I’m going to take a leap and say that the earliest experience of art was incantatory, an invocation, a calling down, or calling up, of spirits, of a higher power, sky gods, earth gods, ocean gods. It was ritual and prayer. Those guys going into the caves in France and Spain during the Pleistocene, who might have been women, went there for a reason. It was hidden. It was separate from mundane reality. It was removed from the world of hunger and necessity, the world of doing, the world of eating and fire. It was a place of spirits, shadows dancing on calcareous rock, pigments derived from iron oxide and red and yellow ochre, animal fat and bone. Shapes swirled into being from horsehair were creatures rendered in a spirit of imitation but whose animations were the living embassies of the human imagination.
Meaning we are caught between two worlds. The world of the spirit and imagination and the world of hunting and brute survival. The relationship between those two domains have always been a little contentious. Daydreaming doesn’t lead to meat. Ceremony feeds the spirit but not the gut. It takes artistry to make a spear but it’s a different kind of artistry than the artistry that brings animals into grace and being on the undulant irregularities of subterranean rock.
My world has refrigerators in it, computers and clocks, but the cave is still very much with me. When I sit down to write I enter a cave. I enter a realm of darkness in which the light is tentative but the shadows it creates have an eerie autonomy. Poetry comes from the cave, and so do elves and philosopher kings, dragons and ghosts.
It’s Thanksgiving, and raining. I go to pick up Roberta who has just left work and is carrying a bag of groceries. I get in the car. The steering wheel is cold. I start the engine. Adam Levine of Maroon 5 sings “I Shall Be Released” from the Amnesty International Chimes of Freedom tribute album to Bob Dylan. My cave is still in me but has assumed a different form. It’s an amalgam of seeking and penetration, the kind of wandering one does in one’s mind during a time of trauma, in this case the recent election, the ascendancy of Père Ubu to the White House. I try to remind myself that fascism doesn’t have to triumph, there are ways to resist it, and resistance will require a cave. Bears and horses on the stone walls of an inner realm.
Once, on a trip to Oregon with my parents when I was about 14 years old, we joined a tour group and descended by elevator to the bottom of a cave. When we reached the bottom, a guide from the park department lectured us on the features of the cave, its depth, its length, its formation. He shut the lights off to let us experience the full darkness of the cave. It was the first time I saw darkness. It was so emphatically, absolutely black it was penetrating. There is the kind of dark in which we stumble and feel our way around because objects are obscured. This was not that type of dark. This dark seemed alive. It was a thing. It had being. A lit match would’ve torn into its flesh.
One’s sense of self feels peculiar in such darkness. It is purely a sensation. A feeling of self-ness that is based on nothing.
Art that attempts to imitate things is automatically dull. How can it not be? Art that attempts to mimic the processes of nature is a little more interesting. Art that drags itself across the floor like a peanut is goodnatured and lepidopterous. Art made of hot water and sugar blushes with crystal violet. Art produced in caves crushes the fossils of light-headed purport. Art that repairs the mind and heart will find violent houses minted in string smelling of solitary soot. Art that purges and arouses dangerous emotions is fallible and laughing.
Why are artists always stuck with defending art?
There are societies that promote imagination and societies that kill imagination. The societies, such as that of the United States, kill the imagination so that the people will submit to labor at the cheapest possible price.
When you enter a gallery as I have on occasion and see work selling for thousands of dollars sometimes even millions you naturally think holy shit I can do that and then I don’t have to wash dishes or sweep floors or make drinks or dig ditches or give the nightly news anymore. You can slip out of your chains and find a fullness of being immediately available. Right there, under your skin, is a furnace of capillaries and veins, hot red blood finding its way to bonanzas of expanded sensation.
Art became social when it came above ground. When it became gowns and candelabras, investments and spoons. When Norman Rockwell produced red-haired freckle-faced kids getting haircuts by benign elderly men with white hair and wisdom in their back pocket. When Andrew Wyeth painted window curtains and braids and made the world look familiar and safe and put his arm around George W. Bush.
When art becomes social it loses its autonomy. It loses its essential spirit. It serves commerce. It serves the deadening of the imagination. It serves the fashion industry. It serves the rich.
Kitsch, observed Herman Broch, is a turning away from the divine cosmic creation of values. It is resigned to the clever and cute. Jeff Koon’s monster balloon dog mocks the sublime. The sublime is dangerous because it is out of human control. Art stands in opposition to social domination. We descend into the cave in search of those beings and entities that fuel artistic impulse with blue fire, the animal desire to conquer the horizontal world, the speed and grace of the antelope, the strength of the bear, the avatars of spirit. Art keeps itself alive through its resistance to social force. It feeds on the mineral colors of flame-induced creatures. On the contour of rock. On the thick palpable darkness that sleeps in the bone and awakens in the eyes.
Art repels empirical reality. It delights in fluctuations so rapid that they have the invisible blur of the hummingbirds’ wings, the weird aerodynamics of the bumblebee, whose wings are transparent but veined, revealing networks of fragile interrelation, as do the subsonic noises of bats bounced off objects to determine their character and distance. The darkness of a cave is a living body of dark energy, the subterranean medium of labyrinth and hall and moonmilk that envelops our intimacy with the irrationality of the depths, the primal cradle of creativity.