why a new magical counter culture is emerging
Paganism is making a comeback in art and fashion, through Los Angeles crystal shops and psychedelic journeys of self-discovery.
With Halloween approaching, now is a good time to think about witches. There's Kendall Jenner in the latest Marc Jacobs campaign, who, with her pale blue skin and gigantic crinkle-cut hair, clad in black and blood-burgundy upon teetering platforms, many have likened to a witch; in particular to Bellatrix Lestrange, Helena Bonham Carter's character from the Harry Potter movies. Harry is back too: his book's in every bookstore window display, his play's sold out, a spinoff movie is in the works. There's even a witch house revival, with SALEM's first song in five years recently announced on, of all places, Wolfgang Tillmans' Instagram: the band's remix of "Make It Up As You Go Along" appears on his EP, with an album of its own to follow. When I scroll through my socials I find all sorts of stories about witches, articles about ayahuasca ceremonies with shamans, and complaints about Mercury in retrograde — which is not to say that these are all the same thing, but they do appeal to similar mindsets and satisfy similar urges, and they are everywhere. Lindsay Lohan has described how ayahuasca has changed her life, for the better, and Taylor Swift has described how Mercury in retrograde changes all our lives, for the worse, because "everything is going to be completely wrong and messed up and miscommunicated." At the time of writing, Mercury has finally left retrograde.
What most inspired this article was another article, published on Artsy and written by Izabella Scott, suggesting that "for female artists working today, paganism is making a comeback." It cites the likes of Juliana Huxtable, the artist, poet, DJ, sometimes model for the likes of DKNY, Eckhaus Latta, and Kenzo, and author of a Tumblr titled Blue Lip Black Witch-Cunt; Georgia Horgan, who has an interest in the history of European witch hunts and made an installation relating to them in the Calton Burial Ground as part of this spring's Glasgow International; and Linda Stupart, whose website offers, as free downloads, a variety of spells intended to help women and the LGBTQ community to navigate the art world. These include "a spell for binding a super trendy sexist hot young male artist's internet access," "a sigil to bind murderous art collectors and gallerists," and "a spell to bind straight white cis male artists from getting rich off of appropriating queer aesthetics and feminine abjection." Each comes with thorough instructions. For the latter spell you'll need a cauldron, sea water, a black candle, olive oil, a "black and white photograph of a cis white man with visible penis (preferably erect)," some matches, and a few other things, and you'll read from a script containing lines such as:
"All other doors open for you cis white male. But try enter this one and you will fail!"
The historical persecution of witches was also a persecution of women (and some men) and Stupart is drawing a line linking witch hunts and privilege, and suggesting how old magic might be used in the present day. There are, of course, other ways in which an interest in the magical and in art might collide. Over at the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, which opened in September, a connection between the experience of art and the journey towards spirituality has been suggested. The title of this edition of the Biennale, The Eighth Climate (What Does Art Do?), writes curator Maria Lind in her introduction, refers "to a state which we might reach through our imaginative perception. The notion of the eighth climate, or 'the imaginal,' goes back to the 12th-century Persian mystic and philosopher Sohrevardi … While ancient Greek geographers identified seven physical climates of the earth, this is an additional climate which functions as an 'inter-world,' between the natural and spiritual worlds." In one such exploration of this inter-world, the artist Gunilla Klingberg has been making sun prints by sticking photographic paper onto the shop windows of local sajus (a sort of Korean fortune-teller or shaman) in Gwangju, and displaying them in the Biennale halls, but the bigger suggestion here is that all artists might actually be operating between the natural and spirit worlds.
Not only are artists and curators looking into the magical, but so is one of the art world's favorite new philosophers, Timothy Morton, who is also cited by Lind as an important influence on the Biennale. Morton, a leading proponent of object-orientated ontology (which begins with the idea that humans are objects, no more special than any other object) and dark ecology (which begins with the idea that the human and natural worlds are one and the same) believes that a great artwork can enchant us, can hold a power over us. When I interviewed him earlier this year he also spoke very passionately about pop stars, and how they can bring a sacred quality into our everyday lives, saying (this was soon after Prince's death):
"I'm happy you brought up Prince because from quite an early age Prince modeled for me how to integrate 'spirituality' into very natural tangible experiential domains. Lovesexy is almost like a Bible for me, it's got this sacred quality to it. I feel a lot of the artists that I really love go there. Björk for example totally goes there. She's got this amazing fusion. She talks about it in terms of technology and science and what she'd like to call nature — which I take to be pagan Icelandic indigenousness which has to do with elves and fairies, these spirit beings. It has something magical about it, this fusion of magic and science, of things that are thought of as paranormal or psychic with things that are thought of as algorithmic and made of plastic. It's not just charming, it's incredibly good."
Morton's not only listening to pop stars, and thinking about them, but sometimes working with them too. A book of his email correspondence with Björk (she approached him to help understand and define her own personal philosophy) was published as part of the catalogue for her 2015 exhibition at MoMA, New York, so he has a certain influence in all kinds of cultural spheres. His idea — and it's a big idea — is that we should open ourselves up to more magical ways of thinking in order to understand the world, and how to save it. Many others seem to have come to the same conclusion, and that's another reason why magical ways of thinking are increasingly prevalent. Not everyone agrees with them, of course.
