Sculpture and Ritual : The Role of Art in Transformation (Winchester, 2000).

Today, the influence of the Church is in steep decline, and this is inevitable in a culture where the role of art is no longer a crucial one. We are at the end of the Patriarchal era, an era defined by male crucifixion and resurrection. This seminal religious concept in effect symbolises the transformative process of psychic ‘death’ and ‘rebirth’, which forms the essential core of the authentic creative process. It is generally assumed now, and has been for centuries, that religious painting and sculpture reflects and glorifies religious history and experience, whereas in fact, the converse is true: religious parables and narratives only serve as metaphors for inner creative experience. The idea of death and resurrection of a saviour actually represents the potential for developmental transformation throughout an individual lifespan, and there were many religions prior to Christianity, which had this central theme of a saviour’s death and rebirth.

So the real relationship between art and religion is one in which the genuine creative process of art provides the original source of spiritual experience, which is symbolised in the institutions and ceremonies of religious authority. That is to say, the individual artist, engaged in an intense communion with the creative process, can experience a transitory immobilisation of consciousness and ‘death’ of the cognitive conscious self, in a type of trance phenomenon during which time psychic organisation can be fundamentally changed and reprogrammed into a new trance-formation. This trance phenomenon forms the essence of the archaic out-of-body ekstasis, which in turn forms the foundation of all mysticism and ecstatic religious conversion experience.

The authentic prototype for such conversion experience may be found in the nucleus of the creative process, but such creative conversion can also be shown to incorporate the earliest developmental and transitional phases of the human infant. In fact these earliest formative processes have the very same sequences as the creative process, and through the template of this creative structure, the adult, at whatever stage of life, can re-engage with them, and effect a therapeutic re-working of developmental stages, which may not initially have been negotiated successfully.

Furthermore, both classical and so-called ‘object-relations’ psychoanalytic theory, argues that such early transitional phases are initiated by the stress and anxiety implicit in the barbarism of the infantile situation, in which the infant’s own hatreds and resentments engender a dread of retaliation and a deep persecution anxiety. It is the general insecurity of the infant’s position that instigates the displacement of that anxiety on to other objects and what psychoanalysis refers to as ‘transitional phenomena’, in order to dilute that retaliatory threat. This initial process of displacement is also the embryonic process of creativity and of symbolisation.

Psychoanalytic theory also describes how the whole elemental creative network serves to initiate the infant into a recognition of the real world and of the autonomy of the mother figure. Because of the constraints inherent in such a recognition of reality in which the infant is no longer centre of the universe, this developmental stage is referred to theoretically as a move into the ‘depressive position’. But there is also a phase prior to this acknowledgement of reality, with all of its contradictions, where the infant can temporarily enjoy feelings of complete omnipotence and control of all forms whether real of imaginary. This is a central phase in between the early barbaric condition of the infant and the depressive position of greater independence and responsibility. It also forms a defensive ‘fall-back’ position against a failure to negotiate a successful transition into depressive reality.

I have mentioned the sequential correspondences between early life transitions and creativity, and this is indeed the salient point of the argument: that psychoanalytic theoretical analysis of both infantile development and the creative process reveals that they both have the same underlying structure. In both cases an underlying tension and stress plays an indispensable role in precipitating the process; both have a pivotal stage of manic, trance-like omnipotence, which facilitates the transition through to the acceptance of reality and of its limitations, again common to both. In the case of child development there is the acceptance of the autonomy of the mother and of other independent objects, and in the case of the creative process, the recognition through the complex dialogue with the artwork of its autonomy and independent voice.

I have also referred to the consonance between this creative structure, which mimics transitional development, and religious symbolism which embodies within its parables and narratives the regenerative processes of transformation. Moreover, these basically parallel structures can be seen to have also informed age-old rituals worldwide, cultural and tribal ritual in which the initiate was subjected to prolonged periods of stress and tension before a manic trance state gave birth to a new self. In the instance of initiation rite this was often the transformation of a juvenile self into the depressive reality of an adult self with its attendant obligations and responsibilities.

The anxiety and tension which propels the infant into creative displacement, is comparable to the stress and tension which can both induce creative engagement and is anyway implicit in its initial stages. Psychotics, subjected to intolerable stress and anxiety, are often propelled into what has been described as a ‘spontaneous creative phase’. Again, as suggested, this compares with the tension procured in the preliminary stages of an initiation ritual, and all such prolonged stress is represented in religious symbolism as the biblical wilderness, prior to a communion with God.

