Magazine article Tate Etc.

The Hidden Hand

Magazine article Tate Etc.

The Hidden Hand

Article excerpt

When I began writing this article I did the usual thing: I opened a new Word file and wrote what I thought might be a good title (it's still the same one you're seeing here). Then I left my computerto get a cup of coffee, while pondering a convenient opening line. When I returned to my desk, I noticed something had changed on the screen. Underthe title, where earlier there was just an empty page, there was now a sign. It was a zero. Clearly, when I moved away from the desk I must have pushed some papers ora book againstthe keyboard. But what do I know? Am I sure that it was not my hand that inadvertently touched the 0 key? And if that were the case, should I interpret the 0 as a possible unconscious attempt at writing my text? And would it really matter, from a psychological point of view, to determine what it was that touched the key? No such questions would have come to my mind if it were not that they seemed close enough to the subject of my article, which is the seemingly strange situation of creating a work without having the perception of being its author. In this case, being dispossessed of agency and authorship becomes not an obstacle, but a condition for creation.

The intuitive idea most people have of artistic creation is that artists are able to turn their fantasies and ideas into concrete, perceptible objects by following a more or less elaborate technical process. Whetherthe artistic establishment will recognise the value of these objects is of course another matter. This is a very rational way of looking at the whole process, a perspective that has been largely predominant in the history of modern art. After all, acknowledging that a particular person is the ultimate 'author' of a work implies such a linear view of artistic creation. But the history of Western culture (notto mention those of other cultures) is full of moments in which this simple paradigm has been challenged, whether metaphorically or literally.

What are we to make, for instance, of the famous series of Visionary Heads that William Blake produced in his late years for the astrologer and artistfriend John Varley? The story goes that he drew them as if he were actually seeing them in real life, while Varley was observing him (and seeing nothing). Many of these heads belong to historical figures, such as Julius Caesar, Roger Bacon and John Milton. But one of them seems to be of a different kind, personally closerto Blake. It purports to be the portrait of the Man Who Taught Blake Painting in his Dreams after C1819-20.

For those who are familiar with the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg and know how important they were for Blake's own visionary work, there is nothing strange here. Swedenborg's writings are full of references to spiritual beings who, he claims, taught him about the mysteries of heaven, and it is only logical that Blake would want to receive a similar kind of teaching in relation to his art. Some critics have argued that the artist was not too serious when he was drawing these portraits, and that he just wanted to amuse himself a bit atthe expense of Varley's naivety. Perhaps there may have been a humorous aspect in the situation, but when one is familiar with the rest of Blake's work one can hardly doubt that he honestly believed in the spiritual power of his imagination. More than that, with this portrait he was prefiguring a model in which not justthe content but also the technical side of artistic creation would be outsourced to a different world from the physical one, and to personalities other than one's own conscious self.

Blake's aesthetic model wasfarfrom popular in his own time, at least before Romanticism would open new doors to its appreciation. But in earlier times, at least until the age of the Enlightenment, it had been normal tothinkthat human beings are subjected to all sorts of influences from nonhuman entities, but also from astral bodies and occult properties of natural objects. This was clearly relevant for artistic creation, as it was common for a poet oran artistto invoke inspiration from the Muses or other divine beings. …

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