Death of the (Tarot) Artist

There’s an idea in literary criticism called the “death of the author.”

It’s not a literal death — just a very stark metaphorical distancing. It pretty much means that, when it comes to interpreting a work, the creator’s context and intentions should be ignored in favor of an interpretation of the text as it stands. There are certainly some works that benefit greatly from the inclusion of the author’s context, but there are flaws inherent in binding a work — any work — so tightly to its creator.

The concept was described by a French literary critic and philosopher named Roland Gérard Barthes, who felt strongly that keeping the interpretation of a text tied to the author’s biases was limiting, as well as innately flawed. By contrast, ignoring the author’s intentions freed the text to be analyzed and criticized entirely on its own merits and message, while erasing the issue of putting words in the author’s mouth.

It’s a thing that crosses art forms. Visual arts resist interpretation a bit more strongly than the written word (either fortunately or unfortunately, there is no OED for imagery. Unlike language, pictures don’t need to be mutually intelligible). Freeing an image from the creator means the meaning of a piece is left entirely up to what it is able to communicate to a viewer. At most, the interpretation of a piece in the context of the creator is only one of many facets of it. To (mis)quote Barthes, “a[n image’s] unity lies not in its origins […] but in its destination.”

I remember learning to read tarot. It wasn’t a thing that interested me much, initially — I liked runes, geomancy, Ogham staves, things whose imagery was far simpler, but contained multitudes. (And seemed to involve a hell of a lot less rote learning.)

“Read it like a story,” my teacher urged.

But the trouble with learning to read tarot cards is that it feels like a lot to memorize. You have your deck, which, at first, seems impossibly thick. You have the little soft-cover booklet with its handful of keywords, or a short paragraph for each card. “The Three of Wands,” it helpfully tells you, “Progress, expansion, opportunity. Reversed: Delays, short-sightedness.” You might read this book, using the cards like flash cards to test yourself on the meanings. Finally, one day, you’ve achieved memorization.

 

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And then you get a new deck.

I want to preface this by explaining that I’m not suggesting that the traditional interpretations of tarot cards be thrown out entirely. Part of tarot’s enduring appeal is the universality of it as a means of self-insight, as much as divination. Those meanings endure because… well, they’re meaningful to us.
But there’s something to be said for burning that little book.

My S.O. didn’t read tarot when he met me. If you ask him today, he still probably wouldn’t consider himself a tarot reader, per se. But, between the two of us, we still have six decks — three apiece. One has beautiful imagery surrounding Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, another is based on the works of Klimt, two others are animal-themed, yet another is based on the works of Mucha, one is full of strange, surreal moon-faced figures, and yet another is a joke deck I helped create to raise money for charity. All of them are tarot decks, with their Rider-Waite-Smith-inspired tableaux — The Fool, The Chariot, and so forth. All of them have subtly different meanings for their cards.

Reading tarot intuitively is a means of getting information without memorization, and it works because of the death of the artist. When you set the book aside, you free yourself to receive only what the artwork is giving you. The creation of a tarot deck is a deliberate act — every image is chosen or created with care based on the feelings it evokes, the ideas it conjures up, or its place in the visual language of alchemy. Allowing the artist to “die” frees us from adhering to the interpretations handed to us.

 

 

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Painting What You See

cropped-drawingThe simplest piece of artistic instruction is also the most useful: Draw or paint what you can see.

It’s surprisingly difficult to keep our minds from filling in the blanks — we see a cup, and we know the cup is round and three dimensional. Our eyes tell us the mouth of the cup is a flattened oval, but that isn’t what our hands want to make. Our brains know better than what our eyes tell us.

The ability to “know better” and anticipate shape and distance like that is an adaptation that’s probably helped us, in an evolutionary sense, but it isn’t much use when it comes to accurately translating a three dimensional object onto a two dimensional space. That’s when the admonishment to create only what you can see becomes useful.

For me, it’s also a bit ironic.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I was diagnosed with idiopathic intracranial hypertension about seven years ago. It used to be known as “pseudotumor cerebri” — in essence, a brain tumor that isn’t. It mimics all of the symptoms of having a large brain tumor, but without any mass present. One of its hallmarks? Vision changes. As cerebrospinal fluid pressure increases, so does damage to the optic nerves.

I can’t drive, because I can’t see well enough to. I have dead spots in my vision, which are almost impossible to describe. It isn’t really not seeing anything, it’s seeing nothing, in the same way that House of Leaves‘ Zampanò defines uncanny as ‘full of not knowing.’ Lines and space warp and deform around their edges like miniature event horizons, wholly confined to my eyes. Sometimes, I turn my head too quickly and see showers of golden sparks, or scintillations like the sun reflecting on water.

