Sunday 31 July 2016

An aside about gnosticism, ancient practices, and art

Two sketchbook pages about wood engraving

I recently found a quote, credited to Hugo Ball, in the front of a book about woodcut and wood engraving. It said
"Artists are gnostics, and practise what the priests think is long forgotten."
At the time, I didn't think too hard about it; it seemed to be talking about the way on which artists often preserve old ways of doing things, and it seemed very apt for woodcut, which has been around for some time, and which makes use of several traditional tools and techniques. (In fact, when I took my gouges and chisels to the local commercial blade sharpener, he told me that he'd not seen that type of thing for years and that he couldn't sharpen them on his machines. I ended up researching old fashioned sharpening methods to do it myself.)

However, I was a bit vague about gnosticism and its relation to priests, and I had no idea who Hugo Ball was.

Hugo Ball, an author and poet, was a key member of the Dada movement; he wrote the Dada maifesto and co-founded the Cabaret Voltaire. The quote comes from his book, Flight out of Time: A Dada Diary.

A gnostic is someone with knowledge, usually someone with esoteric or mystical knowledge. (Hence agnostic is someone who is unsure of something, - the term is often used to describe someone who is unsure of the existence of God - which is a good example of esoteric and mystical knowledge!) 

So, Ball is saying that artists have some special knowledge. He then goes on to talk about priests, which reinforces the agnostic association with God's uncertain existence - and which seems to imply that the artists' gnosticism (by definition not agnostic) holds some certainty about religion or spirituality. Ball had a catholic background, so it would have been natural for him to refer to priests (I am assuming that the translation is true in this respect). Of course, "priest" could be a metaphor for one who holds conventional knowledge (like my blade sharpener), but I think that Ball (who returned to Catholicism later in his life) is really talking about the artist's spirituality being in some way related to the old religions, to the earthier spiritual connections to our environment that modern Christianity left behind.

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