Interview with J. F. Martel
Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice
Conducted by Matt Cardin, February 2015
It’s my pleasure to introduce you, dear Teeming Brain reader, to Canadian filmmaker J. F. (Jean-François) Martel and his new book Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action. Released just this month, it is published by Evolver Editions, the imprint of North Atlantic Books that is devoted to presenting “leading voices of the transformational movement, the new spiritual counterculture that explores humanity’s most visionary potential and the tangible, pragmatic steps we can take to access it.”
J. F. contacted me in early 2014 to introduce himself and invite me to read a pre-publication copy of Reclaiming Art, since he, as a long-time Teeming Brain reader, knew my thematic interests and thought I might find the book worthwhile. And oh, was he ever right. From the moment I opened the book and saw that he had chosen to begin with an epigraph drawn from Arthur Machen (something we discuss in the conversation you’re about to read), I had a distinctly positive sense about the whole thing. Then I read the opening manifesto and first chapter, and found myself instantly aglow with the deep pleasure and excitement that only come from reading truly special books of ideas.
Here’s the blurb I ended up providing, which accompanies the book in its final published incarnation:
This is a fascinating and invigorating book. In explaining art as a concrete expression of a mythic reality that is simultaneously beautiful, awesome, terrifying, numinous, and sublime, J. F. Martel fuses a high metaphysical and ontological vision with a rich sensibility that is equal parts mysticism and weird horror. What’s more, he offers a dead-on diagnosis of our present cultural moment as an “age of artifice” in which political and commercial concerns have hijacked the power of art and forced it to serve the demons of hype and propaganda. I hope Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice reaches a large number of sympathetic readers, and that they will find its argument as resonant and inspiring as I do.
— Matt Cardin
Additional praise comes from the likes of Erik Davis, Daniel Pinchbeck, and Patrick Harpur. You can get a better sense of what we’re all talking about by watching this striking book trailer, directed by J. F. and featuring a mesmerizing soundtrack of drone music composed by none other than The Teeming Brain’s own David Metcalfe (whose additional music you can find at BandCamp):
As for the author himself, here’s his impressively rich and diverse bio:
Jean-François Martel is a writer and award-winning filmmaker working in the Canadian film and television industry. In addition to making several short films, he has researched, written and/or directed a number of documentary programs on topics related to culture and the arts for major Francophone broadcasters, including La Portée des mots (season two), a twelve-part documentary series exploring the transformative power of song with some of French Canada’s great songwriters.
Martel is a contributor to the web magazine Reality Sandwich. His essay on Stanley Kubrick was included in the first Reality Sandwich anthology, Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age (Tarcher-Penguin), edited by Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan. His work will also appear in North Atlantic Books’ forthcoming title Pluto: Astronomy, Astrology, Mythology, edited by Richard Grossinger.
For a fascinating excerpt from Reclaiming Art, you can click through to read J. F.’s analysis of the cultural-artistic implications of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” at Disinfo.com: “If someone who lived before the rise of electric power were given a visionary fly-by of the earth in 2015, the first thing he or she would notice, without a doubt, would be the colored lights. ‘The Colour Out of Space’ anticipates the phenomenology of the urban sprawl that was just beginning to alter the fabric of life in Lovecraft’s time. By envisioning the danger in the form of a Technicolor invasion (‘It was just a colour — but not a colour of our earth or heavens.’), the story makes ‘spectrality’ a distinctive feature of the future.”
Or you can stay here and read our deep-delving conversation about the book’s central themes.
MATT CARDIN: It’s a pleasure to welcome you to The Teeming Brain, J. F. To begin with, I want to ask you about the book’s basic thrust. How would you describe Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice to the uninitiated, to someone who comes to it cold and has no idea what it’s about?
