Cover Image—Parallel Journeys, my first collage, was partly a tribute to Alex and partly a foreshadow of my willingness to slash into his artwork as I sacrificed my first copy of Sacred Mirrors to obtain visionary source material
Copyright 2013, Jonathan Zap
(Alex has given image permissions and sent hi quality jepgs of some of his images. I haven’t gotten around to getting Alex’s permission to include images for the last part of the article, so expect to see quite a few (((insert image))) place holders. Meanwhile, googling painting titles will probably turn up the image and many can be found at alexgrey.com and cosm.org. Even better would be to get Alex’s three Monograph books: Sacred Mirrors, Transfigurations and Net of Being Cick on this link: CoSM Store to buy these directly from Alex.)
On the morning I started writing this, a five-year-old named Caleb happened to be visiting the house and interrupted my writing session to tell me (and this is an exact quote):
“Jonathan, I see ghosty things other people don’t see.”
I was tempted to reply: “That’s interesting because I just started writing about a grown-up named Alex Grey who also sees ghosty things other people don’t see.” Instead, I asked Caleb to describe one of the ghosty things, and he said he saw a cupcake with a “skeleton head” in it. There were more details I couldn’t quite follow due to the limits of his five-year-old vocabulary and his unfortunate inability to paint like Alex Grey. This synchronistic incident was a timely, and somewhat eerie, reminder of why we need Alex Grey—he sees ghosty things other people don’t see and he does paint like Alex Grey.
In fact, Alex Grey can paint unseen, ghosty things to a degree of potency that can only be compared to a Thor-hammer blow to the head while your body is being strafed by DMT-coated diamond bullets. Scientific testing indicates that some of Alex’s paintings generate phased bursts of nuclear magnetic resonance. This type of scalar wave NMR has been linked to high-lumen retro-chronal causation effects (sometimes called “balefire“), which are capable of matrix deletion of toxic patriarchal structures extending into the past. For example, ever since Alex began painting Net of Being, I can no longer find any record online, or anywhere, of Rasputin‘s two decade reign over Oceania. At their best, Alex’s paintings seem like unauthorized glimpses through the interstices of the matrix, the fever dreams of third-stage, space-folding Guild Navigators living in giant tanks of pure spice gas causing illegal ruptures in the space-time continuum. (Note to literalists: The above are what are called “jokes,” so stop asking me to clarify or document.)
For less than seventy dollars you can own all three of Alex’s monographs—Sacred Mirrors, Transfigurations and the just published Net of Being. Holding these three books in my hands, I feel like I have paid the least price possible to obtain the Philosopher’s Stone, or at least the glossy paper version of an alchemical portal of some kind. I feel like I am holding a spiraling, eye-encrusted atlas of the hidden realms. No home would ever be complete without this trilogy on the shelf available for spiritual cartography, easy reference to the unseen and bottomless rabbit holes on demand.
Although I know Alex, or at least have had several conversations with him, and the reader can probably detect that I am partial to his work, I won’t always be easy on him in this essay. In some sections, like “Don’t Pray the Grey Away” (which critiques Alex’s transforming relationship to darkness and shadow material) I’m going to offer him some challenging criticism. These critiques are not merely to counterbalance the praise myself and so many others want to lavish on his work. I’m hoping this will be useful criticism since I regard Alex as much more than a private citizen and painter. I consider Alex to be a potent, alchemical mutagen introduced into the collective psyche that we all have a stake in keeping as potently mutagenic as possible.
When Terence McKenna was asked what we should do given the dire state of the world, he replied: “Push the art pedal to the metal.” Alex has pushed the art pedal past the heavy metal darkness of H.R. Giger, past the existential despair of post-modernism and trendy nihilism, past the heat ripple distortions of the collective asphalt and into the forbidden realms under-glowing the meat puppet antics of the Babylon Matrix. Stephen Daedalus, James Joyce’s literary alter ego, summed up an aeon when he said, “History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” Alex follows trails of red pills down rabbit holes, waking up repeatedly from the nightmare of history to see through the world that’s been pulled over our eyes. Quite a number of people have had parallel voyages of discovery, but the difference is that Alex brought back to us high-resolution images from across the threshold. For this reason, I see Alex as belonging to humanity, in much the same way as I see the Mars Curiosity Rover with its seventeen cameras, the best optics we’ve ever had roving across the surface of another world, to be public property.
The presumption I make in writing this essay, a presumption that some may find arrogant, is that in return for the two Alex Grey calendars I have purchased, plus up to a dozen of the postcards, perhaps as many as a half dozen of the much more expensive lenticular postcards, and a couple of his books, I am entitled to view myself as a majority shareholder in the Alex Grey enterprise with the right to offer all kinds of evaluations and suggestions about how the enterprise should go forward. Part of this presumption comes with the character flaws of being a demanding and egocentric mutant, but part of it is because Alex belongs to humanity, our high-definition, eye-encrusted Curiosity Rover exploring forbidden, unseen realms. We all have a vested interest in seeing that his high-stakes artistic mission succeeds.
Much of Alex’s work is intended to be an illustration of classic phases of spiritual transformation. But, as Alex and his work recognize, there are spaces where spiritual transformation and evolutionary metamorphosis overlap and coalesce like the multi-Janus-faced entities of Net of Being. Much has already been written, including by Alex, of the classic spiritual face of his work. In part two of this essay I will focus my gaze on the evolutionary metamorphic face of his work, and point out the myriad ways it manifests what I call the Singularity Archetype.
In addition to the enormous value of his work, Alex also has great value to us as what I call a “talismanic personality.” In a review of the movie, Lincoln, I describe a talismanic personality as follows:
A talismanic personality is one that is numinous and inspiring, an exemplar of wholeness that reminds us of what Lincoln called the ‘better angels’ of human nature. In the presence of a talismanic personality, all that is superficially glamorous is revealed as the shoddy, mediocre product of false personality and inflated ego.
Alex personifies a person who is in touch with and coming from what Alistair Crowley called “True Will.” He is someone who recognized his mission in life very early on and has been faithfully pursuing it. By the time he was five years old, Alex had already completed a number of drawings of skulls and skeletons and other visual motifs reflecting his creative preoccupation with death.
Alex’s self-portrait entitled Life Cycle, drawn at age 17, is a brilliant revelation of his essence and life mission. His eyes are obsessively focused, and he is an image of alchemical tension, with one hand touching the boundary between a fetus and a corpse and the other hand raised in prayer. He seems to be surrounded by ancestral spirits.
Alex recognizes and fulfills the foundational core of most True Will: commitment to consciousness and service to others. Also, unlike many of the folks that Alex finds to be talismanic personalities (highly talented people with enormous, unintegrated shadows—more about this later), Alex seems to be consistently benign, gentle and generous with the people who encounter him. He is not the sort of genius, like Picasso, who is best appreciated from a safe distance.
Alex, An Invisible Giant in the Realm of Art Worldlings
As far as I can tell, Alex Grey is invisible in the world of “serious art.” First, according to the postmodern world, spirituality is an incorrect subject for art, literature, film or any sort of culture. The only correct subject for “serious literature,” as Robert McKee has pointed out, are downbeat stories about failed relationships. Spirituality is considered the domain of evangelicals and the hoi polloi, and is far too unsophisticated a subject for art of any kind. Also, the use of skill in artwork, and accurately rendered representational images, indicates an amateurish rube whose art could never be taken seriously.
Net of Being excerpts what is probably the only time the New York Times condescended to notice Alex Grey’s existence. Reporting on the closing of The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, the Times informs us that the chapel was “…a curious, over-the-top combination of art gallery, New Age temple and Coney Island sideshow.” The tone of the article suggests that it is generously restraining the devastating sarcasm it might otherwise unleash if it weren’t showing good natured, bemused tolerance for any readers who might have fond memories of this quaint and colorful little New Age theme park that was closing anyway. The chapel, the Times continues, was a “theatrical environment…designed to transport paying visitors into states of ecstatic reverence for life, love and universal interconnectedness.” The sophisticated reader is meant to admire the tasteful restraint with which the Times implies that here was a place where suckers actually paid money to see a bunch of New Age clichés. I wonder how many Times reviews of exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art specified “paying visitors”?
One of the best assessments of what’s wrong with the art world is an article by Tom Wolfe entitled “The Artist the Art World Couldn’t See” about the sculptor Frederick Hart. Hart had a fatal handicap that cast him as a hopeless amateur in the art world—he could sculpt like a Renaissance Master. A masterpiece like Ex Nihilo, which had spiritual power and took 11 years of focused skill and inspiration, and would have won the respect of Michelangelo, couldn’t possibly be art. If Fredrick had created a sculpture that looked like a fifty-foot tall rusting coat hanger stuck in the ground, that would be art. But to commit the faux pas of using skill in connection with a work of art, and, God forbid, spiritual themes, meant that he didn’t show up as even the faintest blip on the art world radar. (In The Mission of Art, Alex quotes art historian Rosalind Krauss: “Now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention ‘art’ and ‘spirit’ in the same sentence.”) The 2012 film, Cloud Atlas, is a masterpiece (see my review), but it was largely dismissed by critics, many of whom seemed to find its inclusion of spiritual themes to be unacceptable. For example, film critic John Serba wrote:
“Destiny, kismet, serendipity, karma – whatever you want to call it, ‘Cloud Atlas’ is full of it. And when I say ‘full of it,’ I mean ‘it’ to be New Age pseudo-spiritual baloney. ‘Everything is connected,’ the film’s tagline reads, and those who subscribe to that philosophy are more apt to be moved by its purported profundities.”
In other words, politically correct moviegoers, those sophisticated enough to realize that everything is disconnected and meaningless, can’t possibly support a film spreading outrageous spiritual propaganda like “everything is connected.”
No serious art critic would even review Hart’s spiritually themed masterpiece, Ex Nihilo. As Wolfe put it, “The one mention of any sort was an obiter dictum in The Post’s Style (read: Women’s) section indicating that the west facade of the cathedral now had some new but earnestly traditional (read: old-fashioned) decoration.” If Hart’s use of skill and spiritual themes weren’t offensive enough, he added insult to injury by becoming America’s most popular sculptor. Popularity with the general public is the ultimate disconfirmation of artistic value as far as the serious art world is concerned. According to Wolfe, “Art worldlings regarded popularity as skill’s live-in slut. Popularity meant shallowness. Rejection by the public meant depth. And truly hostile rejection very likely meant greatness. Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc,’ a leaning wall of rusting steel smack in the middle of Federal Plaza in New York, was so loathed by the building’s employees that 1,300 of them, including many federal judges, signed a petition calling for its removal. They were angry and determined, and eventually the wall was removed. Serra thereby achieved an eminence of immaculate purity: his work involved absolutely no skill and was despised by everyone outside the art world who saw it. Today many art worldlings regard him as America’s greatest sculptor.”
Long before Ex Nihilo was dismissed by the art world, a Looney Tunes cartoon about a sculpture competition prophetically anticipated the undervaluing of Fredrick Hart. Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd enter a sculpture contest. Elmer obtains a huge slab of marble and sculpts a general sitting on a rearing horse. Just as he is finishing up, his chisel slips and one of the horse’s legs come off. He has less marble now, and uses the remainder to make a sculpture of a standing person. Elmer slips again when he is almost finished and has to discard that statue. Finally, he ends up with a sculpture of a mouse that he entitles The Mouse. As he is putting the finishing touches on The Mouse, Bugs Bunny casually enters his studio, picks up a jagged hunk of discarded marble, and asks Elmer Fudd if he can have it. Elmer distractedly assents. Bugs Bunny stands the rock up on a pedestal and entitles it Upwards Through Time and wins first place in the sculpture contest. My plot synopsis of the cartoon might be off by a detail or two, but you get the idea.
In another sphere of high culture, J.R.R. Tolkien and other writers of fantasy literature are similarly disdained by most literary critics for not realizing that a downbeat account of a series of failed relationships is the only subject sophisticated enough to be considered literature. Literary critics, like Harold Bloom, seemed to be in a hobbit-kicking competition. Edmund Wilson, who was once considered America’s preeminent man of letters, dismissed The Lord of the Rings as “juvenile trash.” There are some signs that attitudes are changing. Stephen King did get the National Book Award in 2003. However, the world of literary criticism still doesn’t seem to realize that fantasy is not a contemporary sub-genre, but the mainstream of literature, with classics like Beowulf and The Odyssey that were created millennia ago. It is in great works of fantasy literature that we often get glimpses of the hidden realms that Alex paints.
