McCoy: Christian Alchemist
Tuscon, AZMuseum of Contemporary Art
September 15 – December 30, 2018
Ann McCoy spoke with Aaron Rosen last Easter about the power of images, icons, and numinous experiences. McCoy has worked from dreams and has studied alchemy for over forty-five years, including twenty-eight years spent in Zurich with Dr. Carl Alfred Meier, one of Jung’s main disciples. Together, McCoy and Rosen muse about whether there is room for the sacred in the contemporary art world, and even art schools, meant to be places of open inquiry. McCoy recounts the lessons she learned from Joseph Beuys, and discusses untapped resources in a range of cultural traditions, from Jainism to Russian Orthodoxy, passionately arguing that artists must be searchers, first and foremost.
McCoy’s work is on show currently at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Tucson in an exhibition entitled Blessed Be: Mysticism, Spirituality, and the Occult in Contemporary Art and at University of Saint Joseph in an exhibition called In Memoriam: Commemorative Works by Contemporary Artists. Her installation featuring lantern slide projections, The Procession of the Invisible College, is at GRIDSPACE in Brooklyn.
Ann McCoy: I had a strange and wonderful experience yesterday. I woke up really late. I missed two trains. It was one of those days where everything went wrong. I’d made Russian Easter eggs with icons and took them to give them to the priest and dropped them and they shattered. As I was walking home and I thought, I’m going to stop by the White Russian church [Synod of Bishops Russian Church] on 93rd Street [Manhattan] with all the great icons. Suddenly an unknown priest walks up beside me on the street and says, “You’d better hurry because they’re bringing in the famous miraculous weeping icon.” They were having a procession to bring in the visiting icon into the church. It had a glass over the top with little droplets of water on the inside. I was feeling a willing suspension of disbelief was needed. I’d had a really bad day and I wasn’t feeling like Christ was riding into Jerusalem for Palm Sunday.
Aaron Rosen [Rail]: Maybe Christ was late on the train…
McCoy:Yes, absolutely, Christ was caught on the metro. So, I went up to venerate the icon and I put my hands on either side of the glass, and put my head against it and suddenly I felt this incredible energy emanating from it. It’s a special icon that they say opens the heart. I’ve had experiences venerating icons where I felt that I was really, like Pavel Florensky said, going in behind the image into the realm of the divine. I have a very special relationship to several Black Madonna icons, and the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln. But this was something I’d never quite experienced. And then I came home to Bushwick and there were all these tourists sitting in outdoor cafes, looking at bad graffiti murals with no idea it was Holy Week. And I just thought: am I like the last of the Old Believers? People today, in this materialistic secular society, seem so removed from the idea of a divine image, let alone experience of the sacred.
Rail: It’s interesting that you had such a deflating day before such a powerful experience. Sociologists and theologians would see it differently, but it’s interesting to think about how we prepare ourselves, perhaps even unconsciously, for certain spiritual experiences. Even in a moment when you felt least predisposed to such an encounter, the icon seemed to have worked.
McCoy: In a world where everything’s so pseudo-rational, when you have one of these experiences it’s quite amazing. I remember a trip to India where I went to see the temple at Ranakpur, one of the most beautiful Jain temples, that was first imagined in a dream. I was sitting there in this temple and I had this amazing peak religious experience when I didn’t expect it. I really believe in sacred sites and these kinds of experiences from growing up in the American Southwest.
Rail: I was thinking about some of our conversations about the West and Native American culture when I was reading Diana Eck’s Encountering God. She mostly writes about her experiences as a Christian with Hinduism, and how that’s awakened profound insights. But one of the things she also mentions is Chief Seattle saying, as he signed a treaty with the United States in the 1850s— relinquishing his tribe’s ancestral territory—that all of the places in these lands are awake with meaning. There’s this tremendous pathos as he’s signing over these spiritual resources to people who have no spiritual literacy, no way to read the sacredness of the lands they’re claiming.
McCoy: Dominionism was the problem. Even the supposed divine charge of manifest destiny didn’t have a real sense of sacredness about the environment. Someone like Thoreau understood nature as a kind of sacred realm. But, overall, Americans had this idea that they should just dominate it, and exploit it. I think of how the buffalo was so sacred that Native Americans used every single piece of it, and how horrified they were when the men in the railroads came out with their long rifles and just slaughtered millions of buffalo and left them to rot in the sun. That to me sums up the whole American vision in a strange way—the idea of the butchering of the sacred for money.
