Contributed by Daniel Mirante on September 9, 2021

Beauty, Plato suggested, is of the Good and True. But beauty exists not only in beautiful pure lands and lovely and noble creatures. Beauty is found not only in fresh and perfect creation (Brahma), and in balance and preservation (Vishnu), but in destruction (Shiva). The entire cycle is beautiful because it is true.

The inner life contains all phases, as we flow through processes of decay, destruction, darkness, and the dawn of recreation. The buzzing process of cellular death and generation occurs every moment imperceptibly. And our psyche’s too are recreated through interaction with our environment. We never step into the same river twice. Moreover, we are only a current in that greater river of time. All change!

Great art depicts these irrefutable truths of change through the cycles of existence. Such art provides a contemplative mirror and sometimes moreover a guide to accepting reality as it is. By intuitively understanding the movement through these cycles we live more fully, because we can flow with the stream of change rather than multiply suffering through grasping hold of our stories in obstinate resistance and denial. This is one of the meanings of Dharma.

But back to visions and art. In visions and visionary art we often witness a sensibility that is not really a conventional beauty. It may be elegant, enchanting, intricate, but it challenges rather than succours us, it does not key into sentimentalised or strictly culture bound notions of beauty, but touches upon the ‘full cycle’.

We could describe such as beauty as grotesque. This word, ‘grotesque’, derives from ‘grotto’, caves, hollows and orifices of the earth, long suspected to be the birth-centres of the 10,000 creatures. Grotto’s are places of mystery, of both threat and security. They are ambivalent. Their darkness is the Unknown.

During the ice-age, within caves, the ancestors of the civilisations likely developed the intricate cultures and forms of interaction that set the foundation for the modern human. In icy lands, resource scarcity and the necessity to encircle the fire in the shelter of caves, begot stories, myths and cave art.

Caves are also the places of outlanders, wildlings, yogis, sages and spiritual explorers. In the Songs of Milarepa, the yogi describes varieties of beings, from dis-incarnate spirits and demons, to the grace of visitation by tantric dakini’s. In these liminal zones of the unknown, the veil is thin.

Grottos epitomise a kind of beauty which is primordial and ancient. It is a beauty which is pre-human, pre-organic. Grottos of purest water and crystals, containing chasms that fall into the blackness of non-being. Caves are not sentimental places, their stalagmites and stalactites evoke both temples and the maws of giant beings. Caves are the origin of grotesque aesthetics, a beauty beyond opposites.

The richness of these deep crevices, and the richness of their mysteries, help us to comprehend the beauty in the dark and grotesque. In the darkness shimmer crystals and hot springs, precious metals and minerals. We are presented with an unfamiliar world of wonder which shines with its own order of complexity, completely different to that of the surface world. The deeps of the earth reveal in occulted gloom the mysteries of origin, the pre-biomechanical, the pre-biogenic, mineralogical evolution.

In this absence, this deep space, the implicate order, the world implied by imagination, delineates itself. The Dakini’s reveal themselves and teach their wisdom to the brave and firm. The spirits emerge to be heard and so healed. And deep dark ancient things sing and howl as the wind blows through the million hollows, tubes and pipes of the honeycomb mountains like so many flutes and horns, singing the bitter sweet, hauntingly deep, and sometimes unfathomably bizarre and alien song of the earth.

Vision questing, and creating art from this place, reflects a process of revealing. The scientific process, too, has revealed extraordinary domains, which are in a sense objects of faith, since we do not directly perceive them. Such as the nano technological cities of the cell, the Gothic structures of the nucleus and DNA, and similarly the macrocosm of solar systems and galaxies. In some of these images there involves a sense of unease. Who does not feel on some level confronted, by an image of a skull, its absent eyes like caves?

In the same sense, the imperative of the visionary is to understand and reveal. The energies & transformation of perspective embodied in vision quests and in the great art of vision can stir the same unease, as our fragile ego’s are connected to the greater cycles within which they are vulnerably nested, interdependent, and co-originating with all that is… This is the tough love of the ‘Good’… the grotesque beauty of the ‘True’.

There are two kinds of light. The glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures. As we exit the cave of mystery we are dazzled by the colours and vibrancy of the world. And we risk to forget the more subtle, silent world of the crystal, transparent, absent inner night.

If one travailed into the dark, would one find a hidden world? A hollow earth of ancient oceans, and mushroom forests? Or perhaps a sign, a ruin, a secret revealed, that would overthrow everything we think we know?


Daniel Mirante is a painter, historian, scholar, teacher and writer.

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