Instead of reducing fantasy literature into a subgenre, and calling downbeat books about failed relationships “literature,” I propose that only fantasy fiction should be called “literature” and the downbeat, failed relationship books be consigned to the following subgenre: “Nonvisionary/Personal-Neurotic.” Someone once said: “Don’t read a book unless it is like a ball of light glowing in your hands.” I’ve had that experience more often reading great fantasy novels than most “serious” literature and I was an English major with a couple of degrees and an English teacher for many years. I want all art that I encounter to be a ball of light in my hands, or even better, a ball of light I can step into. I propose that high art be defined as that which generates a ball of light in your hands, head or entire being, and all the rest should be consigned to subgenres with condescending names.
The 2006 film, Art School Confidential, is a wonderful spoof of what’s wrong with the art world. John Malkiovich plays a neurotic art teacher who only paints triangles and heaps scorn on any student naive enough to apply skill to their art projects.
So what is this “art world” that barely notices a visionary genius like Alex Grey? According to Wolfe,
“…the art world was strictly the New York art world, and it was scarcely a world, if world was meant to connote a great many people. In the one sociological study of the subject, ‘The Painted Word,’ the author estimated that the entire art ‘world’ consisted of some 3,000 curators, dealers, collectors, scholars, critics and artists in New York.”
On the morning I started writing this, the same morning that Caleb told me that he saw ghosty things other people didn’t see, there was another stunning synchronicity. While making breakfast, I put on the next Charlie Rose interview that happened to be waiting in my DVR queue. I knew I was going to be watching Charlie Rose, but I had no idea what guests were on. Up next turned out to be an interview with Arne Glimcher, a true princeling amongst art worldlings, the owner of five art galleries, including New York’s influential Pace Gallery. Arne had just written a book about the minimalist artist, Agnes Martin. One minute and five seconds into the interview, Arne laments the ignorance of people (what wretched idiots we are!) who think art has anything to do with skill. Glimcher:
“I think people don’t understand really that art is something in the mind not in the hand. So many people have enormous skill, can make beautiful portraits, can render what they see, so few people can interpret reality.”
Glimcher seems to have done a statistical analysis by proclamation and claims that people with “enormous skill” are a dime a dozen and much more common than his elite class of reality interpreters. First of all, Arne, all art, good or dreadful, abstract or representational, interprets reality. Second, where are all these “so many” folks with enormous skill who are apparently too numerous to be worthy of consideration? I don’t have any statistics either, but last time I checked, I noticed a lot more people doing sloppy, conceptual art projects than people who merely had “enormous skill.”
Oh, but how silly of me, I forgot that art worldlings are here to interpret reality for the rest of us, and to represent reality accurately on canvas or in public statements would be a descent into tasteless, hoi-polloi mediocrity. Perhaps the world of high art and the Tea Party are destined to be allies, since both feel empowered to interpret reality in anyway that feels convenient and both heap scorn on those who seek to represent things accurately. Glimcher’s nonsensical assertion that only the elite of artists “interpret reality” tells us that the art world is rife with pseudo-intellectualism. Highfalutin sounding statements filled with jargon that don’t even begin to make sense are passed off as if incomprehensibility were a sign of high intellect. The pseudo-intellectualism of art wordlings is the perfect bait to phonies seeking culture as status symbol. Privately such status-seekers think that someone making incomprehensible statements must be smarter than they are, and that their best chance of appearing cultured is to meekly defer to the judgment of art worldlings.
And Mr. Glimcher is full of judgments he expects us to defer to. In this one fourteen minute interview he is going to give us several more fascinating glimches into what constitutes high art. In the second minute of the interview, Glimcher provides a list of elite artists who don’t touch their own artwork, but hire other people to do it or create it digitally. “And you are saying what about those people?” asks Charlie Rose. “I’m saying that they are some of the best examples of art being a product of the mind, rather than the hand.” Apparently this is Glimcher’s most central discrimination: art of the hand vs. art of the mind. Notice that this is a nonsensical distinction. Opposable thumbs have been redefined as a counter-evolutionary development. Perhaps if he had watched Charlie Rose’s brain series, he might have learned this interesting finding from neuroscience: Hands are often controlled by minds. Using your hand does not make you mindless, and if you instead use these unfortunate appendages only to touch a computer mouse or to pick up a phone and call other people to tell them how to do the messy, physical part of your art work, that does not make you more imbued with mind. It does not make you more of a “reality interpreter” than anyone else. It does, however, make it 72% more likely that you are pretentious asshole. Artists who are handicapped by having hands under intelligent, skillful control are still able to make art imbued by mind. The only thing I get from Glimcher’s favorite distinction is a snotty, upper class disdain for manual labor. Like a CEO, you become a member of the art elite by being as removed as possible from physical participation with the finished product.
Glimcher further clarifies his disdainfulness for the physical by condescending to recognize architecture as an art (barely), but a handicapped art that could never rise to the level of, for example, one of Agnes Martin’s smears on graph paper.
“Architects can, you know, make great works of ar—”
Glimcher breaks off mid-syllable, preventing himself from accidentally crediting architects as being capable of great art. He corrects the slip and continues:
“Great works of architecture. I think, for the most part, architects are utilitarian artists.”
Glimcher disdainfully over-enunciates “utilitarian” in a way that indicates that it is a synonym for “mentally retarded.” He continues: “It is not, it’s great, it is not the same level, for me, as painting and sculpture where they are non-utilitarian. They are something that just extends the perception of the mind.” (Of course, a utilitarian object like a computer could never extend the perception of the mind. Only things hanging in the Pace Gallery could possibly do that.) Rose ignores this dismissal of architecture as one of the janitorial arts, and tries to steer the interview back to something that Glimcher does know about: “Tell me who Agnes Martin was.” Glimcher:
“Many people call Martin the beginning of minimalism. She’s the end of abstract expressionism. Because there is brushwork, there is a sensitive application by hand. Minimalism sought to get rid of all possible human marks on a canvas.”
Glimcher over enunciates “human marks” to indicate that it is a synonym for dog shit. Martin sweeps away these unsanitary human marks,
“And she eliminates everything from the picture. There is at first no color, no composition. She begins making paintings that are grids that look like graph paper with pencil on canvass…she said to me that she wanted to make a painting that no one else would recognize as a painting. And you know, they responded.”
Glimcher smiles to indicate that Martin had received the ultimate recognition of creating art that no one recognized as art.
This statement generated a flashback to something my dad, Nathan Zap, warned me about in the Museum of Modern Art when I was about twelve years old. My dad was an expressionist/ surrealist painter (see Nocturnal Visions—The Paintings of Nathan Zap) and I grew up going to New York art museums on at least a monthly basis. The first pictures of my parents dating in the late 1940s were taken in the Museum of Modern Art sculpture gardens.
Nathan Zap in the Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden in about 1949
Even as a small child, it was obvious to me that some modern art was visionary, and some of it was a hoax. (An art hoax that costs $50,000 or more is called a “Glimcher”) When I was twelve, we walked past an absurdly minimalist painting, and I ventured the opinion that it wasn’t even art. My dad rebuked me sharply,
“Never, ever say something’s not art, and never, ever act outraged by art no matter how bad it is. There is always some chance that the artist is present and you’ll be giving them exactly what they want. They live for the hope that their art will outrage someone, or that someone will say it is not art. Just walk by it looking bored.”
He was exactly right, of course, and his advice has always stayed with me. There is a great shortage in the art world of people who will act outraged at unskillful art. Such art has been a banal and predictable stereotype for many decades. These are objects of boredom, not outrage. This type of artist is reduced to begging for outrage and disapproval, like Marilyn Manson in the classic Onion article: Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-to-Door Trying to Shock People.
The interview continues, and we finally see some of Martin’s work, beginning with a painting that looks like a sun-faded Rothko. Glimcher narrates: “This is the beginning of Martin’s mature work…it’s not mature yet, but she’s beginning to limit the amount of content in the painting.” This is another fascinating glimche into the nature of high art. An artist is mature to the extent that they have reduced or eliminated content from their art. An artist like Alex Grey, whose paintings are filled with mesmerizing content, is, therefore, an immature artist. That Alex’s art is recognizable as art due to his naive inclusion of content shows just how lowbrow it is. That his content is realized by the skillful use of hands lowers it even further.
Glimcher is not alone in his contempt for art that has content or that is recognizable as art. Sophisticated art must be nihilistic and expressive of nothing except contempt for the public. In The Mission of Art, Alex quotes the contemporary German painter Georg Baselitz as an example of this sort of trendy and contemptuous nihilism:
The artist is not responsible to anyone. His social role is asocial; his only responsibility consists in an attitude to the work he does. There is no communication with any public whatsover. The artist can ask no question, and he makes no statement; he offers no information, and his work cannot be used.
Next on the screen we see a painting entitled Pilgrimage, which looks like an unskillfully rendered portrait of a piece of corrugated, brown cardboard. Commenting on the blurry cardboard, Glimcher gives us another glimche into high-art perception:
“This is a really great, great painting…the way you have to look at these paintings is by erasing any kind of prejudice about what you think you’re seeing and look at the painting and it becomes a mantra.”
In other words, to see high art like this, you have to stop believing your lying eyes, check your mind at the door, and instead repeat the mantras of art worldlings like Glilmcher while opening your check book. It’s an amazing glimche into the doublethink/doubletalk of an art worldling. Most of the content of Glimcher’s interview has been a recital of his prejudices against architecture, or any form of art that has been touched by human hands or that has utility or content. What we think of art is prejudice, what Glimcher thinks of it is revealed truth. To know art we must become empty vessels so that art worldlings like Arne Glimcher can fill us up with their contentless notions.
Next we are shown a painting entitled Trumpet that looks like someone has smeared charcoal on a blank accountant’s ledger. Off camera you can hear Charlie Rose shuffling papers impatiently, and you can sense his hangdog expression drooping by several degrees, until you can almost see a clock melting over his face, which is lying deflated on his oak table, a PBS transposition of the The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. The fourteen minute and twenty second interview has become like watching pencil shadings drying on graph paper, and I can feel the embarrassment of my new LED monitor as it reluctantly surrenders its pixels to render up these colorless, contentless images. Next we are shown Homage to Light, which consists of a black trapezoid on a smeary background. Glimcher describes this masterpiece,
“You have this fantastic wash background…this rectangular shape is an echo of works from the Fifties…I see it as a kind of infinite void, infinite background, void of a background, with this concrete shape floating on it. I think these are open to incredible interpretation.”
Indeed. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to erase my prejudices enough. The trapezoid was still a trapezoid, even though Glimcher referred to it as a rectangle (in fairness, they are both quadrilaterals). To paraphrase Louis Armstrong, “If you have to ask what a rectangle is, you’ll never know.” I guess I’m still stuck in a trapezoidal box when it comes to recognizing the value of unskillful, contentless art. The interview ends with a perfect logical tautology. Charlie Rose quotes an assertion Glimcher made in their previous interview: “The Western narrative is over.” A Westerner asserts a narrative that the Western narrative is over. Arne has forced me to see ants scurrying around the Möbius strip of his thinking. Now that’s art of the mind.
