Having lost transcendence in the West, we have turned to the East, yearning to overcome the ails of staunch capitalism and individualism. It is possible to pinpoint three peak moments in the last several centuries-1890s, 1960s, and today-which have been marked by the infusion of Eastern spirituality, and mysticism, as well as great cultural change.
Collectively, we only benefit from transcendence if it awakens to a heightened perception of the injustices and harms of our society, and then energizes us to transform.
This spring, Matthew Marks Gallery presents the work of painter and filmmaker, Jordan Belson (exhibition beginning in 1950), which was completely dedicated to the portrayal of meditative states of transcendence. This exhibition shines a light on our significant cultural fascination with the East and its continued importance today, as well as the specific nuances of Belson’s vision of transcendence.
Works of a Meditator
Jordan Belson’s extensively accurate portray films, almost scientifically, the visual and somatic wonders that occur when practicing the Eastern meditation methods: inner peace that is simultaneously ecstatic, and unbelievably trippy.
Important works by Belson, including Samadhi (1967), originally formatted on 16 mm, were on display at the gallery. Belson’s exacting works are a visual synthesis, rendering the beautiful colors that wash and burst when meditating, especially when going deeper and deeper into peace and emptiness. Although Belson seeks visual accuracy, almost like a document, the experimental music is interpretive; his sounds resemble the bodily sensations and general feeling of such states.
In Momentum (1968), Belson used his analog techniques to create experiences of blasting off a realm of boundlessness and expansive bliss. The two-dozen small paintings, which portray similar spheres and ornate patterns, burst like misty fireworks in the movies.
The quaint, mixed-media works on panels no larger than a ruler, illustrate the meditative vision. The precise geometries and vibrant colors of the paintings distill and simplify the ever-changing imagery of the movies. However, the scientific approach of the paintings reads like a vintage diary, the same as one might find on the “new age and spirituality” shelf at a bookstore. These diagrams evoke wonder in many, who are dazzled by the beauty of the microcosm, and macrocosm-a beauty which is startlingly akin to the visions seen on the treasured psychedelic trips.
Pitfalls of Transcedence
Belson was well-known for his reclusiveness – a common pitfall of transcendence pursuing. The personal motivations behind his obsession with the “cosmic” may be interesting, but the most salient point to discuss, however, is his role as a promoter of the East-that is, his cultural function.
Here, Belson is made famous by the cultural movements mentioned earlier. The East calls, and he serves the larger need of our culture to explore and realize the values found in the experience of transcendence.
Not to mention, this infusion of philosophies and disciplines from the East, just like Belson, has become more mainstream! Today, many Westerners are perfectly aware that they include yoga and meditation in their lifestyle. In addition, these studies are examining the therapeutic value of these far-out states-a field that has been unapproachable for almost a century. The list goes on!
Belson’s work, when seen in the context of larger historical trends, reveals what the search for transcendence means for today.
In 1890, poets and artists began to discover symbolism and Eastern aesthetics, and were born bohemian lifestyle; Freud and Jung developed psychologies that peered into the inner unknown (the “unconscious”), utilizing myths from further East (paganism for both shrinks, and Eastern ideas particularly for Jung).
Additionally, Theosophy, a movement of mysticism which appropriates and co-opted Eastern spiritualism, flourished, influencing such artists as Hilma af Klint. Swami Vivekananda, Eastern Master to Venture to America, Close ally to this movement These early groups and their ideas have a direct connection to what we call “new age” spirituality today.
In 1960, Harvard’s psychology professors, Tim Leary and Richard Albert got turned to LSD, and dropped out of academia, devoted to spreading experiences of the “other realm”. The latter went East, like many hippies, to India. Richard Albert came back as Ram Dass, an essential representative of a movement which harbored the teachings of Eastern Guru and Yogic Practices, such as meditation. Famously, The Beatles, in a highly-publicized adventure that included Mia Farrow, traveled to India to see Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Their status helped propel Transcendental Meditation in the mainstream, pushing far-out
Most importantly, the free love and second-wave feminist movements began to spark radical changes in attitudes to women’s social roles and sexuality.
All of this is a search for the lost parts of Western culture; damaged by excessive rationality and materialism. Our collective psyche was searching for uncovering and integrating values found in transcendence.
Today, this is surging again. Recent shows, including the one Matthew Marks is putting on of Belson’s work, highlighting the enthusiasm of contemporary audiences for mysticism-for example, the spectacular popularity of Hilma af Klint exhibition at the Guggenheim.
Belson’s display of quiet bliss, an ayahuasca retreat, or merely studying the ancient texts-it’s important to keep in mind one crucial aspect: bringing it down to earth.
This is the folly of many, including Belson, who goes to the cosmos, to the other world. In these cases, the desire for transcendence becomes an excuse for isolation. Awakening to the meaning of transcendence should energize conscious revolution and should challenge injustice, through values of equality and inclusiveness, harmonizing families, communities and countries.
Transcendence reveals that whatever this reality is , it has some sort of underlying cohesion-a beauty that can be seen, even if subjectively. But we must bring this insight back to earth, to the real world. Insight into transcend realms awakens to the capacity to be attentive and aware of the subjective beauty of reality. But this is only the beginning, as this insight is most valuable when it vitalizes our desire for inner and outer harmony. Belson’s exhibition, if nothing else, pierces the veil into the unknown, renewing interest in transcendence for audiences once again.