Since the ancient times – and across different cultures, art has been intertwined with religion, spirituality, and human aspiration to the higher dimension. In ancient Greece, art was closely associated with worship of divine entities, and it gave inspiration to groundbreaking achievements in many areas of expression. This relationship, however, has not been consistent across cultures – and sometimes it was an outright conflict. In more puritanical religious communities art was often considered a profane advance of fallible human skill into the perfect beauty of God.
Nevertheless, the pursuit of the sublime is one of the main purposes of art, whether or not the art itself draws from religious or irreligious communities.
Rothko Chapel – Texas
This is, in my opinion, the underlying pursuit that links not only the synaesthetic experiences of Brakhage, Belson, and the Whitneys, but also the larger artistic context of the mid-20th century, including abstract art, abstract expressionism, speculative fiction, and more. The artists of that period rejected expression of ephemeral feelings and opted for radically non-symbolic concepts – an attempt to distill the ultimate art form that would bring the viewer to an otherworldly, almost “divine” (not necessarily religious!) state.
This level of abstraction is apparent in the work of Whitneys, who utilised the “distance between the viewer and the art object”. The intricate relationships between musical and visual structure of their films signifies the possibility of synthetic, almost psychedelic experiences for the viewers. This is accomplished in the work of Brakhage and Belson as well, although with different aesthetic methods – using less of the “sacred geometry” and more organic shapes that cannot be clearly defined.
The Church nightclub, Denver
It is difficult to define the relationship between these early sound-vision experiments and the modern forms of entertainment, such as mass concerts, festivals and rave parties. Many of the processes that enabled that, such as the decline of religion or advances in digital technology, happened at roughly the same time. However, there’s an interesting aesthetic link. Abstract films and sound-vision shows are often using bright visuals and strobe-light effects within a relatively dark background. This is very similar to how modern dance parties, bars and clubs are creating their atmospheres. These seem like places where people socialise, but many of us come there more to dissociate, to lose control, to “leave our bodies” and encounter an almost spiritual (and often far from religious) experience.
Although abstract film became less of a groundbreaking art practice, it paved the new way for pursuit of elevated experiences through immersion in subjective realms – be it in cinemas, clubs, festivals, or more recently virtual reality.