Dionysian Apoliticism

(Note: I’m going through my old blog and republishing choice articles here. Eventually the old blog will be deactivated.)

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When I tell people that I am a Dionysian there is often a presupposition that I’m a drunk.

A few years ago I was sitting with a very good friend talking about Dionysos. It was when I was first getting a grasp of this overly complex deity. My friend said something like, “why worship Dionysos? He is a selfish god, there is nothing he offers but drunkenness.”

Granted, my friend has a limited understanding of Dionysos, also he has a strong catholic background which was influencing his criticism. Yet at the time I was wordless. I was incapable of defending Dionysos. I did not have the knowledge or presence to tell my friend otherwise.If my friend asked me that question now the conversation would had gone a lot differently. The reason is I’ve been going on my own journey. If my friend asked me that question in the future, I would have another set of responses.

The only thing I believe in is flux, motion, cause and effect.

What I can say now is that Dionysians have roles, each role is different and even sometimes polar opposite to the other. There is a Dionysian in the Storming of the Bastille, there is a Dionysian of the opulence of Versailles. How can a person acknowledge and respect both all at once? A Dionysian must be of two or more states, they are the radicals chopping off the aristocrats heads and also the decadent nobles living in naivety. If you want to categorise Dionysians as something they are the emulsion of water and wine.

To assigned a Dionysian to a political position is wrong because of this movement of liquids like when the river meets the sea. To be a Dionysian is to be Pentheus and Dionysos at once. For those innocent of myth, imagine the archetypes of a fascist and the anarchist being one. Dionysos may be the ultimate anarchist, but to comprehend him requires the other side.

If I was to argue with my friend today I’d say that Dionysos is not a selfish god, but the host. He is like a barman distributing the drinks. He is also the drinks. But in the form of a barkeeper he is a host. The barman is someone we usually attribute to being sober, to be outside of the drunks perspective, an observer yet still directly related to drinking.
In this fantasy bar all people are served, all people get drunk. They all have their beliefs and ideologies. By speaking in this place does not mean that the patron owns this space, they are simply guests in the establishment. For lack of a better word the host is “leasing” this space for discourse, it does not mean that the host believes, follows or even understand the argument.

I could draw on more classical analogies like the theatre. We imagine that the theatre is a place solely for performance, which it is, but our concept of performance is limited by the TV screen. In the past performance included political discourse, politicians would give speeches before and after a play they produced and funded that was relevant to their political campaign. But the theatre itself remained the same.

The physical characteristics of the theatre maintains this bi-polar relationship also. Traditional Greek theatres were situated on a hillside and carved into it. It was a part of nature, open to the sky. Earth was literally cultivated for performance. The seating of the theatre are focused forwards, with masses all enjoying an individual experience on mass and in their own heads.

The role of performance continues with this outside/inside relationship. Three actors played all the characters in one performance. An interchange between characters would just be a replacing of the mask. You could theoretically have a play where Pentheus and Dionysos are played by the same actor. The actor is host to these characters but only in role does the actor believe in what the character believes. Outside of the theatre the actors personality is their own, but by empathising and playing the various roles does the actor become a Dionysian.

This apoliticism was recognised in classical times with a intuition called the Dionysiakoi Technitai (Artists of Dionysos). The technitai was a guild of artists without borders. They were granted incredibly powerful privileges based on their talent and devotion to the gods. These privileges included: unlimited travel, free of national taxes, free of conscription and seizure of person and possessions. This intuition was recognised by all the city states in a very rare agreement in the form the 279 BC Delphi Decree:

It was decided by the Amphictyons and the hieromnemones and the agoratroi: In order for all time the technitai in Athens may have freedom from seizure (asylia) and from taxation, and that no one may be apprehended from anywhere in war or in peace or their goods seized, but that they may have freedom from taxation and immunity accorded to them surely by all of Greece, the technitai are to be free of taxes for military service on land or sea and all special levies, so that honours and sacrifices for which the technitai are appointed may be performed for the gods at appropriate times, seeing that they are apolitical (apolypragmoneton) and consecrated to the services of the gods: let it be permitted to no one to make off with the technitai either in war or in peace or to take reprisals against them, provided that they have contracted no debt with the city as debtors, or are under no obligation for a private contract. If anyone acts contrary to this, let him be liable before the Amphictyons, both he himself and the city in which the offence was committed against the technitai. The freedom from taxation and security that has been granted by the Amphictyons is to belong for all time to the technitai at Athens, who are apolitical. The secretaries are to inscribe this decree on a stone slab and set it up in Delphi, and to send to the Athenians a sealed copy of this decree, so that the technitai may know that the Amphictyons have the greatest respect for their piety towards the gods and adhering to the requests of the technitai and shall try also for the future to safeguard this for all time and in addition to increase any other privilege they have on behalf of the Artists of Dionysus. Ambassadors: Artydamas, poet of tragedies, Neoptolemos, tragic actor.
Eric Csapo & William Slater, The Context of Ancient Drama; 233, 244

