"Of Urinals and Dark Forces: An essay about harmful cult influence on an artist" by Joseph Szimhart appears in Cultic Studies Review: The Last Draw: Cults and Creaitivity (Vol.9, No.1) 2010 www.culticstudiesreview.org
Of Urinals and Dark Forces
An essay on harmful cult influence on an artist
Abstract: This essay discusses cultic influences that affected my career as an artist in the late 1970s. I adopt a suggestion by researcher Ellen Dissanayake that a “behavior of art” means “aesthetic making special.” Dissanayake argues for a biological or evolutionary basis for the aesthetic impulse. That impulse to survive through art led to my desire to find the essence of creative inspiration in Theosophy and its sects because the Modern artists I emulated had pursued Theosophical ideas. My discussion of harmful effects centers primarily on a cult headed by Elizabeth C. Prophet. I also discuss related influences from G.I. Gurdjieff and Nicholas Roerich.
Junkyards and ready-made objects are great resources for modern artists. A famous piece from the Dada movement is a white ceramic urinal signed “R. Mutt” and called Fountain. Exhibited by Marcel Duchamp in 1917, today it is worth over three million dollars. What was anti-art yesterday has become art history today. Duchamp coined “ready-made” for his out of context displays of manufactured objects. Another one was an upside-down bicycle wheel mounted on a pedestal. Duchamp intended to challenge the orthodox conception of art. He was not looking to make a fortune but he did get away with a radical statement. He made art history.
“Art is anything you can get away with,” wrote Marshall McLuhan in 1967. That quote has stayed with me since I first read it in McLuhan’s book The Medium is the Massage. For me, McLuhan meant that if it sells, it is art for the buyer. And it may not have to sell for money. It may merely be bought into as when an art critic applauds something special long before the viewing public appreciates it. Critical acclaim helps to influence the buying crowd. I can imagine a modern art museum selling miniature plastic knock-offs of R. Mutt urinals. In any case, Duchamp aestheticised a common object and transformed it into a cult object if only for the modern art collector.
Maybe religion is that way too. What begins as an ordinary vision or dream becomes prophecy in a sacred matrix or narrative. My working idea for this paper is that religions and cults emerge from an aesthetic impulse to make sense of and project meaning on our physical and mental environments. We make something special when we create art (Dissanayake, 1999) and, in my view, religion. We make a transcendental idea or experience special by surrounding it with myth, ritual and devotion. The form and activity it takes is the cult or religion. To me this is similar to a creative impulse that must risk manifestation in form to succeed or fail—to be realized, to mean something, to live or die. Like new art that seems radical, new religious movements can shake up the stodgy establishment and make a mark in history. As time moves on the successful radical group might become the established religion. There are thousands of cults that inform new religions and inspire old ones. Our religious landscape features a complex riddle of cosmologies and theologies with some outstanding examples that range from the sublime to the terrifying to the ridiculous.
So-called “new” religious movements or cults often recycle or re-specialize old ideas and rituals. Most common are the incarnation of an avatar or reappearance of Christ and techniques for ecstasy. Body movements in the world of Gurdjieff, the founder of the Fourth Way schools in the last century, were not merely dances but became spiritual exercises designed to inform the student with a soul. In various New Age groups the common quartz crystal becomes the repository of the life forces of the universe with intelligent power that magnifies thoughts and feelings. Thus the common crystal like the common urinal finds a devotional milieu. Need I mention the stars? In many ancient traditions the moving planets become the gods of fate. Religious meaning appears seemingly out of nothing originally embodied by the object or event as when Christ changed water to wine.
However, like badly wrought artwork, badly conceived religions and cults usually falter and fade from human interest, albeit some create harm and havoc in the process. Art primarily affects our aesthetic values while spiritual values expressed in religion tend to guide our moral choices but both are vital to human social expression. Aesthetics informs both realms if indeed they are separate. Visions, scents, and sounds inspire our myths—the sun, rose perfume, and thunder. Art and spirituality mix intimately in human history from the Lascaux cave drawings to the Sistine Chapel and beyond. Good music can transport us to otherworldly perceptions and emotions. We illustrate our special experiences and our myths to our delight.
