Art, Ritual, and Magic

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William Blake integrated many mystical symbols into his art, and even developed his own Christian mythology.

I’ve always been fascinated by magic – the idea of mysterious forces intertwined with the natural world, yet somehow apart from it at the same time, its so very removed from the modern world. People used to live with an understanding that magical forces were very real, and very alive – in most cultures magic predated medicine, serving as a mix of herbalism, psychology, and religion. I just don’t think I can imagine what it would be like to live in a society where magic is so prevalent to society. I’m sure some of the more aggressive skeptics would argue that we haven’t moved beyond magic, but I don’t think that most contemporary religious institutions really qualify.

Magical practices are a very important part of our history, and its unfortunate that there is so little serious scholarship dedicated to its study from an objective view. There are plenty of “grimoires,” and “books of darkness” floating around on the internet for the casual practitioner to peruse, but only occasionally does anyone publish antique rituals with legitimate scholarly merit. Writers like Owen Davies and Richard Cavendish have published extensively on the history and practice of magic from numerous anthropological lenses, nonetheless it is an untapped field.

This is particularly upsetting now that magic ritual seems to be making something of a comeback as a practice among youth (at least here in the west). I have nothing against the use of magical ritual, at its heart its a very effective psychological practice intended to instill meaning into basic actions and to impart certain emotions upon the practitioner. However, when someone practices “magic” that not only combines numerous cultural practices, but tries to revise history to justify their practice (because everybody know that Aleister Crowley developed his Tarot from ancient Egyptian methods that were in also brought east by Alexander the Great to India and developed into the Chakras, right?) then I start to get a little upset.

See, our rituals and our superstitions are part of our history – whether we like it or not – and magical practices are an important part of cultural history. To arbitrarily remix these cultural practices in order to assure yourself of some “greater truth” is nothing less than conspiracy theory. Honestly, the thing that bothers me the most is how seriously most people take their magic. If you’re a white, middle class teenager living in the west, if you have access to modern medicine and science, then why should you take magic very seriously? Why try and build a false history around your practice? Why not embrace your ritual as part of the modern culture, rather than fabricate a new culture to be a part of?

The way I see it, modern magic (and I’m speaking here within the bounds of western culture, I can’t speak for magical practices outside of this sphere) is essentially an artistic practice. Comic book writer and ceremonial magician Alan Moore wrote a pretty fascinating, and wonderfully witty, piece about the practice of magic as art in 2002. The piece actually offers a pretty interesting, if brief, look at the development of magic throughout history. I find myself drawn to Moore’s argument. Magic, it could be said, is merely a means of altering the state of the world through non-natural means (“natural” here being the scientific laws of physics). Religion can do this through its own set of rituals and beliefs, but in most religions the power is represented as being apart from ourselves. Its manifest in some God, Gods, or other abstract form – the power is not individualized. Some religions do use magical practices, but these are somewhat rare in the modern world, and many churches frown upon such practices. So if we don’t include religion what are we left with? Art. Art is capable of changing the world – or more specifically, our perception of it – without any sort of mechanical manifestation.

Sure, one could argue that, from a neurological standpoint, art still follows the laws of cause-and-effect, conservation of energy, etc. But that sort of takes the … well the magic out of it doesn’t it? Besides, we know so little about how the brain works that consciousness is pretty much magic already.

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Austin Osman Spare’s method of sigil-making draws heavily on surrealist methods. It is considered by many to be the beginning of Chaos Magic. 

Actually, I don’t think that this brand of magic is opposed to science at all. Anymore so than art already is at any rate. This magic is more of a way of thinking than anything else – a means of a delving into the consciousness, a reorganizing of thought patterns, a sort of postmodern dissection of belief itself. Robert Anton Wilson, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison (really all chaos magicians in general…) have all integrated magic rituals and symbols into their work as a means of conveying their ideas and ideals. By performing a ritual, one produces a state of mind that is unique to the performance. This is one of the reasons actors and performers warm up before going on stage. When you create with the right mindset, you can more effectively pass said mindset onto the audience. This isn’t even a new idea: 20th century dramatist Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty works along these lines: you create an environment of ritual so taboo and shocking that you must communicate to the audience with something beyond words, reaching the subconscious.

Perhaps I’ve become a little too serious about this topic myself, but I don’t see why magic can’t be something that is simply experienced through creation. Lets drop the defensive front, lets stop hiding away, lets drop our pseudo-history. Lets have fun for a change.

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