Dark Art crosses barriers like no other art movement. People from seemingly all walks of life are interested in Dark Art. Why is this art genre so all inclusive? The answer may be quite simple. There are few things that all people have in common, but suffering is certainly one of them. Every person has suffered. Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, poet, peace activist, and author of The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, had this to say, “Anxiety, the illness of our time, comes primarily from our inability to dwell in the present moment.” Visual artistry, unlike literature, has the ability in its raw state to cross language barriers, cultural boundaries, and political positioning. But most importantly it possess the unique ability to bring our attention to the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh would say “We have to learn the art of stopping”, and yet visual artistry requires no education in this present-tense engagement.
How many times has a painting, sculpture or drawing literally stopped you in your tracks? Perhaps you were scrolling through your Facebook feed and an image immediately grabbed your attention – your future speculations, your past reflections, temporarily suspended. This is not signature to Dark Art though. Regardless of the art genre, be it Pop surrealism, Lowbrow, Avant-Garde, or Dadaism, visual artistry poises us to engage without first categorizing the information, and we need not become entangled in interpretation before experiencing its depths. Yet we still linger around the precipitating question: why does Dark Art cross barriers like no other art movement? I have posited the reason to be suffering, the one aspect of life that everyone has in common. Dark Art deals with fear, anxiety, worry, alienation, terror, and other forms of suffering, but does so in a safe manner. A canvas cannot hurt you. You are safe inspecting the details of a dark painting, and most importantly, it can end right there. Chet Zar discusses his brand of this philosophy in my 2015 documentary ‘Chet Zar: I Like to Paint Monsters‘, “It’s sort of like turning a light on in a dark closet to show a kid that there’s nothing really there, there’s nothing to be afraid of. They’re not something to be afraid of, they’re something to be looked at and learned from.
All visual artistry could be considered “medicine wheels”, as described in greater detail by Cheyenne Native American spiritual leader and poet Hyemeyohsts Storm, “Any idea, person or object can be a Medicine Wheel, a Mirror, for man. For example, one person alone on a mountaintop at night might feel fear. Another might feel calm and peaceful. Still another might feel lonely, and a fourth person might feel nothing at all. In each case the mountaintop would be the same, but it would be perceived differently as it reflected the feelings of the different people who experienced it.” When we look upon a painting, drawing or sculpture we are seeing our own thoughts, feelings, and ideas reflected back at us, and so in the case of Dark Art we are faced with our individual suffering. Some might say that like suffering, we all share the pursuit of happiness, and while this may be true, it does not always bring us together. My pursuit of happiness may infringe upon another’s, and this may be cause for derision or worse, conflict. Or I may be pursing an illusory happiness. My idea of happiness might also differ from another’s idea of happiness and place us at odds. We can, on the other hand, come together over our suffering, because each of us has suffered. I do not have to agree with a person’s world-view or ideology to relate to their suffering.
It is easy to assume that Dark Art is something new simply as a result of our high-speed technological culture, where information is shared seamlessly and non-linearly. Insofar as art history is concerned though, Dark Art has existed as long as humans have been creating art. Most ancient cultures created artwork depicting intense violence and fearsome monstrosities. A quick look at hieroglyphics tells us much of we need to know. Mayan culture, for instance, boasted some of the most expansive sets of detailed imagery, portraying live human sacrifices as well as mythic beasts such as Quetzalcohuātl, the “feathered serpent”. In more recent times, historically speaking, artists such as Dutch impasto painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450 CE – 1516 CE) captured the duality of existence in works such as “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, in which both pleasure and rapture are commingling with visions of a Christian Hell: fiery monolithic buildings cast in shadows, before which demons taunt and torture naked, vulnerable humans. Bosch is most well known for his “triptych” paintings – three separate vignettes contained within a common frame – of which he produced at least sixteen!
Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746 CE – 1828 CE) similarly sought to express his fear and anxieties about the world in which he found himself, capturing scenes of historic massacres and intense human brutalities, as a result of war. One of his most famous paintings, “The Third of May 1808”, commemorates the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s armies in the Peninsular War. Goya gouges our eyes with haunting expressions of bravery and fear in the faces of brown men facing down a firing squad – bayonets poised mere feet from their chests; their fallen family members lie in a smeared pool of blood, heads flayed. Similarly, his “acquainted etching” from 1799, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”, captures his sense of alienation and dismay with what he described as “the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual”. In the foreground an aristocratic man sleeps upon his desk while strange and ambiguous winged creatures take flight in the shadows behind him. While Goya is certainly not the forefather of Dark Art, much like Hieronymus Bosch, he greatly contributed to what we refer to as Dark Art in our contemporary culture.
I believe Plato said it best, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” During these unsettled times it is vitally important to remember this. Rather than attaching to the ways in which we differ from our fellow humans, we should focus on how we are the same. Progress is only made by coming together, regardless of how uncomfortable it may feel. In many ways this is no different than looking upon a piece of Dark Art that is very unsettling. Dark Art and dark artists are often misconstrued, as explained by ‘Chet Zar: I Like to Paint Monsters‘ Co-Producer Erwin Tschofen, “Actually those dark artists are really light artists, because they shed light on the things we don’t want to see.