We can say that humanity creates galleries of religions that are attached to a great museum of spiritual endeavor. Homo sapiens is Homo religioso as well as Homo aestheticus as argued by Ellen Dissanayake. Origin myths speak to the aesthetic basis of cults that depend on these myths for definition and direction. Seemingly fantastic stories somehow evoke transcendent responses in devotees not so much for what the stories say but for what they imply in interpretation and what they corroborate in spiritual experience. Reliance on authority figures who interpret sacred stories is the key to the process. How else is a Muslim, for example, to make sense of Mohammed’s mystic flight on his horse? How does a Jew make sense of the burning bush as the deity talking with Moses or a Christian the crucified Jew that resurrected after death? How can a Hindu praise a juice called Soma and also call it a god? Without one dominant interpretation devotees of any myth or object may never agree on meaning. The prophet or seer must provide a convincing version of the truth. In the old world a prophet’s life could depend on how well his interpretation met reality—he literally needed to get away with it to keep his life.
Getting away with a fantastic myth or scripture is one thing but how we get away with it is another. What is the motive? What is the source—is it imagination, confabulation, mental illness, an actual event, illumination, or a sacred being? Surely we can believe anything but how do we tend to those beliefs? What behaviors do those beliefs inspire? Is it true? These questions have no simple answers unless a guru’s answer stops us from questioning and applying our aesthetic impulses.
Let me define what I mean by aesthetics. Typically, the term refers to appreciation of the arts and to definitions of beauty. We apply aesthetics to our sensual judgments: It smells good; that is a fantastic landscape; that hymn makes me feel holy; she is gorgeous; or, that is an elegant solution to a math problem. Our aesthetic judgment can refer to taste and to what Renaissance writers called gusto. More so, I adopt a suggestion by researcher Ellen Dissanayake that a “behavior of art” means “aesthetic making special.” Dissanayake argues for a biological or evolutionary basis for the aesthetic impulse. In other words, something occurs innately in the human drive for survival that urges us to seek and recognize beauty, symmetry, and elegance because it appears to enhance our quality of life if not life itself. As art supports religion, our deepest instinct to survive extends even to life beyond death. We arrange and design the environment and our perceptions to support this impulse. We build pyramids, sacrifice animals, compose and chant prayers and we ingest entheogenic substances.
We will act to mimic or own aesthetically pleasing things. We will adapt to what we are convinced is tastefully correct. We have only to think of the latest fads in clothing and hairstyles, the latest architectural themes, or an intriguing if revolutionary philosophy. Our urge to know a transcendent being and the secrets of life draws us to prophets and gurus that say prophetic things and appear prophetic and aesthetically pleasing. In other words, prophets and visionaries also have to be convincing actors. That convincing trait we call charisma and charisma works through aesthetics. Charisma appeals to what we experience, hear, feel, see, and can touch in a person. There is something about a person, we say, that sets them apart and makes them attractive to us. That “about” we interpret through an aesthetic judgment—he or she fits our taste in philosophy, theology, music, looks, or courage. If we limit our taste or aesthetic to please a guru’s pleasure we risk excluding something better. We risk obsession and psychological closure.
Now that we have looked at what I mean by aesthetics, I will turn to a definition of cult, a word that evokes a variety of responses as well as contains a variety of meanings. Cult is a ritualistic system of devotion to a person, object or idea and includes ritual behavior that engages our aesthetic impulses. We fold our hands reverently, bow, make images, write stories, sit in odd positions quietly, dance in a trance, play instruments and compose music, and go on long pilgrimages to worship a person, object, or idea. A less accurate but more common understanding is that a cult is a spurious group. Some of the confusion reflects a cult’s irrational and transcendental nature. Forming a cult around something is like falling in love or becoming infatuated—the sacred or transcendent feeling is the motivation if not the goal or purpose. A cult is not a factory, a laboratory, or a university although one may operate through such a matrix. The irrational is an essential feature of a cult. The American Heritage Dictionary indicates as much—4: A usually nonscientific method or regimen claimed by its originator to have exclusive or exceptional power in curing a particular disease; 5: Obsessive, especially faddish, devotion to or veneration for a person, principle, or thing. We can assume that the less reasonable the devotion, the more room for manipulation and abuse because references and judgments tend to be subjective and dependent on a leader’s authoritative interpretation.
