e.g. think that spells will actually work, or arrange their lives according to tarot and astrology, is fairly low. I may be wrong about this; this is merely my anecdotal experience (though I would note that probably half of my millennial friends are at least kind of into astrology). But you are right: we are in a gold rush of snake oil in the myriad forms of new age/occultism/wellness. This is a particular perversion of humanity — that despite having access to more information than ever before in history, we are awash in disinformation, conspiracy, and pseudo-scientific nonsense.
Aesthetically, I’m basically unreservedly pro-occult. I love horror movies, folkloric mythology, trickster gods, even the imagery of healing crystals. I think most artists who aren’t, say, doing sincere galaxy brain-style fantasias of a pyramid, of a figure in full lotus radiating light, etc., have some distance from it. But there is the question of the line between observation and practice. The writer Alan Moore talks about how artists can be considered magicians and magic can essentially be thought of as an exercise of consciousness.
CR: I think Alan Moore is a genius. I also think his use of the work ‘magic’ connotes something closer to “physical laws we don’t entirely understand but are at play throughout the universe.” The artist is a person who keeps his radar up and is almost absurdly receptive. The true artist simply notices things that other people don’t, and makes something with that.
But having a vision during an LSD trip isn’t magic. If anything, it’s a major temporary perceptual shift that allows the tripper to tap into information about the natural world that he or she hadn’t accessed before. For many, that may be very useful.
There’s more we don’t know about the way the universe works than we do know. Countless types of quantum events, biological functions, and natural phenomena that could or would explain what seems to us to be supernatural. Even the twinning behavior of distant photons, or genetic memories, could explain a host of strange-seeming feelings or events. But it’s not magic. It’s science.
I’m not dumping on people for having a personal spiritual belief system or practice. But I’m suspicious of the impulse to create a recognizable community out of it, to apply rules and codes, or to attempt to harness the “power” of something we don’t understand in order to produce a desired outcome — or, more troublingly, to tell people how they should exist in this world based on a misplaced “understanding” of something we can’t possibly manifest in any useful way. And I don’t like the idea of mixing up what is ineffable and highly personal about spirituality with identity politics. ‘Witches’ as social justice warriors. Why slave over creating a magic spell to ‘hurt’ Donald Trump if a better use of your time and energy may be to get more people registered to vote?
I’m trying to land on some artists who tap into occult-type themes who I happen to like. I’ve having trouble doing so. I mean, my favorite horror movies are Jaws and Alien. Decidedly not occult. Having said that, I did dream that Andy Warhol died the very night he died. I was a teenager, and hadn’t even known he was ill. I have no explanation for that. But somehow I think there’s a…. yes, scientific explanation for it, even if I’ll never know what that explanation is.
You grew up in a Transcendental Meditation commune. And you’re a lawyer. Oh, the duality! Tell me more occult-y artists whose work you like.
NF: Wow, the Andy Warhol story! I love stuff like that. There’s a great story where Alec Guinness (who was way into the occult) met James Dean, who showed him his Porsche Spyder, and Guinness told him that it would kill him in six days, and it did. There’s a lot of weird things in the world — things that seem genuinely supernatural and can’t really be explained or understood.
Quantum physics is a good example of this, and was brilliantly explored in the Coen brothers’ movie A Serious Man, which connected Jewish mysticism with quantum physics. At the beginning of the movie, an old man visits a couple in 17th century Poland, they believe it’s a man who died four years earlier and that he is a dybbuk — a twisted spirit — and they stab him and he staggers away. Later, it switched to more current times and the main character is telling students about Schrödinger’s cat, an exercise that helps explain the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics: a cat in a box is simultaneously alive and dead until the observer checks on the cat. Was the old man actually a dybbuk? Did he die? It’s both, simultaneously.
And in a certain way, I think this mindset can be applied broadly: is it magic or science? It’s both somehow.
In terms of artists: wow, where to begin? Visually, I would almost consider Francis Bacon and Anselm Kiefer occult artists because of the very powerful dark energy they conjure with their work. Kenneth Anger is truly one of the greats in the occult genre, and his films genuinely feel like they are summoning something. I had a phase when I was younger when I was deeply obsessed with the nexus of Throbbing Gristle, Coil, Psychic TV, Chris & Cosey, etc., who were all very into the occult. Then there are directors like Dario Argento, David Lynch, and Ken Russell; writers like Arthur Machen, André Breton, H.P. Lovecraft, and so on. Now that I’m thinking about it, most art I’m especially interested in could be considered “occult.”
