I rarely come down so judgmentally on a show as I have on “Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies,” which means it must embody some significant truth I haven’t acknowledged. We respond most vehemently to that which touches upon our deepest unresolved internal questions.
And my reaction seems to involve the difference between evocation and evidence.
The traditional saying is that the Maker of the Universe is beautiful and loves beauty. And by and large, the geometries of the world’s cultures are beautiful in the same way that an equation in physics is beautiful: an “elegant” equation is one that looks right, that has a level of symmetry and balance and repetition that is absent from the equations that solve the problem okay, but seem to have something wrong with them nevertheless. (At least, this is the example I remember from my freshman physics textbook of what led physicists to keep questioning interim mathematical solutions, with a couple of equations laid out on the page as examples of why one was more elegant than the other.)
I suspect that that old-fashioned fundamental mathematical elegance has been replaced in contemporary science as in contemporary culture by something much more rambling and tentative-looking, but I wouldn’t know.
So I need to back up to more traditional assertions, such as that we come after not only the hideousness of Auschwitz and the world’s other systemic barbarities, but after Nietzsche’s assertion that “Truth is ugly! We have art in order not to perish of truth!”
So contemporary cosmograms are really considered by their makers as bodies of evidence, like the documentation of alien abductions, which are also pretty much ugly affairs in which the aliens have very little in common with our own sense of aesthetics.
And of course, aesthetics is so intensely a matter of what is being regarded and within what system of discourse. Entomologists and herpetologists have a different scale of beauty in general, but given time and contemplative energy any of us can learn to see the beauty in a rhinoceros beetle, at least, if not in the more workaday species that are the insect world’s equivalent of the English sparrow and its drably functional protective plumage.
But this doesn’t change the fact that the occultists back in the twentieth-century day could lump together the visual productions of Egypt and Oceania and sub-Saharan Africa and Europe and Asia because they perceived a common love of beauty where H. P. Lovecraft and his ilk were wont to see cyclopean horrors and such. (In that, the occultists more resembled the artists of French modernism finding beauty in flea market castoffs, and not the writers of horror fiction, who seem to be firmly in the cast of liking good old sensibly ugly architecture and art because it allows them to experience a pleasurable shudder at the exotic and the anomalous. In fact, horror and sci-fi as genres seem wedded to a love of the irremediably ugly, if the aesthetics of -con art shows are any evidence.)
Today we live comfortably with all forms of the aesthetic; we seem able to enjoy fussily elaborate Baroque serving dishes and fuzzily elaborate funk ceramics and elegantly simple Zen gardens and the elephantine follies of the Enlightenment’s estates, alongside the productions of the rock painters of prehistory.
And we demand rather literal anomalies before we get interested in the physics rather than the aesthetics of all these things.
Joseph Campbell called this the age of comparison, and it obviously is when we get throwaway books with titles like The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife: 91 Places Death Might Take You.
The implication is that we don’t believe in any of the 91 places cited (well, maybe in 90 of them; I haven’t looked at the book, only Suzanne Van Atten’s capsule summary of it in the AJC). But the writers (Augusta Moore and Elizabeth Ripley) are interested enough in what people have believed and do believe about the topic that they have compiled a list of the various things that people have thought.
And the underlying assumption again is that truth is ugly, and art is beautiful but not true. And that previous generations confused art with truth.
Carl Jung and his disciples tended to ignore the aesthetic qualities of the evidence they were presenting for underlying psychic structures. At best, the most sensitive of them suggested that there had to be a reason why modern mandalas were so often ugly as sin where traditional mandalas had had geometric elegance or elaborated styles of beauty.
Well, actually it has been a long time since I read Man and His Symbols. and I hesitate to accuse the Jungians of the same disease that afflicts psychologizers in general, most of whom wouldn’t know beauty if it came up and bit them in the ass. Which it is perfectly capable of doing, ass-biting being as potentially beautiful or ugly as any other form of human or non-human activity.
So we come back to the business of crop circles, which are often beautiful in a very traditional form.
What makes them intriguing is that otherwise, they are largely non-traditional. They bear resemblances to little emblems carved in ancient rocks, and to mazes found not in the landscape but on the floors of medieval cathedrals. The Long Man of Wilmington and the White Horse of Uffington are anything but geometric; they sprawl, freeform, across the landscape. The rather different Cerne Abbas Giant is a hill figure that may actually date from no more than a few centuries ago, the evidence suggesting that a landowner may have had it cut into the turf as a personal fantasy in homage to the hill figures that the antiquarians were then publicizing in their books on the curious ancient survivals of Britain.
And all these Celtic habits of mind share the features of Celtic art that go in for organic elaboration (within what turn out to be geometric forms of order when followed far enough, but their tendency is to spill all over the place).
Crop circles do have certain kinships with the shapes created for English seasonal festivities (many of which were invented in the wake of the English Reformation to replace the banned festivals of Roman Catholicism), and for all of their worldwide occurrence, crop circles do seem to be a distinctly British and mostly English phenomenon. The crop circles from some of the outlying countries are such pathetic fakes that they suggest ineptitude on the part of their makers, or else a singular inability to see what it is that makes crop circles mysterious in the first place.