It is natural to view a cult with suspicion or as spurious if you are an outsider. The uninformed outsider will not share the feelings nor appreciate the aesthetic appeal, the language, and the meaning behind the devotion. The outsider may even experience revulsion. The scholar and the journalist may strive to appreciate the phenomenon of a cult aesthetically and historically with no intent to convert or “go native.” However, the natives or members of a cult experience a range of satisfying sensual and intellectual responses to ritual and dogma. Satisfying may not always mean entirely pleasurable, for example, in fire walking or fasting and end times myths or demon attack. Satisfaction comes from knowing that even unpleasant revelations and practices augment personal enlightenment or planetary salvation.
Faith provides enjoyment, but suspicion or doubt increases anxiety in the devotee. To sustain homeostasis in devotion, aesthetic judgment must adjust to the demands of the faith. If cults have aesthetic features that enhance their attractiveness, then members will adapt to these features. In other words, to belong to a cult requires certain adaptations and restrictions of aesthetic judgment in the devotee.
My cult passage
This brings me to a personal account of my cult experiences and how my art studies drew me into occult ideas and the cults that promote them. Ironically, my attraction for the freewheeling experimentation of modern artists led to the restrictions of a cult. As a young art student in the late 1960s, I most admired and even imitated the works of Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and William Blake. Later, I mimicked the colorful, iconic illustration of Nicholas Roerich. Except for Blake who followed the theosophy of Emmanuel Swedenborg, all of the artists mentioned drew from the metaphysical well of the Theosophical Society and related occult teachings. Specifically, two leading Theosophists published a small tome illustrated with images of extrasensory reality that inspired early abstract painters. The book Thought Forms by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater appeared in 1906 with dozens of colorful abstract images. Among western Modernists, historians credit Kandinsky with making the first completely abstract or non-objective paintings around 1911. He was influenced by Thought Forms. He was not alone in this venture. Artists had been experimenting with colors and forms to represent emotion (Van Gogh) and sound (Scriabin) for years but to me Kandinsky became the most important modernist theoretician. He wrote that his art came from a mystical source or “inner necessity” in Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Kandinsky maintained that his approach to painting paralleled new advances in science with Einstein and psychology with Freud. He would “reveal” that same hidden reality explored by physicists, musicians, and psychologists. He often named his paintings “improvisation” and “composition” asserting their musical connection. Kandinsky remains one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.
I wanted to participate in whatever it was that drove Kandinsky to produce his images. If I could tap that source then my art might also be truly “original.” Eventually I began to read the works of Helena P. Blavatsky (1831-1891), the same Theosophist that Kandinsky found so important.[i] Blavatsky (HPB) also inspired a host of imitators that claimed to be mediums or channels for “Masters” that guided the affairs of human kind from spiritual dimensions. These ersatz guardian angels belonged to a secret group called the Great White Lodge (Great White Brotherhood). Occultists and mystics including Emmanuel Swedenborg and the early Rosicrucian Brotherhood that greatly influenced the foundations of Freemasonry also claimed contact with these mysterious adepts and angels. I did not know then that the majority of these adepts have no verifiable historical existence (Johnson, 1994).
Among all the artists I studied, Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) was the most ardent imitator of HPB’s mythological system. His signature art style combined elements of Gaugin’s Post-Impressionism with an Oriental flair for composition. Roerich and his wife Helena (died 1955) established the Agni Yoga Society in the early 1920s in London and New York and later at a residence in northern India. Lately, Agni Yoga has become popular in Russia with millions of devotees (Stasulane, 2005). The Roerichs claimed that Blavatsky’s mysterious Master Morya guided them to form Agni Yoga (AY). The first publication of the AY series of esoteric teachings was Leaves of Morya’s Garden (1924). I bought and read nearly all in the series of fifteen plus volumes.[ii]
In 1978, I learned that Elizabeth Clare Prophet (1939-2009) claimed that her youngest daughter Tatiana was the reincarnation of Helena Roerich! Prophet developed dementia by 1997 but from 1961 to 1996 she led a large New Age cult, Church Universal and Triumphant. Intrigued with the connection to Agni Yoga, I subsequently read several of Prophet’s books and listened to many of CUT’s audio taped dictations. Despite my wife’s objections, I attended a major CUT conference near Los Angeles in March 1979. Several thousands of devotees attended that conference. After four days of chanting, interacting with CUT staff members, listening to channeled lectures from the Ascended Masters, and little sleep, the effect on me was palpable enough. My wife believed that she had lost me to another world. During our divorce process five months later she said, “You are not the same man I married.” We had been together for seven years and our daughter was almost two years old. What happened? Many studied opinions about how cults cause quirky conversions and “sudden” personality changes might apply to me, but I was already primed after years of deep interest in groups that used Theosophical teachings including the “I AM” Activity and Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way.
