Graham Collier: Primitivism & Magic

We can appreciate that the first thing to do on seeing the animal form suggested by the rock surface is to catch the ghostly visitant before it disappears; and the obvious way to accomplish this is to draw around it and into it with line and color. This accomplished, the vital life force of the animal is trapped and the hunter has thus gained some power and control over the creature's destiny. Drawing practiced in this way, for these ends, thus becomes a kind of wizardry. It is the magic ritual by which spirit forces become perceptible and subject to the will and control of man.

I believe we make a mistake if we think that modern man is a rational creature. While it is a mark of primitive man to respond directly to the non logical and less rationally defensible images projected by the psyche, similar primitive or elemental responses lurk behind the civilized face of which we are so proud. For example, we might be somewhat amused by the cave dweller's belief that because he possessed the image of an animal he had gained some power capable of controlling the creature's life. But do we not believe something of the sort when we cherish the photograph of someone important to us and think carefully as to where it should be placed - where is the place we can contemplate it the most effectively? Can we honestly say that in possessing this image of a person we do not feel that some intangible link exists between us and them? And could we willfully and with passion deface the photograph without the irrational thought overtaking us that we had done some harm to the relationship and to the person concerned?

"Men had made those masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of
mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surrounded them, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and an image. At that moment I realized that this was what painting was all about. Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires. When I came to that realization, I knew I had found my way."
- Pablo Picasso (commenting on the first exhibition of African art in Paris)


For as this century has advanced, the way of life has become increasingly depersonalized, de- ritualized, and demythologized; which is to say that men have been cut off from the kind of psychological participation in life's processes which satisfies the spirit and the imagination. Living in a technocratic culture it becomes all to easy to accept a programmed way of life and a relatively predictable pattern of events. Our attitude and our behavior become regimented and we tend to distrust our more esoteric thoughts and feelings. We rely on what we call a "practical" response to life, emphasizing the rational approach over all others. But this can ultimately make for an unbalanced consciousness - one in which poetic and intuitive modes of awareness have little credibility - and results in the individual's inability to be nourished spiritually through symbolic means. Art, poetry, music, myth, and philosophical abstraction have not got much appeal for the practical man, whether he be part of a frontier society or a modern technological society which programs and regulates his life for him. Today, there are not many decisions an individual can make in order to determine the course of his own life; and in most Western countries this process of depersonalization has been accelerating since the beginning of the century...

There are those who believe that when the ultimate technological culture arrives, man will have evolved into a supremely rational creature. Only then will he be free of those non-rational demands of his psyche for the kind of participation mystique we have described. He will be free from art, poetry, religion, and all other magical rites which are the legacy of his pre-logical days. He will be sufficiently emancipated to live by the rational intellect alone, accepting things as they phenomenologically are and having no need to create the images of art by which natural events are transformed to embody human sensibilities.

Graham Collier - Art & The Creative Consciousness
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