All of these cases involve a transformative process, which is equivalent to conversion experience. Significantly, the type of revivalist throng where the archetypal religious conversion was fomented by the evangelical zeal of a preacher such as John Wesley, was usually subjected to prolonged and mounting tension and hysteria, whipped up by the threats of eternal damnation and hellfire, which were fearfully taken literally by such congregations. Correspondingly, the infant also takes threats such as: ‘I’ll murder you if you don’t behave’, or ‘I’ll castrate you’, literally. Such a real response naturally adds to the general insecurity and tension of the situation.

Such conversion experiences are tantamount to a ‘brainwashing’, where the mind is like a slate wiped clean, where all prior conceptions are eliminated. Such techniques were widely used in totalitarian regimes where ideological indoctrination was paramount. Fascinatingly, these human experiences have also been compared with the same transformative processes in animals, where the animal’s mind can be brainwashed and behavioural patterns reprogrammed whilst subject to stress. The Russian physiologist I.P.Pavlov analysed the nervous systems of dogs and showed that under conditions of extreme stress, these animals could reach what he termed an ‘ultraparadoxical’ phase of behaviour, during which time all prior conditioning was eradicated and often totally reversed. Such a complete brainwashing and psychic transformation can be compared to the psychic ‘death’ and ‘rebirth’ in the hypnotic trance of conversion.

I began by suggesting that the relevance of the Church must diminish in a culture where the relevance of art is in decline; that is to say art which embodies the healing and transformative dynamic I have described. Today, such art is not seen as being particularly relevant, and so the religious symbolism and ceremony, which it fundamentally inspired, has also become meaningless. But for thousands of years of human development prior to the Renaissance, art throughout Africa, Mesoamerica, the Far East and so on, served a strictly functional role: to encode the potential for trance-formation, and to transport a participant on to a higher psychic plane and to ultimate salvation.

The tribal sculpture is the authentic art object par excellence in its role as cipher of these elemental processes and in its function to encode within its stylistic structure the degree of tension and repression encountered in the creative trance of ritual and transformative initiation rite as a template for future generations. In this sense it fulfils the original role of art as a cohesive and integrative force in culture. This is why early western observers were perplexed by the absence of any concept of aesthetic beauty in such tribal contexts, because they failed to appreciate this fundamental role of the art object as a symbol to embody the tensions of the unconscious creative matrix.

The tribal sculpture functions as a true sculpture should function: not as an aesthetic object to be admired for its formalism, but as a genuine symbol precipitated from the unconscious creative process which determines its form, just as any genuine symbol is a compromise formation to embody the total contradictions and anomalies of unconsciousness. In the tribal context, the role of the creative process, and the art object which symbolises it, is that much clearer because of the division of the two processes. In much the same way, the modern abstract painter tried to isolate the skeletal creative structure in the painting process and then later in the cases of such painters as Jackson Pollock or Philip Guston, show how symbolism and original personal iconography is generated by the process. Such artists were strongly influenced through primitivism by the power of art in earlier cultures and tried to reconnect with the essential spirituality of the creative process.

The analysis of the mission of art in the tribal culture, and of the creative process through abstract painting, shed light on a problem that has bedevilled western art since the Renaissance: that is, the relationship between form and content. Whereas illustrative and mannered painters and sculptors increasingly tended to search for forms to fit preconceived content and narrative, whether religious, ideological or social, some revolutionary modern painters recognised, probably for the first time since authentic icon painters, that it is the material form of the creative process which, in fact, paradoxically, determines the narrative and content of art.

It can be seen from the dream in its procedure to convert raw, unconscious emotion into symbolism and narratives, that it is the unconscious Dionysian abstract form which determines the content designed to contain it. For complex reasons the conscious mind is constitutionally unequipped to deal with the potentially overwhelming force of unconscious emotion, and so the dream converts this into compromise formations of dream symbols and narrative, which the conscious mind can directly acknowledge and assimilate. This is something that archaic cultures readily understood, as they did this ancient connection between the dream and art. So if art is the blueprint for the processes of psychological transformation and therapeutic development and the originator of the symbols and narratives describing the process, and was acknowledged for thousands of years to have this cultural role, then how was this actually effected in the creative process and in its counterpart the initiation ritual?

In a similar mode of operation to the dream, it is the force of unconscious emotion, located in the unconscious form of art, which determines the narratives and symbols, which serve as vehicles to contain and to describe it. This is what the excavation of the creative process undertaken in the modern abstract painting, with its parallel procedure to the initiation ritual, exposed. Unconscious form is a type of form beyond conscious perception or representation; it cannot be premeditated or consciously copied; it is accidental, vague, ambiguous, and in terms of painting would be located in the uncontrollable striations, drips, ‘bleeding’, or undulations in impasto. In sculpture it would similarly be manifested in textural anomalies and surface deformations. Such elements are by-products of the creative process and escape conscious attention, but can be procured by the artist and subliminally and intuitively monitored.