The year before I went to my first CUT conference, Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman published Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change in 1978. The book was a groundbreaking study regarding cults and brainwashing. I looked to Snapping for help late in 1980 after I broke with CUT. It was helpful—it was a comfort to know that my problem had a name. Despite its inadequate sampling, the mistaken notion that this was a “new phenomenon” and a less than rigorous scientific method, Snapping tackled a very real problem. The authors offered rare insight for ex-members into the current cult member’s experience. The social science community and mainstream psychology had practically ignored the common plight of ex-cult members. Snapping’s authors surmised that under certain conditions of group pressure and altered states of mind a recruit or seeker will “snap” and rapidly adapt to a new way of being. I am not about to argue here about the validity of brainwashing theory; neither am I arguing that sudden change is good or bad. Traditional military training at boot camps, revival meetings during which folks are born again supply enough evidence that the snapping phenomenon is real enough. Whatever the case, I believe I experienced what I. M. Lewis reports as a “mystical experience, [that] like any other experience, is grounded in the environment in which it is achieved. It thus inevitably bears the stamp of the culture and society in which it arises.” (Lewis, 1989, p. 5) My interest here is to examine the psycho-sensual catalysts or environment of intense personality changes.
CUT viewed colors as aspects of cosmic “rays” of energy, some of which elevated consciousness while others trapped awareness in lower states. The color aided in one’s ascension or hindered it. For example, ascension-aiding rays were white/purity, yellow/intelligence, blue/god power, green/supply and health, pink/love, rose/deeper love, and violet/purification. The cult avoided black, brown, silver, gray, checkered or patterned colors, red, and muddy shades. The latter colors polluted the energy of the “lower bodies” or physical self composed of earth, air, fire and water. Classical music, certain hymns, Hindu bhajans, and chanted CUT decrees were good sounds but rock music, jazz, rap, and country music were deleterious. Gold jewelry could touch the skin but not silver. Silver as gray energy was too intellectual and lacked love. An organic, raw food diet was best when I was involved but basic vegetarianism was required. Sex was for procreation only and performed only after certain decrees or mantras. Celibacy was better. Sleeping was better metaphysically if on the back with right leg crossed over left and hands over the solar plexus.
In CUT teaching, certain environments like taverns and rock concerts contained dark forces called entities that could attach to one’s “aura” (a kind of personal force field). Newspapers, movies and television shows bombarded the devotee with psychic pollution. Nicotine, alcoholic drinks, sugar, chocolate, and all drugs could cause an entity or demon to lodge in one’s aura. CUT teachings chided devotees to avoid all negative thoughts, argument, anger, fear, jealousy, lust, doubt, and thoughts of feeling sick or crazy. Men’s hair length should not touch the collar and almost all the CUT men were clean-shaven. Modern or abstract art was not good, but realistic religious art enhanced one’s consciousness—Picasso, Camille Pisarro and Jackson Pollock were out while Raphael, Gustav Doré and Roerich were in. Cult teaching invaded all of my senses and appetites.
Imagine my household. My wife was a smoker and drank wine occasionally. She liked to listen to rock and folk music, ate meat, enjoyed sex normally and appreciated art that was modern as I had up till then. We had friends that drank alcohol and smoked marijuana. I began to imagine entities everywhere. I removed certain pictures from the walls, changed my diet to vegetarian, avoided our old friends, refused alcohol, and would not go to some movies my wife wanted to see. I asked that we not feed meat to our daughter or expose her to certain cartoons but when my wife insisted I let it go. I played “I AM” instrumental compositions on pink, blue, or green vinyl records when I was home to “clear” the bad energy. These insipid harp instrumentals, precursors to modern ambient music, irritated my wife. Within a week after the conference I cut my hair short (for the first time in ten years) and shaved my beard. I felt guilty about having sex for fun. I felt that entities attached to me when I got angry. We argued more and more over what she saw as petty and I saw as sacred. We interacted less to avoid disputes. I wore the required white shirt on Sundays and a purple one on Saturdays. Other days had special colors too. I was caught up in a metaphysical demand for purity.