Rail: There were a few lonely figures who seemed to understand the enormity of what was being lost in the late nineteenth century. I sometimes think John Muir, climbing the mountains of the West with his staff, was the last American prophet.
McCoy: In a strange way that’s kind of how I felt like coming back to Bushwick the other day. In some Catholic countries like Spain or France you still have a sense of Easter, but in many places people have rejected Christianity without knowing anything about it. Now Christianity is dismissed and demonized or associated with the far right that reads the Book of Revelation but not the Gospels. On the secular side, you ask somebody if they’ve read the Gospels and they say, “No, I hate organized religion.” There’s this blanket rejection of everything without any knowledge of the thing itself. In the art world, dealing with Christianity in any positive way is taboo; it can only be trashed in some sensationalistic way. The art world groupthink is frightening.
Rail: I’ve had a similar sort of anxiety as a Reform Jew, that a lot of the mystery of the tradition has been depleted or lost to many Jews. In the great modernizing movements in the late nineteenth century there was this really powerful vision for the future, and a sense that some things needed to be left behind to embrace the present. For those generations, that was emancipating, but what do you do three, four, five generations later when people don’t have the same knowledge base, the same traditions which they can choose to accept or reject?
McCoy: I remember in Switzerland when everything closed on Sunday. And it was so wonderful to have that Sabbath time. Now nothing is closed on Sunday.
Rail: Sacred time and sacred space—both are sort of being invaded in different ways. You could argue closing on Sundays is just outdated Christocentrism, and that we should be living in a pluralistic society where we meet on neutral ground, where no time is off limits. But I suppose you could also say that living in a country where Christians are observing a tradition gives them the potential to understand and accept religious observance from other people. So, ironically, secularism might foreclose some opportunities for dialogue. If there’s not a profound model for what sacred time looks like in Christianity, for example, it might be harder to understand what it means to pray five times a day as a Muslim.
Ann McCoy, Lunar Birth, 2001, pencil on paper on canvas,
Processional with Resplendor, 2001, cast bronze with silver Crown, Photo credit: Alan Dickson.
McCoy: I think it’s a problem of replacement. Christianity has been replaced by gross materialism in many different varieties. The Bolsheviks, who are lauded in the art world in journals like October, came in and killed an estimated 20,000,000 people in the gulags. They destroyed thousands of churches and killed a lot of clergy, and basically replaced Christ with a portrait of Stalin or Lenin. The same thing is true in a capitalist society. Religion has been replaced by the worship of products, stressing extra time to sell merchandise. I think for me, it’s a problem of what we’re replacing it with, including shoddy religious traditions. I can’t stand the Christian far right. The ‘Prosperity Gospel’ is replacing real religion, which requires shadow integration, reflection, and penance.
Rail: Did you always have a strong faith yourself?
McCoy: I grew up with a very vital form of pre-Vatican II Catholicism in New Mexico and Colorado. Also, the reason I was such a believer is because I was reading Platonic philosophy. Now I think about how few people are even reading Plato or the Pre-Socratics, or even think they’re important. Without a meditation on darkness and the heliocentric where do you start?
Rail: I think you’ll really like Denys Turner’s The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism. He says most of the Christian mystics don’t even make sense without a deep knowledge of Platonism, and a sense of emanations. He says that Christian mysticism essentially springs from a profound marriage between Plato’s cave and Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai.
McCoy: I also teach Luce Irigaray, who updates Plato’s cave as a feminine, womb-like space of origin. Reading Plato helped me understand that there are other dimensions of thought, also ideals. That’s the piece that people are missing, this idea that the unseen, may determine that which is seen. I think the other missing piece is access to some larger, mysterious force. I think of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, where one can enter the imagination to have say an experience in the Garden of Gethsemane with Christ. An inner imaginative experience transforms the outer experience. Or having an important highly charged dream where you wake up the next day and your life is changed. I’ve had periods of intense depression where everything just seems hopeless and I went to sleep and I had some amazing dream that lifted me into another place. What frightens me is that people have lost this potential to be helped by the unconscious, to be helped by something spiritual. I look at Catholic friends and family, and sadly all of their children are now atheists and sometimes opiate addicts. It’s the story of this generation.
Rail: Whether one sees the ground of selfhood in God, the collective unconscious, or in some ways both—as you’re talking about it—the loss of an anchoring point seems really acute right now for people. And, paradoxically, there’s an awful lot of effort put into clearing away the very resources that might most help people.
