After some months of preparation, I am terribly excited to announce an upcoming solo show of my work at Cleveland’s Rotten Meat Gallery. In Defense of Absurd Cosmologies will feature recent paintings, including the completed Falls series, as well a number of brand-new works from this year. The opening reception will be on March 14th, from 6-10pm.
Either mostly or entirely done with this series! It’s primarily about animism (a subject about which I have some thoughts), and secondly about making something unabashedly decorative. Each individual piece is designed to function as an icon (in the religious sense- what artist hasn’t secretly aspired to make something people will pray to?), and will bear titles such as The One Who Oversees Seemingly Significant (but insignificant) Coincidences, The One Who Overseers Things You No Longer Think About, and so on.
“There is only one crime, in the local sense, and that is not to turn blue, if the gods are blue: but, in the universal sense, the one crime is not to turn the gods themselves green, if you’re green.”
I recently visited the CMA’s exhibit of medieval reliquaries. The official lit on the exhibit made much about the power of memory and the function of the relics as mementos linking the worshippers to their collective past, and while this probably has some validity, I doubt that medieval Christians thought about these objects in such psychologized terms. It’s always risky to speculate on what a group of people a thousand years ago “really” thought about their cultural constructs, but what I saw of these objects leads me to believe that the whole system of relics and reliquaries bespeaks a peculiarly material, even mechanical, approach to religious practice.
The basic theory hinges on a quantity that, for lack of a better term, we might call “holiness”. This is what the medieval pilgrim would have sought, and what the relics would purport to give access to. Etherial as this concept might seem at first blush, a couple of things can be said about it with some confidence:
Firstly, holiness (h hereafter) is good. We must clarify that “good” is intended in its most objective, unequivocal sense, and as so h functions as an end in itself. Having h or being in its presence is better than the alternative, whatever other effects might be attributed to it. That being said, h has practical functions, and these follow from its essential goodness. The supposed miraculous properties of a relic owe to its resident h increasing the goodness of those around it in a very concrete (if unpredictable) fashion.
Second, h can be said to act as a physical substance. Its existence is spatial and temporal; it exists in higher concentrations in certain places, times, and, in the case of relics, objects. One might even speak of h-gradients. In other contexts however, it displays properties of energy, particularly heat. For example, a high-h object such as a relic might provoke people to touch it, in hopes of absorbing some of its h. h, like heat, would seem to conduct from regions of higher to lower “temperature”. With this in sight, it makes sense that the church would strive to insulate relics as thoroughly as possible. A sort of Second Law of Theodynamics seems to be at work here, and h-entropy is to be avoided at all costs. The only significant departure from classical physics lies in the fact that h conducts not only via physical but also historical contact. A saint’s toenail continues to receive h from the saint long after it has been clipped and its owner martyred. Sir James Frazier called this the Law of Contagion, but for our purposes we can call it the Principle of Conduction-by-Association.
With these principles in sight, we may define relics as implements of controlled h-propagation. To our medieval votaries, the ultimate source of h was, of course, God, but this source was distant and therefore, like a faraway power plant, not reliable as a direct resource. Hence the need for an accessible system for the dissemination of this commodity, a system in which relics formed the ultimate “outlets”. We may map the flow of h thusly:
Animism- the idea that every entity, even inanimate ones such as stones and buildings, has a soul (or to use less weighted language, a mind) – is about as unfashionable is at gets. It is hardly ever brought into discussion outside of new age circles, and when it is, it is usually referenced as a humorous reductio ad absurdum to some other idea. Indeed, the very word “inanimate” seems to function within our language as a built-in rejection of animism.
It has been traditional to attribute animism to the supposed infantile tendency to view all entities/phenomena as possessing minds comparable to one’s own, a tendency that is gradually outgrown as one’s perceptual faculties mature. What arises from this view is a sort of theological hierarchy, with each successive stage corresponding to ever higher levels of cognitive development: animism -> polytheism-> monotheism-> atheism (this last step may be skipped depending on which state you live in). Modern-day anthropology has mostly shed this narrative, but it lingers in the background of popular understandings of cultural development.
The biological analogue to this model is the now-discredited idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny- basically, that the historical development of forms mirrors the development of individual beings. So, in its maturation, the human body passes through phases mirroring the evolution of the human species. The only real defense of this model lies in the fact that human embryos possess gills and a tail- never mind that human children never pass through phases wherein they resemble lizards or lemurs. Regardless, there is a sort of superficial elegance to this model, and it was very much in vogue about a hundred years ago.
Applied to the development of cultural forms, this idea dives into even more dangerous waters. We are, after all, not just talking about a sequence of extinct ideas that ultimately gave rise to our current models. Animism, polytheism, monotheism, and atheism (as well as any number of less easily-categorized models) all persist to this day. To prefer any one of these as the inevitable evolutionary endpoint depends upon a fairly obvious ethnocentric assumption. It goes without saying that one’s own culture would possess the most advanced understanding, and other cultures would be viewed as more or less primitive (“infantile”) in proportion to their similarity thereto.
I mention all of this here because what is at issue is ultimately an aesthetic conflict. There is of course absolutely no rational or empirical defense for animism, and as a model it has no explanatory or predictive power. It is not so much a means of understanding the world as encountering it. Just as we would perceive other humans differently if we believed them to be mindless automatons, so do animism and related models offer the potential for a radically divergent experience of the world at large. This alone makes them worth engaging with on their own terms, and not to be rejected solely on the basis of their presumed absurdity.