October 12, 2020 at 9:28 am #1597
What is Dark Art?
It seems on the surface, that a definition of Dark Art should be relatively simple, since those that purport to create it share many traits as artists and interests as individuals. However, it cannot be said that all paintings of skulls are Dark Art, and since the presence of ‘dark’ themes are a constant in creative work throughout history, we must find a way to reconcile this with what is a relatively new field of work.
A history of darkness
There is no doubt that themes associated with dark art – monsters, death, decay, and literal darkness, are a part of creative pursuits stretching back into prehistory. Some of our earliest records of human artwork consist of scenes of fearsome and killed animals. Much of the religious creations of early and indigenous civilisations included forces of destruction that must be kept at bay, entities which personified predators, and psychopomps to be revered and bargained with.
Echos of the concepts and iconography of some of these mythological and cultural arts can be clearly seen in contemporary work, but it seems an act of hubris to claim these universal motifs as belonging to Dark Art.
Similarly, we can find numerous artists and artworks through recorded history that would seem to fit neatly into a category of Dark Art. Numerous depictions of the Crucifixion in the 15th and 16th centuries accentuated gruesome details and pain-wracked anatomy, while Caravaggio seemed determined to pack darkness, gore, and personal suffering into every piece he could. The Vanitas, contrasting wealth and power with the ephemeral nature of life and the inevitability of death (most often represented by detailed depiction of skulls) emerged in the centuries that followed and the use of skeletal remains became a standard form to study in arts education.
Moving into modern, and post-modern times we find Goya, Bacon, Bourgeois, Hirst and countless others producing work that would not look out of place in an exhibition of Dark Art and yet it is certain that these artists would not have considered themselves within the grouping of work we are discussing.
Begin at the beginning
So, if we can find the roots of Dark Art throughout history, where do we find a true starting point? There seems to be a common agreement that Bekinski and Giger are, if not explicitly part of Dark Art, then certainly represent its forefathers.
With both of these artists rising to prominence in the 1960s and 70s, we are well served to look to other cultural changes happening in the west around this time. The rapid expansion of counter cultures in this time period (notably the freak, hippy, and punk trends) were rooted in questioning of authority and saw collective cultural fear, which is most readily identified by studying the production of horror movies, shift from the terrors of mad science, to fears centred in society itself. Depiction of possession, cults, serial killers, and zombies started to rise as the monster became an invading force from within.
Alongside this shift in cultural anxiety, a new attitude to sensationalism begins to make itself known as media reflects more permissive sexual attitudes, and reported rises in violent crime. New technology and craft within the visual effects industry helps to push the envelope of shocking audiences, and we would be remiss not to mention the impact of the Vietnam war and the work of Savini.
I am dwelling so much on the influence of cinema, and horror movies in particular for three reasons. First, the significant impact that horror movies seem to play in the influence of current creators of Dark Art. Second, the overlap between those that work in the visual effects industry and create Dark Art. Third, the movie Alien.
If we accept that Giger’s work is at least Dark Art adjacent, then Alien represents the most common point of contact between western culture and Dark Art. The xenomorph design, and the sexual body-horror of the face ‘hugger’ and chest burster, are sufficiently cemented in popular culture that they are obliquely referenced in books, tv shows, and even children’s cartoons, on the assumption the adult audience will understand.
With this movie standing as a kind of ouroboros of Dark Art, both inspired by and inspiring artists, should we consider the movie itself a work of Dark Art?
Dark Art Culture
There is without a doubt, a culture and community that surrounds Dark Art, which includes horror imagery, movies, and novels, metal and punk music, tattooing and body modification, and all manner of other ‘dark’ sub-cultural identifiers. However, it must also be clear that none of these elements is a signifier of Dark Art, or an indication of whether an individual can or should be associated with it. Such interests and identity markers relate to individuals, not the work that they create. Although ‘Dark Artist’ may be a useful marketing term, I put forward that Dark Art is not all work created by specific artists, but that works of Dark Art might be created by anyone, regardless of their normal artistic affiliations or interests.
The Dark Art genre
In writing this piece, I took a quick survey of the Dark Art Society Facebook Group. As unscientific as these polls were (influenced by low and uneven numbers of respondents, the limits of timeline and algorithms, and social desirability), they seemed to indicate that the artists were making work that happened to be ‘Dark Art’ rather than trying to make work that was deliberately scary or creepy, but also that they considered Dark Art to be a genre rather than movement.
If Dark Art is a genre then it would allow us to include those elements of historical work that seem to fit within it, absorbing Mayan death gods, Munch’s The Scream, and Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.
I contend that we must view Dark Art as a movement, as we do Surrealism, Expressionism, or the Pre Raphaelites, and that to do this, we must define the attributes of Dark Art that set it apart from other aesthetically similar works.
Dark Art is post-modern
Dark art does not hold with the idealist visions of modernism, and holds interest in subjects and subjective reality, rather than exploration of materials. It is often anti-authoritarian, aware of its own place within wider culture, and sometimes humorous and self deprecating. As such, work created during and prior to the modernist movement, does not truly belong to Dark Art.