McCoy: My psychiatrist was talking to me about how sad it is that she has so many people who come from secular non-religious backgrounds and they have no spiritual life and a very hard time accessing it. They tend to do practices like yoga, or veganism, but then find that the way it’s taught in the United States just doesn’t offer them much spiritually.
Rail: Right, it’s not surprising that disentangling a spiritual practice from its roots doesn’t yield the same results. It’d be like praying the rosary without any Catholic education.
McCoy: I wouldn’t knock the power of the rosary! A Jewish friend of mine who smokes weed to get to sleep at night asked me how I get to sleep in these apocalyptic times. I said, “I say the rosary.” She laughed and said, “teach me, teach me!” I find that if I have tremendous anxiety, I can get to sleep if I say the rosary, on bad nights twice. It’s not such a dead practice.
Rail: I imagine that’s at least partly because that practice has a context for you. But, thinking of your friend, it’s also interesting to think about the affectivity of practices even when they’re detached from that framework. The idea that there’s a latent meaning or inherent connectivity in the object or practice itself, seems to me potentially positive but also may be dangerous. The notion that the Crucifix, for instance, possesses an intrinsic, apotropaic or conversionary power over people makes me wary.
McCoy: The crucifix can be frightening. We are seeing sacrifice and suffering writ large; its misuse for forced conversion was problematic. I was at an AA meeting in Rome and this gnarled man came in with eyes that were, as Milton said, “pregnant with celestial fire.” You could just tell he’d had a peak spiritual experience. After the meeting, I started speaking with him. He had been in Sing Sing or one of those hardcore prisons, and he’d had a cellmate who would say the rosary and he taught him how to say it. And he said, “I started saying the rosary and one night I had a vision of the Virgin Mary. I didn’t have good chances for parole, but I was released soon after.” It changed his life and he was in Rome after a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. So sometimes people still do have these experiences with the rosary, even those who were not formerly Catholics.
Ann McCoy, The Invisible College, bronze processional with projections, GRIDSPACE, Brooklyn. Photos Paulina Kim Joo
Rail: So, the rosary offered him a rope to climb out of the pit. Someone like St. John of the Cross would connect his humbled condition to his capacity for spiritual experience.
McCoy: I think Jung said that the defeat of the ego is always a gift to the Self. That’s another thing I think is so strange right now. You need the ego to function in society as a mediating force, but right now we’re living in a period of extreme narcissism. Yikes, look at our president. There’s no concept of being related to anything larger. Jimmy Carter is a saint compared to narcissistic Trump.
Rail: And where would you say art comes into the equation, especially in terms of the transcendent?
McCoy: For me, art has always been a sacred task—a vocation. Early on, I was interested in all kinds of religious imagery. I read St. John of the Cross, and later Madame Blavatsky, and spent years reading alchemy. Then I got into the art world and everybody was reading Clement Greenberg. I couldn’t stand it. When I met him, it was even worse, he was such a creep. I was always out of step with the art world. I always felt like a relic. My work, at this moment, is facing a lot of rejection. It’s difficult because a lot of people are terrified of work that deals with the unconscious and they’re also terrified of work that deals with spirituality. That’s why I thought your Stations of the Cross exhibition was brave and important. I don’t want to only hear about Piss Christ [by Andres Serrano]. Or Chris Ofili. Or Maurizio Cattelan. I also want to hear about artists who aren’t transgressive, who have a spiritual practice, or who are trying to access one. The art world needs to open a door to it, because nobody can look at fifth generation Abstract Expressionism or often contrived political art anymore. Social justice is important, but artists forget the original social justice warriors, like the Abolitionists, were divinely inspired. That’s where Joseph Beuys was such an important model. He co-founded the Green Party. He was a social environmentalist, an activist, but he was also a deeply spiritual man.
Rail: You met Beuys, right?
McCoy: I met him in Germany in the late seventies, and I had a few conversations with him. He had hundreds of people around him and I met him when he was doing the Documenta honey pumps. Frankfurters like Benjamin Buchloh say he was a poser. He wasn’t. He was one of the most completely authentic people I’ve ever met. There are some parts of his story, like the Crimea crash, that may be a symbolic myth, but I don’t care. When you met Beuys, you knew that something very bad had happened to him. He still had metal plates in his skull and his face was sunken, and very badly scarred. You knew when you looked in his eyes that this was a man who had literally been into the bowels of hell and had come out, like Jonah. It was like the night sea journey in alchemy where he had gone into the belly of the beast and emerged transformed, a different person. I think his conversations What is Art?, with a priest Volker Harlan, are great art documents.