Then there was my art. At the time, I continued to sell the odd painting through a gallery but I made most of my living sketching portraits of tourists in public. I used black charcoal and a wide range of pastel colors on gray paper. I painted landscapes that required muddy colors as well as reds and sometimes black. Though for one year I tried mightily to conform to CUT’s aesthetic requirements, I never completely resolved my palette with only the sacred colors. When I asked CUT staff for advice, they would only suggest I use “pure” colors or I could “transmute” the bad color energy with decrees. So, there was an out and (as I found out years later from eyewitnesses) the leader used this “out” to justify a double standard: If you cannot avoid it, transmute it! Elizabeth Prophet was having prime cuts of meat, expensive wines and ice creams. She had extramarital sex. She encouraged one of her teenage daughters who had an affair with a black fellow to get an abortion. CUT was adamantly pro-life. Enlightenment apparently meant entitlement in CUT, but I was yet a naïve devotee in 1979. I was not enlightened. I struggled to live according to an utterly complex, impossible to prove system. I struggled daily with guilt and shame while suppressing anger and doubt. How could anyone ever be pure enough to make this work? I could not especially as an artist. I continued to make pastel portraits that required many of the forbidden colors because I had to make a living.
Once I finally admitted that this path was not for me, the way out was not so easy. I needed some proof that I could leave. The admonition for the CUT initiate after all was a harsh one: If you reject this opportunity to ascend now, it might be another “ten thousand lifetimes” until another one comes along. Rationally I knew that the group’s teachings did not add up. I knew the arguments against CUT’s odd interpretations of Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu religion. None of the Ascended Master or Great White Lodge cults squared with one another on essential points and none agreed that Mother Prophet was the true Messenger. Two leaders of rival sects, Torkom Saraydarian of the Aquarian Educational Group and Sina Fosdick of the Agni Yoga Society, told me in person that Prophet was a fake. I knew that Roerich, the artist, used red and black pigments liberally. He dressed in black Tibetan robes. But I needed something more to convince me. I needed an aesthetic and, possibly, a spiritual experience because my conversion started through an aesthetic experience that led to the spiritual one at the conference.
Among a host of events that added up to my defection from CUT and ultimate rejection of nearly all of organized occultism, I will mention two that changed my palette back to “normal.” Please keep in mind that an aesthetic judgment is not necessarily a rational one. Why we prefer one color to another may be as mysterious and mystical as why we prefer one god to another. It may be as mysterious as why an art collector might pay three million dollars for a ceramic urinal displayed once by Marcel Duchamp. The authors of Snapping interviewed many ex-members that described moments of ecstasy and flooding of the mind (brain) with thoughts that reorganized impressions of the cult instantly. Cults labeled these “aha” moments with loaded language: Satori, insight, grace, breakthrough, holy instant, God’s will, etc. The reverse of this conversion process sometimes demands a series of aha moments as well.
My daughter at three years old was riding with me in my green Fiat sedan just one month after I ended my relationship with CUT. It was early autumn. The car had a black dashboard. For some reason I was concentrating on the negative charge of black yet haunted by the cult admonition when my daughter suddenly said, “But daddy, black is good!” Surprised at her comment, I answered quizzically, “Okay…it’s good?” That was the end of the conversation. I do not recall ever saying anything to her about black. I am not claiming that I did not say something sometime to her—I may have dissociated and said something out loud right then— but the coincidence was uncanny nevertheless, even jolting. It may have been a day later, after I dropped her off at her mother’s place and returned to my studio, that I noticed my daughter’s Raggedy Ann doll that she left behind. The limp doll faced me as it leaned over on the small green sofa that served as my daughter’s bed. The stark red hair of the doll grabbed my attention. I began to shed tears. I “asked” the doll to forgive me for condemning it for the color of its hair. That experience penetrated me in what I can only describe as a spiritual insight. I never had a “religious” problem with my palette again.