Exposing “Casual Sex” as an Oxymoronic Delusion and other Third Rails
The sophisticated person is supposed to have thoroughly demystified sex into a series of hydraulic transactions that high art should view cynically, emphasizing the lurid and grotesque aspects. Alex, in paintings like Kissing, Copulating, Embracing, and Tantra, violates this taboo by revealing the as above, so below interconnection of sexuality and spirituality. Promiscuity, the current patriarchal norm, is often just as toxic as the old patriarchal norm of harsh taboos. (see my essay: Born under a Blood Red Moon—Metamorphosis of the Feminine in the Dreams of Young Women) Contemporary promiscuity and harsh taboos are opposite sides of the same patriarchal and unerotic coin. (Eros is defined in many different ways in psychology, philosophy and popular culture. Here it is used to refer to the capacity for oceanic merger with other beings.) What are sometimes called erotic images are often depictions of unerotic sex on the level of the genitalia. Alex’s erotic images transcend both sides of the patriarchal view of sex. In a way, his images are more explicit than pornography, which exposes the topography of naked bodies. Alex’s images make the skin transparent so we see the internal organs. At the same time he reveals the interpenetration and merger of bioenergetic and spiritual energy fields. Professor Emeritus of Physiological Science at UCLA, Valerie V. Hunt, has done experiments that demonstrate that in many cases strangers sitting near each other (in laboratory conditions where they can’t hear, see, or smell if another person is nearby) will have potent effects on each other’s bioenergetic fields, which will tend to become mutually entrained. Imagine how much greater these effects are if, instead of proximal strangers that can’t be detected by ordinary senses, we have two people having sex. This is why there can be no such thing as “casual sex.” Sex is not casual on the microbiological plane—it can begin a new life and it can sometimes end a life through STDs like AIDS. As below, so above. It is also not casual on the bioenergetic and spiritual energetic planes. Many of the people who admire Alex’s artwork (Burning Man folk, etc.) don’t seem to get this aspect of what it reveals, and are still naively promiscuous, or even fall for the pre/trans fallacy and believe that sexual antics are daring, avant-garde and transcendent of the conventional. (see Incendiary Person in the Desert Carnival Realm for a critique of Burning Man eros) If you’ve looked at Alex’s paintings and you still believe in “casual sex,” you have not really seen them.
Growing up in New York City and taking the subway on a daily basis I was always fascinated by the forbidden third rail, crackling with 625 volts of lethal electricity. It was both dangerous and fascinating, and a powerful taboo forbade ever going near it. But there was always, and is still, some counterphobic desire to draw near to it, to see what it would be like close up. I feel my hand wanting to reach for it. I, I can’t stop myself, I am going to touch it right now: ABORTION.
Alex’s artwork has profound implications concerning abortion. Many people who look at it don’t see this, just as they don’t see its implications for casual sex. Alex’s painting Pregnancy and his series of paintings in Transfigurations that begin with Attraction, and continue through Penetration, Fertilization, and Buddha Zygote, illustrate phases in the development of embryo and fetus with medical illustrator exactitude.
They also address an issue that many would prefer to skirt around: When is a soul associated with a developing human body? In Alex’s paintings, the answer seems to be conception. Alex paints soul mandalas even at the moment just before conception. He is illustrating a Buddhist teaching that souls choose to enter the organic world at the moment of conception. Valerie Hunt, on the other hand, based not on science but on what she claims is a near consensus of intuitives, says that it is after the first trimester. Perhaps there is a necessary degree of tissue complexity, and especially neural complexity, before a body can house a psyche. Here’s my position on the subject: I don’t know. What I do know is that this is the essential question that needs to be addressed before I can know what to think of abortion. Abortion is not merely a political third rail; it is also an ontological third rail. How and when do psyche and physiology associate and how and when do they disassociate? (see: The Glorified Body—Metamorphosis of the Body and the Crisis Phase of Human Evolution). I don’t know if the association in Alex’s paintings is correct, but his images are powerful reminders to me that I don’t know, and that this crucial, unanswered question crackles with dangerous electricity.
Don’t Pray the Grey Away—Alex the Grey versus Alex the White
Note: I probably owe Alex an apology for this part. While there’s much about his relationship to the shadow here, I also went off at length about the problem of abusive gurus (with a detailed examination of Adi-da) and the idealization of spiritual traditions. Although Alex does have a tendency to be friendly to abusive gurus and to idealize certain spiritual traditions, I want to emphasize that he is the opposite of an abusive guru—a genuinely humble visionary who is kind and generous to everyone he meets. Expect some long tangential forays into the psychology of cultism and guru abuse which will, at times, seem pretty far afield of Alex’s work, but which I believe will be of interest and relevance to many readers. Alex wrote a response and that’s posted at the end of the article.
Darkness, the shadow, and death haunted Alex from the youngest age. As mentioned earlier, Alex was drawing skulls and skeletons by age five. By age ten, he created two powerful images: Grim Reaper and Graveyard Study and by the time he was seventeen, when he created his self-portrait, Life Cycle, his connection to the charged boundary between life and death was self-aware and profound. In Life Cycle, his hand, already the hand of an accomplished artist, touches the boundary between a fetus and a corpse. In a 1996 interview, Alex traces his awareness of darkness and light back to the crib, and his earliest memories:
My very first memories are of lying in my crib and seeing textures in my mind. I felt immersed in a pure, blissful, milky white light—an ecstatic peaceful space. Then I remember a gnarly snaggle-branched, brownish black shadow moving into that space from the periphery of my perception, coming in clumps, and then taking over. This ugly swarming texture would engulf and terrify me, obliterating all the light. Then little islands of bright purity would appear. These pools of milky luminescence would clear away the gnarly texture and I’d have a white-light ocean again. The visions of psychic texture were like yin-yang energies, a constant flux of the universal energies of clarity and chaos, peace and panic, light and darkness, hope and despair. My entire life has been conditioned by the oscillation of those opposing abstract fields.
Alex was born “Alex Velzy.” At age twenty, he changed his name to Grey as a gesture toward his struggle to harmonize the dark and light principles battling within him. By keeping Velzy as his middle name his initials became “AVG,” the abbreviation of “average.”
Especially in his twenties, Alex became creatively obsessed with death and darkness. He worked in morgues and did art projects with corpses. Much of this dark creativity took the form of performance art that Alex now considers “transgressive.” All of this is well documented in his books, so I’m not going to rehash his transgressive phase here. Obsession with darkness is not uncommon in both creative and uncreative people and, in the postmodern world, is considered a much more acceptable subject for art than spirituality. Alex, however, brought his profound originality and penetrating vision to the shadow realms and dark aspects. My first conversations with Alex relate to an area of dark, paranormal investigation that I call “mind parasites.” I wrote about some of Alex’s related experiences and art in Alex Grey and the Mind Parasites In 2006 I brought him on to Coast-to-Coast AM where George Noory and I interviewed Alex on the subject of mind parasites.
Alex has a great deal to contribute to our understanding of dark forces and shadow realms. I also think that his transforming relationship to light and dark needs to keep transforming. There may even be an area or two where the transformation has gotten stuck, and where his understandable preference for light over dark has led to certain areas of idealization and shadow denial. In his latest book, Net of Being, there is a small photo, almost lost in a large collection of small photos, showing Alex with a variety of well-known persons, which seems to unintentionally illustrate a polarization that has occurred in Alex’s relationship to darkness.
H.R. Giger, whom Alex appropriately describes as a “morbid genius,” is on one side of the photo, Alex on the other, and standing between them is transpersonal psychiatrist, Stanislav Grof. Giger, Groff, Grey. I feel that this photo should be entitled: Stanislav Grof Standing Protectively between the Wizard of Darkness and the Wizard of Light so as to Prevent an Anti-matter Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Implosion that could Irreversibly Damage the Space-Time Continuum. The crackling, plasmic fields of boundary tension and cognitive dissonance as Giger and Grey were briefly in the same room together almost certainly created a profound disturbance in the Force. One shudders to think of the light saber battle that could have ensued if Grof weren’t there to stand between them. This photo could be the subject of a collaborative painting that might actually seal the breech between the light and dark sides of the Force. Giger would paint the left side of the canvas, which would include him and would no doubt be teeming with intricate, extraterrestrial, parasitic/heavy metal forms. The left side of Groff would be illustrated as infected with a burst-from-the-abdomen-type extraterrestrial parasite (as seen in the movie, Alien). Alex would paint the right side of the canvass filling it with a shimmering lattice of eyes and spiral galaxies. The right side of Groff would obviously have glowing transparent anatomy.
The Giger-Groff-Grey photo seems to illustrate the polarization problem that characterizes Alex’s current relationship to darkness. Giger’s identification with darkness is so absolute that it would be easier to imagine Megadeth performing a Dorris Day cover than it would be to imagine a ray of light entering a Giger image. Alex’s relationship to light and dark has been much more dynamic, and yet we can sense that Giger is now his unintegrated doppelgänger, the two of them able to appear together only with a powerful psychiatrist like Stanislav Grof standing between them. Giger might also be the only person that I’ve heard Alex tell a negative anecdote about. Alex asked Giger if he ever tried LSD and he responded with German mad scientist paranoia: “No! It is forbidden!”
Competing with Alex’s sometimes-extraordinary ability to integrate shadow, is his tendency to idealize spiritual traditions, spiritual practitioners and certain other people. While Alex is often vivid in depicting the shadow side of the West, of exploitative capitalism, etc. he is not so uninhibited in depicting the shadow sides of spiritual traditions or of people he idealizes including some notoriously abusive gurus. I wouldn’t comment on this, except that shadow integration is a major theme of his artwork. Alex, who knows I’m writing this and will be critical of his shadow integration wrote:
“Jonathan, just wanted you to know that there is a special structure planned at CoSM for engagement with the shadow. It goes with a mythic tale I’m spinning about the current darkness humanity is facing. The land will host pavilions for engaging different levels of the dismemberment of Mother Nature.”
In some ways, Alex’s generous view of others is a product of his spiritual maturity and lack of competitive egocentrism. His attitude toward people, like that of my friend Rob Brezsny, sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable because it highlights my more sarcastic view of a lot of people. I can experience myself as more spiritually immature, and competitively egocentric by contrast. I heard Alex’s wife, Allyson Grey say, “I’m a Russian Jew, and Russian Jews are angry.” That’s my background, and I’m from the Bronx, so perhaps that explains part of the difference. I’m more likely to be confrontational than tolerant of others who are doing things I find objectionable.
I could feel this difference in temperament and attitude toward others’ failings in my last face-to-face conversation with Alex, which was at Area 51/ Burning Man 2012. Mostly we talked about the Singularity Archetype, and seemed to be on a common wavelength, but when I asked Alex what he thought about the somewhat disillusioning revelations about Terence McKenna that had come out recently from his brother Dennis, (See: On the Disillusioning Revelations about Terence McKenna) Alex vehemently dismissed them and launched into a spirited defense of Terence. As an admirer of Terence, I could see where Alex was coming from, but I was interested in discussing these newly revealed character flaws for the depth they would add to our picture of him. Alex seemed to regard them as distractions from the need to idealize Terence.
I felt Alex’s tendency to idealize was an unconscious reflex, but in an interview with Joe Rogan on October 10, 2012, Alex brings his feelings to the surface as a conscious policy:
“What we like to do is trash all of our heroes, make them as low as possible, so that you have no hope about human character, and I think that is a shame.”
This is a legitimate point. We do live in an anti-heroic age, and age where we like to trash talk the high and mighty and are fascinated with celebrity scandals. On the other hand, there are self-promoting charlatans who enforce their own idealization and whose unintegrated shadows make them a hazard to others. (For a recent example, see: American Cyclopath.)
Alex, who is a genuinely talismanic personality and worthy of some idealization, is unfortunately a promoter of certain influential persons who could be hazardous to idealize. In Net of Being there is a photo of Alex standing next to the abusive guru Andrew Cohen. Alex has also invited Andrew to speak at CoSM and has had some public dialogues with him. (For more on Andrew Cohen’s abusive history see the book, American Guru, the website Whatenlightenment? and the sarcastically entitled The Mother of God—a book by Andrew’s own mother denouncing the abusive cult tactics she witnessed.)
Alex frequently lauds Ken Wilber, who is a genius, but also a promoter of abusive gurus like Andrew Cohen and Adi Da, and a man whose unintegrated shadow casts a reality distortion field that compromises the value of some of his work. When I tried to talk to Alex about him in CoSM several years ago, his description of Wilber was hagiographical, and I knew that my mixed feelings about him would be met with resistance. There are sides of Wilber that Alex either doesn’t see or chooses to ignore. For example, in Mission of Art there is an idealized portrait of Wilber and on the opposing page, accidentally juxtaposed, is a summary of the perennial philosophy. Wilber is a vocal opponent of key aspects of the perennial philosophy that contradict the spiral dynamics evolutionary model he favors. The opposing pages seem to illustrate the side of idealized figures Alex doesn’t see.
