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“The words are almost interchangeable: magick and art”, claims Alan Moore (2015: 0’10”). But I will be taking the contrary view, arguing how magick and art are fundamentally unalike.
When performing group magick in a public place, our cover story was always the same: we were a theatre group or a team of performance artists. So there is, as Moore suggests, a resemblance between art and magick, but at the same time a stark difference, or else it would not have been possible to deny we were doing one by claiming we were doing the other.
Art is admissible within public institutions and can also be a commercial activity, but if magick has value this is proportionate to the extent it releases us from mundane social and financial constraints. Artists can use magick as an aesthetic in which to wrap their work, and magicians can hide theirs behind a facade of art.
Moore, instead of maintaining a distinction between them, seems inclined to draw art and magick even closer together:
If they were only to take on the values of the other camp then we would have magick that […] might actually produce wonderful works of art […] that would give a purpose that modern magick is almost completely lacking. At the same time, if contemporary artists were to be drawing upon the ideas that are in magick then we wouldn’t be getting all of this empty vacuous conceptual shit that art seems to be frozen in at the moment. (Moore 2015: 1’16”)
Of course, we want better art and better magick. But to be good, does art need to draw upon “the ideas that are in magick” rather than find new ones? Will magick “produce wonderful works of art” when magicians are not necessarily artistically trained? If magick lacks purpose, does it then even deserve the title of magick at all? “All art is quite useless” declared Oscar Wilde (1998: xxiv), which perhaps suggests that the utterly purposeless has more more in common with art.
Lionel Snell (writing as Ramsey Dukes) delves deep into this question of where magick and art overlap and depart. His classic text SSOTBE (Dukes 2000) postulates a quaternity of world views – Art, Magick, Science, and Religion – which he explores through comparisons and contrasts. Although he cautions against over-simplification, Snell suggests: “Magic, Art, Religion and Science represent movement towards Wholeness, Beauty, Goodness and Truth respectively” (Dukes 2000: 133). Magick aims at Wholeness, then – oneness, or unity, in other words. The trajectory of magick is union. Magick brings self and world into direct connection. By means of magick we shift our consciousness in order to harmonise with reality. Whereas art, in Snell’s schema, takes a different trajectory, one that by engendering beauty aims at reconciling reality with ourselves:
A poet once told me that it was wrong to think of a symbol as a sort of telephone number connecting one to an idea, and I was surprised because that is exactly what it is in Magical usage. […] In the Magic sector meaning is a precious thing, a pointer towards wholeness, while in the Art sector meaning has become a tangle of associations that one seeks to cut away to reveal life in its pure essence. (Dukes 2000: 46-7)
By bringing art and magick together, Moore envisions that “they would both have a human purpose and would relate to the world in which we are actually all existing” (Moore 2015: 2’47”). For Moore, it seems that neither magick nor art presently connect with reality well enough. But from Snell’s perspective, Moore’s conception of magick seems closer to the trajectory of art. To “have a human purpose” and “relate to the world” might be an end for art, but for magick it is only a means. Magick does not need to relate to or reflect reality but offers a means of directly uniting with it.
Something that is beautiful stops us in our tracks. We admire it for what it is and do not want or need to pass beyond it. In this way the productions of art are ends in themselves. But the products of magick are different; they are “pointers towards wholeness”. As Crowley famously expressed it:
By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them. (Crowley 1909)
The “ideas that are in magic” (as Moore put it) have value in allowing us to unite with the absolute, but not in successfully representing it. The Holy Guardian Angel, for example, is a dualistic expression of the non-dual; it is a knowingly poor representation of something that nevertheless enables us to unite with what it points at. No self-respecting artist would produce poor representations, but magicians sometimes strive for this. A good sigil is one that helps us disregard what it represents.
What threw these issues into relief for me recently is The Dark Pool (2020), a podcast created by Rob C. Thompson, occult scholar and a professor of theatre and performance at Chesapeake College, Maryland. It throws these issues into relief because of how it blurs the boundaries between magick and art.
“So many occultists talk about how […] knowing things is not achieving any kind of wisdom. True wisdom comes from practice,” Thompson stated in an interview (Lux Occult 2020: 46’21”), describing how this was his inspiration to make something that was more than a commentary on the occult but also included practical magick:
I created a meditation and I had four of my actors who were fairly new to the group […] and I wanted to experiment with them and have them do the meditation which asked them to reach into that subconscious space and find sounds and just make sounds. And then I built each of them their own meditation track based on those sounds with a mind to attuning them to the higher vibration of their consciousness […] I tell them that through this process they will attune to their subliminal consciousness – and they do. There is a reasonable amount of success. (Lux Occult 2020: 47’21”)
It is an interesting idea, and I agree with Thompson’s interviewer, Luxa, when she comments how The Dark Pool has a similar feel to the film documentary series Hellier (Pfeiffer 2019). This perhaps arises from their shared domain somewhere between art and magick. Whereas Hellier slides inexorably towards the occult, The Dark Pool veers in the direction of art. The meditation Thompson gives his students becomes a springboard for an improvised drama – about a college professor who assigns his students an occult practice for motives that only gradually become apparent. The self-referentiality of The Dark Pool blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, to the extent that in the quotation above it seems unclear whether Thompson is describing a factual magickal working, or simply the fictional plot-arc of his drama, or – being one and the same – both.
This blurring of reality and fiction is not in itself “magickal” but is available fully within the realm and resources of art. The results of the meditation could have been recorded and left to speak for themselves, yet this is not what Thompson gives us. However, the self-referentiality of The Dark Pool ensures that we are not entirely certain that this is not what we are hearing.
I use a lot of students on the podcast, acting students […] My administration got wind of the work and made me promise that I wasn’t forcing them to do it for a grade or that they needed it to complete the theatre degree. (Lux Occult 2020: 25’57”)
This comment from Thompson suggests that what is at work in The Dark Pool is the same dynamic we considered at the outset, the game of hide and seek that magicians play with art. As we have considered previously, the ethics of magick are concerned with providing insight and salvation, which often conflicts with the ethics of a secular mainstream focused more on preventing possible harm. As an educator with an interest in the occult, The Dark Pool offers Thompson and his students a frame whose apparent fictionality will not offend the university administration, and yet which teases its audience with the possibility that they are listening to a work of magick.
Crowley, Aleister (1909). Liber O vel Manus et Sagittae sub figurâ VI. https://tinyurl.com/y6lrgdpc (hermetic.com). Accessed November 2020.
Dukes, Ramsey (2000). SSOTBME Revised. England: El-Cheapo.
Lux Occult (2020). Lux occult podcast episode 10 – ritual, performance and theatre with Dr. Rob C. Thompson from Occult Confessions and The Dark Pool. https://tinyurl.com/y2byvh7j (podcasts.apple.com). Accessed November 2020.
Moore, Alan (2015). Art and magic. https://tinyurl.com/y24376hh (youtube.com). Accessed November 2020.
Pfeiffer, Karl, director (2019). Hellier. Planet Weird.
Thompson, Rob C., et al (2020). The dark pool. https://tinyurl.com/yyuje6f3 (darkpoolproject.com) Accessed November 2020.
Wilde, Oscar (1998). The Picture of Dorian Grey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.