These two “aha” color events illustrate in a small way how an aesthetic experience aided in my recovery from irrational and practically useless if not debilitating cult ideas. I had a host of these. I wish to point out how sensual signals perform as “triggers” to stimulate compliance to cult milieu and doctrine. Unloading all the cult-induced meaning (all black is bad) from signs in the environment can seem nearly impossible at first despite therapeutic assistance.
To be effective, I think, therapy of any kind should take into account the context and history of the delusional belief that affects a cult member’s aesthetic world. Most therapists I have known are client-centered and try to honor the cultural beliefs of their clients within reason. As an exit counselor, I challenge false beliefs by introducing a wider frame of reference based on reasonable evidence—totalist cults by nature restrict information and choice in closed systems. My role is to encourage psychological and intellectual expansion. For example, one of my clients, a young lady who was a dedicated CUT member for six years, left the cult after talking with me and a colleague for several days. Her parents arranged a non-coercive intervention at their home in Florida. A week later I escorted the now ex-member to the Unbound recovery center in Iowa but it was cold there and she needed a coat. She experienced near panic when, with my encouragement, she tried on a red jacket at a mall. She was not yet ready for red! Recovery required months for that ex-member to restore black and red to a wider and positive frame of reference. She needed to learn more about the source of the color code and its flimsy justification to dispel it. In my case, after making the emotional and intellectual adjustments, I could relate to colors appropriately and individually in short order. In contrast to my client who had little background in comparative occultism, I already knew the history of how conflicted occultists were (and are) over the spiritual effects of color. Goethe saw red as “grave and magnificent” (Goethe, p. 315) whereas the “I AM” cult saw red as anger and charged with inappropriate sexual excitement, and Corinne Heline claims, “Red is the color whereby the Holy Spirit manifests the Activity Principle” (Heline, p. 40). I was struggling with personal conflict: Was there any ideal or Platonic universal regarding color? Might black always be a negative? This weird color revelation through my daughter reestablished my appreciation for color and styles of art like Cubism prohibited by the cult. I grasped that I was not capable of finding a universal theme for black, nor was there any compelling reason for me to pursue an absolute. I was neither God nor a god. Consequently, I could again enjoy a Picasso, a Pisarro and a Pollock if I chose to. However, even if I could afford it, I doubt I would pay millions of dollars for a ceramic urinal even if it is a wonderful, historical joke.
Tangled up in G
Dark forces come in many guises. I want to take a brief look at one more controversial movement I studied as a seeker that has impacted a number of artists and creative designers. During my exit counseling career since 1980 I have encountered members of a variety of cults that used G. I. Gurdjieff’s methods and revelations. Gurdjieff died in 1949 a year after serious complications from a motor vehicle accident. He was in his seventies—no one has established his exact birth date. By all accounts his style as a guru ranged from ambiguous to cruel with enough flashes of brilliance to continually impress his most sophisticated devotees if not his critics. Variously referred to as Mister Gurdjieff and G, Gurdjieff taught through a “crazy wisdom” style (Feuerstein, 1992, pp. 54-9).
Gurdjieff taught that men and women live in a numb psychological bondage as “machines” that need to be jolted into self-awareness by any means to create a soul in this lifetime. To this end Gurdjieff developed a few techniques that tapped music, movement, myth and theater.[iii] None of the ardent Fourth Way students that I interviewed over the past decades seemed to grasp the teaching any better than I did, if indeed there were anything to grasp. Even J. G. Bennett, Gurdjieff’s prime American disciple and founder of an important Fourth Way school struggled. “Bennett comments on something they all observed: that, however much attention they paid, no two pupils could ever agree on exactly what Gurdjieff had said (Washington, 1993, p. 349). That ambiguity coupled with a high demand for self-transformation caused some devotees to suffer in their creative careers. As James Webb reports in the last chapter of The Harmonious Circle, “Imagine the extent of Ouspensky’s chagrin when he realized that the man for whom he had sacrificed a promising career [journalist] and allowed himself to be trapped in Bolshevik Russia was to all intents and purposes a fraud.” However, some Fourth Way devotees thrived in their creativity. The great architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife followed Gurdjieff for a time. Wright’s daughter Iovanna was one of Gurdjieff’s obedient young girl servants at the end of the master’s life. Gurdjieff endearingly called them his “calves” (Webb, 1987). Wright established the Taliesan Fellowship to teach an “essential architecture” deeply influenced by Gurdjieff’s ideas. Gurdjieff visited Taliesan several times in the 1930s.