J. F. MARTEL: The book is an attempt to defend art against the onslaught of the cultural industries, which today seek to reduce art to a mindless form of entertainment or, at best, a communication tool. In Reclaiming Art I argue that great works of art constitute an expressive response to the radical mystery of existence. They are therefore inherently strange, troubling, and impossible to reduce to a single meaning or message. Much of contemporary culture is organized in such a way as to push this kind of art to the margins while celebrating works that reaffirm prevailing ideologies. In contrast, real works of art are machines for destroying ideologies, first and foremost the ideologies in which they were created.
MC: What exactly do you mean? How do real works of art serve this subversive function?
JFM: A great art work, be it a movie, a novel, a film, or a dance piece, presents the entire world aesthetically — meaning, as a play of forces that have no inherent moral value. Even the personal convictions of the author, however implicit they may be in the work itself, are given over to the aesthetic. By becoming part of an aesthetic universe, they relinquish the claims to truth that they may hold in the author’s mind in the everyday. This, I think, is how a Christian author like Dostoyevsky can write such agnostic novels, and how an atheistic author like Thomas Ligotti can create fictional worlds imbued with a sense of the sacred, however dark or malignant. Nietzsche said that the world can only be justified aesthetically, that is, beyond the good-and-evil binary trap of ideological thinking. The reason for this is that when we tune in to the aesthetic frequency, we see that the forces that make up the world exceed our “human, all too human” conceptualizations.
MC: So inferior or lesser art comes from someone’s attempt to control or manipulate instead of submitting to an honest perception and expression of these forces.
JFM: Yes. In a lot of bad art, the author holds his convictions higher than the work’s content. He refuses to put his convictions on the same plane, and then manipulates the aesthetic material in such a way as to support those convictions, that ideology. The result is literal or figurative propaganda or pornography, or perhaps kitschy work in which we immediately sense the presence of wish fulfillment on the author’s part. Think of those fantasy paintings of brawny barbarians and half-naked concubines, or of Dan Brown’s ongoing love affair with his protagonist Robert Langdon. Great artists, by contrast, put all their cards on the table because they know that whatever card they hold back will always turn out to be the Joker, that is, the card without which the game will lack the element of radical mystery that’s essential to the aesthetic vision.
MC: Can you expound a bit on this “radical mystery of existence”? It’s a familiar concept, at least to some, but please tell us about the meaning that you personally attach to it.
JFM: I’m using the word radical in its original meaning of reaching to the bottom of things (Latin radix = root). So by “radical mystery,” I mean the fundamental unknowableness of the world, the questions that had us as kids wondering if life was really a dream, or perhaps an illusion produced just now, complete with false memories giving us the impression of a past. While such questions tend to disappear with adolescence, the mystery they point to doesn’t go away. In fact it seems constitutive of the human imagination as such, and comes up again and again at odd moments throughout life. By taking things out of any practical context and putting them on the aesthetic plane, works of art bring that mystery back to the surface. My sense is that all art — even religious art and art made by people who call themselves atheists or rationalists — calls us back to what Kierkegaard and Camus called the absurd.
MC: Or the cosmically horrific. One of the thematic veins in your book that captivates me the most is its running focus on weird horror as a kind of touchstone or exemplar for expressing this idea and its typical associated mood. It strikes me as quite innovative for a work about the mythic power and importance of art in general to make this one of its fundamental concerns. How did weird horror come to be so central to your thinking about these things?
JFM: Herman Melville wrote, “Although the visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.” I believe that existential dread is the most primal and creatively potent human emotion. At some point in prehistory, we looked up from the ground and saw, through the lens of the imagination, what was really going on. The result was panic, terror, and the ecstasy of being an integral part of something unfathomable.
The argument that art and religion were developed as means of comforting people has always struck me as odd, because what I see in the most ancient art forms — especially the myths — is an attempt to give shape to those terrible invisible spheres that Melville talks about. Today we have branches of art and literature devoted explicitly to cosmic horror and the weird, and some of the works created in that tradition are among my favorites. But I think the weird is present in all great artworks, if by that we mean works that lays reality bare instead of placating us with illusions.
