“Finding that fountain of creation, an art spirit, is the artist’s task. Artists must remain open to the tumultuous ocean of potential inspiration…to provide tangible evidence of inner discovery to the outer world.”
~ Alex Grey, from “The Mission of Art”
It used to be that conversations about visionary art would largely take place in secret. Countercultural misfits were free to share ideas about transcendent states brought forth by art-viewing or art-making, but only after a hefty dose of their psychedelic-of-choice, and always while well-hidden from the ears of academics or critics or connoisseurs. I’m thankful, then, for the many causal factors that have brought visionary art more fully into the cultural conversation of today.
This is a post about many things. I want to tell you about visionary art and why it’s important. I want to share others’ ideas about visionary art. I want to offer what I’ve been learning about visionary art and why it’s so exciting to me. But more than anything, I want to make the following proclamation: ecstatic poetry IS visionary art. This is the stand that I am taking, the perspective that I’m coming from. For years now, I’ve been on a quest: I’ve surveyed my peers, I’ve searched the internet and libraries far and wide, I’ve polled colleagues, academics, professors, and artists. I’ve exposed myself as deeply and wholly as I can to the artistic conversation being had in our culture today and I can’t seem to find anyone championing the power of Word in this specific context. I’ve been saying to myself and to others: “Where are the visionary poets?” Our social media feeds are filled with artists being touted as visionary: painters, musicians, designers, architects, photographers...the list goes on and on. But when it comes to words, poets seem to be lumped into one of two camps: the classical or the colloquial. They’re either Alfred Lord Tennyson or, to use my home region as an example, they’re writing about growing up barefoot in the hills and eating grandma’s cornbread supper. Here, I am not claiming that these two polarities have no worth. Instead, I aim to expose a truth that, in my view, is long overdue for its examination. There is a conversation happening in the greater artistic realm beyond the poet’s pen – a visionary conversation – that, despite all of my searching and striving, poetry just can’t seem to penetrate.
So, it’s time. And I believe that ecstatic poetry is especially well-positioned to break into this visionary paradigm. Ecstatic poetry is a devotional practice that can, if you open yourself to it, connect you to the Divine within you like a lightning rod captures electricity. And if that’s not at the core of visionary art, I don’t know what is.
“A poet is someone who stands outside in the rain, hoping to be struck by lightning.”
~ James Dickey
I talk a lot about the work of Alex Grey. That’s because I resonate with his art tremendously and I appreciate how he’s been bringing mysticism and sacred perspectives into the artistic conversation for decades. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that Alex Grey is the leading voice in visionary art today. (The eminent scholar Ken Wilber does not hesitate when comparing Grey’s work to that of Hildegard, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Klimt, and many others.) In my view, though, one thing sets Alex Grey apart from other artists. He has produced a staggering body of his own art, yes, but in his lifetime, he has risen to be a champion of visionary art. The truth is, I don’t know who first coined the term “visionary art,” but if I came to find out that it was Alex Grey himself, I wouldn’t be surprised. He has written and lectured on the subject, and in so many way has come to embody this evolving, living paradigm of visionary art. His work at CoSM and the construction of Entheon – a temple being erected in New York’s Hudson Valley to honor the power of art as spiritual practice – are current examples of his continued work as a world leader in the visionary art movement. Any dialogue about visionary art is wise to begin with his ideas. (In fact, if you poke around in my previous blog posts, you’ll see the extent of my own appreciation for Alex Grey and the personal work I’ve been doing in this realm of mystical/visionary art.)
It’s important to note here that the tenants and essence of visionary art are far from new or emergent. In truth, they’re as old as artistic expression itself. As Alex Grey points out (in fact, it seems to be a part of his mission), expressions of the sacred are found in the oldest art that we have discovered, all over the world, from all cultures and peoples. The truth is, art is actually inextricable from the human drive towards self-transcendence. When we survey ages-old art, the truth of their mystical heritage and intent is almost embarrassingly apparent. This gives me pause to wonder why, then, it takes a monumental cultural movement – and an icon like Alex Grey having to reach celebrity status – just to re-teach our western minds something we’ve known all along. It seems as if we’ve allowed ourselves, by and large, to become estranged from the notion of visionary art, of art-as-spiritual-practice. A large part of my own work in the world is to carry forward this conversation. I feel called to champion visionary art as well – especially to bring ecstatic poetry more fully forward into this dialogue – and to support others as they become reacquainted with the transformative power of creativity and art.
After all of this, though, a question remains. What, exactly, makes a piece of art (an “art-object”) visionary?
“I see Art through the eyes that see the world around me. It is a world of unfathomable creation and magnitude. So, I see the creation of Art that attempts to reflect the true power and beauty of its own source. My ultimate goal is to create large scale works of art that blow open the new visionary horizons and remind people of how much beauty there is deep inside our battered hearts.”