So you see in my role as Dionysian I must be apolitical. I worship the gods, I give all I can to them. But my gods demand that I leave politics outside of my devotion. My path may intersect with politics, personally I am politically minded – but that is in a different role. If anyone automatically assigns my polytheism into a political definition I will revolt against it. Not only are they offending my own agency, but my religious beliefs.

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The Theatre and the Divine

(Note: I’m going through my old blog and republishing choice articles here. Eventually the old blog will be deactivated.)

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Classical Greek theatre was radical. It most likely begun as a private ritual performance between the elite, even leading with direct interaction between actors and observers in the form of mystery plays, maybe as satyr plays. As it progressed the theatre became more open to the public. This is how it was radical, at the time in antiquity, public performance was limited in surrounding nations. In Egypt we have references of street performers, the equivalent of buskers, they also performed rituals in public, but nothing on such scale and public domain as the Greek theatre.
It was an equaliser of class, a place which the common people could actively observe the gods.  What’s more, we have common people as writers and performers freely criticising and mocking kings, nobility and public figures, which gave birth to our concepts of free speech.  The theatre was a place for religion, politics, expression and entertainment.
A sacred domain dedicated to Dionysos.

So how does the theatre prove that the gods exist? This is summed up in two ways, one the actor, two the observer.

  1. The actor playing a role relinquishes themselves to their character. In simplest terms they are invoking a character, allowing it to possess them and reflecting that possession. If you’re familiar with how Greek plays were performed then you’ll know that there was only three actors on the stage at one time. These actors would play various roles throughout the play which was illustrated by what mask they wore. The masks themselves were the characters and the actor was a living moving prop or host for the mask. In this function when they assumed the role of a god they were host to the god. To the Greeks, they were witnessing, in every sense, their gods on stage.
  2. The audience brought the gods to life. The base function of performance is suspension of reality. In order to appreciate the performance the audience must allow themselves to be fooled. They have to accept the fantasy in front of them and believe in its existence. By believing in the play they are demonstrating their faith in the gods.

So how is this any different from now? This is a good point and one that has been discussed with the pop culture pagans.  I will not dismiss their beliefs, but my personal opinion is that the difference between modern people watching a film and ancient Greeks watching the theatre is audience attitude.  An average person does not enter the movie theatre with the expectation of watching something divine and religious. For the Greeks, not only were they entering a sacred domain, but also observing a devotional, religious performance.

To understand this concept is realising how disenchanted modern people are. Over exposure of media has led us to become jaded, whereas ancient people would only observe these performances once or twice a year. It’s not lost on me that we call celebrity actors “Stars”, “Idols” which further serves as a point at how wrong modern people are when enjoying a production. This is why it’s difficult for some to come to grasps with the idea that watching or participating in a performance is a sacred act.

 


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Dona’ria Technitai to Madonnari to Modern Pavement Artists

(Note: I’m going through my old blog and republishing choice articles here. Eventually the old blog will be deactivated.)

Anathema is a word I’ve heard of but never knew what it meant. In Catholic and Orthodox faith it’s a word of condemnation with varying levels of complexity and negative connotations. For the Ancient Hellenics it was different, votive sacrifices dedicated to the gods often in the form of artwork.

What really caught me is this from A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities by William Smith (as quoted on the Art is Anathema website )

“DONA′RIA (ἀναθήματα or ἀνακείμενα), are names by which the ancients designated presents made to the gods, either by individuals or communities. Sometimes they are also called dona or δῶρα. The belief that the gods were pleased with costly presents was as natural to the ancients as the belief that they could be influenced in their conduct towards men by the offering of sacrifices; and, indeed, both sprang from the same feeling. Presents were mostly given as tokens of gratitude for some favour which a god had bestowed on man; but in many cases they were intended to induce the deity to grant some special favour.