By far the most objectionable instance of idealization is Alex’s portrait of the criminally abusive guru Adi Da that spills across two pages of Transfigurations. Adi Da (who went through several name changes, but was originally born Franklin Jones in Queens, New York) is portrayed by Alex as the messianic avatar that Jones heralded himself as being. Next to the portrait Alex writes:
In my painting Adi Da, the guru is portrayed as a totally transfigured being. His heart is the dawning sun, source of illumination outwardly and inwardly symbolic of Da’s transparency to divine radiance. …The potion in the cup is amrita, nectar of the heart united with an ocean of love, the God intoxication that the guru provides and for which humanity thirsts.
Alex also describes how impressed he was by darshan with Adi Da:
There was only the Divine Presence that he is and all of us potentially are. He seemed silently to become every individual in the room, and as this happened, people swooned in devotional ecstasy. My one encounter with Adi Da was profound. I am not a formal devotee, but I have a tremendous respect for Da’s writings and teachings.
Alex’s words and striking portrait, created and published when Jones was still alive, could easily have enticed someone into the often spiritually, psychologically and physically hazardous presence of this very strange man.
In the following section I will take an extended look at Jones, because I think it will illustrate where Alex and others get some things wrong about the shadow, especially the shadows of spiritual traditions and charismatic spiritual figures. This will be the longest tangent in the spiraling overview, so for readers who are not interested in the shadow side of gurus and want content more closely related to Alex Grey—feel free to skip ahead.
Jones was apparently a genius, and a spiritual prodigy of some sort, but he was also, according to numerous people close to him, a malevolent narcissist, an abusive and exploitative sadist and serial rapist who emulated a poor man’s version of Caligula’s lifestyle. At one point, for example, Jones had a harem of nine wives including a Playboy pinup girl. He binged on junk food, alcohol and drugs and had many expensive habits. He once paid $159,000. for a single glass paperweight, and devotees celebrated this deed as a great accomplishment.
Recently, I’ve been dialoguing with Conrad Goehausen, a brilliantly insightful man, who was a member of Jone’s inner circle for many years and is working on a book about him. As critical as he is of Jones, Conrad resisted any attempt I made to flatten him into a stereotyped caricature. Jones, according to Goehausen, was a genuinely powerful and spiritual being whose charismatic presence was a force to be reckoned with. Jones talent for mind control and manipulation may have been honed during his time as a Scientologist.
A few notes and disclaimers before we take a deeper look at the shadow side of Jones. The following comes from ex-devotees and members of Jone’s inner circle. The testimony is presented mostly in their own words, which I’ve found in the Adi Da Archives site). In some few cases I’ve done a little editing for continuity purposes.
I have no ability to independently verify all of the episodes they report. I would make any judgments based on the aggregate of this material in case any individual occurrence is misrepresented in any way. I have zero direct experience of Jones so neither Reality Sandwich nor I can take responsibility for the veracity of each and every claim. Those who want mainstream press documentation and legal testimony corroborating Jone’s history of abuse should check the following summary page:
Adi Da stated that devotional worship of him is the sole means of spiritual enlightenment for others. He said that his own spiritual stature was superior to that of Jesus, Buddha, or any of the great spiritual figures from human history.
In 1983 he predicted that before he died all of humanity (whom he called “five billion slugs”) would acknowledge him, and said that if he had not come to Earth all of humanity would have been destroyed.
Jones prophesied, repeatedly, that the year 2000 was the year he would be recognized by the world. He even went so far as to claim that Christians would recognize him as the Second Coming of Christ.
Jesus was a fifth stage realizer, Buddha a sixth stage realizer, and Jones was the first, last and only seventh stage realizer. The first, last and only claim by Jones was repeated so often that many insiders referred to it by the acronym: “FLO.”
In Jones own words (and eccentric use of capitalization):
I Am the Ultimate Demonstration (and the Final, or Completing, Proof) of the Truth of the Great Tradition as a whole. Until I Appeared, there were no seventh stage Realizers within the Great Tradition of mankind. I Am the First and the Last seventh stage Adept to Appear in the human domain (and in the Cosmic Domain of all and All). It is neither possible nor necessary for another seventh stage Adept to Appear anywhere, because I have Accomplished My necessary Work everywhere. However, because I have Appeared and have Done My Completing Work, seventh stage Realizers (not with the Divine Adept-Function That Is Unique to Me, but Fully Realized, through their ego-transcending devotion to Me, and, Thus and Thereby, to the by Me Revealed Divine Person and Self-Domain) will Awaken, in all times and places.
–Franklin Jones (Adi Da) from the prologue to his book The Basket of Tolerance. These remarks were also posted on the official Adidam website.
Anyone who did not accept Jones’s megalomaniac claims, or who did not devotionally worship him, was a narcissistic egoist doomed to live in the outer darkness. In Jones own words:
I Am the Sign and the Revelation and the Proof of God in the world. I am the Way up from the pond. In your egoity, you only want to stare at yourself in the pond and apply some techniques and some disciplines to yourself. Without devotion to Me, without Ishta-Guru-Bhakti Yoga, disciplines are fruitless nonsense, realizing nothing but Narcissus. All of life is self-meditation unless life itself becomes meditation on Me. http://www.adidaarchives.org/drop_everything.htm
Those who Do Not heart-Recognize Me and heart-Respond to Me-and who (Therefore) Are Without Faith In Me — Do Not (and Cannot) Realize Me. Therefore, they (By Means Of their own self-Contraction From Me) Remain ego-Bound To The Realm Of Cosmic Nature, and To The Ever-Changing Round Of conditional knowledge and temporary experience, and To The Ceaselessly Repetitive Cycles Of birth and search and loss and death. Such Faithless beings Cannot Be Distracted By Me — Because they Are Entirely Distracted By themselves! They Are Like Narcissus — The Myth Of ego — At His Pond. Their Merely self-Reflecting minds Are Like a mirror in a dead man’s hand. Their tiny hearts Are Like a boundless desert, where the mirage of Separate self is ceaselessly admired, and The True Water Of My Constant Presence Stands Un-Noticed, in the droughty heap and countless sands of ceaseless thoughts.
(Aham Da Asmi, pages 77-78) http://www.adidaarchives.org/adi_da_non-believers.htm
One of Jones’s favorite pastimes was “sexual theater” (his term) which was fueled by endless quantities of the sacred Tantric substances Jack Daniels and Rush (“poppers”—amyl nitrate) and which involved grotesque and sadistic humiliations of hundreds of devotees. Jones rationalized his sexual theater this way:
I Know what to do about sex.
Most people do not know what to do about sex-so they generally just keep their pants on, if they are seriously involved in religious and Spiritual life.
But I do Know what to do about sex-and I Know how to Serve My devotees in this matter.
I am not an ordinary man.
What I Do is Unique.
I Straightened My devotees out about sex.
No ‘lily-white’ approach to dealing with sex can come even close to straightening anyone out.
Adi Da gave herpes to a significant number of women, so many that it cannot be claimed to be merely an innocent accident or mistake. One must admit he was reckless and negligent at a minimum, because he knew he had active lesions and was contagious, yet infected women anyway. Beyond mere negligence however, he was surely sick and deranged as well because he has claimed that he gave others the disease for their spiritual benefit. He told one teenaged girl in the mid-70’s, J.K, (and perhaps others) that he gave her herpes as “prasad (a divine gift) from the Guru to help her work out her bad cunt karma.” http://www.adidaarchives.org/news_summary_connie.htm
Jones consistently humiliated and emasculated other males to maintain his status as the alpha. For example, he would require heterosexual married men to be anally penetrated by other men in front of their wives. He would also have them witness their wives being sodomized by other men.
The first time 10 year old Jessica Constantine met Adi Da, he commanded her to strip naked in front of a large group of adults who were partying. She refused and ran away. Adi Da told some of his devotees to chase her down, and they brought her back and forced her to strip, against her will.
(Jessica Constantine, NBC Today Show, 1985)
Many devotees who were sexually abused by Jones were convinced that they had been divinely blessed. For example, Jones apparently burned the back of a female devotee with a cigar while having anal sex with her. Afterwards the devotee bragged that lightening had come out of the guru’s hands and left healing marks on her back.
A married woman gushed to another devotee: “I’ll never forget the first time I went down on the Lord.”
According to an ex-devotee:
When I was new in Adidam, I asked the teacher of the class I was in, when he was waxing on about crazy wisdom knowing no bounds and so on, if there wasn’t SOME LIMIT to what the guru would do. (Little did I know when I innocently asked that question!)
He then told me the story of Franklin turning to a devotee and saying, “Let’s go rape a virgin!” and going and finding a 16 year old girl and raping her in front of the other man, then leaving her crying on the floor.
Meanwhile, many of Jone’s devotees were instructed to be celibate. It was, however, permissible for them to masturbate in solitude while sitting or lying before a photograph of Jones.
Does Jones sound a bit vampiric? At one point this was all but literal:
Adi Da’s extravagant spending habits kept his community in a difficult financial condition for many years. At one time, in order to help mitigate the financial problems, he required all followers to be corralled like cattle into a San Francisco skid row blood plasma donation center to donate twice a week. The money went directly from the center into the organization’s operating budget, i.e. into Adi Da’s pocket by way of paying for his and his wives’ living expenses, travel, gifts and extravagances, etc. Many of the people should not have been donating plasma twice per week for so long, and had trouble passing the tests given by the blood center because they were getting depleted and sick, or experiencing dizziness, etc. However, they were given large doses of iron and other vitamins so they could continue to pass the physical and chemical tests so that they could continue to donate plasma and keep the money coming in. (see Mill Valley Record, 4/3/85).
Jones (who was a notorious binger on junk food and rich luxury foods) claimed his bulging belly, displayed in so many photographs, extends grotesquely due to the huge amount of “life force” being conducted through his “vital center” in the stomach.
(Mill Valley Record April 3, 1985, attested to in numerous articles and attested to by Miller, Kahn, Masters, Bev O’Mahony, the Lupa’s and others).
Many of Jones’s devotees followed the process of idealization into full-blown idolatry:
Carolyn Lee (author of the sycophantic The Promised Godman Is Here) described Jones appearance in exalted terms (and she also parrots his eccentric capitalization):
When you receive Beloved’s Communication you will feel His Extraordinary State of Body. His Darshan is an overwhelming Revelation. His Body, and especially His Divine Face is Plastic as He Speaks, Shaping and Reshaping Like a Flow of Water.
His Head appears more Spherical than ever. His Divine Human Form is Beyond Human. His Infinite Divinity has Assumed His Avataric Form in ways that are simply inconceivable. The very Sight of Him, Bodily, Grants us an immediate Vision of a Reality other than this gross domain.
He is the One to Whom we can only bow down in adoration and worship. Such a Sight as He is has never before been Granted to humankind or to any beings at all.
Another devotee, Malcolm Burke, described Adi Da’s demeanor this way:
After a time, His Eyes like laser beams of Fire, He Looked out at all devotees in the Room and beyond, and began to Speak. There are no words to describe the Sound of our Beloved’s Voice. He Speaks now from His Room, the Center of the Cosmic Mandala, so deep there is no doubt that the entire cosmos is conforming to His Divinely Husbanding Power, and yet so vulnerable and human there is no doubt He is the Embodiment of Compassion and Love.
One devotee spoke of the need for those who serve Jones directly to become “professional” (a term that Jones used). By “professional,” Jones apparently meant meekly and courteously submissive to his sexual demands:
He has Indicated that “professional” in His terms, means Samraj or Spiritual absorption in Him and sensitivity to Him, so that there are no Oedipal limits in devotees who are caring for His Body.
This is extremely important because our Beloved is so profoundly Involved in His Spiritual Work now that it is difficult for Him to even remain associated with the waking state. Thus the way that He is served must draw Him very sensitively and pleasurably into association with the Body.
Only this quality of devotional service can soothe the unspeakable Ordeal of His World Work that He Engages tirelessly in Divinely Loving Service to all beings.”
At one point, Jones told devotees that it was a shame he had to teach in a time and place where the laws of the land prevented him from killing devotees if that’s what it took to wake them up!
