The Visionary Artist in a Secular Society

Contributed by Daniel Mirante on November 5, 2021

Our civilisation has stringent protocols, enshrined within the academic instutitions, to govern what knowledge structures are admitted as ‘truth’.

One effect of this is that a heirarchy of truth production is established within society, with the empirical sciences, with their replicable and practical utilitarian functions being highly valued, alongside their ontological models.

This leaves humanities, and especially the arts, somewhere in the wilderness. As has been observed, ‘opinions are like assholes, everyone has one’. Whilst there is a culture of knowedge production in the arts, it has no relationship to ontology, more it refers to itself. This results in the status of artistic production and visionary phenomenology as having no lynchpin to social credence, except insofar as it may entertain, or fulfil an aesthetic function or a fashion.

In a similar cleave between church and state, western civilisation has abrogated the work of art from ‘truth production’, which now clusters around physics and molecular biology. However the distinction between positivist truth and art is one that has been delineated for a long time, in the works of Plato.

I believe in this situation its worth reminding ourselves of the potential value of liminal space and how experiential forms expressed in the arts may be recognised in their value. The Temenos As Jung stated is a sacred space for psychological integration. Its a space in which various elements of world and psyche find representation in objects that have correspondence to greater forces in our life.

Arguably, much traditional art, including mythological literature and opera and even cinema, comprise a form of cultural Temenos. In the terms of anthropolgist Victor Turner, ‘liminal space’ stands outside of the conventional life of society, whereby large forces are represented, enacted, embodied and processed.

This accounts, for instance, for the vivid strangeness occuring in much work of fiction. Fantasy and science-fiction, whilst not explicitly ‘mystical’ or ‘visionary’ works, still carry explorations of our group psycho-drama writ large.

Plato distinguished between truth arrived at through memesis and abstraction of natures principles, from the divine madness or ‘inspiration’ of the oracles, bards and muses. The distinction still proves useful in our contemporary world.

The ancients talked about the purpose of catharsis in art. Catharsis (from Greek κάθαρσις, katharsis, meaning “purification” or “cleansing” or “clarification”), which Aristotle underlined is so important in the Arts. Related to catharsis, are processes of Abreaction– an artistic ‘re-telling’ of an event, in either ‘mythic time’ or in historical or living memory, ‘re-living’ the experience to purge it of its excessive emotional charge. Anagnorisis also plays a strong part in this- the hero’s sudden awareness of a real situation and the hero’s insight into a relationship with an often-antagonistic character causing an ‘integration’ of  subconscious forces and emotions. Anagnorisis is a change from ignorance to knowledge.

How much of what is described here in the process of art familiar to those involved in psychotherapeutic healing processes? Whilst we may not be able to enshrine the words, poetry, sculpture, or ‘mythologies’ generated by artists as ‘truth’ within the academic cathedral, we may appreciate them still in the fullness of their psychodynamic functions, in felt and dreamed experiences, in the way our imagination bubbles up in symbols to represent intuitive standing waves of subconscious and otherwise inaccessible processes of mind. Emotions and otherwise unfathomable cultural and memetic constellations may be ‘processed’ through catharsis and other forms of psycho-integration.

These considerations traditionally given to the appreciation and respect confered to the psychotherapeutic or ‘revealing’ processes of art provide a rough framework whereby the value of visionary experiences can be recognised in the modern world, and the excessive social disenfranchisement of the figure of the artist/shaman mitigated.


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

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