When discussing the means by which art enlivens and enriches society, one is reduced to quavering abstractions. These feeble gestures towards the ineffable, far from reinforcing art’s importance, diminishes it in the minds of a culture geared to expect material reward. After all, what is the value of a book of poetry? I cannot show you the effect of Dylan Thomas on myself, besides a vague reference to some appropriated stylistic conventions, but the effect is no less monumental because of its indistinctness. However, an indistinct beauty, being as marketable as tears sincerely shed, suffers the certain fate of being left to die on the factory floor. In fact, the so-called masterpieces of the world are spared only because of the impregnability of their economic value.
Beauty is inefficient and, as a result, subversive. It is a gaping hole in the smooth, eschatological road of progress; a road which promises one everything but transcendence; a sure road to the nirvana of distraction which the captains of industry have so determinedly sold to us as ‘the good life’. But, in the final analysis, it is a road of dying and of death. The sugar of boredom proves more bitter than hell.
Two tyrannies remain: these are the Empire of Art and the Art of Empire—one modern, one archaic. The stranglehold of geriatric market systems, of calcified relationships between profiteering museums and starry-eyed art historians, has in effect sold the history of art for the price of art’s future. With both God and punk being dead, the starving tree of art—for millennia man’s sole source of pure soul food—has found itself adrift in a sea of wood-craving sharks. In an effort to stimulate interest, a cult of dead masters has been allowed to develop uncontrollably, sending the prices of the elect’s paintings through auction house roofs. At the same time, the mythos of the starving artist has been bought hook, line and sinker by a generation looking to escape the runaway commodification of everyday life. By marginalizing the one potential element of dissidence in a pacified society, the oligarchs of the art business have secured their own well being for the foreseeable future. While van Gogh contented himself with strict rations of heavenly bread, the man who owns his paintings today orders it fresh from a five-star restaurant. Welcome to the Empire of Art.
Those familiar with the history of artistic patronage will need no introduction to this second and much more intractable evil. Are we still confused why the Italian Renaissance—an age touted as one of humanism, art and discovery—was also one of savagery, bloodthirstiness and persecution? All the court painters and musicians of history have been accomplices to the ravages of commerce and coercion. Iron-fisted popes, kings, and conquerors have for centuries glorified themselves in exchange for courtly favors. Every Napoleon needs an equestrian portrait; every Medici wants a funerary chapel.
In an all-out attack on these systems, which have proven so divisive, bloody and oppressive, I propose a new anti-hierarchical organizational methodology: an Art of Cult and a Cult of Art. This is not to use the term cult in the stigma-laden fashion it is typically associated with in the contemporary lexicon, but rather with a meaning much closer to the original Latin cultus. As the famous philologist Walter F. Otto describes it: cultus represents an evocation of “a holy reality, that is to say, a totality filled with true existence” (Dionysus 16). Otto used the term to include the Thracian cults of Ancient Greece and their Dionysian rituals. However, it may also include the grand ambitions thought up by Gustave Courbet as he stared down the Prussian cannons in 1871, or the artistic endeavors of the Situationist International. Cultus is at once a condemnation of and exercise in artificiality. It is an overcoming of the self through an indulgence of the self. It is a crafting of essence. It turns performance into life and life into performance. Cultus is paradox.
Cultus is also by its nature communal. There is no spectacle beyond the spectacle lived and breathed. The establishment of cultus has always precipitated a promethean renaissance; and it is the responsibility of all eager parties to stimulate interest in the dying art of unadulterated creation. After all, the determined cohesion of passionate individuals has always been the single most reliable catalyst of change. Let our modern ruins be our playground.