Dark Art is a Fine Art.
Answering the question of whether Alien is Dark Art, I would suggest a firm no. Although much of Dark Art is influenced by pop culture and illustration, and the same imagery and style might appear in creature designs and album covers, Dark Art exists when the work is created as Art first and foremost, with no other purpose in mind.
Dark Art is not horror art
This attribute may feel difficult to define, since it relies largely on intention. Dark Art certainly shares iconography and stylistic elements with horror, but it’s primary purpose is not to scare or shock the viewer.
Dark Art values beauty and craft
This is by far the most controversial attribute that I suggest, but I see a clear thread of very pre-modern interest in quality production of artwork. Even when the subject matter may include dead flesh and gore, there seems to be a desire to make the colours balance, the brushwork flow, and the textures provide a believable detail.
Dark Art is…. dark
Although it sounds utterly redundant to say, the point must be made that Dark Art conveys something dark to its audience. A Dark Art sculpture of a wilting flower is not conveying a sense of Wabi Sabi, a seascape is not providing a sense of majesty or adventure, a beautiful portrait is not simply a faithful reproduction of the sitter. What this ‘darkness’ is remains a complex question, although I personally lean towards a psychological framing, with anxieties, desires, and implications of the ‘Shadow’ being reflected through the cultural focus of the monster, and unconsciously communicated through colour, composition, and mark making.
Dark Art as a Movement
Setting aside the absurdity of referring to ‘Dark Artism’ or the more painful and somewhat problematic ‘Darkism’. We must consider the question of a Dark Art movement. I hear the term used regularly, and there is in fact an organisation named that (attached to the British Macabre Gallery among others). However, in the absence of a ‘Manifestoes of Dark Art’ what does such a movement intend to achieve? Certainly the promotion of Dark Art is a cultural and commercial objective for all of us, but to what end?
Do we intend to show those who feel drawn to the Dark that there is a genre of art to feed that need? Is there a desire to show the world that there is a beauty in things they might normally shy away from? Are we intending to force the world of high culture to recognise the value of themes and ideas previously relegated to popular culture?
Answers to questions such as these have the potential to direct and focus those who make Dark Art beyond the creation of their next piece, or may conclude that such questions are irrelevant and we simply want to stand together to support the making of monsters.
Afterword: Excluding the Other
A trait that seems common amongst the artists interviewed on the Dark Art Society podcast is that they have felt like outsiders. It is clear that in recognising Dark Art as a distinct entity, it creates a psychologically valuable sense of belonging. The value of this can create a desire to include all things held creatively dear to the artists involved, or to ensure that all artists interested in Dark work are included within the category. However, definitions are vital to the discussion and development of a subject, and definitions are created by exclusion. To define what Dark Art is, we must be clear about what it is not.
My intention is not to exclude individuals (either artists or artwork), and neither am I concerned with negotiating the exact boundaries of Dark, Macabre, and Morbid art (anyone who has been subject to a debate about doom/dark/death metal can attest to the value of such conversations). Nor by writing this, do I consider myself the arbiter of what is and isn’t Dark Art. I am merely setting out my views on the topic, in order to begin a debate that might examine the work from an academic or intellectual perspective.
October 28, 2020 at 10:06 pm #1620
Wow, this is a great essay! Thanks for posting it on here. It’s a lot to think about and you bring up a lot of valid points. I’m gonna promote this on the FB group page and try and get some folks over here to discuss it because it merits consideration. This is exactly the kind of thing we should be talking about. thanks, Michael!
October 29, 2020 at 8:34 am #1637
Thanks Chet. I really want to get some discussion flowing about this, as I feel my assertions here *should* be controversial. If this was published in a public forum, it could become a reference point for people exploring Dark Art (think of how much sway the opinions of one artist could have if this was the basis of a Wikipedia article).
December 10, 2020 at 5:49 am #1881
Interesting read! I think there is something to be said about “Shock” which Dark Artwork often induces or tries to. In that state of shock, a person’s mind opens to the unknown and a feeling of unsafety invades for a moment. In that state I think some concepts of reality and mundane day-to-day occurrences seem to shift and become malleable, unstable and the previous relationship to ordinary things becomes reprogrammable.
“Regular Artwork” tries to uphold safety and repetition (themes such as: nature, happiness, family, safety, society, national values). We can often see this type of art be used to uphold authority, retain values and affirm traditions, making clear boundaries of what reality should be to the viewer.
December 15, 2020 at 3:02 am #1886
Thanks Zaki, there are some really interesting points here. I’m not sure I agree that other forms of art uphold safety and repetition, given the tendency of new art movements to be reactionary or revolutionary. It may make sense to frame Dark Art by that which it is opposing, although I feel we need to find a more specific definition of what that might be.
I think you have raised two separate and equally valid questions here. Firstly, whether the creation or development of an altered state of mind or thought in the viewer is an aim of dark art (much as it was for the original surrealists), and secondly whether shocking the viewer is a desirable or efficient means of achieving this.