MC: And yet these great works of art with their fundamental threat to the cosmic-cultural status quo are hemmed in by a veritable ocean of commercial and political advertising, corporate-backed mass entertainment, and all of the other types of art — or rather, propaganda — that do try to placate us with illusions. This is of course the realm of “artifice” that you refer to in your title. How would you characterize the current prevailing ideology that these works serve to fortify?
JFM: The easy answer would be capitalism, but I tried to avoid that term in the book because I believe that it’s just one symptom of our collective disease. I like that you say “cosmic-cultural status quo,” because I do think that at bottom the problem is metaphysical, not political or economic. If you look at the last five hundred years in the West, you see the steady growth of a mindset that denies the validity, even the existence, of anything that exceeds the grasp of human cognition. As a result, our environments, physical and psychic, have become increasingly human, increasingly artificial. There is a pseudo-gnostic vein in modern thinking that seeks to place humanity at the centre of the universe. This is why I believe that the recognition of radical mystery as an intrinsic quality of the real is both the most important move we could make and the most repugnant to the existing power structure. Art confronts us with a more expansive view of reality in which humans are peripheral and mystery is inescapable. This is pretty obvious when you consider a weird fiction writer like Lovecraft, but I think it’s also true for Van Gogh, Shakespeare, or Emily Dickinson.
MC: How so? How exactly would a sensitive reading of, say, Starry Night or Hamlet or “Hope is the thing with feathers” reveal it to be a “machine for destroying ideologies”? As I ask the question, by the way, I find myself thinking of the chapter of your book titled “Terrible Beauty” and your discussion of the “compelling monstrosity” that lurks just beneath the surface beauty of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
JFM: Starry Night is a good example because even its content speaks to this. In that painting, a sleepy town, complete with church steeple, appears under a vast and turbulent night sky. Van Gogh paints the sky in such a way as to break the comforting Aristotelian view that the celestial bodies are these eternal, unchanging fixtures; instead he depicts them as elements in a swirling dynamic chaos. These are the inhuman forces of Nature, which surround the human world of “culture” like an ocean surrounds an island. But what’s most distressing is that when you look closely at the painting, you see that the same chaotic flux also exists in the very substance of the village, the grove of trees, and the giant cypress in the foreground. In other words, what we call culture is in reality an excrescence of the same inhuman chaos that composes the cosmos. It’s a powerful vision.
The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In Hamlet, Shakespeare gives a similar treatment to the concept of time, showing us how the past exists only as a dimension of the present (“The time is out of joint.”). And in the Dickinson poem, there’s a deliberate refusal to depict hope simply as a little bird; instead, it is first described as “the thing with feathers.” She is destroying a cliché by transforming the bird, and by analogy the “hope” it stands for, into something wilder, something literally monstrous (“the thing…”) that sings to us wordlessly from a place outside of time.
I realize that these are interpretations. On a more concrete level, all three of these works are singular events. Each is a unique creation that couldn’t have been made by anyone else at any other time. There is something unrepeatable about them. Unrepeatability is the enemy of ideology, because ideology seeks to reduce things to labels and categories we can all understand. Singularity, by contrast, is the advent of something truly new. It comes from beyond the precinct of common sense, public opinion, the whole moral order of the day.
MC: Such things may also come from outside the conventionally accepted metaphysical order of the day. I know we’ve already touched on this, but I think it bears further discussion since the issue you’re talking about is crucially important not only to the vision of art that you’re advancing but to the basic notion of the supernatural and the paranormal in the way that Jeffrey Kripal, George Hansen, and Patrick Harpur — to name just three influential figures in the field — have advanced it. In recent years some very smart people have been pointing out that history and human experience are filled with singularities and anomalies that categorically elude conventional scientific description and that are even, in a way, invisible to science, whose basic method hinges on experimental replication. Anomalies tend to slip through science’s net. They don’t register on its radar. In Chapter One of Reclaiming Art, titled “A Sudden Explosive Event,” you explicitly acknowledge the connection between art and the paranormal. In fact, you describe art as being intrinsically paranormal in its basic function: “Art discloses our own mystery even as it lays bare the mystery of consciousness and the mystery of the world. It is paranormal, an anomaly casting doubt upon our most cherished certainties about the nature of reality.” Can you say more about this?