We could get bogged down in theories and ideas here; certainly plenty has been written on the topic. However, in my view, understanding visionary art is as powerful as it is simple, and we have already walked more distance on that journey than you might realize. As Alex Grey writes in The Mission of Art, the visionary artist engages herself in “...provid(ing) tangible evidence of inner discovery to the outer world.” His website explains that, in order to do this, the artist works to train her inner eye, “...the eye of contemplation, the eye of the Soul.” So a hallmark of visionary art is the notion of the inner eye, this more mystically-inclined part of us that is connected to Spirit and possesses a capacity for inner discovery. A visionary artist might be described, then, as someone who opens themselves up to Spirit – whatever that means to them individually – and then brings their spiritual realization into form through their artistic medium of choice.
This idea of the artist bringing their transformed understandings, their inner vision, forward through the vehicle of their art is so central to the paradigm of visionary art that Alex Grey and others have suggested it be added as a fifth point in Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy, a seminal philosophical model that identifies a set of core concepts held by all world spiritual traditions and brings them together into one self-contained framework. Huxley’s summation of the Perennial Philosophy ends with the suggestion that the ultimate purpose of life is to identify one’s spiritual nature and subsequently unite with it. This is where the Perennial Philosophy ends, by prompting us to begin the long and beautiful journey towards Spirit. This “visionary artist addendum” goes one step further, stressing the responsibility of individuals to share their spiritual insights once they have glimpsed or attained a unity with Spirit, oftentimes though their own individual artistic expression.
It’s possible, of course, to unpack the concept of visionary art even further. The ideas, theories, and systems of fostering visionary art are surely not relegated to the work of Alex Grey, nor are they all as recent. One such system comes from Saint Bonaventure, a 14th-century Franciscan mystic who was well known for teaching that humanity has three main ways of knowing, which he identified as “three eyes.” (And here, curiously, you might note the appearance of another model that evokes a type of esoteric, sacred sight as its main component. What is it about eyes, about seeing in this more sacred sense, that seems to connect to the notion of art-as-spirit?) The mystical “eyes” in Bonaventure's model are lenses, perspectives through which we can view or create art. They are separated into three successive levels. The most basic, the Eye of the Flesh, refers to an art-object as it exists in the physical world, such as a poem, a sculpture, a painting, and so on. Observers who have activated only their Eye of the Flesh can generally take in only the base attributes of the creation; a Beethoven sonata is lovely, but it doesn’t seem to speak on any deeper levels. The Eye of Reason, then, represents a further progression. Observers who have developed their Eye of Reason can begin to experience a connection between an art-object and something deeper; they can identify more metaphorical or subjective meanings. For example, instead of being unrelatable, the paintings of Norman Rockwell, for many, seem to evoke feelings of longing and nostalgia. Finally, the mystic eye or the Eye of Spirit is a lens through which observers are able to recognize each art-object as an aspect of the Absolute. At this deepest level of Bonaventure’s heirarchy, the observer is able to unite with the conciousness – or at least the conscious intention – of the artist. This experience, however mystical and seemingly-elusive, has been substantiated by modern science. Mirror neurons – first discovered in the 1980’s by a team of Italian neurophysiologists lead by Dr. Giacomo Rizzolati – are specialized brain cells that have evolved to mirror in one individual’s phenomenonlogy the experiences of another. This indicates to us that, in a very tangible way, the observer of an art-object has the ability to experience many of the same emotions and psychospiritual states as its creator, even if said creator is long dead. The transformative power of art, in this way, transcends even time.
To me, this blog post serves two purposes. First and certainly foremost, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s my passionate belief that ecstatic poetry should be recognized as a part of the visionary art movement. Although I surely haven’t combed all the corners of the globe, the truth is that I’ve been utilizing all of the resources at my disposal, turning over every stone in view, and still, for the life of me, can’t find anybody in visionary artist circles talking about ecstatic poetry in this specific context. In my best understanding, poetry seems to be an afterthought in visionary circles (and many other artistic camps), something that the painters and musicians retire to their bedrooms to write only after their far grander performances have ended. And of course, that’s fine for them. But poetry isn’t an afterthought for me, it’s front-and-center, and I’ve actually been a bit baffled by the apparent absence of ecstatic poetry – something I hold as the epitome of spiritual artistic practice – from these visionary dialogues. Quite frankly, a part of me is hoping that the right person might see this blog post, contact me, and prove me wrong about all of this. I suppose time will tell.
My second purpose in writing all of this represents the middle stages of a far greater project. For years, I’ve been reading, researching, and pulling things together. The world needs to hear more about the power and practice of ecstatic poetry, and in the months and years to come, at least two major publications will be emerging. Keep an eye out for those. They’ll be landmarks for anyone seeking to understand the power of poetry practice as a companion on their transformative journey.
Ecstatic poetry IS visionary art. May the Universe itself hear this call. May the landscape of visionary art open wide enough to allow for the mystic power of Word, and may those words and those poems and those poets utilizing their art in this sacred way continue to touch the hearts of the world. I count myself among them, and this is my prayer for my own art as well.