Rail: Beuys himself was rather priestly, right?
McCoy: He was priestly, but you also felt a fragility. I met him in ‘77 and even then he wasn’t in great health, and you had a sense that this guy wasn’t going to live forever. Kazantzakis, in his sequel to The Odyssey, describes Odysseus expending all of his energy and then disappearing in a puff of smoke. That’s how you felt about Beuys—that whatever this experience had been, he was using every ounce of whatever that energy was to transform life and himself and his art in every way possible. I wish I had that kind of energy. It’s a kind of energy that only comes from a completely authentic religious experience.
Rail: In a way, he was like Lazarus, raising himself embalmed in felt and honey.
McCoy: There’s something to be said about employing very simple archetypal elements to express a political philosophy. Look at Mahatma Gandhi, an intellectual lawyer who communicated what he had to say to the Indian people by developing a spinning wheel, and using the elementary image of salt.
Ann McCoy, Dream of the Invisible College, 2018, 9 by 14 ft. , colored pencil on paper on canvas. Photo credit Peter Dressler
Rail: It seems to take a tremendous spiritual as well as artistic sensitivity to be able to recognize the power of these very basic elements, as if these symbols have been hiding in plain sight. Do you think there’s a place for that kind of thinking in art schools today, or even seminaries?
McCoy: I teach art history and mythology in the Graduate Design Department of the Yale School of Drama, which is better than most places. But what’s disturbing me right now is that in art departments across the country all students are getting is often outdated cultural theory. Students who’ve never read Plato or Aristotle are suddenly trying to read Derrida, who’s already out of favor; or are all assigned [Theodor] Adorno, the atheist. Students are locked into this incredibly rigid system of critical theory and discouraged from reading anything about mysticism, spirituality, anything about religion. Let’s all move on! I’ve had a lot of Yale art students take my classes and come up to me and say, “I couldn’t discuss any of the things you’re talking about in a crit.”
Rail: It seems like there’s a disjunction, because a lot of artists are looking for the kind of source-material you’re talking about, but at the same time MFA programs are encouraging them to pin what they’re doing to the same cadre of theorists, presumably to show they’re ‘serious’—i.e. marketable.
McCoy: The best thing you could do for art schools would be to remove all critical theory and start alternative reading lists. It’d be more interesting to have students, for example, read things like Chinese metaphysics. That would help open them up. Or maybe even choose their own reading. That would be a novel idea.
Rail: It’s interesting that in many ways the art world now encourages artists to go deeper into their cultural identities for material, and yet the language they’re incentivized to use when talking about culture can be quite boundarized. It almost seems mandatory now for artists to use the word ‘hybridity’ in their personal statements!
McCoy: So true, and sadly funny. I did an interview with William Kentridge and got to know him in Rome. He said that what saved him was that he didn’t go to art school in America, and didn’t hear about the New York School. He didn’t read Greenberg. He said that he was interested in this black artist they called the Goya of Soweto, who did a kind of political painting, and he was interested in drawing. So, he found his own path.
Right now, I’m writing about Harry E. Smith, who never went to art school. He was involved in all these American folk ways. He collected everything, from paper airplanes to making recordings of Navajo chants. He had a vast library on subjects like alchemy and mysticism. The lack of independent thinking today is a problem. I mean, somebody like Leonora Carrington would never have survived a modern art school.
Rail: Well, if you’re not killed off by art school then at least there’s the art market to finish you off!
McCoy: Sadly, this is so true. I think it’s a very difficult time for visionary artists. I’m just trying to get through Holy Week, exhaustion at 72, grinding poverty, and churning out writing.
Rail: Well hopefully you’ll come out the other side resurrected.
McCoy: Or at least on my feet.
Dr. Rosen spoke with McCoy for a series of interviews he is recording with contemporary artists around the world about the place of religion and the spiritual in their work and practice. The resulting book, Brushes with Faith, will be published in 2019 by Cascade (Wipf & Stock).
DR. AARON ROSEN is the author and editor of a number of books about religion and the arts, including Art & Religion in the 21st Century (Thames & Hudson, 2015; paperback, 2016), and most recently Encounters: The Art of Interfaith Dialogue (Brepols, 2018).