Thursday, January 28, 2010

Aesthetics and the Sacred

Pagan author and philosopher Brendan Myers and his girlfriend Juniper have started a podcast, Standing Stone & Garden Gate, which has so far proved quite interesting to listen to. There turns out to be always at least one bit in each episode that sparks me into either consternation or disagreement.[1]

courtesy of TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³, via flickrIn this last episode ("Witchcraft and Penises"), Brendan spends his philosophical segment discussing definitions of "sacred," pointing out a very real problem in how most people understand the word. The etymologies of terms like "sacred" (and even "temple," it turns out) trace back to words with original meanings such as "setting aside," "cutting off" or "binding." There is the notion of separation or distinction inherent in such words, so that something which is "sacred" is distinct from everything else which is not, which is therefore "outside the temple," or profane. Brendan sees in this distinction an implicit hierarchy, in which the sacred is elevated above and beyond the profane. Modern religious movements (and, one assumes, the mystic sects of many religious traditions throughout history) who try to claim that "everything is sacred" may be sincere and sincerely guided by noble intentions, but by insisting that the sacred is not separate or distinct, they rob the word of any real meaning. Though Brendan says it more eloquently, the point he makes is basically the same point you can demonstrate for yourself by repeating a word like flotsam or marvel over and over again until it begins to sound nonsensical. Words that refer to anything whatsoever do not refer to anything in particular. And so, as Bren sums up, "We are led to a conundrum: the sacred has to be privileged somehow, it has to be at least partially hierarchical in order to make sense at all; but at the same time it has to be accessible to anyone, anywhere, at any time, it has to be discoverable in the ordinary."

Yet this is a conundrum all too familiar to anyone used to debating about art and aesthetics. In reaction against those who would see art as something fine and dignified, available only to the privileged of high society, it has become all too common to insist that "anything can be art" — and so you get not only moving works of popular and populist art, which highlight and celebrate the shoes of peasants and the harsh ugly, but galleries full of soup cans, and urinals, and giant toothbrushes, and the paw prints of cats whose owners just happened to spill paint in their direction. Some of this is art, some of it was only art the first time someone did it, and some of it was never art at all. How do we tell the difference? We plunge bravely into an exploration of the definition of "art" and attempt to articulate a philosophy of aesthetics. In doing so, we soon discover that there are two key aspects to such a definition: how art is made, and what art does. It is clear, for instance, that art is only art if it is made with the intention of being art. A sunset is only a work of art in a metaphorical sense, or if you literally believe the Sky God is personally involved in a perpetual aesthetic act as the earth turns and the liminal line of twilight circles the globe. On the other hand, regardless of the intentions of its making, a work of art must also work as art, it must do something in particular, or else we risk including things which are, for all their effort, mere tweaking of cliché or skillful rhetorical flourishing. Leave out one or the other of these two aspects, and you get into trouble.

The philosophy of aesthetics is something too big for me to go into here (and I'm not exactly well versed in it, in any case), but it seems to me that there are definite parallels between a discussion of aesthetics, and a discussion of the sacred. When Brendan describes the sacred according to classic, common definitions like "that which belongs to or is set aside for the gods," he is describing, in so many words, the how of sacredness, i.e. how we make things sacred. We set them apart, we distinguish them, we endow them with significance and spiritual meaning. Where he goes wrong is in assuming that, by setting something apart, we acknowledge or invent a hierarchy of value, in which the sacred ranks above the paltry profane.

It is an easy mistake, for in many ways it feels as though that is precisely what we are doing. But when we think back to our parallel with aesthetics, another possibility occurs to us: what we are doing is not elevating the sacred above the profane, but framing the sacred in order to call attention to it. In art, this activity is called aesthetic framing, and it is an inherent part of the "how" of making art. The poet breaks up lines and stanzas, which hover and drift over the whiteness of the mostly empty page. The musical performance takes place in the silence of the concert hall (or within the flickering circle of light around the bonfire). The painter chooses a scene and paints to the edge of the canvas, the utmost ends of which delineate the threshold of the work; that canvas is then literally framed in wood or baroque gold filigree, and hung to be displayed, isolated and illuminated, on a plain and empty wall. Every artist, in the act of making art, chooses what to paint, or say, or play, and works with this material in a realm of emptiness and silence; that is, she focuses in on some particular in the world, and allows the rest to fall away.

And yet, this act only creates a hierarchy when a given culture comes to some unspoken agreement that only certain things are worthy of this kind of aesthetic framing, that to pay undue attention to the shoes of peasants is offensive or inappropriate. In fact, anything can be art (though not everything is). That is, anything has the potential to be the subject of or material for art, for anything can be framed and placed in a context which heightens our attention to and relationship with it. The words a poet chooses for a given piece may be nothing special; they may very well include words like "red" and "and" and even vaguely abstract words like "love" or "fear." But it is the very act of placing them together in particular relationship within the emptiness and silence of the "framing" verse that transforms them into a work of art, that lends them aesthetic significance. And so we come to the second aspect of aesthetics, and its missing parallel in Brendan's discussion: what it is that the work of art (or the sacred) actually does.