Jones frequently criticized his devotees for not bringing him enough gifts and “contact persons” (VIP visitors who were either celebrities or who had access to great wealth). For example, in 2000, the same year that Alex published his portrait of Adi Da in Transfigurations, Jones lamented:
So the force of My Work is pushed up in Me so profoundly it could be destructive, and so I have to have a way to function above and beyond the physical body. I am involved in the most immense struggle. I am at war with the most fierce forces that can be imagined. And this terrible descent comes into My Body unless My Descent is able to Flow. But this must not be allowed to continue. The forces I am dealing with must be allowed to flow and not come into this Body, and, for this to occur, I need to begin to relate to real contact people of wealth and influence…
This is a typical guru strategy. Ooze shaktipa and charm when VIP guests, like Alex Grey, are present, and save the sexual theater stuff for when they are off the premises. Alex was certainly not alone in his admiration for the teachings, if not the person of, Jones:
One ex-devotee provides a partial list of those who have offered Jones high praise:
Ken Wilber, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Larry Dossey, M.D., Willis Harman, President of the Institute of Noetic Science, Sun Bear, Fred Alan Wolf, Joan Halifax, Judith Cornell, Georg Feuerstein, Alan Watts, Bonnie Greenwell, Malidoma Patrice Some, Leroy Finch, Robert K. Hall, M.D., Irena Tweedie, Richard Grossinger, Charles T. Tart, Stanley Krippner, Peter Russell, Bill Gottlieb, Jeffrey Mishlove…
The same ex-devotee points out Ken Wilber’s remark in an introduction to one of Adi Da’s books,
“…no one in the fields of psychology, religion, philosophy, or sociology can afford not to be at least a student of Da Free John.”
Alex’s idealization of charismatic spiritual people also extends to spiritual traditions. As I mentioned before, while Alex is not shy about depicting the shadow side of the West, industrialism, etc. he does not seem to acknowledge the extremely dark shadows of the spiritual traditions that he idealizes in his images. In Net of Being, Alex writes:
When judging whether a teaching is adequate to the task of enlightenment, look to the teachers, the exemplars. To what degree are they realized? To what degree are they living and speaking and expressing as Godself?
I agree with this statement, but do not see Alex following his own advice. However, I would like to apply his advice right now, and assert that the abusive guru syndrome, the extraordinary number of gurus, especially those heralded in the West, who turned into Adi Da types—sadistic, exploitative sexual vampires—are the direct products of psychological flaws in their spiritual traditions. Most of us would be willing to make that sort of connection with the Catholic Church and the priest abuse scandals, but find that a veil of political correctness keeps people from seeing the flaws of Eastern spiritual traditions. The “Crazy Wisdom” approach that both Jones (Adi Da) and Andrew Cohen (who was once a Jones devotee) adopted to rationalize their sadistic behavior, comes from the spiritual tradition that Alex has most identified with, Tibetan Buddhism. I can hear the protests even as I type these words. People will say, But this isn’t a fair criticism, Jones and Cohen are Americans who distorted this tradition! (to clarify: I worded that poorly since it seems to imply that Cohen and Jones are identified with Tibetan Buddhism. They’re not. What I meant to convey is that the Crazy Wisdom Path comes from Tibetan Buddhism) Actually, many of the most inflated and abusive gurus are authentic, indigenous lineage carriers of their Eastern traditions. Also, shadow deniers of spiritual traditions always say: “Those aren’t the true (Christians, Muslims, etc.) that did that—” These same people would never say “Those aren’t the real Republicans, capitalists, corporatists who did that—” When a system or tradition regularly produces abusive people and tactics, then that phenomenon is a legitimate part of that system or tradition to be studied and evaluated. It will usually turn out that the abuses derive from structural and psychological flaws in the tradition or system and not merely bad apple individuals or sects.
One of the few people with the courage and depth to look into the shadow side of his own tradition was Carl Jung. The son of a Protestant minister, Jung remained a Gnostic Christian, but he also had the honesty to ask himself, “Why has so much blood been spilled in the name of Christianity?” He found that the flaw was in the religion itself and he wrote about that in his book, Aion.
Jung himself had a very brutal shadow and while I am greatly influenced by his work, I don’t see any reason to idealize him or hesitate to point out the flaws in his personality and conduct.
Idealizers of religions don’t do this work, but try to compartmentalize and exclude the pathology as having any thing to do with the system itself. For example,
America’s Roman Catholic bishops commissioned a five-year study to provide a definitive answer to what caused the plague of sexual abuse by priests.
According to The New York Times,
The study, initiated in 2006, was conducted by a team of researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City at a cost of $1.8 million. About half was provided by the bishops, with additional money contributed by Catholic organizations and foundations. The National Institute of Justice, the research agency of the United States Department of Justice, supplied about $280,000.
According to the study, the problem of priests raping children did not derive from the culture or structure of the Catholic Church, its beliefs or practices. Instead, the blame was outsourced to popular, secular culture. In what’s been called the “blame Woodstock” explanation, the study asserted that the problem was caused by the sexual revolution. Similarly, people who’ve never studied the Qur’an (and who typically have no understanding of the principle of abrogation in Islam) will say: “Islam is a religion of peace, these extremists distort the religion and have nothing to do with real Islam.”
At CoSM several years ago, I met Dawoud Kringle, a Sufi Islamic Imam and friend of Alex’s who frequently called on at public events there to read poetry, play music and pronounce words of Sufi wisdom. I found him very personable and charismatic and we had some conversations at CoSM. At the time, I was also helping a nonprofit, The Women’s Assistance Fund that aided women who were the victims of Islamic Fundamentalism. During the course of my work for that organization I had to encounter a mountain of horrific evidence of the dark side of Islam. I felt that Dawoud, with his mystical Sufi background would be the ideal person to reality check what I was reading in the Qur’an and Hadiths, etc. We conducted a lengthy dialogue by email that has been published online (with Dawoud’s consent) since 2006 (see Part III of Projection the Enemy of Peace and Justice). I think if Alex read the dialogue he would be shocked to find out what Dawoud thinks about women and gays (which emerges in the dialogue linked above).
What can happen when we meet a charismatic person with a spiritual aura is a particularly dangerous variant of the “halo effect.” If someone seems spiritual, is revered by others, is said to be an elder or a lineage carrier or whatever, we may assume all sorts of things about them. We idealize them, in another words, and that can be extremely dangerous. (For more on the halo effect and other dangerous delusions, read: Seeing Blindspots) So when Alex paints a reverential portrait of Adi Da, he is using his genius to put a halo effect (and even actual halos!) around someone who also needs to have a skull and cross bones emblazoned on their forehead as a warning to others. Someone looking at this portrait of Adi Da in 2000, and at the words Alex added, might easily think: Alex is the real deal. He is a visionary genius and I’ve seen him in public and see how kind and compassionate he is. Someone whom he depicts in this way must be god-like. Maybe I should put myself at the feet of this amazing guru. This is an example of how idealization can create suffering.
Oddly enough, Alex provided a relevant warning about projection, the halo effect and gurus in his 1998 book, The Mission of Art:
The teacher, is an outward symbol of one’s own highest nature. In a cult situation, people project their own spiritual authority onto their “infallible” guru and then become morally blind by justifying the guru’s outrageous behavior, or they become disillusioned if the guru doesn’t live up to their projections.
Some people in the West tend to be so awed by Buddhism, especially since it is non-Western and comes from exotic non-white cultures that they think it is beyond reproach. The halo effect extends across a vast tradition. But Buddhism is an amalgam of many different practices and beliefs of varying quality. It also has psychological flaws in its typical structure and a series of anti-feminine biases. I wrote about these in a surrealized way in Lessons for an Entity Incarnating as a Mammal.
Back to Tibetan Buddhism, the Crazy Wisdom Path and an indigenous, authentic lineage carrier of same, Rinpoche Chogyam Trungpa. Trungpa, according to Wikipedia, was a “Buddhist meditation master and holder of both the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages, the eleventh Trungpa tülku, a tertön, supreme abbot of the Surmang monasteries, scholar, teacher, poet, artist, and originator of a radical re-presentation of Shambhala vision.”
In Dynamic Paradoxicalism—the anti-ism, ism (an essay defining my own philosophy which was designed as an alternative to absolutisms, and other sorts of isms) I discuss Trungpa’s version of Crazy Wisdom:
Spiritual genius and abusive guru Chogyam Trungpa is a classic example of sophisticated rationalization. He defined crazy wisdom in the following way:
But this craziness is not so neurotic; it’s just basic craziness, which is fearlessness and not giving up anything. Not giving up anything is the basic point. At the same time, you are willing to work with what is there on the basis of its primordial wakeful quality. So that is the definition of crazy wisdom, which is sometimes known as wisdom gone wild.
Huh? Another explanation is that the Buddhist (and Hindu) emphasis on vertical transcendence may often mean a neglect of the horizontal plane of development, such as integration of the shadow, which can then rule the personality as an unintegrated autonomous complex. Trungpa’s crazy wisdom path involved sexual abuse of students and drinking himself to death at the age of 48. His chosen successor spread AIDS to some of his young disciples, which resulted in at least one fatality.
Trungpa selected Boulder, Colorado as the place to set up a college (Naropa) as well as the Shambala center. When I came to Boulder in 1995 (I still live in Boulder) I befriended a member of Trungpa’s inner circle. Bill was a brilliant and charismatic man who continued to idealize Trungpa even as he related horrific stories about what went on behind the scenes. Bill’s emulation of Trungpa was pervasive; he had been one of Trungpa’s favored drinking companions and sadly, like his master, was drinking himself to death.
Author Sam Keen had this to say about the proliferation of Wisdom teachers:
One of the things I frankly don’t like about your magazine [What is Enlightenment?, rebranded as EnlightenNext, published by Andrew Cohen and now defunct] is the holding up of these people who are supposedly “in the absolute” and totally liberated. I don’t know whether you remember, but for many years I was the person at Psychology Today who interviewed all these gurus. And so I’ve had a good bit of experience with a fair number of them—Chögyam Trungpa, Oscar Ichazo, Muktananda and others. And if these are all examples of people who are totally liberated, I say give me slavery because they were people with enormous illusions and who were cultivating enormous illusions in their followers. By and large almost all of them were totally unclear about three important things: sex, money and power. And they could play like they were liberated as long as they had a whole cult of disciples who did everything for them except wipe their asses—and probably that, too. And most of them were on enormous power trips. So I think the idea of total liberation is an idea that is more crippling than helpful.
As I stated above, Eastern traditions that emphasize vertical spiritual transcendence have a huge psychological flaw: they tend to neglect the horizontal plane of development, such as integration of the shadow, which can then rule the personality as an unintegrated, autonomous complex. (I’m using the word “tend” because, like all traditions, there are endless variations of the tradition that can range from the sublime to the ridiculous and dangerous.) Eastern traditions often tend to denigrate the human plane of existence as maya, samsara, etc. and this may be part of an anti-feminine bias. (Taoism, however, is the most feminine of all major religions, also the least abusive.) Followers of these traditions often fail to recognize something that should be obvious at this point: Someone can have a transcendent experience of nondualistic connection to oneness—enlightenment, Samadhi, Satori—and then return to their psychological baseline where they may continue to be the same asshole they were before the experience. Often, however, they come back as a far more dangerous asshole than they ever were before because they will be more inflated and charismatic.
There is a classic problem we see with New Age gurus, with psychonauts, conspiracy folk and many others who engage esoteric work. Often, when people contact the transcendent realm, and/or the collective unconscious/archetypal realm, they are not necessarily improved as people. I wrote about this in Carnival 2012—a Psychological Study of the 2012 Phenomenon and the 22 Pitfalls and Blindspots of Esoteric Research:
Pitfall #7: Archetypes and other forces in the unconscious are powerful, high energy, obsessively fascinating, and pose dangers of ego inflation, literalization and possession.
Many take what they experience literally, failing to recognize the trickster aspect of the unconscious and the need for interpretation. This can lead to becoming possessed by unconscious contents. It is very easy to identify with the forces, archetypes and entities you encounter during unconscious exploration and you may find your ego becoming monstrously inflated. Key red flags include: you feel you have seen something no one else has ever seen; you feel filled with a sense of special destiny, perhaps messianic fervor; you feel an intense need to proselytize and convert others to your new vision.
Pitfall # 8: If your esoteric research, discoveries, etc. cause you to think that you are entitled to certain sexual privileges, that you are imbued with some special powers such that sex with you is an evolutionary catalyst or spiritual initiation: STOP! GET HELP! YOU ARE BECOMING AN EVIL ASSHOLE!