CR: I love this. It’s like a conversation between a ‘fun’ Aleister Crowley (you) and a buzzkill Mr. Spock (me). But I knew you were the right person to talk to about this. All of the names you mentioned above: You love the output of these artists. I’m pretty mixed on a lot of them. And yet, you and I have tremendous overlap in things we love. When you and I talk about books or movies or tv shows or music, we generally agree about what we think is excellent.
Having said that, aside from the Coen brothers and Lynch (your brother in TM) and some (not all) Kenneth Anger, I wouldn’t put others like Throbbing Gristle or Dario Argento anywhere near my own favorites list. I know their work, and let’s just say that it doesn’t turn my crank.
Remember the outsized crazy online speculation about the “meaning” of the first season of True Detective? People were going nuts throughout that season. Viewers wanted so badly to believe that it was going to be driven by a H.P. Lovecraft/King in Yellow supernatural thesis, and yet it boiled down to simply: humans behaving very badly. Fans of the show were violently pro-occult, pretty bullying about it, and really aggressive toward the creators of the show. It was such a turn-off.
And I’m not sure any tv character has embodied my world view more succinctly than the extremely cynical (and clear-eyed) Rust Cohle. If viewers had been listening to him all along, they wouldn’t have been surprised about who the true bad guys turned out to be (older white guys in the church community). But that season was just going along with a very common narrative conclusion in countless thrillers and novels (and every episode of Scooby-Doo): what starts out looking like a supernatural event is actually just a human-driven or nature-driven bad event. Because there is always a concrete explanation for why bad shit goes down.
What I like about your list, too, is that many of those you mention have or do embrace occultist tendencies. Which makes me wonder which artists you may like who are the opposite of that. For me: James Bridle. Hito Steyerl. Science-fiction writers, including Bradbury and Vonnegut. Philip K. Dick. They explore the concrete consequences of humanity’s hubris and carelessness. To you, are they missing some element in their work that would make it more beguiling? Because mystery is beguiling. Many artists are inspired by what they’re not sure about. And poking holes in that (as I am doing here) is kind of a buzzkill.
But I mean: Look at Chris Burden, or James Turrell, or Robert Irwin. Richard Serra. They let nature and physics do some pretty “magical” things in their work without them being the least bit occult-ish about it. That’s just it. The natural world, with all its potential, is already so complex and inspiring that I feel like there’s plenty to mine there without getting all new-agey (and in my opinion, soft-brained) about it. What am I missing?
NF: The first season of True Detective was far and away the best of the three seasons, partly because its writer-creator Nic Pizzolatto borrowed heavily from the genius cosmic nihilist writer Thomas Ligotti. All of those rapturous, dark soliloquies by Rust about the mistake of human consciousness are very similar to Ligotti’s seminal bleak treatise The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. In that, Ligotti writes that the mistake of human beings’ existence is that they are stuck in the same bio-mechanical pathways of other animals, but have consciousness and the illusion of free will, thus they are essentially puppets aware of and writhing on their strings. Ligotti’s works of fiction are modern classics of the cosmic horror genre, and Ligotti, who suffers from anhedonia (inability to experience joy) can reasonably be called one of the most unsparing creative minds in the world, and doesn’t believe in much, especially not the idea of merciful god. Instead, he uses the tropes of the occult as a kind of pitiless investigation into the darkness of the human spirit. I think this is an effective use of occult symbols and imagery, even if one doesn’t believe in anything behind it. The devil, of course, is always us.
You’re absolutely right that non-occult/twisted artists can make “magical” work. The Robert Irwin piece at The Chinati Foundation is one of the most moving and “spiritual” pieces of art I’ve ever seen, and actually made me less afraid to die. And there’s nothing occult about it whatsoever. I guess I would revise my earlier statement, and say that the art I am most into is not simply occult, but has some ineffable mystery to it. This is why I find “new atheism” so irritating. Pedants such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris seem to find the occult naive and foolish while they believe their own superstitions that, in my mind, are no less “magical” than astrology — IQ, race science, meritocracy, the idea of “Western Civilization” in opposition to some vaguely defined dark horde. These men and many rationalists in general have their own shibboleths, their own myths.