And like alien abductions, crop circles are a phenomenon of very recent vintage. Just as nobody was abducted by insectoid creatures until recent decades (though they were abducted often enough by much sexier queens of fairyland or terrifying non-insectoid goblins), nobody had their grainfields trampled into geometric patterns in the night, either. Or if they did, they kept it very quiet, or they didn’t notice it because they had no airplanes or didn’t climb the adjoining hills. (That line of thought raises the question again of why ancestral cultures wanted to trample out elaborate designs in the landscape that couldn’t be seen properly until the age of aviation, even if they could be discerned dimly from the highest elevations in the vicinity.)
So of course crop circles play into the deepest psychic whatevers of human beings, the whatevers that led them to make cosmograms and to project meaning into them. And the circles are inserted into landscapes that had a different resonance, an emotional resonance that the Romantic painters in Britain from Samuel Palmer to Paul Nash captured brilliantly.
But it is precisely the non-organic nature of the crop circles that makes them so notable. Whatever imaginative faculties they tap into, they are exactly the ones that organic nature doesn’t, at least not naturally. Nature’s geometries need books like D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form to become evident to the average artist.
Has anyone written a history of the crop circle? There must be dozens such books in existence, yet I don’t recall when the first crop circle appeared, whereas we all remember the birth of the age of UFOs on June 24, 1947 (about the time that the Nag Hammadi documents and the Dead Sea Scrolls were leading the postwar imagination off in quite other directions). [There is, of course, a Wikipedia entry regarding the first crop circles to be reported back in the 1970s, which only reinforces the "no big deal" quality of the initial sightings in England, as distinct from the 1966 "once and then not repeated" UFO-related crop circle in Australia—just a plain old circle such as would be made if you plopped a big disc down on top of a crop.]
For some reason, the crop circle as historical phenomenon hasn’t been documented with the same rigor that the successive waves of Egyptomania have been (to cite only one cultural phenomenon that has more recently been subject to historical investigation). Just as the interactions of the culture with the perceived mysteries of Egypt are subject to precise dating, the interactions with the perceived mysteries of the crop circle must be as well.
And perhaps Ronald Hutton will take up the topic once he gets done with enlightening us about the history of how the Druids were re-imagined or become the subject of new fantasies in every successive generation since their heyday.
We need a greater number of analytical histories of fantasy and the fantastic. But for now we should stick with the question of why our present-day acts of analysis have so little to do with beauty.
(I am known, on the joculum blog, for this kind of digressive essay. Beat with me. Or bear with me, as the case may be, my love of the Freudian typographical error also being a characteristic of that blog.)
Crop circles are new. That is one question that is insufficiently considered; why would someone decide to start making them (although the books on things like the Nazca lines and other things meant to be seen from the skies might be a sufficient provocation to acts of artistic creativity)? [There are precursors, but few and far between.]
Crop circles are also, most of them, rather beautiful. This is in contradistinction to the ones commissioned to advertise beer or to the parodies that are portraits of talk show hosts.
And the art at Eyedrum created in response to such phenomena is, by and large, distinctly unbeautiful. It is almost atypically asymmetrical and/or anti-visual, in response to phenomena that are extraordinarily symmetrical and devoted to retinal as well as conceptual pleasures.
That, in itself, ought to be a subject for investigation. “Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies” is itself a revelatory form of psychogeography in its resolute ugliness. If it evoked mystery, or if it seduced us into skepticism, that would be one form of revelation. That it instead just sits there, yet obviously satisfies every one of the artists who made work that is included in it, is a topic worthy of long meditation. For if many people don’t think the show is evidence of our present imaginative poverty, then that too is important (as in Wittgenstein’s socially insightful philosophical analogy of the bureaucrats whose job it was to record the occupations of all the residents of a community, but who had to realize the importance of recording the numbers of residents who were doing nothing at all.).
If a show shows us that we don’t even get what it is that we don’t get, that too is a fact of some significance.
In other words, those who unthinkingly lump crop circles in with alien abjections (I meant to type “abductions,” obviously) and such like are literally overlooking their most obvious feature. Even if they were made by aliens, they would be made by aliens with more of an artistic sensibility than your run-of-the-mill instruments-up-the-ass alien investigators. Assuming that all of this is just an outpouring of the collective imagination of humankind, why the difference in phenomena according to geographic and cultural location? Why, in the same way that Haitians are inhabited by loas and Manhattanites by their own inner demons, do anomalous phenomena postwar show such culturally specific structures? Especially since these days the loas are everywhere (at least since William Gibson sussed them out in the early days of cyberpunk) and Frantz Fanon was one of the great pioneers of cross-cultural psychoanalysis in the Caribbean. Popular weirdnesses are behind the curve in the latter days of the age of comparison.
So is it that folktales and their ilk are always inherently more conservative phenomena? Are crop circles and the like really just the retro defense of would-be integral cultures, an attempt to incorporate liminality in ways that comfort by their very strangeness, in the same way that myths of black helicopters comfort their believers because they fit the anomalous into accepted models of things that actually exist? (But there is considerably more cultural-studies writing on that topic, so I leave it to one side. Beauty and ugliness and their successive discontents is enough of a subject for one rambling essay. And I do not believe that the answer to the preceding two questions is “Yes.”)
Blogs may be more akin to private journals with megaphones than useful contributions to public discourse. Or as was said of a certain group of thinkers in antiquity, when they were speaking of things that were profound, they were so unclear as to be of no use to anybody; but when they were speaking of things that were simple, what they said was perfectly clear but so obvious as to be of no use to anybody.