JFM: If science is about replication, then art is about the unrepeatable. At one point in the book, I compare a sunflower illustration of the type found in botanical textbooks to Van Gogh’s famous paintings of sunflowers. The difference is that whereas the technical illustration aims at showing us what all sunflowers share, extracting from each specimen a general form that can represent them all, Van Gogh is extracting from one specific bunch of sunflowers that which is totally unique to their manifestation in his field of awareness at that moment. He tears the sunflowers out of the system of ordinary signs in order to make of them a symbol, that is, a numinous event occurring outside “the metaphysical order of the day.” There is a kernel of singularity, of pure difference, in every experience, and that’s what I’m thinking of when I speak of the paranormal in the passage you cite. The paranormal is that which eludes explanation, representation and judgment. We can never get to it scientifically because it can’t be repeated; it can’t even be translated into ordinary language. For language to capture it, it must become poetry.
MC: These kinds of insights usually don’t come from purely intellectual sources. Have you personally had any experiences that could be classified as paranormal, and that have helped to shape your understanding of these matters?
JFM: Like many if not most people, I’ve had several paranormal experiences. I’ll give you one particularly memorable example. Like you, I suffered from sleep paralysis when I was in my early twenties. One night I saw a child-sized creature made of shadow crouching in the corner of my bedroom. I knew it had come in through the window because I’d caught sight of it flopping into the room like a black mollusk out of the corner of my eye. I remember perfectly how it crawled to the bed and gripped my ankles as it climbed on top of me. Afterwards I asked myself, “What am I supposed to do with this crazy experience?” I could reduce it to misfiring synapses, as conventional science would have me do. Or I could decide that the creature was a demon sent by Satan to torment me. Both these explanations, however, would reduce the experience to something that fits into some ideological framework, secular or religious. In both cases the anomaly that was the reason why the experience was significant at all would be lost. A third option, then, was to refuse to explain the event in order to preserve its significance. The only way to do that would be to describe it as it happened, which is to say, to tell a story. In order for the story to evoke the anomaly, I would have to do it properly — that is, I’d have to do it aesthetically. As Marcel Proust said, only art can express experience in its fullness, without reduction or judgment. It apprehends all things as apparition and symbol.
“The recognition of radical mystery as an intrinsic quality of the real is both the most important move we could make and the most repugnant to the existing power structure. Art confronts us with a more expansive view of reality in which humans are peripheral and mystery is inescapable. This is pretty obvious when you consider a weird fiction writer like Lovecraft, but I think it’s also true for Van Gogh, Shakespeare, or Emily Dickinson.”
MC: Your mention of Proust brings me to something else I wanted to focus on: the truly vast and rich field of references that you draw on when you talk about these things. In this conversation alone you’ve mentioned Proust, Lovecraft, Ligotti, Melville, Dickinson, Van Gogh, Kierkegaard, Camus, and Shakespeare. In the book you mention many more: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Werner Herzog, Daniel Pinchbeck, Stanley Kubrick, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Henry Corbin, Edgar Allan Poe, Socrates, Plato, Mark Rothko, James Joyce, James Cameron, Oscar Wilde, William Burroughs, Paul Klee, Diane Arbus, Franz Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, John Cage, Béla Bartok, Neil Young, Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, Paul Cézanne, James Hillman, Samuel Beckett, Andre Tarkovsky, Paul Thomas Anderson — and that’s just an incomplete list from the first three chapters! How did your human vocabulary for talking about art become so varied?
