For some time now there’s been a current of occult and magic(k)al elements within the arts, most notably in the worlds of fashion and fine art. An especially popular theme within this current today are the works of magician Aleister Crowley, most likely due to the influence of experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger, who introduced several famous actors and musicians to Crowley’s philosophies and practices. I mention Anger specifically, because a recent ritual performance of a Crowley working at L&M Arts in Los Angeles stems directly from his influence, involving Anger collaborator Brian Butler. Why is this of note? Because Butler was joined (and almost joined) by some rather famous names.
“Tuesday night, artist/musician Brian Butler assisted by Twilight: New Moon actress Noot Seear, and actor Henry Hopper [son of Dennis Hopper] was supposed to invoke Bartzabel, the forceful spirit of Mars into to the body of actor/hipster/James Franco at L&M Gallery to celebrate “For The Martian Chronicles” exhibit, honoring the work of sci-fi author Ray Bradbury. But UPDATE: JAMES FRANCO MISSED HIS FLIGHT AND THERE WAS AN UNANNOUNCED STAND-IN, ACCORDING TO COMMENTS AFTER THIS WENT TO PRESS. We have revised this post to reflect this. According to L&M Gallery, Material Basis was performed by Christopher Emerson.”
I’ll leave commentary on the ritual itself to Lisa Derrick, who noted that “despite the act of invoking and drawing a magical circle, at the end of the ritual, there was no closing or banishing–kinda like sterilizing a jar, making jam, then leaving it unsealed in a toilet.” What I’m more interested in are the larger cultural questions this poses. Is this just a closed cul-de-sac of the hipster famous (and semi-famous) slumming it with robes and a bit of Thelema to bring a bit of excitement to their lives (and the LA gallery scene), or does this represent something else? Are Seear, Franco, Emerson, and others earnestly interested in ritual magick? It’s not all that unusual to see an occasional “big name” become truly interested in Paganism or the occult, but it is unusual to see a number of them expressing their interest at once (publicly).
My second question is, if this is simply theater, a performance in tribute to Crowley and the mystique of magic(k), does this event signify a new resurgence of ritual as performance art? Performance art has often turned to religion and magical ritual as a vehicle for expression, Gina Ulysse’s recent avant-garde meditation, “Voodoo Doll, What if Haiti Were a Woman,” or the “Manhattanhenge” workings in New York, for instance. But both of those have a sincerity at their core that implies adherence to the underlying belief systems involved. While I have no doubt that Brian Butler is a sincere occultist, one wonders how Seear or Franco understand or experience events like this. In short, can you separate the art of magic(k), of religion, from its tenants or belief systems? One spectator at the event seemed dissatisfied with how the ritual performance seemed to want to both be a serious ritual, and be a performance piece.
“Would it be an actual (attempted) evocation of Bartzabel, the spirit of Mars? Would it rather be a piece of performance art inspired by Crowley’s evocation of the same? It was neither – or, to be more specific, it was BOTH and that’s why it failed miserably. Evocation is an art unto itself. Even if one is skeptical as to the efficacy of magical activity outside the purely psychological realm, one must recognize the fact that every art form has its own rules. Film has its rules. Theater has its own. Performance art also has certain ideals and conventions that make exclusive demands on the artist. Successful evocation is no different.”
If we are going to see more high-profile ritual magic(k) as performance art, then the ritual must be respected as an art form in of itself, one that can be appropriated, surely, but treated with care all the same. Practitioners who have connections with the art world will also have to decide how they want to engage with this trend, and if it serves their beliefs and practices well to become involved, or distance themselves. Finally, for the famous, semi-famous, or nearly famous who decide to practice these rituals, if only for the sake of performance, should remember that even the intoning of lines and mere participation can have consequences. Not of the dark and spooky alarmist variety, but simply that invoking your Will ritually can change you, and those around you. What begins as fun, can turn into something else, and no one should make a decision like that lightly.