Some have suggested that the era of the sexually abusive guru might be coming to an end because of the Internet. Anyone can get on line and find out about their abuses. I’m not so sanguine. Some people are magnetically attracted to darkness. Some psychoanalysts I knew in the Eighties told me that at the height of AIDS, their gay male patients reporting being hit on by supposedly straight men much more than they had ever experienced before. I interpret this as an aspect of the mysterious connection between sex and thanatos (roughly, a death drive). Some people want someone to dominate and deceive them and sometimes even to lure them into death.
Pitfall # 9. Sex, money and power tend to flow together. Many of the most revered, exalted gurus, prophets, religious leaders and spiritual teachers have been horrible sex, money and power abusers. Tolerating that in yourself or someone else means you have crossed over to the dark side.
Note: The abuser would be actively on the dark side, while the victims are less blameworthy but have crossed over to the dark side in the sense that they are now eclipsed by a dark force that is ruling over them. Their degree of responsibility for the situation would be governed by the degree that they had, and were able to exercise, free will to avoid the situation. For example, some of those abused in cult situations are children whose parents chose to join.
Now that we’ve taken an extended tour of shadowland, let’s move in a constructive direction and conclude the shadow section by looking at how we can healthfully work with shadow material intrapsychically, interpersonally and artistically.
In Carnival 2012, and elsewhere, I’ve talked about my ongoing work to integrate my own shadow. Many of the pitfalls of esoteric research I learned about by falling into them. In the discussion of pitfall #7, which warns about dangers of being possessed by archetypes and inflated by them, I acknowledge:
This gets a bit tricky because some of those red flags could be up and you could still be onto something valuable. To be honest, I’ve been aware of some of those red flags in myself since the Seventies. I am also well aware that I am a narcissistic personality type, the ruling personality type of this age (though I have never had narcissistic personality disorder, a much more serious condition). Very gradually I’ve made progress realizing how my narcissism and self-importance work, how they distort many things, and how to compensate for them so that I am not constantly acting them out in destructive ways. The self-monitoring and efforts at compensation for my narcissism are an imperfect, moment-by-moment struggle. Typically, I am self-monitoring the words I write and that come out of my mouth, scanning them for the thousand flavors and faces of my narcissism. When I sense my self-importance heating up, I try to rein myself in. Is what I am writing/saying of moral, informational and/or entertainment value to others, or am I merely caught up in self-promotion? The price of freedom from unconscious possession is eternal vigilance.
I also realized that there were certain hidden, valuable aspects in some forms of narcissism. (See my document Narcissism for more on its hidden, evolutionary side.) To integrate the shadow, we need to embrace it, and work with it. I’m not expecting my narcissism to disappear, but I have made progress in becoming more aware of it so I can compensate for it rather than just acting it out.
The perceptive reader of this spiraling overview will no doubt be able to find ample evidence of my shadow (arrogance, narcissism, egocentrism, etc.) in the text, and are free to judge how well I have compensated for those attributes.
(More on integrating Shadow: https://zaporacle.com/themes/integrating-shadow/ For more on reclaiming idealizing projections see Casting Precious into the Crack of Doom—Androgyny, Alchemy, Evolution and the One Ring)
Dealing with the shadow interpersonally is another vast topic, but in this context we’ll focus on how to relate to those who are brilliant (as Franklin Jones/Adi Da certainly was), but who also cast dark shadows. As Jung once said, “The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.” He also said, “The larger the man, the larger the shadow.” Probably, 6’5″ Jung was hoping people would apply these aphorisms to him, since he was both brilliant and brutal.
Relating to talented people with very dark shadows is a topic that came up in a recent email exchange with my friend Rob Brezsny, who, like Alex, tends to take a much more charitable view of many people than I do.
The key for me is: How sizable is each person’s Asshole Quotient? Is their influence on the world and their presence in the Noosphere more than 40% Asshole and 60% Other Stuff? If so, then I will probably not have much to do with them.
But if their proportion is more like 15% Asshole and 60% Pretty Good Stuff and 25% Other Stuff, then I will be more receptive.
Part of my response to Rob:
The following factors will allow me to tolerate a talented person with a very high asshole quotient:
1. They’re dead. Any abuse of others is in the past.
2. Their work has unique, intrinsic genius and is too valuable to throw out with the toxic bathwater and spoiled baby parts of them.
3. Their shadow is well known enough (for anyone who wants to find out) that it doesn’t need further outing. Even so, when I talk about Jung, whose work I revere and follow, I often point out that he was personally brutal. I can quote Aleister Crowley without outing his dark side, since that’s often the only part people know about him.
4. Compartmentalization. If their teachings or work of genius are unrelated to character, psychology, spiritual development, personal conduct, etc. it’s easier to compartmentalize. For example, a physicist would be unlikely to say: “I like the theory of relativity, and the experimental evidence for it is overwhelming, but given Einstein’s near abandonment of his first wife, I’m never going to be able to accept it.” On the other hand, if someone like Adi Da proposes a path to enlightenment if you follow him, but then you find out that his approach led him to become a monstrous lecher, and those who followed him to become cult victims, then there is a need for some shadow reverse engineering to see where he went wrong and if there is any healthy tissue left in his work that can be compartmentalized from his metastasizing personality.
What lowers the pass factor is an aspect we might call “asshole marbling,” which is analogous to meat that is so marbled with fat that it would be impossible to trim it. Of course, as a vegetarian, it might not be the best analogy for me to use, but you get the idea. I’ve gotten some good things out of reading Ken Wilber, but the marbling with his grandiosity and unreliability is exasperating, and I don’t have time to double check every assertion. A labyrinth of intricate ideas caught in a personality distortion field wants me to enter. It might be give me a theory and history of everything or it might leave me with a Ken Wilber headache and the sense of his giant ego pounding in my head. At some point I may read some more Wilber, but the combination of voice of authority, brilliance, erudition and pseudo-erudition, and his overreaching grandiosity and need to be the one who categorizes everyone else, leaves me with the feeling of compromised content, and a particularly labor-intensive and irritating form of marbling to process. It feels like someone has put a Vulcan and a clown into a high-speed blender. I want to drink just the Vulcan part, but it would take a team of PhDs and a basement full of centrifuges running for sixty years to make the distillation.
(Note: People much better educated than myself have already extensively criticized the flaws in Wilber’s philosophy. An index of this considerable body of work, including a recent book, can be found here: http://www.integralworld.net/criticism.html)
With Jung, I don’t find his personality flaws to compromise his writings very much, so it’s easy to compartmentalize. His brutality shows up in the writings mostly as an irritated wizard tone, like Gandalf talking to Pippin after a moment of appalling halfling carelessness, and I find that kind of tone quite appealing from Jung. A slightly brutal wizard confiding essential secrets through posthumous writings is quite tolerable for me, but a slightly brutal unconscious asshole standing in front of me is not.
Although I’ve given some criticisms of Alex’s relationship to shadow material, I see him as having great power to reveal shadow realms. In Alex Grey and the Mind Parasites I discuss three of his paintings, Demons and Deities Drinking from the Milky Pool, Self-Hatred/Endarkenment and Despair that aren’t merely manifestations of darkness (we’ve already got mountains of art, film, music, etc. doing that), but illustrations that penetrate darkness with illuminating vision.
In the triptych, Journey of the Wounded Healer, the first two panels, which depict dark or chaotic states, are the most powerful, and allow the moment of spiritual ascent in the third panel to seem earned. Prostration is a vision of earned spiritual transcendence. The power and depth of the image is greatly enhanced by the shadowy realm of demons below the prostrate figure. Similarly, I find the first two panels of Nature of Mind the most potent because they depict the darkness that accompanies the spiritual journey.
Finally, I’ll conclude this long shadow section with a suggestion of a new masterpiece that would redeem Alex’s occasional lapses into idealization. The excessively white light Adi Da portrait is badly in need of more grey, and specifically I recommend some Dorian Gray-style overpainting. The addition of herpes sores, a lecherous grin, and perhaps fangs, would help fill out Adi Da’s depiction. Beneath him could be discarded Jack Daniels bottles and vials of Rush as well as various of the demons he succumbed to. Then, possibly the greatest lenticular postcard in the history of art could be created which should be entitled “Guru.” It would phase between the original portrait of Adi Da and the overpainted revision. If Alex accepts my humble suggestion of this new masterpiece I will commit to buying at least four of the resulting postcards.
Public Alex / Studio Alex
The creative cycle demands an audience, yet there are many cultural obstacles and negative reactions with which the artist must cope. Many artists seek the perpetual shelter of the studio, yet feel the internal ache of incompletion of their creative cycle and yearn to have their voice join the cultural choir. The difficulties encountered with galleries, museums, and collectors leave some artists feeling bitter and rejected.
—Alex Grey, The Mission of Art
For many creative artists there is a difficult discernment to make about how much time and energy to spend in solitary creation, public performance, interacting with the public and being involved in various marketing/promotional activities. I struggle with this discernment myself, but I usually prioritize the development of original content over the more extroverted choices. If there is no original content, then there is nothing of value to promote, market, perform or interact with the public about. A stance I try to follow is expressed in Zap Oracle card #169, “Do the Work Only You Can Do” which includes the following words:
It is humbling and appropriate that a lot of the work we do can easily be done by others. Somebody has to do it, and it is only fair that we do our share of some of the maintenance work necessary to keep the whole human experience going. But if you incarnated to fulfill a unique mission, then you must give that mission priority. If the creative muse wants to work through you, then you must do what is necessary to allow that to happen. On a more personal level, we may be here to work with particular people, to have particular relationships. In such cases only you can be the father or mother to your children, only you can be the particular friend, spiritual ally, parent, teacher, etc. to some other particular person. There is also unique work you have to do for yourself — only you can work on your relationship to yourself, only you can write in your journal, only you are fully responsible for your health, and so forth.
Prioritize doing the work only you can do.
Based on this stance, an artist like Alex Grey, who has a mission to bring an original vision to the world, cannot compromise that goal. If he neglected being a father to his daughter, or taking care of his health, those would be mission failures too, because those are also works that only he can do. Only Alex can interact with the public as the direct personification of his art mission. However, even amongst the works that only you can do there is a hierarchy of value and priority. It is more important for Alex to create the art that only he can do, than for him to be the public personification of it, since the former is prerequisite to the later. More extrinsic work, such as building maintenance and keeping the books at CoSM are not work that only Alex can do, and if he is able to outsource those jobs, which he probably does, he should. And then there are grey areas, promotional and marketing activities, teaching, public performance painting and so forth that are sometimes work only he can do, but which may also distract or take energy from the most intrinsic work, the development of the most powerful original content which probably occurs during solitary studio time.
Relating to the creative muse involves a complexity of layers and forces— some more intrinsic, some more extrinsic. There are some nearly universal principles, but no one-size-fits-all formula for navigating this highly individualized relationship. My major work on this subject is The Path of the Numinous—Living and Working with the Creative Muse. To give unsolicited advice to an artist about their deeply personal relationship to the muse is highly presumptuous and inappropriate, unless, of course, you are doing a spiraling, eye-encrusted overview of their work, plus related topics, which I interpret as a license to comment on anything.
Artists (by which I mean any creative person, not just visual artists) vary dramatically in terms of their public or extraverted creativity and solitary or introverted creativity. There is also a paradox, in that the most internal work, done in absolute solitude, may also be the most outer reaching. I’m going to delve into this paradox because I want to make a case that it is studio Alex that has more of an effect on the public, than does public Alex.
In The Path of the Numinous—Living and Working with the Creative Muse I discuss a dream I had that illustrates this key paradox of creativity—the deeper in you go, the further out you often reach:
In the dream, I am working on a performance art piece in a somewhat chaotic situation where anomalous, almost apocalyptic weather is occurring, The art piece involves viewers looking down a shaft, partly created by optical illusions, at a person sitting at a table far below. The person at the table is in a state of subterranean isolation and I think of naming the performance art piece after the Dostoevsky novella, Notes from Underground. As I play with the optical illusions necessary to create the perception of the long shaft, I am in a subject/object reversal state as I experience myself as both the viewer and as the man from underground sitting at a table at the bottom of the shaft.
When I was designing the performance piece in the dream, I was well aware of my artistic intent. I was trying to make a statement that the artist must be a man from underground, must accept subterranean isolation in the depths, but that, paradoxically, from this intense isolation the artist can create things of universal import and of great interest to others. The dream art project seems like a shaft revealing a person in deep isolation, but it is an optical and conceptual paradox because it is also a projection, a creative extrusion into the outer world of an artistic statement. Optically, the art installation is paradoxical because it feels like you are looking through the wrong end of a telescope or into a deep well, but actually prisms, etc. are projecting the image up and out so it is also like a light house, a projector of light.