The word "sacred" comes from Old Latin through Old French, and means not only to set apart, but to do so as an act of consecration, that is, "to make holy." The word "holy" itself has somewhat mysterious origins in Proto-Germanic, but in it is an implication of wholeness or completeness, unviolated and intact. And these connotations illustrate why it is that we feel the act of separating or setting something apart can create or suggest a sense of hierarchy: for that which has wholeness — something that is whole and complete within and of itself — seems naturally more meaningful and more beautiful to us, whose minds have evolved through the joyous dance of pattern-seeking and meaning-making. An object which has wholeness also has an integrity and balance, a harmony of all its parts to one another and to the greater whole in which they participate. We see the sacred as something special, yes, but its specialness (its better-than-ordinariness) is due to its uniqueness, its singularity, its solitude, in contrast to the noise and flux and disruptive chaos that characterizes our experience of the ordinary world. And so the act of marking off the temple grounds — like the act of framing a painting and hanging it on a wall — is an act which creates the sacred, or the aesthetic, by calling our attention to its boundaries and, therefore, to its particularity and wholeness. By marking boundaries and establishing limits, an object's wholeness comes into sharp relief against a backdrop now calm and free of distraction.

Yet, as with art, we choose the boundaries that we create and the limits that we acknowledge. There is no reason why the sacred must be strange or extraordinary, inaccessible to the everyday person or incompatible with the ordinary experience of the world — often it is merely that, because of their unfamiliarity, such things immediately jump out from the clamor of background noise and profanity as singular and complete, and so we recognize them more easily or seek them out specifically in our search for what is holy. Still, the shoes of peasants, or the budding rose, or the ripening apple, or the moon tonight, this moon on this night, in this sky sketched out by these particular clouds above this city — anything at all may leap forward suddenly from the busyness of ordinary perception and present itself as a being of wholeness, beauty and holiness to our bewildered senses. There is no hierarchy here, especially for those who have made it part of their spiritual practice to cultivate a state of receptivity and attention to the potential for wholeness in the world.

So what do people mean when they say that "everything is sacred"? My guess is that they mean one of two things (or perhaps both, at different times). First, they might mean that lurking potential I've described above, the possibility inherent within every particular of the world to move into a heightened place of emptiness and silence in which all else falls away and wholeness shines and dances on the brink in participation with the divine. Or perhaps, what they mean to describe is an experience in which the entirety of the world itself, the whole bloody seething, rocking universe converges in a moment of ecstatic union and transcendence, and the mystic experience of wholeness encompasses absolutely everything in utter harmony and balance. But since one cannot possibly remain in such a state, even this experience of unity and wholeness is itself set apart as sacred, a point in time distinguished and demarcated from the normal experience of time in ordinary consciousness. Either way, we see resolved the apparent paradox between hierarchy and accessibility that Brendan presents to us at the end of his "Standing Stone" segment.[2]

[1] What, using footnotes too often now that I've figured out the html code? No! Anyway, I will say that the podcast looks to be excellently organized, with well thought out segments featuring both philosophical ponderings and practical discussions. I'm one of those people who doesn't care what mead you're drinking tonight, of course, but I know some folks go in for that stuff. I hope they stay on the "air" long enough to lose the OMG We're Doing A Podcast overtones and get comfortable with conversing more naturally. Early episodes of any podcast are always tough, I realize, and I wouldn't be brave enough to attempt one, knowing how easy it is to come off sounding ridiculously self-involved. So... what I mean is, they're doing pretty well.
[2] I have my suspicions, however, that in the next episode Brendan will likely present his own take on a resolution to this difficulty in definition, and that it may very well involve some appeal to the philosophy of aesthetics. (He once mentioned to me, if I recall, that this was also a fascination for him and something he had been exploring.) I just wanted to get my two cents of rambling out into the world so that no one would think I was stealing his ideas! Also, a discussion of aesthetics seems highly appropriate in the days leading up to the celebration of Imbolc, holy day of the goddess Brigid of the Fires of inspiration, poetry and art.


  1. Hi, Ali. Your post sparked off some of my own ponderings on the nature of the sacred. I posted them on my blog.

    I'm inlcined to view the the world in a non-hierarchical way. To create sacred space or view a place, work of art, etc, as something set apart from its seeminly mundane surrounds, rather draws out the sacred, makes it more apparent, than elevates it in a more literal sense. Its a way for us to activate what is already present.

  2. Mahud, Awesome! I love when topics get passed around the interwebs sparking posts of their own. :) Incidentally, I really liked your take on the question, with "conscious" and "unconscious" sacredness... I don't know if I have much more to say about it right now, or if I have to spend some more time thinking about what it might mean and whether or not I agree with it. :)

    But I think we do agree about how sacredness functions in a nonhierarchical kind of way, drawing out and making apparent what is already inherent and implicit, rather than creating or concretizing a hierarchy of value. To me the difference is in recognizing that, whenever we give our attention to the world (which is, after all, what we are constantly doing in one way or another) we're making some kind of choice. And by understanding and "owning" that choice, and also recognizing that it is fluid and subject to change (and not even necessarily willed change, but can be overturned by, for lack of a better term, revelation)... then we can avoid the assumption of hierarchy without doing away entirely with the act of limiting, framing and focusing which allows us to give, create or perceive meaning.