Gurdjieff designed dances and plays to radically transform his students. He claimed to derive his so-called Movements from a mysterious sect possibly in Syria (Washington, p.344). This sect, the Sarmoung Brotherhood or “Sarmoun” (Webb, 1987, p. 38), had suspiciously similar roots as Blavatsky’s mythic White Brotherhood that was essentially a product of her fertile imagination (Johnson, 1994). Gurdjieff’s dancers (students performing the sacred Movements) performed for audiences in New York in 1924 he directed them unlike any director the audience had seen. In a particular movement dancers would rush to the edge of the stage and stop dead still. During one remarkable performance the capricious Gurdjieff “calmly turned his back, and was lighting a cigarette. In the next split second an aerial human avalanche was flying through the air, across the orchestra, down among the empty chairs, on the floor, bodies pell-mell, piled on top of each other, arms and legs sticking out in silence” (Webb, 1987, pp. 268-9). Amazingly no one was badly hurt.
Gurdjieff moved his devotees around often but his most famous period as with his group south of Paris at the Prieuré in the 1920s. Most of Gurdjieff’s closest followers were people of talent and means—sensitive seekers with money and time to spare. By all reports he treated them with loving disdain. Gurdjieff was known for his real and mock tantrums and an erratic behavior that his students interpreted as a clever teaching style. One would think that the man had no heart but curiously he did when it came to the common folk outside his student circle. When the group left Paris, a large if motley collection of art work was found in the master’s flat. Gurdjieff had a habit of buying bad art from struggling artists to encourage them. On the other hand when he visited America late in his career he criticized the students doing his Movements, comparing them to “worms in shit” (Washington, 1993, p. 350). In Gurdjieff’s circle, art served the master’s whims to craft his devotees in his image.
I began by mentioning Duchamp’s “ready mades” as art. He was intimately involved with an art movement that tried many strategies to tap the inner self or transpersonal worlds for inspiration. Hypnosis and automatic writing were two avenues of experimentation among his peers in the Dada and Surrealist movements. The Dadaists sustained a radical individualism despite their congregation as a movement. They continued to create art and anti-art without regard for a formal self-realization that required a guru and a guru’s techniques. As much as I enjoyed the antics in Dada, I could not identify with that much chaotic creative energy. I sought a style or teacher with clearer direction, and I thought I finally found that in 1975. Nicholas Roerich was most successful among Theosophist artists but too many of his “7,000” paintings depended on “sacred” formulas that used bright orange, purple, green and blue hues. Roerich wore his guru status on his sleeve, so to speak—he often wore a Tibetan costume. His peers in Russian art circles regarded him early on as a “poseur” (Tuchman, 1986) that lived in an elitist fantasy world.[iv] Roerich and Gurdjieff inferred that they were specially chosen by some higher power yet all that their disciples had for proof was the guru’s word and a devotee’s personal experience of charisma. Is the lesson here about what we do for our art and not about what our gurus do for our art?
The lesson for me from the cult experience as an artist is complicated. I can no more blame a group’s influence for my lack of creativity or success as an artist than I can blame my career as an exit counselor or mental health professional. Cults like careers take up a lot of time. I still exhibit a few paintings a year and attract a commission or win an award now and then but my income from art is negligible. The great artists are not distracted from their quest by jobs and family matters much less by quirky cults. Art is their job notwithstanding cultic influences. The damage I think occurs more often to sensitive artists who are either early in their creative careers or struggling to establish an oeuvre or art identity. If a struggling artist buys into the notion that a group or guru’s techniques and influence are necessary for a personal transformation to find one’s artistic identity, then the possibilities of restricting a creative career increase.