If we envision Dostoevsky alone in his garret, at an extreme low point in both his career and personal life, writing Notes from Underground in isolation at night, pages and pen illuminated by the flickering light of a kerosene lamp, it’s like looking down a shaft, seeing a person in the depths of isolated creation. But then if we shift our focus to view the present readers of Dostoevsky, we see, for example, young college students, 130 years after Dostoevsky’s death holding battered paperback copies of Notes from Underground and reading them with rapt attention. Our expanded view reveals that what looked like a shaft descending into total isolation was actually more like a lighthouse projecting a beam of light. The novella that Dostoevsky wrote in total seclusion is actually a 19th Century telepathic device, still fully functional, projecting Dostoevsky’s most private thoughts across space and time so potently that 150 years later they are still glowing in human minds.
If you hold the two perspectives in your mind—Dostoevsky at the bottom of a shaft of isolation writing, and the telepathic lighthouse broadcasting his thoughts across the night of time—then you see the paradox of solitary creation. What seems like an isolated tunneling into the depths of our being can also be a telepathic broadcast into the minds of others, a broadcast that can transcend our life span. The optical illusion of isolation when we tunnel inward has never been more illusory than in the Internet era. What Alex paints alone in his studio is destined to light up on the pixelated screens of far more people than he will ever meet in person.
Some of the best art requires complete solitude. For example, to write In Search of Lost Time (also called A Remembrance of Things Past), Marcel Proust needed to socially and acoustically isolate himself in a cork-lined study. He knew that certain types of penetrating vision require seclusion. In Sodom and Gomorrah, Proust wrote:
I, the strange human, who while he waits for death to release him, lives behind closed shutters, knows nothing of the world, sits motionless as an owl, and like that bird can only see things at all clearly in the darkness.
Much of the source material of what he wrote in seclusion, however, derived from extroverted, social experiences that were now stored in memory.
Some art, performance art, for example, is almost always done before an audience. Similarly, there aren’t many people who take up acting on a solitary basis. Some art forms are collaborative and demand social interaction. A movie director might be a visionary introvert, but to make a major motion picture they also have to perform like a general who is able to maintain morale and command logistics. They must also be a CEO and manage money and resources, a politician, a man or woman of action and so forth.
Visual artists, painters and sculptors, usually work in solitude, but there is considerable individual variation. The most public artist I ever met was my sometime friend during my East Village years, Keith Haring. I first encountered Keith’s work riding the subway. During that era, when ad posters were due to be replaced in subway stations, they would first paste a sheet of black, matte paper over them so that the earlier ad wouldn’t bleed through. The poster frames with the flat, black paper were interpreted by Keith as temporally fragile, alchemical chalk boards. Keith could wield a stick of chalk or a marker pen like lightening and arresting images formed in seconds. Sometimes, however, he wasn’t quite quick enough and, the arresting images resulted in his getting arrested by the N.Y. Transit police. Some of these fragile, public creations were brilliant and I got off the Six Train once to photograph a particularly striking one that is now featured in Zap Oracle card #293, “Power Worship” which is also relevant to the guru issue.
Soon thereafter, Keith began showing his work at Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery which was literally across the street from where I lived on Tenth Street close to Avenue A. I would go over to the Fun Gallery sometimes and talk to Keith about Jung and point out the many connections his work had to the Singularity Archetype. Keith drew some of his designs on a few of the Jung books I lent him.
Keith was the most fully public artist I ever met and it would be hard to imagine him in any other context. He was mercurial and hyperkinetic and, like his subway drawings, he seemed to be everywhere. His extraversion was in many ways a public service. For example, at the time Keith was showing at the Fun Gallery I was an English teacher and dean of a public high school in the South Bronx. I befriended some of the more talented graffiti writers at the school, and Keith helped me to get a couple of them, Caski and Galaxy, shown at the Fun Gallery. Keith also teamed up for a while with another graffiti writer, LA2.
Much of Keith’s best work was done in public. He was also out and about everywhere, and like Alex, incredibly generous with his time and talent and made himself accessible to anyone. Art dealers tried to get him to be less generous, pointing out that he lowered the financial value of his work by decorating every leather jacket that kids in East Village clubs put in front of him, etc. But Keith would not have been Keith, would not have fulfilled his particular art mission, if he weren’t so public. Also, his hyperkinetic, loose, line drawing style didn’t require a studio setting.
Alex is the next most public artist I’ve ever met. On the other hand, his best work is done with diamond cutter precision and usually does require a studio setting.
((Insert image p. 106, Net of Being))
The public paintings like Mushroom Sutra are OK, and I guess we can fill in most of the transparent anatomy detail with our imagination at this point, but it is not exactly a rival to Net of Being. Mushroom Sutra isn’t opening a portal into an unseen world the way his best studio works do, at least for me. (In fairness, some Grey images painted in the looser style, such as Death and the Maiden, are quite powerful.)
I’m greedy and egocentric. I want as many visionary portals out of Alex as I can possibly get. Athletes are told to “leave it all on the field” and that’s what I want from Alex; I want him to leave it all on the canvas or stretched linen or whatever. If he’s had an amazing vision that is still languishing in his imagination because he hasn’t found the studio time to manifest it, then I feel cheated and perhaps Alex does too.
If someone offered me a low five figure fee to do a live painting or talk at a festival somewhere I could respond, “Thank you so much for the offer, but I place higher value on the creation of original content in solitude.” Actually, my response would be: “Hell yes, when do I need to be at the airport?” As a narcissistic personality who finds money to be a very useful thing, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second. But if I started to get enough of those offers, enough that it was seriously encroaching on solitary writing time, I’d have to rethink my public/private creativity boundary. Even so, I’d find it hard to say no because cash is so useful and public attention (up to a point) can be exciting and addictive.
As soon as I have enough cash to pay all my expenses and get all the shiny, new digital gadgets I want, trading time for money gets much less attractive. If, however, I felt I needed fifty million dollars or so to build a Zap Oracle Pavilion then ordinary cash sufficiency would not suffice, and it would be even harder to say no.
Mark Twain, because of horrendously bad investments, was forced, late in life, to get out on the road and do public speaking tours to pay back his creditors. If he hadn’t had to do that, maybe he could have written another masterpiece. Charles Dickens put his health at nearly fatal risk to do public readings. He had four households to support and was paid well for his performances, but he also loved the stage, was a consummate actor, and the thrill of public performance was an addictive passion. The intensity of his performances was so great, and his health so fragile (he looked like a very old man when he died at 58) that his doctor could sometimes barely detect his pulse when he collapsed with exhaustion at the end of a performance. Dickens, who was perhaps the first modern celebrity, had obsessed fans all over the world. According to a New York Times report from that era, “In New York City, 5000 people stood in a mile-long line for tickets…” Dicken’s enthusiasm for the public was matched by their enthusiasm for him. The time and vitality Dickens spent on his readings was worth it for those who attended. Unfortunately, no recording technology was available to preserve these performances. Also, given the dreadful current state of time displacement technology, and temporal paradox issues, I feel that the odds of my ever getting to attend one of these mesmerizing 19th Century performances are probably very low. So from where I am standing in linear time, I would prefer that Dickens had done fewer readings and preserved his health enough to say, finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which he was in the midst of writing when he was felled by a stroke in 1870. My suggestion to Dickens would have been that he should do the work only he can do, and leave it all on the page. Like so much of my good advice, this suggestion will probably have little or no influence given the strange immutability of human affairs trapped, like moths in amber, on the wrong side of linear time. In the present era, however, Simon Callow http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Callow and other actors and directors continue to do brilliant work bringing Dickens to the public, but none of them can finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
This is the reason why I immediately felt some reservations when I first heard Alex and Allyson talk about their extremely ambitious plans to build a giant temple complex in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. I had already witnessed some talented people inspired by creative vision and an excess of New Age, Jah-will-provide optimism get burned by their naive faith in YCYOR (you-create-your-own-reality—see my critique of YCYOR as an absolutism in Dynamic Paradoxicalism—the Anti-ism Ism). On the other hand, the Greys and CoSM have far more competence, connections, wherewithal and original vision than those I saw who got burned. My concern was that the noble effort to build this facility would distract from the solitary studio work.
Unfortunately, I have not yet been to the Wappingers Falls, New York facility, but plan to in the future. I also have no inside knowledge of how the fund raising, etc. for the creation of the Temple is going. Maybe it’s all solidly on track and my concern is unwarranted.
To any and all multibillionaires who have fallen under the spell of this spiraling overview: write this man a sixty million dollar check. I’d feel better about the effort if there was a fully funded Apollo moon-shot-style team of engineers, architects and construction experts that could say to Alex, “Just give us your basic design drawings, and we’ll do the rest.” Even better would be a sixty billion dollar check so that the temple could be up scaled to four times the size of the Great Pyramid in Egypt with walls meticulously constructed of hurricane-proof, laser-cut prismatic solar powered, hologram-generating glass panels. I want the temple to be able to project rotating 800-meter tall transparent anatomy figures that will be visible from Manhattan at night. A monorail configured to follow the outline of a goddess would quickly transport visitors to any part of the compound. If I were president, I would give somewhere between 6 and 12 percent of the U.S. military budget (currently estimated as between 1 and 1.4 trillion dollars) to Alex for the purpose of art projects and sacred site development. As president, I would realize that a spiritual renaissance in 2013 has to have more pizazz, more sensory impact than what the Catholic Church offered 800 years ago. That’s also why I would take the next sixty percent of the U.S. Military budget and invest it in consumer virtual reality, CGI, and a hundred fantasy films with half-billion-dollar budgets each.
The reality is that even with sixty-million dollars and an Alex Grey design you will still not come close to the impact of an 800-year-old Gothic cathedral. Just think, these weightless looking structures wrought of a hundred million pounds of stone, the weight of the Empire State building, were wrought by the six gadzillion man hours efforts of Renaissance craftsman and stone masons steeped in alchemy working for up to a hundred years. Oh, and state-of-the-Gothic-art architecture might have a ceiling by Michelangelo thrown in.
We need to exceed the power of a Gothic Cathedral, but without a budget of at least six hundred million, it won’t happen. A Gothic cathedral is a pinnacle of analogue labors. Given the low probability that I will ever be in a discretionary relationship to the U.S. military budget, I can think of a less labor and cash intensive way to have more than Gothic cathedral power: combine Alex’s imagination, six million dollars or less and a team of alchemically adept digital artisans working on behalf of his vision.
Even though I visit New York City five or six times a year, I’ve never made it to a mile past the Path Train stop and the new facility. Right now I would trade my future chances of spending a full moon at the CoSM temple for a pair of $259 dollar wrap around, high-res, 3D, LCD Samsung glasses connected to an IPod Nano-sized object in the shape of an eye made of iridescent, injection molded, high-density plastic. It’s called an EyeCoSm® and the third generation model will eventually sell on Amazon for $129.95. When I touch the pupil of my EyeCoSM®, I begin my virtual tour of the Sacred Mirrors. A series of transparent anatomy figures rotate in a three dimensional star field. An Eyeclick takes me into the virtual temple that has a domed roof and I lie down in the center of it. As I look up at the dome it morphs into a 3D rendering of The Net of Being. I rise up toward The Net of Being and hurtle through a tunnel vortex formed out of a spiraling mosaic of eyes and galaxies. Next I have to get past a threshold guardian in the form of what looks like a six hundred meter high befanged guru who shoots flames out of his eyes. Using the touch sensitive surfaces of my EyeCoSM® like a game controller, I navigate past the guru and pass through stages in The Journey of the Wounded Healer. And so forth.