At the time when the fine arts flourished in Greece the anathemata were generally works of art of exquisite workmanship, such as high tripods bearing vases, craters, cups, candelabras, pictures, statues, and various other things. The materials of which they were made differed according to circumstances; some were of bronze, others of silver or gold (Athen. VI p231, &c.), and their number is to us almost inconceivable (Demosth.Olynth. III. p35). The treasures of the temples of Delphi and Olympia, in particular, surpass all conception. Even Pausanias, at a period when numberless works of art must have perished in the various ravages and plunders to which Greece had been exposed, saw and described an astonishing number of anathemata.

Individuals who had escaped from some danger were no less anxious to show their gratitude to the gods by anathemata than communities. In all cases in which a cure was effected presents were made to the temple, and little tablets (tabulae votivae) were suspended on its walls, containing an account of the danger from which the patient had escaped, and of the manner in which he had been restored to health. Some tablets of this kind, with their inscriptions, are still extant (Wolf, l.c., p242, &c.). From some relics of ancient art we must infer, that in some cases, when a particular part of the body was attacked by disease, the person, after his recovery, dedicated an imitation of that part in gold or silver to the god to whom he owed his recovery. Persons who had escaped from shipwreck usually dedicated to Neptune the dress which they wore at the time of their danger (Hor. Carm. I.5.13;Virg. Aen. XII.768); but if they had escaped naked, they dedicated some locks of their hair (Lucian, de Merc. Cond. c1 vol. I p652, ed. Reiz.). Shipwrecked persons also suspended votive tablets in the temple of Neptune, on which their accident was described or painted. Individuals who gave up the profession or occupation by which they had gained their livelihood, frequently dedicated in a temple the instruments which they had used, as a grateful acknowledgment of the favour of the gods. The soldier thus dedicated his arms, the fishermen his net, the shepherd his flute, the poet his lyre, cithara, or harp, &c.

It would be impossible to attempt to enumerate all the occasions on which individuals, as well as communities, showed their gratefulness towards the gods by anathemata. Descriptions of the most remarkable presents in the various temples of Greece may be read in the works of Herodotus, Strabo, Pausanias, Athenaeus, and others.”

As Smith states there are many ancient examples of votive offerings dedicated to temples, including simple things like basic terracotta or bronze animals to complex protomes, sculptures of deities, tripods, tables etc. But what I wasn’t aware of is the commissioned illustration of traumatic scenes, illness, accidents.  This is a particularly fascinating to me because it’s a tradition that continues today in Sicily in the form of Ex-Voto.

“Ex-votos can take a wide variety of forms. They are not only intended for the helping figure, but also as a testimony to later visitors of the received help. As such they may include texts explaining a miracle attributed to the helper, or symbols such as a painted or modeled reproduction of a miraculously healed body part, or a directly related item such as a crutch given by a person formerly lame.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ex-voto

Example of Ex-Voto, man being hit by a flower pot and surviving.

 

This then brings me back to my own work as a pavement artist. As this is my profession I have a keen interested in regards to the history of pavement art. It is an history obscured by a lack of interest from art historians because it deals with a subject that is usually considered lowly.

However pavement art history is extremely rich and powerful, there are even examples of it being a political movement in the late 1800’s as a preferred form of expression for the suffragettes.  http://screever.org/

Asphalt Renaissance  by Kurt Wenner* discusses the history of the pavement art, looking at examples found in other cultures in India and Buddhist mandalas, but Wenner’s main focus is on the Madonnari  The traditional pavement artists of Italy. The Madonnari are known for drawing votive images of Madonna.  In this regard, the Madonnari are considered the first pavement artists with references of their existence in the late Renaissance as maimed veterans of the Crusades.**

They were in every sense ex-voto painters, that would work outside churches, churchgoers would purchase the crude images and donate them to the church. Just like what the Greeks did. Some artists were so poor they could not afford boards to draw / paint upon so they began drawing on the street itself – giving birth to pavement art.

This discovery therefore draws a direct line from the Madonnari to the dona artists of ancient Greece and illustrates that the tradition of devotional artists goes back to ancient Hellenistic times.

*Unfortunately my book was stolen so I cannot provide quotes, however it’s highly recommended to buy this well researched, beautiful and awe inspiring book.

** This is why the crutch is a symbol of pavement artists.

Modern pavement Artist, Francois Pelletier in Paris.

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Cont. The DA Philosophy 1

Dver left a comment on my previous post here.