In the initial stages of the creative process there is a type of exorcism as unconscious raw and fragmented elements are projected into the rudimentary artwork. For the artist, such aspects can represent aggression, intolerance, disorganisation, and elements of the self which need to be excommunicated. Hence the potential discomfort and anxiety associated with the early stages of the creative process. But subsequent phases tend to develop a cohesive organisation, where the artist can appear to be in omnipotent control of all events; the exorcised projections are integrated into a type of support system, which makes a reparation. This happens purely at the abstract formal level, and in an infinitely complex series of intuitive, subliminal and unconscious responses to an imperceptible flux in the volatile and malleable paint medium, the psyche leaves an imprint.

As the mind and its reactions are confined exclusively within the parallel universe of painting’s creative dynamics and are actually externalised within the paint medium, it appears as if the mind vacates the body, inducing a momentary loss of consciousness, or trance in a psychic ‘death’. Religion has labelled this experience an ascension, as the soul appears to float free from the body. It also constitutes the classic ecstatic conversion, the ‘out-of-body’ experience at the core of ekstasis. In effect, it is as if the mind is removed and embodied in the creative medium in a transubstantiation, where earlier developmental sequences are re-organised, and the subsequent reprogramming internalised.

This transformative creative process must be negotiated in a purely material and unconscious formal dimension I have defined, in order to avoid any possibility of a re-conceptualisation by a conscious mind, which as I have suggested, is organically unfitted to handle unconscious emotion. Psychoanalytic analysis has shown, for example, that infants suffering from persecution anxiety may displace it in a type of personal nonsense language, which involves the materiality of the word, in the distortion of language and its sounds, and not in its narrative or content. This has led to the conclusion that: ‘anxiety writes poetry’.

It is in this unconscious dimension of form where the emotional vitality of art is located. Just as the transcendental essence of the initiation ritual and intrinsic creative trance sustain the mystical force of the tribal sculpture, so does the unconscious creative communion sustain the mystical force of the painting. Recently, the panels of purely abstract dripped and splattered paint in panels beneath or within religious icon paintings have been compared to modern abstract expressionist painting and the ‘all-over’ dripped technique of Jackson Pollock. Twelfth century portable altars consisting exclusively of purely ‘all-over’ abstract painting are really works of abstract expressionist painting for personal spiritual use.

Furthermore, just as the religious icon painter would describe in the narratives and the parables of death and rebirth the experiences encountered in unconscious creative engagement with the abstract panels, so did the abstract expressionist painter such as Philip Guston, show how a personal iconography was distilled from abstract experience. This is how the religious icon acquired the pervasive aura of magical healing power, and the modern abstract painting its spiritual connotations: both have the implicit potential for psychic conversion and renewal.

This is what the puritanical iconoclast throughout the centuries was really trying to smash: not the surface image of a deity, but the power of art in its essence to offer authentic transformation. Similarly, the colonial missionary tried to transplant a Christian dogma, which had lost all connection with its original motivation, on to cultures, which in a supreme irony still retained their intrinsic connection to real spiritual roots.

Today, a ‘new age’ postmodern iconoclasm still targets the essential core of creativity. This opposition in the modern era began with Marcel Duchamp who misguidedly considered abstract painting to be vacuous in its superficial concern for the optical and retinal, and initiated the anti-art stance, which spawned conceptual art. The first postmodern artist, Andy Warhol, was envious of Jackson Pollock’s cultural cachet. But being Duchamp’s natural heir, he didn’t try to emulate Pollock’s complex, subliminal abstractions, but rather to parody and belittle them. His ‘yarn paintings’ are banal simulations of the real thing, being totally devoid of Pollock’s vital sexual energy and unconscious male psychic organisation, which underpins patriarchal religion. Indeed this was Warhol’s homoerotically motivated ideological anti-art objective: to emasculate Pollock and to drain abstract painting of its spiritual energy in a symbolic castration.

Warhol’s series of so-called ‘piss paintings’ in which he simply urinated on canvas, represent his caustic critique of authentic painting. He also masturbated on canvas to vent frustration and to desecrate Pollock’s hallowed ground with an obscene sacrilegious act. In the place of mystical, authentic art, the new age iconoclast has installed simulated hype. The earnest and meaningful visitors intently and reverently studying the exhibition by Gilbert and George consisting solely of large images of turds, were blithely unaware of the joke being perpetrated on them by the celebrated gay duo.

The ultimate objective of this new age iconoclasm is to emasculate art and to extract its life’s blood, in an act of vengeance against patriarchy and the elitism of transcendentalism. The person who razed the temple of Diana to the ground, only did it because he hadn’t built it himself.