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The Way of Art and Two-Way Roads

Art exhibition "Dis/Connect, 2015". Cropped still from video by the artist, Illma Gore. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Art, among other things, is image-making. As a teacher of creative writing, I often emphasize the power of images due to their effectiveness in rendering experiences in our readers. Concrete language, which communicates to (and through) the senses, is what drives the written image. Concrete language is direct, visceral, and needs no explanation to work its magic. Abstract language, on the other hand, is conceptual. Like the image, it too renders experience, though in a different way. I ask, then: Is the experience-rendering value of abstract language any less potent or significant due to this difference? And even more to the point, is not abstract language, in its own way, concrete? After all, a concept or emotion or experience is, in fact, something. And by “something” I mean to say some thing

This idea is applicable not just to creative writing but to all genres of art whose works extend into this kind of subtler “stuff.” This MythBlast aims to highlight the experience-numinosity connection by attending to the attributes of our experiences—be they emotions, sensations, or insights—as concrete or material phenomena, each unique and wholly its own. 

In the third chapter of his Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Joseph Campbell opens with a wonderful quote from his wife, Jean Erdman, whose art (and profession) was dance. She says, “The way of the mystic and the way of the artist are related, except that the mystic doesn’t have a craft” (89). Indeed. Whereas the artist attends more to making, the mystic’s focus attends more to matters of experience. And where the artist produces a tangible work, the mystic produces an experience that is (in our approach) very much less tangible. Nonetheless, the world of the artist and the world of the mystic both lean into that numinous, mysterious realm that we thinkers circumambulate with terms like Source, the Transcendent, God, etc.

But if we apply our concrete approach, we could say that the mystic does in fact work with and upon “stuff.” In the supplies cache of the artist we find clay, paint, and so on—all overtly substantial. Ask a mystic what he’s packing and, if we’re lucky, he’ll pull out a few of those less-substantial things for display: “Well, here’s a mantra, that thing there’s a breathing technique. Oh, and here’s a twenty-eight-day fast I picked up at a shop in one of my visions.” So, along this scale of substantiality, the dancer’s body spills into movement, the musician’s instrument sheds its sound waves, and the meagre wisps of the poet’s ink seep into meaning. Each of these evoke experiences of particular flavors—i.e., attributes—depending on the art and on the consciousness of the observer. 

For all the known reasons I could suggest (and even moreso, for all the unknown reasons I cannot!), the works of the artist and mystic reach into the numinous–but I think they also invite it. In our approach, we see that both have their “objects” of transmission—“stuff” with attributes. Whether it’s the cold depth of a statue’s empty gaze or the beaming crescendos of those van Gogh sunflowers, radiant and riotous like a choir of—well, sunflowers!—the experience pours through and saturates the psyche with (in this case) warmth, vitality, and celebration through paint, whose attributes are colors, whose attributes are pleasant, whose attributes are a kind of experience. 

That’s one direction. The other direction is simply that the numinosity infuses all of these stages with, uh, itself. Whether we approach the direction from left to right or right to left, inner to outer or outer to inner, the substance of the attributes–regardless of where they fall on our materiality scale–both transmit and buffer the numinous force, which in its undiluted status must be, from the perspective of an embodied human, annihilatory in either a very good or very bad way. Campbell addresses this dynamic when he refers to the many characters in Ovid’s Metamorphoses who were “unfavorably transformed by encounters with divinities, the full blast of whose light they were unready to absorb.” And he later writes that “in contrast, the mystic deliberately offers himself to the blast.” (91) The divinities of mythology are archetypal (which we perceive and experience as attributes of forms that are nearer to the numinous, or more infused by it). Like a work of art or a mystic’s subtle medium, they take on this ambiguous function of pipelining numinous energy through their form. Or, with their form, they preserve us from the blast. 

Speaking of blasts, even if this MythBlast is naught but guesswork, there may be some accurate content herein—or, at least, some moments where the guesswork brushes shoulders with truth. And if so, then it is encouraging to me to reflect on the business of engaging art as creations of our own making, and of our own being, that roam the frontier of the numinous, transmitting and receiving, to and fro, the missives of human to Source and of Source to human, composed in a language for which there can be no name.    


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