I don’t really believe in anything. Certainly not a soul or god or an afterlife, but I find spiritual, occult, or cosmic art to be (not always, obviously) so appealing because I am interested in some experience of transcendence. To quote another line from A Serious Man: “Accept the mystery.”
CR: Here’s a non-caveat that may read like a caveat to some: Glasstire‘s regular readers may know that I am a sucker for animal imagery in art. Just a total chump about it. And that intersects nicely with my disposition on what I deem ‘spiritual.’ Despite the fact that my house is in the in the middle of a concrete jungle, I have to admit that the closest thing I have to spiritual experiences happen 1) when I’m in nature and 2) when I encounter great art.
So when artists do an authentic, respectful, creative take on animals (or nature), I can go weak in the knees pretty quickly. I think our relationship to nature, to sitting in and with nature, is probably as close as we get to a communion with a universal order. It gets us back in touch with that rhythm. That truth. I think indigenous art all over the world has been, historically, driven by this ultra-powerful relationship, this wisdom, of our connection to nature. And animals are our proxies, and bridges to it, and also our wingmen in this relationship with nature, including our own human nature.
One of the reasons the world is in the climate and political turmoil its in now is because the human race is being pulled apart by its own impulses. The population shift of people congregating in cities, plus the ‘control’ of nature and the rural via corporate engineering (industrial farming; Monsanto patents; palm-oil deforestation), which all of course is entirely human-centric, and distances us from nature. But we forget that we’re all just tiny specks on a Pale Blue Dot and our lives last for just a blink of an eye. (I dare you to listen to Sagan’s voice and sageness in that link and not get goosebumps or cry.) We make everything all about us — our needs, our pleasure, our anxieties. There’s a lot more to this world, to this universe, than just us.
I realize art isn’t obligated to illustrate any particular thing, and I don’t collect images of landscapes, but I’m very down with art that can even begin to make me feel like I’m standing at the lip of the ocean, or at the base of a mountain. Emotionally, art can do that. Or just about do it. It can remind us of a world that is so much bigger than we are, than our ridiculous egos and entitlement and pettiness.
NF: There’s a part in that article about progressive occultism that really stands out to me: “There has also been an inevitable trickle effect: In late 2018, high street makeup chain Sephora announced that it would be selling a $42 ‘Starter Witch Kit,’ complete with burnable white sage and tarot cards; they later recanted after witches accused them of culturally appropriating witch practice for profit.” I think a lot of what we’ve been talking about is some form of revulsion and resistance to this — a heavily consumer-focused system (it is not really hyperbole to say if America stops buying shit the global economy collapses) that cannibalizes any experience, even those that are specifically engaged to remove oneself from simply being a “shopper.” I think of the great Adam Curtis documentary The Century of Self, that chronicles Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, and the use of psychology in advertising.
Everything that we’ve been talking about — be it actual occult practice, occult art, communion with nature, art and religious practices of indigenous peoples, cosmic land art, etc., seeks to remove oneself from simply being a consumer, a shopper, a rube whose desires and needs are so predictable that we might as well be automatons. And that’s what I think is the commonality across these disparate practices and aesthetics. We live with agonizing amounts of information and limited control. For most of us we have limited to no control over where we live, where we work, how much we get paid, our healthcare… let alone outrages like concentration camps at the border, endless foreign wars and climate change unfolding like a car crash in slow motion. To find some connection to the mysterious expanse of nature and creation is not just understandable, but probably essential. It is, after all, hard to be a puppet on a string without eventually snapping.
CR: I agree. Just as I adore the separation of church and state and I certainly don’t want anyone telling me what to think or believe, and can’t stand the idea of telling someone else how to worship (or not), I think the thing about this trend I reject the most is the way it seems to be coalescing into a loose doctrine or ideology based, again, on an identity politics, which is prescriptive. I.e: if you’re not with us, then you are with them, and you are the enemy. I don’t want a 24-year-old Brooklyn hipster ‘witch’ or ‘wizard’ telling me how to live my life anymore than I want Mike Pence making life decisions for me. A hard no to both.
But bring on the animal sculptures!