It strikes me that those who design for fashion houses, or write for style magazines, or curate shows of up-and-coming artists, have something in common with astrologers — which is that they're all about predicting the future.
For instance, some people believe in the power of crystals and some really, really don't. Recently, in Los Angeles, the musician Father John Misty walked into the Silver Lake branch of Moon Juice — a very successful company that takes green juice and mysterious supplement culture to a weird inter-world of its own, has its staff dress all in white, and has been described on Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop as "magic. Like, real magic" — and stole (or at least claimed responsibility for the theft of) a large rose-quartz crystal as an act of iconoclastic protest and, perhaps, self-promotion. Company founder Amanda Chantal Bacon posted, on Instagram, "PLEASE RETURN THE CRYSTAL! … To whomever took her out the door, you do not want the energy of a stolen crystal, please trust me!" to which Father John Misty responded by selling a merchandise line of rose-quartz earrings with the slogan, "you do want the energy of a stolen crystal." And so on. But what I found most compelling in all of this was a picture that Chantal Bacon posted of what looks like a voodoo doll, a little man made of straw and bound in blue-and-purple thread, burning on a fire, that some have interpreted as a curse upon the crystal-hating hipster musician, as a form of witchcraft. Whatever it might signify, it's the sort of imagery one might associate with an old Scottish horror movie, more than the Instagram account of a purity-obsessed juice business.
But perhaps it's not at all surprising because an interest in witchcraft and spirituality, in crystals and higher forms of meditation, is everywhere throughout Los Angeles. As I write this on a Monday morning one, of my roommates — who has apparently been drinking psychedelic mushroom tea — sometimes comes into the kitchen and twirls around a pole while talking about consciousness (later, around 4am, they wake up and vomit for reasons to do, they say, with their third eye). This sort of thing is not that unusual. Kylie Jenner and Jaden Smith (when they were dating, around 2014) used to post photos of themselves, as part of something they called The Orgonite Society, making glow-in-the-dark resin pyramids packed with metal shavings and crystals. One of the most locally well-known witches, the Oracle of Los Angeles, even has a biweekly show on artist-run radio station Kchung. It's just that sort of city.
More surprising, though, is that these tendencies are increasingly prevalent, it seems, in New York as well. Ariel Levy, writing about her experience of attending a shaman-led ayahuasca ceremony in Williamsburg for the New Yorker says, "If cocaine expressed and amplified the speedy, greedy ethos of the nineteen-eighties, ayahuasca reflects our present moment — what we might call the Age of Kale. It is a time characterized by wellness cravings, when many Americans are eager for things like mindfulness, detoxification, and organic produce, and are willing to suffer for our soulfulness." In other words a return to nature, to ancient forms of healing, is a strategy for surviving the modern world, and one that's growing in popularity among the young. That is the Age of Kale. As another example, Tao Lin, an author best known for writing about the experience of taking lots of synthetic drugs and pharmaceuticals whilst wandering aimlessly, slowly around Manhattan — an author who was in many ways the voice of disaffected, over-medicated millennial apathy — is now writing a book about the mystic ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, posting pictures of sprigs of peppermint and turmeric stems with captions like, "Enjoyed sleeping with these turmeric stems last night," posting drawings of mandalas, and quite possibly taking a lot of natural hallucinogens himself. And if a city as ambitious and cynical as New York can turn New Age, if the shamans can make it there, then they can make it anywhere.
So now, in a time when conventional subcultures are harder and harder to find, when musical movements and artistic trends and new ways of dressing are incorporated into the mainstream as quickly as possible, the growing interest in old forms of shamanic and pagan ritual seems like a significant alternative culture of its own. It is one that is not so easily incorporated into the mainstream: psychedelics are, for the most part, completely illegal, and witchcraft is much harder to market to the masses than a new form of rap, or sportswear, or yoga, or dairy substitute. The sale of spells (and curses, potions, supernatural devices) has long been banned from eBay and, as of last summer, from the online craft marketplace Etsy also — presumably because they're immaterial, and it's impossible to tell if they work, and furthermore because endorsing ideas associated with witchcraft would offend Christians, and other religious folk, and most rationalists, and taken together they are a colossal market. If you're casting spells on people, you're alternative almost by definition. Counterculture is returning.
In the art world and, especially, the fashion industry an interest in magical ways of thinking, particularly astrology, is often apparent. It strikes me that those who design for fashion houses, or write for style magazines, or curate shows of up-and-coming artists, have something in common with astrologers — which is that they're all about predicting the future. These jobs all involve telling you what you'll be wearing and listening to, what exhibitions to go see, what's going to happen to you and how you can make the most of it. An interest in old forms of spirituality is not only about looking backwards but also forwards, and the search for guidance. It is also about the search for meaning, and meaning is more sought-after than anything else today, even sex and money.
Spirituality and paganism are ways of understanding the world around us, and our place within it, without committing to the conventional religions of our parents and grandparents, or to their moral codes. If you believe that these worlds of spirituality and philosophy and art are places where deeper meaning might be found, then it's understandable and unsurprising that they are becoming more and more intertwined.
They are collective myths, and collective myths are powerful. Whether you believe them or not, these latest ones that are strange mixtures of ancient magic, contemporary art, pop music, object-oriented ontology, ecology, and pagan poetry are some of the most interesting stories around.
Text Dean Kissick
Image via Pixabay