First proposal for a course on mysticism and art theory at the WEA, Sydney, 2009

Auguste Rodin, ’Le Penseur’, 1904, bronze, Musée Rodin, Paris. A testament to mystical ‘reason’.

Auguste Rodin, ’Le Penseur’, 1904, bronze, Musée Rodin, Paris. A testament to mystical ‘reason’.

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First proposal for a course on the impact of mysticism on art and art theory at the WEA, Sydney, 2009

17.02.09 I took my proposal for my course ‘Cubism and its Mystical Heritage’ to the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association) in Sydney.

30.09.09 In reply to my query, I received an email from the WEA thanking me for my application and stating that they would be in touch later in the year.

I never heard from the WEA regarding my course proposal again.

My proposal is below

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‘Cubism and its Mystical Heritage’


Through an extended lecture focusing on a period in visual art history, I would deal with a theological/mystical current of the greatest significance running through Western culture that has been ‘ignored’, ‘forgotten’.

My primary intent would be to explicate the philosophy of Plotinus and exemplify his significance and impact through an analysis of a pivotal moment in Western art. My secondary intent would be to stimulate those attending to think not only about this, about the concepts used and their significance in our culture, but about some of the ramifications of that current, in particular:

– the relations between this current and dominant classes and their ideologies

– the relevance of this current to the full potential of the brain – towards a better understanding and positioning of ‘reason’ in relation to ‘lesser’ brain functions (e.g. ‘the emotions’).

There is a ‘lost’ or more precisely, ‘buried’ theological tradition in Western culture – of most interest to me, in its philosophy and visual arts – running from, to take a useful cut-off point, Plato to the present. It is identified by what god is not – ‘the ineffable’, ‘the inexpressible’ – ‘the rhetoric of purity’, ‘the rhetoric of silence’.

In philosophy the key figures for my purpose are Plato, Plotinus, Nietzsche and Bergson. But there are many others – including Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida and other postmodernists (this tradition overhung Lyn Gallacher’s talk on postmodernism on Radio National’s ‘Artworks’ 06.07.08).

In the visual arts Plotinus’ philosophy and particularly his immensely significant simile of the sculptor labouring at his material finds expression, for example, in the work of Michelangelo and Rodin, in Gerome’s ‘Pygmalion and Galatea’ and in twentieth-century Modernism.

Since my primary philosophical focus is the philosophy of Plotinus, I would begin with his inspiration – the philosophical theologian Plato. I would substantiate and expand on this assertion through reference to his dialogues – particularly their mystical elements.

I would then spend some time on The Enneads because:

– Plotinus, in terms of his influence, is one of the most significant philosophers of the West – his importance is certainly comparable to that of Plato. That he has been ‘overlooked’ is the most extraordinary failure by academic philosophers and this ‘overlooking’ has not been accidental – it goes to the heart of a ‘patriarchal’, one-sided understanding of ‘reason’ – something that feminist philosophy has to some degree addressed.

– key concepts of his philosophy will be central to my argument. Their echo and specific recurrence in the work of later philosophers, particularly and most importantly for my argument, in that of Nietzsche and Bergson has, again, been misunderstood.

I would then look at the mysticism at the core of Nietzsche’s philosophy – what, e.g., links The Birth of Tragedy to The Anti-Christ:

– his aesthetics of life was directly based on that same simile of Plotinus’ which is almost literally repeated in the Birth of Tragedy.

– it is commonly understood that Nietzsche, by writing that we have ‘killed’ god, argued for the end of god. This, again, is a great error which has had great consequences, most important and profitable to consider. Nietzsche in fact argued for the opposite – another god, ‘Dionysus’.

The last philosopher I would look at would be Bergson whose philosophy is saturated with Neoplatonism. The ‘life’, ‘vision’, ‘duration’ and ‘movement’ etc. of which he wrote did not refer to this world but directly, through the use of those same concepts in The Enneads, to ‘another world’ at the core of which was god the self.

I would then move to ‘the pivotal moment’ of Modernism – Cubism – and argue that its concern is not with this material world but with the expression in art, through particularly the influence of the philosophies of Nietzsche and Bergson, of Neoplatonism, of the philosophy of Plotinus.

Cubism is the attempted evocation of a particular reading of god, not of the material world.

I would argue, through the analysis of form and content of examples, that the purpose of that art was not for the viewer to better aesthetically ‘grasp’ people and objects in this world, but in ‘another’ and by so doing, to engage us with this mystical tradition which has ‘god’ as self at its heart.

Suggested reading

Plato, The Republic, Trans. D. Lee. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1984

Plotinus, The Enneads, Trans. S. MacKenna. London, Penguin, 1991

F. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Trans. S. Whiteside, London, Penguin, 2003

F. Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Trans. R. J. Hollingdale, London, Penguin 2003

H. Bergson, Creative Evolution, Trans. A. Mitchell, Lanham, 1983

Planned Learning Outcomes

Through a focus on a ‘pivotal moment’ in Western culture, attendees would become aware of a theological/mystical current running through our culture to the present, and of its significance. They would become aware of the tremendous importance not only to the work of philosophers and artists who came after him of the ignored philosophy of Plotinus and question both its significance and its ‘forgetting’, but in so doing question, towards a more rounded understanding of the concept, their understanding of ‘reason’ itself.


First proposal for a course on the impact of mysticism on art and art theory at the Centre for Continuing Education, the University of Sydney, 1999

Second proposal for a course on the impact of mysticism on art and art theory at the Centre for Continuing Education, the University of Sydney, 2008


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