This adaptation of my introduction to True Visions (Betty Books, 2006) first appeared in the COSM Journal, issue 4.
The sad truth about descriptive categories like “visionary art” is that they are both useful and lame. Especially in the art world, the language of genres and styles often has more to do with galleries and critics than with making and enjoying art. But reflecting about categories can also be fruitful, because it shapes the context of our seeing—and more importantly, the way we share and talk about our seeing. So here is my seed crystal: visionary art is art that resonates with visionary experiences, those undeniably powerful eruptions of numinous and multidimensional perception that suggest other orders of reality.
Certain individuals have a predilection for visionary experiences, but these luminous glimpses bless us all at some point in our lives—sometimes through intentionally induced trance states or psychoactive raptures, and sometimes through the gratuitous grace of deep dreams or the demented funhouse of a quasi-schizophrenic break. But we also understand and experience visionary experience through visionary culture, those artifacts of human culture with its eyes agog.
From the perspective of the mainstream art system, however, visionary art could be seen as an attempt to broaden and extend the notion of the outsider artist—those creative madmen, religious eccentrics, and poor folk considered to be outside the boundaries of conventional art history. The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, for example, describes its collection as “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.” That’s all fine and well, and the museum is cool, but this definition is pretty lacking. By insisting that visionary artists are self-taught, the AVAM implies that visionary art is not found inside the schools, movements, or lineages that compose the dominant flows of art history. It becomes a purely idiosyncratic affair, reduced to the solitary, obsessive individual, a Simon Rodia or a Howard Finster. But many visionary artists—by my definition—are and have been formally educated. More importantly, many visionary artists self-consciously locate their work within a lineage of inspired image-makers that stretches back through generations of Surrealist dreamers, mystic minimalists, and medieval icon painters. Abstract art, the most exalted and intellectualized gesture of the modernist avant-garde, actually emerged from a lotus pond of theosophy, spiritualism, and occult meditation practices.
The historical lineage of visionary artists masks a deeper and more commanding claim that sets the genre apart from the marvelous idiosyncrasies of outsider art. The claim is that the visionary artist gives personal expression to a transpersonal dimension, a cosmic plane that uncovers the nature that lies beyond naturalism, and that reveals, not an individual imagination, but an imaginal world, a mundus imaginalis. Far from being outside, this world lies within. Henry Corbin, the brilliant twentieth century scholar of Sufism, coined the term mundus imaginalis to describe the ‘alam al-mithal, the visionary realm where prophetic experience is said to literally take place.