Yeah, from the point of view of psychometry, of psyche-infused matter, a Gothic cathedral wrought by skilled human hands (painstakingly realizing its every nook and cranny, its every tile and pane of stained glass) towers over the iridescent, injection molded casing of my little EyeCoSM®. And my Samsung glasses have the psychometrical profile of a double-track, disposable razor. I don’t sacrifice the psyche-infused objects lightly, either. I happen to be someone obsessed with psychometrically intense objects that surround me in my home as I type this. Still, offer me an excursion package which includes first class airfare, plus five star hotel and dining so that I can spend a luxurious week touring the Apostolic Palace, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel and I’ll gladly sacrifice all the psychometrical benefits to trade for even a second-gen EyeCoSM® and the anytime/anywhere chance not to have tourists bustling about me while I’m in the sacred space.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica, and the Apostolic Palace as much as the next guy, but it sucks that they are currently located in the Vatican. If you moved them to Monument Valley, kept all the Catholics and tourists out, fumigated them with sage smoke for a couple of months and then allowed ayahuasca ceremonies at night in the Sistine chapel, they would become much more valuable as sacred spaces for me. Given the low probability that I’ll ever get the Vatican to agree to any of these enhancements, I’ll sacrifice some analog production values and psychometrical Gothic aura in return for the chance to have everyone else excuse themselves from the virtual Sistine Chapel so I can take an entheogen, turn on my EyeCoSM® and spend an entire night alone in there lying on a futon staring up at Michelangelo’s ceiling slowly phasing into Alex Grey’s Net of Being3D ceiling in complete silence. A couple of Eyeclicks, though, and I could add Gregorian chanting in surround sound if I want. Or loud trance techno or Bach organ fugues or whatever. I’ll trade my excursion package to Rome or a stretch limo ride to Wappinger, New York for an EyeCoSM® I can use wherever/whenever I need to.
I realize that the social aspect would be sacrificed by solitary EyeCoSM® use. A lot of interesting people show up at CoSM full-moon events and that’s worth going out of your way for and I am glad that they will be continuing. I’m social, but I’m also an introvert, and I feel that group spiritual experiences tend to get overrated. Yeah, every so often eight people somewhere will take ayahuasca together and form a telepathic bond that creates a seed crystal glowing in the collective unconscious of the species. Most group experiences on the festival and public event scale, however, have a very diffused spiritual atmosphere at best, with a thousand layers of the same old social matrix infusing the mutant nexus. An individual, alone in her apartment, in silent darkness (plus EyeCoSM®) and perhaps an entheogen, could have a glowing-in-the-collective-unconscious, seed-crystal experience.
As important as it is to work on climate change and many other serious issues, I would place the highest moral value on helping to create seed-crystal experiences. Some may dismiss this as the personal preference of an introvert with interests in the paranormal and mystical. Actually, emphasizing seed-crystal experiences is the most pragmatic, potent and direct approach to achieving a positive metamorphosis of human existence. From the extrovert’s point of view, and the U.S. is an especially extroverted culture, art is a hobby type of a thing, a sideshow, something for arty types to do in their spare time. It’s not at the center. At the center are the big, serious things—-the economy, war, violence and environmental pollution. And yet, the economy, war, violence and environmental pollution are all psychological products. All derive from a common source: the human psyche. Addressing these things symptomatically is superficial and weak compared to going right to the source, the psyche.
As Jung said,
There is no such thing in nature as a hydrogen bomb. That is all man’s doing. We are the great danger. Psyche is the great danger.
The primacy of psyche is also the reason why Terence McKenna, as I mentioned in the intro, said we should “Push the art pedal to the metal” to further human evolution. This is also why Terence and Alex emphasize entheogen experiences. It is because we need people to have seed-crystal experiences.
This is why Alex writes in The Mission of Art,
So take care, artist, you shoulder responsibility for affecting the collective mind. Even a tiny drop of a powerful tincture can change the color of an entire glass of water.
In Star Trek mythology, prospective Federation captains are tested in sophisticated simulators with a no-win scenario called the “Kobayashi Maru,” a tactically impossible situation where every possible strategy and series of actions will fail. Captain Kirk’s response, when he was tested by the Kobayashi Maru simulation for the third time, was to reject the no-win scenario. He did this by hacking into and reprogramming the simulation computer.
This is a key mythologem of our time. Our simulation computer (the collective psyche) is generating Kobayashi Maru, no-win scenarios globally. We need to hack into and reprogram the collective psyche with seed-crystal experiences to do that.
This is why I’m more interested in developing the EyeCoSM® than the temple in Wappinger, New York. I want the seed-crystal experience available to a nineteen-year-old cyberpunk who lives in a seedy part of Tokyo. We need to use the ever more world-wide availability of the internet and other technologies to bring down the patriarchal era. For example, when a young, visionary, Dutch artist, Thijme Termaat posted a brief, but very clever YouTube of himself painting (I Paint), it inspired many more people than displaying his canvasses in the conventional way.
Vax, the nineteen-year-old cyberpunk, who built the first version of my website several years ago, said to me at the time: “At least you have some actual content to put in a website.” He had grown tired of people who wanted him to build them websites and expected him to supply the content as well. When he delivered that line, I realized that one of the most important jobs on the planet is to be a content-provider. The technology and the ability to distribute information doesn’t help us much if there isn’t visionary content. The ten million SMS texts that will be generated in the next hour that read, “Whassup?” aren’t going to change the collective psyche very much. We need to combine the technology with the most visionary content we can find.
The perceptive reader will have long since concluded that I am not just giving advice to Alex Grey. Alex’s case dramatizes issues that all us content-providers need to keep in mind. What makes Alex’s case dramatic, however, is that he is the most seed-crystal-experience-generating visual artist I know. And this is why I want Alex to keep pushing his art pedal to the metal.
As great as it is to have so much public access to Alex— his availability at numerous public events, etc. I would rather get a few more paintings on the scale of The Net of Being. This is why I want people to write him big checks so he doesn’t have to do events to raise funds. If you are concerned about psychological products like war and other forms of violence, the economy, and environmental pollution (caused by greedy, short-sighted psyches), and want a potent way to address the root cause of those problems, make a donation to CoSM which is a 501(C) (3) nonprofit. Your donation will directly help with seed-crystal-experience generation, which is the direst need of the human species.
Meanwhile, I want Alex to keep looking through the interstices of the matrix at hidden realities and then create portals for us to see what he sees. For this reason, I would also prefer that (in some cases at least) Alex didn’t have to spend years doing the precise, laborious, minute brush work that he does so well. Yes, there is an incredible, devotional presence to Net of Being with the immense effort of painting the same, tiny spiral galaxy again and again and again. Being near Net of Being, the original painting, is far more intense than being near a life-size, beautifully printed glossy poster version of it.
Alex, Jonathan in front of Net of Being at CoSM (NYC) photo by Bernadette Salem
A couple of years ago I got to stand inches from Jung’s The Red Book in a museum in New York. The field around it was potent, a wizard’s secret book labored over during the course of decades, filled with visions. It was great to be able to stand so close to this book I had heard rumors about since I started studying Jung at age 20, but if I had to choose between that experience, and a PDF of the entire text, I would choose the PDF. If I didn’t get to stand next to Net of Being with Alex, but could hurtle through Net of Being 3D with my EyeCoSM®, I’d consider myself very well compensated. Ideally, we would be able to choose both/and rather than either/or. This is why I have already committed 6-12% of the U.S. military budget (should it ever be brought under my discretionary control) for Alex’s art projects and sacred site development. I want a sixty billion dollar temple complex at Wappinger, N.Y. and a third-gen EyeCoSM®. Given an either/or, however, I’ll take the EyeCoSM®.
Although Alex has had more to say about the devotional and psychometric aspects of labor-intensive handmade art, I have also heard him speak highly of computer-generated art as well. In The Visionary Artist (a Sounds True audiobook), Alex generously praises computer art and says that he has learned the rudiments of Photo Shop. The most notable example of Alex collaborating with digital animators is the music video of Lateralus by Tool.
I would like to see Alex collaborate more with skilled digital artisans. While I get the devotional aspect of painting the same tiny spiral galaxy again and again, a strong case can also be made for reducing the investment of repetitious labor in a mechanically resistant medium and allowing a crucial visionary content provider to, for example, propagate the spiral galaxy with a hundred mouse clicks rather than a million brush strokes.
((insert imageTransfiguraton pages 50-51 and insert image))
Some of Alex’s images seem like they would actually be enhanced in a digital form. Original Face, a series of five, 17″x24″ panels painted with oil on linen in 1995, looks like a computer image. An animated version was produced for Tool’s Laderalis, but I see it displayed on a giant video screen with nodes of light moving along the vertical lines that establish the contours of the faces.
((NB 38-9insert image)))
I feel that Lightworker would be more powerful if the lightning, electrical field and spiral vortex were all animated.
In principle, Alex embraces the power of the new media. In The Mission of Art, he writes:
Science and technology have stretched human vision to the farthest expanses of space by the powers of the telescope and have allowed us to peer into previously unknown infinitesimal worlds by the powers of electron microscopy. Photography of cells, molecules, and atoms reveals pattern upon pattern of refined interwoven worlds and has given artists new vistas of the miniscule.
Super computers have given artists new tools to create vivid and realistic imaginal worlds. With 3-D modeling and texture mapping of surfaces at such a high level of sophistication, computer artists can seamlessly interject their fantastic worlds into films or photographic scenes of everyday reality.
Alex may agree in principle, but I would like to see him utilize more of it in practice. Michelangelo and Bach used the most high-tech means available in their eras. Unauthorized digital artists will continue to appropriate Alex’s images for their art and animations. Why not have the originator of the visions directing more of the digital magic?
Alex, the Writer
Alex has also worked in the least mechanically resistant of all media—writing. Not much, as far as I can tell, has been written about Alex’s writings, so I’m going to make a few comments.
Unlike a biographer, the spiraling overviewer, at least as I interpret the role, comments on whatever catches his eye, and especially on what has not been commented on. A great deal has been written, by Alex and others, on Alex the psychonaut and his philosophy of relating to entheogens as a visionary, artist and spiritual seeker. This spiraling overview is, therefore, going to skip over that important topic entirely.
Obviously, Alex will always be far more recognized for his visual work, than his writing, though most of his prose is written in a lucid style and often has cogent things to say, especially about being an artist with a moral purpose. That an artist can and should have a mission to bring something life-affirming into the world is a stance that would have been more acceptable in the 19th Century. Today, coming from a New York artist, it is a courageous stance since it is dramatically cross-grained with the trendy nihilism that, as discussed previously, is considered the only sophisticated and correct stance by most artworldlings. Alex’s philosophy of art has intellectual precision, but is centered in the heart, soul and spirit. This is especially admirable since he is working in an art world that is more about cash and the avoidance of positive content. A humble sincerity shines through in his writings, and often an ability, like the X-Ray painting style, to expose the core. For example, in The Mission of Art he writes,
God has ordained that imagination be stronger than reason in the soul of the artist, which makes the artist build bridges between the possible and the seemingly impossible.
The insight is powerful, and the use of the word “God” in the statement somewhere between unorthodox to heretical in the world of contemporary art. Arguably, the insight could be delivered without bringing a polarizing entity like God into the equation (my philosophy of creativity The Path of the Numinous—Living and Working with the Creative Muse makes no mention of God), but you have to admire the sheer chutzpah of a New York artist/intellectual using it in his philosophy of art.
Alex’s prose, both in style and content, gets high marks from me. Alex has also written considerable poetry (which he sometimes recites at public events) and has even published a book of poetry and imagery entitled Art Psalms. I’m less competent to comment on poetry than prose, and I’m also more ambivalent about his work in that medium. Alex’s poetry is mostly a poetry of ideas and spiritual principles that often seems more well intended than inspired in the use of language and poetic technique. From the craft of writing point of view, I have a one-sentence suggestion to Alex if he plans to continue as a poet: bring in the specificity of image that is your strongest suit into your poetry. Much of the poetry is either nonvisual or has images that are too abstracted for me to visualize. There are too many lines like “A glowing God’s eye,” which is too generalized for me to conjure up any particular image in my mind. On the other hand, Alex’s prose will sometimes use very effective visual metaphors, “The fire of God fills the artist with holy pressure to turn the coal of matter into diamonds of art.” A more playful and inventive use of language occurs in the title of a painting, “Psychomicrograph of a Fractal Paisley Cherub Feather Tip.” My suggestion is to bring more specificity of image and visionary, playful inventiveness into the poetic writings.
This concludes part I of the spiraling overview. In part II we are going to go much deeper into the content of many of Alex’s images and see what they reveal about the evolutionary metamorphosis of the human species.
Response from Alex (2/15/13):