I believe my reply merits a blog post:

Thinking back through my artistic ‘career’ it’s hard to find a time where my work was not devotional in some sense. But it’s only when I experienced my initiation experience in late 2015 that I really ‘clicked’ to what I was doing and turned it into my primary form of devotional expression/engagement. Taking on the mantel of Dionysian Artist and name Δ.
Thus my devotion looks a lot different from others that consider themselves “Hellenic Polytheists” or even Dionysians.

The ultimate idea of ‘Art for god’s sake’ is that it is more liberating to the artist than ‘Art for art’s sake’, even if the work is unpleasing to the human audience, it does not matter. The opinions of human’s is only consequential and unnecessary. Devotional art is therefore free of any criticism from mankind and the artist need not worry of others opinions. From your comment Dver, you certainly understand my intention here.

Others… it can be difficult to explain. I recently had a conversation with a fellow artist, who is also an art historian / theorist / critic and teacher. He was dismayed at the fact that we do not do shows and rarely sell our work. I explained to him I’d rather see the art burned than sell it to some hipster who just likes the work because “it’s cool”. Our art, especially the street art, is not designed to be decorative. It’s designed as dedication to the gods. It is not owned by me, I am only a mere creator and custodian of the work. That is not to say I am forbidden to sell the work, just that if sold it has to go to someone who understands and respects the sacredness of the work. And boy… have I turned down mega offers that would make most impoverished artists wet their pants, as the destination for the work was an office space, or a cafe…

This behaviour has caused dismay in not only my admirers, but family and friends (including the one I mentioned). They cannot understand the purpose of this art, it is not an object, it is not a thing to be brought and sold in the stock exchanged (aka, art market), it is a piece of work dedicated to the gods and any human appreciation should be reverence over any other methods of our culture views art now.

The DA Philosophy 1: What is Devotional Art?

“Dionysos” by Δ

What is Devotional Art?

Art for art’s sake is a relatively modern idea credited  by the art critic, Théophile Gautier in the 1800’s. The concept became popular through artists like James Whistler (made famous by the “Whistler-Ruskin Trial, 1878″) and was continually echoed through the modernist period until now. The basic idea is that art should exist for itself. It should be free of any political, personal, religious, reactionary meaning. If these ideas were involved in the conception of the art, the viewer should be able to appreciate it as art without knowing the ideas behind it.

This concept was radical at the time as it gave artists liberties in attempting to define art. With the advent of art movements such as the Dadaists and then the Modernists the definition of what is art became blurred, in some cases it became totally atheistic with a reductionist mentality applied to art to the point artists ambitions was to destroy art itself.

There is a certain irony in this as when Art for art’s sake was coined it was actually a socialist concept to bring art to the people, bring it down to base level and indeed many of the Modernist artists and thinkers were socialist / communists in their intentions of making art. The irony is the reduction of art disconnected artists from their general audience. Art became elitist, with its only admires being the educated bourgeoisie.

Criticism of the art world aside, these artists and thinkers did achieve a new definition of what is art, which has granted artists liberties. The basic modernist definition of art is: anything can be art as long as there is an artist to define it as art. This is why we have pieces like Duchamp’s ready-made urinal, “Fountain” being considered a major landmark in 20th-century art and why artists like Damien Hirst have pickled animals in some of the world’s major art galleries.

Now that we have a crash course on the very bare basics of how art is viewed today, let’s explore my concept of devotional art. The Dionysian Artists (Devotional artists) definition of devotional art is an amalgamation of Modernist ideology but also a rejection of Art for art’s sake, instead the phrase of a devotional artist should be Art for god’s sake.

The Dionysian Artists should accept the Modernist definition of art, that anything can be art, but also with an added bonus: devotional art should be dedicated to the gods. Artwork created by the artists should not be made for humankind – it’s intended audience is the gods themselves – any human appreciation for this divine art is consequential. How an artist applies their devotion is totally up to the artist themselves. Like how an artist can define anything as art, a devotional artist can define anything as devotional art.

What this definition allows is anyone can call themselves a Devotional Artist (or a Dionysian Artist), its more so a matter of mind state being aware of ones actions when committing art to the gods. Art does not need to be something permanent, devotional art can be an expression, gesture, a dance, acting, singing etc. Or it can be a ready-made object, appropriation of existing art, a painting, stick figure drawing, crude votive statue, or a master piece.

As long as one is doing this for the gods, they may consider the art devotional and themselves Dionysian Artists.

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