JFM: My reading, viewing, and listening habits have always been eclectic. I have no expertise, but I do have a knack for synthesizing, picking out patterns, and making connections. So even though I may not have read as many books or watched as many films as I would have had I gone into academia, I do I retain a lot of what does come in. Furthermore, throughout the writing of Reclaiming Art I tried to remain open to new discoveries. For instance the first chapter didn’t work until I happened to catch Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams on TV.
As far as artists and artworks are concerned, I felt that the text should include lots of examples across a range of media, disciplines, traditions, and genres. I consciously avoided referencing my more obscure obsessions because it was important that my examples be known to most readers, at least in name. I felt that evoking these creators and works brought certain colors and tones to the text.
MC: My experience of reading the book confirms that you’re quite correct about this. I wonder, can you point to any of these figures as being especially influential or important to you?
JFM: With the exception of James Cameron (and maybe Kant), all of the people you named are heroes of mine, especially the artists. The thinkers that have had the biggest influence on me are Gilles Deleuze, Carl Jung, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
MC: And what about Arthur Machen? I ask because of the wonderful line that you drew from him to serve as the opening epigraph for Reclaiming Art: “Man is made a mystery for mysteries and visions.” This comes from a sentence in Machen’s “A Fragment of Life” that reads, in full: “Darnell knew by experience that man is made a mystery for mysteries and visions, for the realization in his consciousness of ineffable bliss, for a great joy that transmutes the whole world, for a joy that surpasses all joys and overcomes all sorrows.” But of course the story as a whole, which is one of the major works in Machen’s oeuvre, isn’t just about unalloyed bliss but about the misty, lush, mesmerizing, multi-hued mood and worldview of sacred terror and cosmic horror that imbues all of his writings, and that makes the cosmos as a whole appear like a vast network of glowing symbols that emanate bottomless wonder and dread, forever. Does this in fact encapsulate the central truth, message, outlook, point of view, subjective experience, that you would like to communicate to your readers about the world in general and art in particular?
JFM: I love Machen’s fiction and come back to it again and again. That line — “Man is made a mystery for mysteries and visions” — has stayed with me ever since I first read it. Beyond the fact that it captures the essence of Machen’s admirable body of work, it also evokes something similar to what I talked about earlier with regard to Starry Night, namely that humans are creatures of mystery, born within a mystery and fated to die in that mystery. The unknown, the enigmatic, and the unspeakable are constitutive of our lives. There is cosmic horror in this, but also a weird kind of joy — an obscene, creative, destructive joy that you see in some of Machen’s characters. His fiction exemplifies a worldview that hinges completely on becoming: nothing is fixed or solid enough for us to pin it down. Everything is, as you say, part of “a vast network of glowing symbols that communicate bottomless wonder and dread.” To answer your question: Yes, the line definitely encapsulates the outlook I want to communicate to the reader. Although my contract was to write a book on art for a manifesto series, from the start I hoped to do something else at the same time. My goal was to produce a book that would be “about art” in the same sense that Moby-Dick is a novel “about a whale.” I wanted the topic to act as a kind of MacGuffin in order to tell a larger story, one that reflected the totality of my subjective experience. I realized that this might be the only book I’d ever write and wanted to put everything into it.
MC: I can’t help wondering how all of this — your thoughts and experiences about the things we’re discussing, plus your experience of investing so much of yourself in the book — interacts with your work as a filmmaker.
JFM: At the moment I work mainly in television as a documentary writer and director. Although there are definitely “moments of art” in that, for the most part it’s more about communicating than expressing, to use the book’s terminology. I do have three feature projects at various stages of development, but with the industry being what it is, there’s no way of knowing which, if any, of these will materialize as films. While the experience of writing the book has honed my ideas about art, when I actually begin to write, direct, or edit, all those concepts disappear and I become solely concerned with the affective dimension: how things feel, their tone and rhythm. It’s probably best that way. On the other hand, writing Reclaiming Art showed me that I get as much creative satisfaction from writing nonfiction as I get from filmmaking. I don’t feel that there’s a boundary between the book and the other stuff; it all seems to be coming from the same place. In fact, a few weeks ago I tried to translate the book into images using archival footage and photos. The result was the trailer that I posted online shortly before the release. The score was composed by Renaissance man, mutual friend, and Teem Member David Metcalfe.