My brain often tries to “help,” by compensating for the strangely existentially horrific idea of seeing nothing, like a kind of neurological horror vacui. It inserts spectacularly mundane things into the places where my eyes don’t work anymore — a spare copy of my laptop stuck in my peripheral vision, or a stack of books I’ve never owned. A poached egg in the middle of the floor. A glass of water that yields only air when I reach for it.
I’m not sure why it does this, but it feels like the bones of a good short story. You would think that having your brain spontaneously insert images into your vision would be the opposite of helpful… Unless hallucinating several bunches of bananas was somehow preferable to what it’s trying to protect you from seeing. Fun!

If I said that coming to terms with the idea of potentially, possibly, let’s-face-it-probably going blind was difficult, I’d be lying, because that’d imply that it was possible to begin with. I don’t know that it’s any harder for me because I work with visual media — who wouldn’t be upset at not being able to see anymore?

I’m at the point where my vision loss has slowed considerably, if not entirely stabilized. With time (and, hopefully, a prolonged remission), some of my vision might come back. A lot of it won’t.

Sometimes, I do paint what I see.

And it’s fucking weird.

Inspiration in Unplaces

Have you ever felt out of place in a familiar spot? I don’t mean socially awkward or anxious, just given the sense that you’re in a place that shouldn’t be — like a shopping mall before the stores open, inside of a school at night, or somewhere else divorced from its usual context by some small, important detail. They are a familiar place, easily made into a strange-seeming unplace.

There are two times of year in this area, one in spring and one in autumn, where the light around four PM turns everything a lovely orange-gold, but the angle of the sun creates stark shadows of a particularly surreal length and sharpness. With a clear blue sky, it reminds me of Dali’s “Landscape with Butterflies” — colors too bright to be real, shadows too long and forbidding to be welcome.

Salvador Dali's Landscape with Butterflies.

Salvador Dali’s Landscape with Butterflies.

The idea of unplaces fascinates me, the way something so minor can make the familiar so strange. I think part of it comes from when I was a little kid, in an area where we largely had to make our own fun. I spent a lot of time in an abandoned school behind the house I grew up in, and, once I was a little older and could hop a fence, sneaking around storm water basins and drainage culverts. It’s a bizarre feeling, ducking under a pulled-up bit of chain link and stepping into a wet, wild world where the spongy turf and overgrown trees suddenly and strangely block the sights and sounds of traffic. There are no more sidewalks, no more streetlights, just murky ponds of massive snapping turtles and every quietly resentful goldfish that’s ever been loosed down a toilet. It is a small shift, just a chain link fence and a few strides, but it’s an important one.

I remember riding the train across the country a couple of years ago. I lived in Delaware at the time and, having saved up enough for a seat on Amtrak, decided to give it a go. As we passed through the million shades of the desert, from persimmon orange to the blinding, glittering white of Utah’s salt flats, I could see occasional islands of abandoned humanity. There were no towns around them, no yards, fields, or fences — as if some capricious and malevolent giant had plucked them from their foundations and left them there like forgotten toys. Just the occasional roofless husk of a deserted homestead, sometimes with a scrap of dry-rotted cardboard abortively tacked over a window, even less occasionally with the rusted corpse of an ancient car sinking slowly into the sand around it. Even in the safety of the train, sitting in a cushy seat just wide enough for me curl up to sleep in for the four-day journey, they gave me goosebumps.

In Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, there’s discussion of a place being uncanny, or, in German, unheimlich. But unheimlich isn’t used there in the passive sense of being merely unfamiliar, where an observer can gain understanding with time and effort. Instead, it’s used in the sense of a place being “full of not-knowing,” where gaining understanding may not be possible, helpful, or even safe.

It’s surprising how little it takes to make a place unheimlich, into what feels like something you were never meant to see. Sometimes it takes strange geography, like an average, suburban-looking house seemingly transplanted to the middle of the desert at random. Sometimes, it’s something as minor as a shift in schedule or a change in weather that turns the familiar into the uncanny, or even the unsettling. It’s this that can help us see a place with new eyes.

There’s a lot of strange magic in the places you don’t belong.

Find the unheimlich.

Automatic Asemic

Note: This post contains affiliate links to the book(s) I mention. These allow me to earn a small finder’s fee from Wordery.com, at no cost to you. Thank you for helping to support writers, publishers, and this site! 

Sometimes, writing can be a visual art form.

Not the same way logo design or typography are — just the shape and flow of text itself. The letters don’t have to spell anything, they don’t even have to be letters (just look at the beautifully evocative text of the Codex Seraphinianus) in order to have meaning.

A portion of a page from the Codex Seraphinianus.

A portion of a page from the Codex Seraphinianus.

In the Codex Seraphinianus, the artist chose to use an invented language that doesn’t map to an existing one — while he invented an alphabet to write in, these letters join together to form words that don’t mean anything. The overall feeling is of being a young child who has gotten a hold of some beautiful and inexplicable book. The child knows the words mean things to those who can read them, and it feels like there is a whole secret world of knowledge there for the unlocking. But, without that kernel of understanding — without some way to turn the jumble of shapes into something that makes sense — there is a perpetually tantalizing, mysterious feeling of knowledge kept just out of reach.