A few questions emerged from my struggles under cult influence. When am I adult enough to run my spiritual life? Maturity comes hard if ever in the submissive cultic relationship. Why write a novel or paint fine landscapes when I could be chanting and saving myself, not to mention saving the world? If my creative life proceeds from spirituality, then it becomes a matter of priority. I thought I was into something new, into a cutting edge revelation that required submission first to achieve clarification with deep understanding coming later. In subsequent years I learned that most if not all the “new” religious ideas that so intrigued and attracted me were recycled notions re-presented in modern drag or, if you will, a current aesthetic. Cults continue to reinvent the wheels of human spirituality and too often repeat the mistakes of old and harmful group formations. I also learned that what appears first as a precious opportunity to transform my soul, if that were even possible, can easily convert to a cult of endless submission and mindless ritual. The wheels merely ran in ruts around and around one leader’s grandiose claims. She wore the crown of the Mother of the Universe! She had the stamp of an ascended host on her metaphysical curriculum vitae! She was the most valuable person living on the planet! Was I willing to pay for the privilege of serving her mission with all I had and with my very life? What was I going to get—really? It was a tough lesson that fortunately took me far less time to learn than it could have. And I learned some things about myself as an artist also. Signed ceramic urinals on pedestals worth millions of dollars have less value to me now than finding an unsigned one in a junkyard.
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Dissanayake, Ellen. 1999 (1992 first edition). Homo Aestheticus: Where art comes from and why. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
Conway, Flo and Siegelman, Jim. 1995 (1978 first edition). Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change. NewYork, NY: Stillpoint Press.
Feuerstein, Georg. 1992. Holy Madness: The shock tactics and radical teachings of crazy-wise adepts, holy fools, and rascal gurus. New York, NY: Arkana Publishing.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. 1973. Theory of Colors. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press.
Heline, Corrine. 1974. Color and Music in the New Age. La Canada, CA: New Age Press, Inc.
Johnson, K. Paul. 1994. The Masters Revealed: Madam Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge. New York, NY: State University of New York Press.
Kandinsky, Wassily. 1977 (1914 first edition). Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York, NY:Dover Publications.
Lachman, Gary. 2004. In Search of P.D. Ouspensky: The Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff. Quest Books.
Lewis, I. M. 1989. Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession (second edition). New York, NY: Routledge.
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Stasulane, Anita. 2005. Theosophy and Culture: Nicholas Roerich. Interreligious and Intercultural Investigations Series, Volume 8, 2005. Roma, Italia. Gregorian Research Centre on Cultures and Religions.
Tuchman, Maurice, organizer and Weisberger, Edward, editor, 1986. The Spiritual in Art: Abstract painting, 1890-1985. Los Angeles, California: Los Angeles County Museum of Art with New York, NY: Abbeville Press, Inc.
Washington, Peter. 1993. Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: Theosophy and the Emergence of the Western Guru. London, Great Britain: Secker & Warburg, Lt.
Webb, James. 1987. The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
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[i] “Kandinsky was also spiritually influenced by works of H. P. Blavatsky (1831-91), the most important exponent of Theosophy in modern times. Theosophical theory postulates that creation is a geometrical progression, beginning with a single point. The creative aspect of the forms is expressed by the descending series of circles, triangles, and squares. Kandinsky's book Concerning the Spiritual In Art (1910) and Point and Line to Plane (1926) echoed this basic Theosophical tenet.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kandinsky
[iii] For the sake of economy and if you wish to avoid the bizarre writings of Gurdjieff himself, I refer the reader to three critical sources that describe Gurdjieff and his teachings.: Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon by Peter Washington (1993), The Harmonious Circle by James Webb (1987), and In Search of P.D. Ouspensky: The Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff by Gary Lachman (2004).
[iv] The most complete, sympathetic biography is the fine book by Jacqueline Decter (1989) Nicholas Roerich: The Life & Art of a Russian Master, but Decter does report on the controversies as well. The Roerich’s counted Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace and many wealthy Americans as their disciples. For a well-researched history of the controversy surrounding Roerich read The Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the race for empire in central Asia by Karl Meyer and Shareen B. Brysac (1999), Chapters 18 & 19. For an extensive history of Roerich’s influence on Henry Wallace and the U.S. government, read chapter 8 of American Dreamer by John Culver and John Hyde (2000). R. C. Williams (1980) Russian Art and American Money is not sympathetic, but has useful information in a chapter on Roerich.
Biography: Since 1980 Joseph Szimhart has pursued a career in cultic studies through exit counseling, lecturing, writing articles and reviews, maintaining a website and as a media and litigation consultant. Since 1998 he is also employed as a mental health professional for a psychiatric hospital in Pennsylvania. Szimhart has produced and exhibited artwork since the late 1960s.