MC: Ah, the circle widens. Or maybe narrows? Whatever the case, here’s a final question to round off our conversation: what, if anything, do you have to offer by way of concrete advice or recommendations for the readers of your book and this interview if they’re moved by what you’re saying? I know you’re aware of my interest in the idea of a “new monasticism” as put forth by Morris Berman in The Twilight of America Culture: the idea that a truly worthwhile response to our present cultural circumstance, when we may well be living through the dying/decaying/declining phase of American culture and Western civilization as we’ve previously known it, is to engage in intentional acts of cultural preservation of the practically embodied sort. As I have talked with you, and as I have read and reread your book, the thought has returned again and again that the very writing and publishing of Reclaiming Art represents just this kind of monastic culture-preserving activity. Does this resonate with you at all? And if so, again, do you have any advice to offer about actions that people might take in response to it? I ask the question in full awareness that effective and important “action” may be taken on subtle, invisible, interior planes as well as on the grosser external ones.
JFM: Although I’ve yet to read Berman — and I really should get to that, as friends keep mentioning him these days — I know about his new monasticism from your blogging and a few other things I’ve read online. I agree that decline is inevitable at this point and that the real work we face lies in preserving rather than innovating. Strangely, this book that you characterize as a “monastic culture-preserving activity” came out of Daniel Pinchbeck’s pre-2012 Reality Sandwich scene, where idealism and “solutions-oriented” thinking held sway. Despite my deep respect for Daniel, I never shared his optimism, and so when it came time to write the book I was unable to provide a concrete message or course of action. I think Joshua Ramey was right to call Reclaiming Art a “lament,” because it’s pretty clear by the end of it that all I can manage is an appeal to the individual reader to look at art again. We need to let go of our cynicism and disenchantment and recover our capacity to believe, our power to affect and be affected. Beyond this, there is one quite concrete action I think every new monk should take, and that’s to keep a dream journal. Recording our dreams awakens us to the imaginal, even as it awakens the imaginal to us. The result is always an abundance of vision.
“Real works of art are machines for destroying ideologies, first and foremost the ideologies in which they were created.”
MC: I think that’s a splendid recommendation, and I say that as someone who, some years back, devoted himself to that very activity over an extended period of time. As for the status of your book as a lament in the face of inevitable decline, I think it was that very elegiac tone that put me in mind of Berman. Like you, he views decline as inevitable — and in fact as already well-advanced — and so he writes not to reverse or forestall it but simply to speak truthfully about it, and to explore a way or ways that he and we might respond with wisdom by laying the seeds for some possible phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes in a future that we won’t live to see. Although there are many other levels of value that your book serves, this one stands out to me as poignantly potent and central.
So I guess, in closing, I’m saying thank you. It has been a pleasure talking with you about all of these things.
JFM: Thanks for taking the time to exchange with me. I’ve been a lurking around The Teeming Brain for some time now, and it’s exciting to be able to share this with the community you’ve formed here. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t express my admiration for your Course in Demonic Creativity, which I discovered too late to reference in the book. Reading Course is one more concrete action I’d recommend to all monastics of the new dark age.
MC: I appreciate that, J. F. Here’s wishing you and the book much success in speaking to a wide, receptive, and thoughtfully sensitive audience.
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ADDITIONAL ITEMS OF INTEREST
“Why I Wrote Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice” by J. F. Martel
Erik Davis interviews J. F. Martel on Expanding Mind — February 12, 2015
PURCHASE Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice from Amazon
PURCHASE Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice from North Atlantic Books