December 17, 2020 at 12:03 pm #1892
I guess I had in mind this more representational artwork, like landscapes, cityscapes, anatomy based paintings of “the figure”, and all this abstract modern art stuff that’s popular nowadays. Why I say they uphold safety, repetition and authority; mostly because they are safe and almost dead subjects. There is not much there that will radically change anything at this point in time, they are more of a means to show intelligence and status for the people around those artworks. I guess the reactionary or revolutionary work deals with reality, but opposing certain construct, so it is different in that sense. At this point in time, a Banksy painting is now considered pretty tame in terms of controversy and like high-end expensive artwork.
Maybe its just the artworld that eats up genuine art and transforms it into something it is not, often making it into some sort of esoteric work that only high intelligence people can understand and truly appreciate. Even Dark Art has the danger to fall into that category, if we become too accustomed to it and expect certain norms of it. I think it would almost need that underground nature to it, to be relevant. Once it becomes too popular and normalized, I would expect the reactionary revolutionary paintings would become something like the old renaissance Christian themed paintings.
So I think art is there, to bring some kind of balance into our society and culture. What is not accepted now, will become mainstream later. Human beings are always seeking some kind of balance, sometimes they desire to see something dark when things are going well for them, maybe to feel a sense of danger or excitement. Once they experience turmoil, they would gravitate towards more positive and firm-reality paintings.
As for so called “Dark Artists”, I don’t think they should really focus on society’s needs or humanity’s needs. They should be focused on delivering their inner vision, so that the artwork remains genuine and the idea pure. The pure idea, I believe has an intention in itself that the artist himself might not be aware of.
Once you try to control the idea or it’s impact, it actually starts to lose it. It’s like David Lynch says, ideas are like fish, you just have to catch them. For some, the only ideas they have are dark, for others a bit lighter, but all in all, I believe ideas are not ours. That’s what artists do, they just paint, like a tool or a vehicle for passing ideas, and then society reacts in a certain way or doesn’t react.
December 18, 2020 at 12:17 pm #1896
Interestingly, this hits upon a really central question that plagues the majority of art movements. In order to gain acceptance as legitimate art, a movement becomes part of the establishment. We can see this effect most easily in the acceptance of punk as an acceptable genre of music.
So the question becomes, is acceptance a goal for Dark Art, or a thing to be challenged? For me, I see Dark Art as an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary movement, and we should be seeking to widen the public recognition of the beauty and value of the work.
In terms of artists staying true to their ideas/vision (acting as a kind of psychological or spiritual conduit) I am curious about whether this should be considered a component or goal of Dark Art as a movement? I have a specific interest in this kind of work, due to my interests in automatic and paraedolic processes, but how do we differentiate the Surreal from the Dark?
December 20, 2020 at 8:18 am #1898
Yes, art movements get accepted over time, become part of the establishment as you said and after some time become irrelevant. So then new forms of art emerge. Maybe this is how nature also operates, always seeking to make new things and innovations.
Well, I think at this point with the internet, people have become more accepting of darker things and used to many things. It’s not really the “darkness” of something that shocks. What makes me stop scrolling in a sea of feeds to one particular artwork, is the intelligence and complexity behind an artwork ; technique being part of it. The disturbance can be felt sometimes as if the painting actually is saying something or wants something, the artist managed to place an intention in that painting. So the artwork has become more than just a material object with paint on top of it.
As for differentiating between surreal and dark art, I think they can both meet in the middle. Some of my art I categorize as surreal dark art. But those labels are created . The artwork already exists, the labeling comes after, it’s just how our minds operate. I think the best artwork is really where you can’t even categorize it or really have trouble with labeling it somehow. That’s when something new is emerging and I think we should have that as a goal, to make true and novel work. Because this is what hits emotions, something that we have never seen before.
December 29, 2020 at 6:22 pm #1908
This is a really valuable point to discuss, as it chimes with a lot of artists who make Dark Art, but is not at all unique to Dark Art (or even surrealism). If seeking this ‘truth’ is a goal of Dark Art, is the movement more of a categorising of output, than an intentional creative pursuit?
January 2, 2021 at 6:01 pm #1920
Well, like Chet was saying on the podcast. It’s really just calling it something, in order to talk about it and frame it for an audience that is maybe unfamiliar with such a genre. The rest of the “output” created by the artists, well they are just making art that appeal to them, and incidentally… It is dark, sometimes very dark! And to the artist, it is interesting work and he keeps doing that. And an old grandma passes by that painting, and says “oh my, dear, why paint such dark grim images?!” So I guess the label comes from people’s reaction to certain images.
And if they are making Dark art only to fit within the Dark Art genre to get views and likes, then I don’t think that kind of pursuit is worth having, but it’s a free world and people do what they like. It’s a bit like those modern artist painting squares, knowing that people in turtle necks will gobble that up and then make millions off of it.
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