In its primary role, written language is bound by semantics. C with an A followed by a T spells “cat,” and you know the sounds each letter stands for and the small, furry animal to which they refer. Asemic writing is writing unbound by semantics. It has meaning, it can be interpreted, but these things are not subject to the rules and logic of reading. The shapes and repetition of letters are treated as a pattern, neither more nor less than the fronds of a fern or the shapes of Arabesque tile, and the feelings and images they evoke are what give them meaning. This necessarily varies from person to person — where one may read aggression in the slant of a garbled word, another may see exuberance — but this subjectivity does not mean asemic writing makes any less sense than language.

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A close up.

It’s just different. 

In some of the magical and spiritual disciplines I work with, language becomes more than its literal meaning, and asemic writing can be doubly so. You can take a sentence, strike out the vowels and repeating letters, then rearrange the remainder into a sigil used to focus energy and intention. A planchette can dash across a page, leaving the uncertain scrawls of a spirit in its wake, while a group of breathless observers try to find sense in the jumble of lines and shapes. Scrubbed of their literal meanings, freed from the restrictions of semantics, letters and words (or alien shapes that only suggest letters and words) can condense into something else.

There are whole areas of literature devoted to analyzing word choice. “Happy” may not always mean “joyful,” and “patience” may not always be virtuous, and its worthwhile to examine why someone chose the words that they did. Even when words no longer have meaning, this still applies. Asemic writing is still made up of the lines and arcs we associate with text, and their placement is never random — there are things to be read in the ascending slant of a line, or a ripe, bubblelike downward curve.

Even when you can’t read the words, there is meaning in them.

 

 

 

 

5 Crystals for Creativity

Note: This post contains affiliate links to some of the stones I talk about. They allow me to earn a small finder’s fee, at no additional cost to you. Thank you for helping to support independent artists and artisans, as well as this site!

Creative blocks. We get ’em, we hate ’em. The feeling of grasping for an idea is never fun — words and images seem just out of reach, and we know that if we could just get something down, we’d be able to take it from there.

If you deal with the occasional block, or just want some help channeling your creative impulses, try keeping some of these stones in your work space:

Sodalite

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Blue sodalite beads.

Sodalite is said to promote logic and rationality, but it has a ton of other properties that make it a useful tool in the artist’s arsenal. It’s ability to help balance emotions and soothe panicky feelings can help combat those times when a blank page feels too intimidating. Use it when you need to calm anxiety and trust yourself to create beautiful things.

Check out some beautiful, large sodalite specimens at RockParadise.

Golden Rutilated Quartz

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Golden rutilated quartz is clear quartz filled with golden “hairs” of rutile. It’s an uplifting stone, and is said to help clear energetic blockages. As a form of clear quartz, it can be programmed with your intentions, while the golden rutile needles within it help to stimulate creativity and invite divine inspiration.

Check out some very pretty pieces of tumbled golden rutilated quartz, also at RockParadise.

Lodolite

Lodolite it my favorite stone, bar none. It, like golden rutilated quartz, is another form of quartz with inclusions of other minerals. However, while rutilated quartz contains characteristic needles of rutile, lodolite can contain any number of different minerals, often in patterns that resemble miniature landscapes. (Hence three of its other names — garden, landscape, or scenic quartz.)

Lodolite is a great stone for enhancing communication, and is especially helpful if a trance or trancelike state is part of your creative process. It’s powers of manifestation can combine here to help you achieve a creative trance, communicate the ideas that come to you, and manifest the creative works in your heart.

Check out some really stunning lodolite teardrops at MagiMinerals.

Citrine

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A citrine cluster made of heat-treated amethyst.

Is any stone happier or more effervescent than citrine? I’ve never met one I didn’t like. Using citrine can help connect you to a very joyful energy. It also helps promote the easy flow of ideas, ideal for creative brainstorming sessions, and enhances clarity and visualization. It’s a very bright, energetic stone. Any form of citrine will do, but those that haven’t had their color artificially enhanced seem to work the best.

Check out some polished, natural citrine points at RockParadise.

Herkimer Diamonds

Fortunately for us, Herkimer diamonds are not diamonds — they’re actually a type of double-terminated quartz. While double-terminated quartz can be found anywhere, though, these are specifically from around Herkimer, New York.

These stones are potent. Like golden rutilated quartz, they help remove blockages to promote the free flow of energy. It’s considered a powerful stone for workplaces, attracting positive attention (and, with it, money). It’s also said to “boost” other stones, helping small stones to act like much larger ones. Most Herkimer diamonds are small, but they don’t need to be big to pack a wallop.

Check out some lovely Herkimer diamonds at BlissCrystals.
Creativity can be a fickle thing, but not all of us can work on its timetable. (Personally, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been handed an order from a client on a day when the words just. Were. Not. Flowing.) With some discipline and a little help unblocking our energies and getting the creative juices flowing again, we can overcome blocks and keep the ideas coming.