I don’t know why this feels like such a big deal. The Art of the Occult has translations in Japanese, German, Korean, Czech, and French, but that all happened without my knowing much about it and with zero fanfare, at least as far as I can tell. But a few weeks ago, I was tagged in this gorgeously eerie reel on Instagram by someone who has a copy of the book, and I was recently interviewed about the book by a journalist in Madrid.
The writer referred to me as an art specialist, which makes me a little nervous because I am definitely not a specialist in anything, merely an enthusiast! And I’m not sure I said exactly what the title of the piece is implying (I think some things got lost in translation) but hopefully, readers will understand the spirit of what I was trying to convey.
I have copied our original Q&A below in its entirety if anyone is interested! I have peppered the paragraphs with a few artworks from the book to break up all the text and add visual interest; please note the published interview on the Solidaridad Digital website, does not include these extra images.
• What is the radical difference between the art of darkness and what we could call art of light?
Light and dark are two of the most fundamental tools that artists use to create their work. They can be used to explore shapes, patterns, movement, and atmosphere. But as viewers, we often notice the symbolism of light and dark before we even realize it. Light is often associated with life, goodness, and hope. Darkness is often associated with doom, gloom, and death. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind about that, but in my book, The Art of Darkness, I wanted to explore those dark themes and the negative feelings/emotions that they elicit.
I think we can learn a lot from our demons and our darkness if we stop being so scared of it and really listen to what it’s saying. It’s easy to look at a light, beautiful painting. But why not challenge yourself to peer into the discomfort of a “dark” painting and see what you learn? You might learn something about the painting, the artist, or even yourself. So next time you’re at a museum or art gallery, don’t be afraid to check out the dark paintings. They might just surprise you.
• Do you agree with Seamus Heany’s statement that “everything I know is a door to darkness”?
I think it’s a seemingly bleak statement, evoking a sense of despair or hopelessness that might have been true for the poet, it might be true for anyone at some point in their life. When you can’t see beyond the darkened door, you could well imagine that the darkness could go on forever. Limited by our perspective, we can’t see the whole picture. This can be intimidating but it’s also a liberating realization. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to learn and grow and expand your world! You won’t know what’s beyond the threshold until you step through it.
• What does it take for a dream to become a nightmare, for flowers, as you explain, a symbol of life and hope, to become a threat?
That’s such an interesting question! It’s so subjective and personal, really, I mean the nightmare is in the eye (and experience and association and trauma) of the beholder. A flower blooming in the spring sunshine is dreamy, idyllic imagery, indeed…but what of the toxic sap? Or the spiderweb trailing down its stem, what of the writhing snake in its shadow? What of the dark woods looming beyond the grassy meadow?
Dreams can turn to nightmares in the blink of an eye, but if you are an arachnophile, if you are a snake handler, if you love a solitary stroll through a hushed forest–none those are going to seem all that nightmarish to you anyway! It’s fascinating to see how different artists take these ideas of innocent blooms or poisonous petals and create art that can be cheerful or dreadful, or maybe a delightful tangle of both at once–it’s all a manner of perspective.
• Is there a link, as Jaspers maintained, between art and madness?
I am no expert when it comes to matters of psychiatry (nor for that matter, when it comes to matters of art) but I think a link is certainly insinuated and has made its way into our culture, because of artists who did suffer from psychological issues and who did create some of their most renowned works while institutionalized. I think there’s more to it, though, and it’s a harmful conclusion to draw. I don’t know if a troubled individual creates art because of their pain or in spite of it, but I am inclined to believe the latter.
But what of an artist who suffers from severe depression so relentless that they haven’t got the energy or will to create? Because they were not able to produce art, or something of worth from their pain, does that negate their experience? The relationship between mental unwellness and creativity has a long history and I have to imagine there is still a lot to explore. But…from a very human perspective, I don’t accept that we are obligated to draw forth the pearls of art from the anguish of our wounds.
• How does the historical context condition the art of the dark (I think, for example, of the Victorian Era, where, in addition to Jack the Ripper, Dracula, Frankenstein, Hyde…) emerged?
Art, both light and dark, is a mirror of society. It often captures the spirit of the times in which it was created. Art can show us the social, political, and economic conditions of a particular time period. It can also reflect the cultural values and beliefs of a society, as well as the artistic styles and techniques that were popular during that time.
Dark art can be a powerful way to explore the historical context of a particular time period. It can give us a glimpse into the social, political, and cultural forces that were shaping the world at the time. And it can also help us to understand the human experience of living through difficult and uncertain times. For example, during the Black Death, European artists created many works of art that depicted the death and suffering caused by the plague. These works were often deeply religious in nature and reflected the widespread fear and anxiety of the time. (And let’s not forget that a viewer’s understanding of a painting of a skeleton from the Middle Ages may be different from their understanding of a painting of a skeleton from the 21st century!)
To answer your question, the Victorian era, with its Frankensteins and Draculas, was a time of significant social and cultural changes. Britain had become a powerful industrial nation thanks to the technological breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution, but this also led to rampant poverty and inequality. Grappling with new scientific and philosophical ideas that challenged traditional beliefs, many artworks at that time reflected the religious and intellectual turmoil of the era. And don’t forget the Victorian obsession with death and mourning—historians named this fascination with death “the Cult of Death”—thanks in part to the high mortality rates at the time and to Queen Victoria, who, after the death of Prince Albert, was to spend the next forty years in mourning.