  3. I'm a little curious as to why one cannot "remain in such a state" as being one or whole while still being an individual? I would think that unity and separation sort of loop in on each other at some point, creating a state that is unfamiliar to us only because we are so used to viewing the world in pairs or either/or's. On top of that, I think people tend to put a little too much "value" in this spiritually-orgasmic-like-state of being as if it were a state of pure bliss and happiness with love bubbles floating all about in everyone's eyes. People need to be very aware that if you reach a point even partially in "harmony" with reality and the world, you are simply allowing yourself to experience that reality/world as it is, raw and pure. For most people, unfortunately, this is going to be a bit overwhelming because who is to say that reality is what you thought it would be, what you want it to be, at any given moment? While questions and "concerns" like these become a bit clearer with experience, a person may become quite crippled upon experiencing another individual's, or even an entire group's, choice to act in a very senselessly destructive way. Look up just about any account of so-called anarchist's "lashing out" in your local library and you might get the idea (read Emma Goldman's 'Anarchism' for a few accounts). So while I definitely think that a person should strive towards creating a unified self, which inevitably involves establishing harmony with reality, people should not be diving into this pool unprepared, unless they want to drown. And I think that a lot of the language and talk being used, particularly in religious and spiritual circles, almost shoves people into situation's where they are either experiencing such a small guarded fraction of the world, a world where they find nothing but what their own weak understanding of "beauty" allows them to find, or that they end up being severely hurt by an experience or set of experiences because they were not ready to play with in the first place.

    An interesting familiar concept of choice by the way. I very much like your explanation of it in the comment (minus the revelation term).

  4. Ferdinando Sacco2/01/2010 10:24 AM

    Seriously though, anarchist's love to lash out in libraries. No joke.

  5. There should be a rule against one's best friend posting under several different false names in the comments of one's blog. :-p If you're going to keep it up, though, I expect you to begin having pseudo-arguments with yourself in which you play your own guru and fool. ;)

  6. For once, I definitely agree Alison, in regards to Mr. Deb's. And "Mr. Deb's", if that is his/her real name, should really clear up his/her language about "states" a little more. For starters, a person shouldn't have to be burdened by "remaining" in any given state for a prolonged period of time, because to do so is to remain constant and unchanging. Instead, I think Mr. Deb's is talking about the overall, more general, "state" of being associated with someone or something once that individual/thing reaches a point where they can create at will (for the spiritual/religious folk, this is the equivalent of becoming a "God" or "god", and for those not interested in such language, then it is when someone flat out becomes). I personally think that once a person reaches this "state," they will still have an infinite amount of "room" for change. But, the key difference is that these people/things in this "state" basically cannot "get out" of the state because that state is part of who they are now. Just as a "God/god" cannot stop being a "God/god." Sometimes their may be gaps or relapses and all this fun stuff, but the overall state of being is relatively undisturbed and the main "separating" factor between those in this state and those who are not is that those who are not, for whatever reason, do not know that such states exist or how to get to them. To really complicate matters, recognizing an individual in one of these "states" is also extremely difficult because we all have very different views of the world and views of what we want our world, and ourselves, to be. So while one individual in a "higher" state is exercising their own creative will to change, the rest of us may be wondering why they would ever want to change in that way or become this or that. And then we start to realize that the issue of being in a "higher state" is really just a very stupid way of saying "having the ability to create at will." Because once one has gained that ability, their state is forever changing, sometimes for the "good," and sometimes for the "bad," and sometimes, even very little at all. Take for example, musicians, particularly, guitarists. A look around the internet will show thousands of people constantly debating what guitarist is "The Best" and why. How about noticing, instead, that there are definitely some guitarists who have gained, earned, forged the ability to create at will in a unique way with their guitar, a way that clearly sets them "apart" from other guitarists, and once a person has gained this ability its really more a question of "taste" and not "skill." In the same way, we could say that those in "higher" states already have the skills that they need and whether we choose to agree/disagree/support/deny those individuals is more a matter of taste. Sometimes we may not like the direction those folks travel in and sometimes we are literally in awe of what they may find, but that, like everything those individuals are, changes. The more important question then splits into questions like, "How do I become an individual with the ability to create?" and "How should I exercise my creative abilities once I have discovered them?"

  7. Framing the sacred is certainly something that has been going on for a long time. There are cosmologies out there that view their own land (world) as cosmically sacred, while all else beyond the creative circle is profane and chaotic and dangerous. Perhaps the idea that all is sacred is most easily understood in an age where the whole world has been mapped. for over 200 years we have had the planet mapped and there is no longer any danger beyond.

    That we can only focus on one thing at a time is important too. The smaller the better. The larger the more abstract and metaphorical