A Hermetic View of What Makes An Image or Work of Art Great

Yesterday I was in a conversation with my closest friend, Steve Danzig, about how art affects us. I put forward to him what makes a work of art or a photograph great and it got me really thinking about it. So in this post I want to explore that.

For those who don’t know, Hermeticism is a philosophical system that has greatly influenced Western esoteric thought. For the last few weeks I have been totally absorbed, to the exclusion of all else, in Western Kabbalistic and esoteric thought as it relates to the arts as part of a Masters degree I am working on, so the topic is forefront in my mind at present.

One of the core concepts of the Western esoteric tradition, including Hermeticism, is that of the four classical elements: earth, air, fire and water. These four classical elements are tied to aspects of our being, so earth is the physical, air is the mental, fire is the inspirational and water is the emotional. In many systems of esoteric thought there is a fifth element, spirit. So at the personal level we consist of five ‘dimensions’ of ourselves: the physical, intellectual (conscious), inspirational (subconscious), emotional and spiritual aspects that as a whole make up who we are.

When I consider the artwork that has really touched me profoundly over the years I realise that such work has impacted me at all five levels or dimensions of my being. Take, for example, the large, dark paintings from Rothko’s mature work, the viewing of which I consider one of the most profound experiences of my life. These works impacted me on all five levels:

  • physically, by their size and dominant ‘presence’ in the space;
  • mentally, by stimulating thought of colour resonances, use of space and proportion, etc;
  • inspirationally, in that they appear in my dreams and have inspired some of my own, meagre in comparison, art explorations;
  • emotionally, as they evoked deep and profound emotional reactions;
  • spiritually, in that even now, many years later, when I bring them to mind there is a shift in consciousness and a profound connection with the ‘other’ that is impossible to put in writing.

I have had similar reactions with other works of art: Pollack’s action paintings, especially Blue Poles, some of Bill Viola’s video works and such.

In thinking about all this I realised that, informally, I rate art and photography on this five point scale: the most profound work hits all five levels, other work may only hit one, two, three or four of them.

Contemporary art has stressed the intellectual, the conceptual and, indeed, there has been an active pull away from emotional and spiritual art. However, as the research I’ve been doing has shown, whilst the pull away from the emotional and spiritual in art has certainly been there at the institutional level and among most art critics, curators and art historians, it has certainly not been there for the actual creators themselves. A careful examination of the literature shows large numbers of artists who are connecting with their work at all levels and certainly aspire to state something profound in their work on all five levels. It is just that, for the sake of their careers, many artists are reticent to speak of such things until such time as they are well enough established that the institutions will want to show their work no matter what they say.

This idea of multi-dimensionality also explains why much of contemporary art is shallow. Certainly when I examine new work being shown I find it appealing at some levels, perhaps physically from its presence or use of materials, or intellectually from the conceptual aspects. But if that is as far as it goes it only rises to a one or two on my five-point scale. This is a particular problem for digital art and photography, which can often even miss out on the physicality aspect.

As an artist, I strive to bring all five aspects into play in my own work. I’ve not succeeded yet, to my satisfaction. In my writing I try for the same, as yet, unachieved target. And that is the thing that pushes me to keep trying, to keep going deeper into my own self and tap all levels when making my art.

It may benefit you in the production of your own work to just try looking at things from this way too and seeing how you feel about it.

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