• What types of monsters preside over our time?
In 2023, my first thought goes straight to robots, cyborgs, machines becoming sentient, that sort of thing. Beings enhanced with technology, and all the dangers that transhumanism and artificial intelligence represent. There are chilling questions of surveillance and control, the anxiety of living in a world where the line between human and machine is increasingly blurred, and the fear of living in a world where we can be utterly replaced by machines altogether.
Just look at the upsetting conversations that have sprung up around AI-generated art and art theft, with regard to actual artists whose works were used without their consent to fuel image generators. A.I. runs on a database of images harvested without the original creators’ permissions–I think that’s pretty monstrous.
• For a monster to be considered such, what does it require? Because there are monsters that we understand and almost admire (I think, for example, of Hannibal Lecter) and others that we would run away from without thinking)
Monsters are often seen as being outsiders or “other”. They might be physically different from humans in some way, or they may have different values and beliefs. This makes them seem threatening and dangerous; it’s human nature to fear what we don’t understand–and they represent something unknown and uncontrollable. Sometimes those attributes might be just outrageous enough to inspire awe and admiration–not necessarily fear and revulsion. But beliefs and philosophies are one thing; action and behavior is another. There’s a big difference between admiring a monster and actually wanting to hang out with one. If your monster starts doing cruel, sadistic, or destructive things, it’s time to put your admiration on hold and listen to your survival instincts. After all, who knows if you’re next?
Sometimes the most dangerous monsters are the ones who seem charming and harmless at first. They lure us in with their masks, then show us their true colors. All that said, monsters are symbols of and vessels for our fears and anxieties, whatever those might look like for the individual. They represent the things that we are most afraid of, whether it is death, sickness, giant spiders, or dapper cannibals. By confronting monsters in stories, myth–and art–we can explore our fears and anxieties in a safe and controlled environment. So the next time you’re watching a movie, feel free to face your fears and cheer for the monster, but look out for those red flags, too!
• Of all the disturbing artists that wander through these pages, which one do you feel especially fond of and why?
I especially adore Alex Eckman-Lawn’s art, which also happens to be gracing the cover of the book. Deep, dense, full of doom and gloom and dark details, his surreal, lonely collage portraits, on one hand, call forth a sickening dread in the pit of your stomach and give your heart a little lurch. But on the other, and at the same time… they cause an involuntary, choking giggle. As if a shadowy horror had crawled its way from the void to the sanctity of your home, and after an agonizing wait whilst you cower at the peephole, it gives a smart rap on the door and tells you a knock-knock joke. When you think of them in that way, instead of a face-full of nightmarish chaos, they appear wondrously playful, like a funny postcard from the midnight recesses of your soul, just when you need it most. Oh, hey, it’s just your dear old skull peeking out to say hello, that’s all, no worries! Little voids, the faces-within-your face, checking in on you from the inside, popping out to say, “hi!”
I love losing myself in the nocturnal shivers of art that evokes a feeling of darkness, but I also appreciate a keen sense of the absurd. I have massive admiration for artists who can combine these sublime sensibilities in their practice, and these works of the kooky and the macabre, often filled with sly, weird humor are some of my favorite canvases to gaze upon.
• I think of artists that you notice, like Dorothea Tanning or Remedios Varo. What influence did psychoanalysis have on the expansion of the macabre, of the dark in art?
Surrealism was all about exploring the weird and wonderful world of the unconscious mind, inspired by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis theories. Surrealist art often looked like dreams, with strange and sometimes disturbing images that were meant to be spontaneous and free from conscious thought and the restraints of society. But it wasn’t all utopian visions; tapping into the subconscious with its primal human fears and desires sometimes gave rise to violent or nightmarish imagery, which ranged from unsettling to downright shocking.
• In addition to those mentioned, many others such as Bourgeois, Ruth Marten, Nona Limmen… do they differ from them when it comes to representing the dark?
I think they all differ uniquely! Ruth Marten was a pioneer of underground art; the work I included from her Fountains & Alligators series, wherein she has altered a number of somber nineteenth-century French prints to include inexplicable instances of alligators, meshes with that sublime spirit of the absurd that I referenced above. Nona Limmen’s lush, atmospheric photographs bring the otherworldly realm of fairy tales to life– if “once upon a time” always began at the stroke of midnight. Louise Bourgeois’ spider sculptures are an arachnophobe’s biggest nightmare, and though psychologically fraught, they are exceedingly clever in their twistiness. Every artist represented in the book brings a darkness to the table, worthy of delving into –just bring your curious heart and your open mind.
• What role does the supernatural play in our disbelieving society?
Whether a belief in the supernatural provides a sense of comfort and hope, or helps you make sense of the world, or whether you come from a culture heavily steeped in supernatural lore and tradition or maybe you’ve just had a powerful supernatural experience–there are many valid reasons why someone would believe these things. Even if none of the above applies to you, you still might be drawn to the mystery and excitement of it…even nonbelievers may be curious about the supernatural, or even fascinated by it! Look at all the supernatural themes we enjoy across a wide swath of entertainment– all of the vampires, zombies, ghosts, and otherworldly creatures, in our books, movies, TV shows, and video games! Even if you have no use for the supernatural in any other respect, I think you’ll be drawn to them in the art that thrills and delights you–whether it’s spooking you from the pages of a book, scaring you on the big screen, or emerging from an artist’s eerie brushstrokes on a painted canvas.
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