Dickinson likens his work to Rorschach tests. The very ambiguity of the circles is intended to provoke inquiry and challenge pre-conceived ideas, just as the German Romantic poet and spiritualist Justinus Kerner used similar ink-blots to 'see' ghosts. Another circle-maker, Jim Schnabel, defined the general principle: "If there can be artifice on the way into the mind, there can be artifice on the way out."
Naturally, any discussion on perceptual fallibility is the last thing the croppies, committed phenomenalists, want to hear. As so often happens, what could have been an interesting debate becomes a dialogue of the deaf. A woman behind us is shouting. She lives a short but discernible distance from her left brain, the gap apparently filled with guruspeak and a jumble of New Age parochia. To her, the truth is nigh but 'out there', obscured by a veil of appearance to all except an anointed elite who see things as others do not. Her pious smile - before Dickinson dared speak - is now its enantiodromic shadow of doubt as the synergy of 'hoax' and self-delusion dawns across the room. Imagine a Cathar revival with no-one laughing.
Of course, illusion is the artist's stock-in-trade. Worse for her, not only are we so evidently at odds with the communion she experiences in our work, we are actually co-dependent. Her yearnings for unearthly encounters has its sinister twin in our efforts to satisfy and even drive those aspirations. As some of this sinks in, happy-clappy turns angry-snappy: "You are not artists!" she is yelling to paroxysmal applause. "You are scum!" The role of 'hoaxer' itself creates an interesting disparity for the thick-skinned; as Freud noted, ignored human realities tend to return in bizarre and fanatical forms.
The applause his cue, enter Tom Fool, a world-renowned expert and speaker. He is blessed with knowledge of realities lesser mortals can only dream of: crystal cathedrals on the moon, colourful encounters with unseen entities, vanished evidence and meetings with shadowy officials who would like it to stay that way - a right royal cavalcade of invisibilities The woman's smile returns. Dickinson sits down in deference to a master.
Our willingness to imbue the inanimate with the essence of divinity has become a cliché of the New Age. In this quasi-religious-cum-pseudoscientistic culture, all manner of objects, images, experiences and even 'hard' empirical data are touted as evidence of the incorporeal. It comprises many different pursuits, ostensibly independent but bound together by a shared obsession with 'the supernatural', and tempted by the same market forces. This collective psychomachia (a struggle between spirit and flesh) generates enough artifice to rival Catholicism as a cult of icons and relics. For example, every year Dickinson's summer studio - the fields of Wiltshire - attracts like numbers of sensation-seekers as Medjugorje. In both places, each fresh apparition catalyses a profusion of folk mysticism, demonstrating that both are part of the same human condition.
While little conflict exists between science and traditional religion, purveyors of 'proof' of the existence of aliens, their craft, ghosts and myriad spiritual energies are another matter. Theirs is a culture lost in the uncharted territory of validation. Obvious problems arise in defining what is natural and what is not in an environment where no such distinction is made. Ironically, even the term 'supernatural' represents an ethnocentric, scientistic viewpoint.
In this territory, common language, usually a guarantee of meaning, becomes a useful means of misinterpretation. Crucially, the word 'genuine' implies a single and identifiable origin, but anything supernatural is, by definition, unverifiable. Testing for genuineness, as opposed to falsifying, is like using an oracle to determine truth. In our virtual reality, genuine is whatever we believe or agree it to be. Accordingly, 'fake' and 'hoaxed'1 can be genuine too, as is easily demonstrated.
This mimicry of natural science is symptomatic of a culture trapped between New Age mysticism and the end-times of Enlightenment. To the pseudoscientist, conventional criteria are out of time and out of place; his is the realm of future-science. However, this dressing up in new skin for old ceremonies suggests a fear that by physically nailing the supernatural it will be appropriated by convention - its mystique laid bare and any chance of direct communion lost. In evolutionary terms it makes ideal camouflage for avoiding the selection process by which science filters out 'bad' mutations. The superreal must be always just out of reach and continually reinvented to maintain its distance. For instance, in cerealogy the romantic notion of an artist asleep while the angels do his work is taken quite literally - the circle-maker as unwitting scribe is a convenient means for accepting the obvious evidence of human involvement without having to abandon the higher mystery. In the absence of any definitive image of 'out there', all we have are our own constructions, driven by a yearning for new experience. To understand this is to appreciate the power of imagination.
In Europe, observation became the arbiter of truth and falsehood through devotional art. The Renaissance obsession with 'rational' perspective was as much a scientific act as it was artistic, reflecting an increasing recognition of the external world. It emerged, observes Umberto Eco, "from a universe of hallucination. A symbolic forest peopled with mysterious presences; things were seen as if in the continuous story of a divinity who spent his time reading and devising Weekly Puzzle Magazine." Like all illusion, art's mediation to the theatre of the inner eye is not an intellectual device. Knowledge of how illusions work does not stop us being fooled by them, and our reaction to being fooled remains fairly consistent. And what was relevant to the old Dark Age still holds to the New.
Aesthetics and psychology are subtly intertwined. As with the ranting cerealogist, in the psychology of mysticism a confusion exists between states of 'me' and 'not me'. Aesthetician Morse Peckham describes this mental separation from one's immediate environment as 'psychic insulation', a mild trance state. Art inspires precisely this kind of experience of discontinuity. Just as the artist tries to forget the work of earlier artists, the mystic distances himself from existing knowledge (all the easier if he's never known it).
Ignorant inquiry - the very basis of invention - is grounded in both art and science. "The creative person" writes Peckham, "is able to see similarities and relationships that are new and unique. But first they must be able to see dissimilarities where before only similarities were seen, and the absence of relationships where traditionally they are found. He sees that the emperor has no clothes. He sees absurdities in conventional wisdom."
Where the scientist is conditioned to recognise existing relationships, the seer seeks new ones. He enters into a kind of folie à deux with the object, making connections that are either invisible or overlooked by others. Formal logic often gives a false picture of anomaly. We are not rational, we rationalise, which can lead to conclusions just as ludicrous as those arrived at irrationally.
This hypnotic state is at its most active in religious environments, as in the case of 'Jerusalem fever' (in which pilgrims to the city become overwhelmed by their proximity to its history, often imagining themselves to be biblical figures). Its aesthetic equivalent is Stendhal syndrome, so called after the 19th-century novelist who wrote about his illness while viewing art in Italy - he was the first to connect his symptoms with the deep resonance he experienced. (One Florence clinic specialises in treating patients overcome by awe.) Another example might be a case of stigmata in which the stigmatic contemplated a representation of Christ's passion so intensely their wounds reflected artistic tradition. Likewise, Marian apparitions often correspond to an idealised portrait of the Virgin Mary, with specific cultural variations.
In her excellent analysis of how society creates its monsters, Marina Warner concurs with Festinger in suggesting that the function of a scapegoat is to allow a community to expel the profound terrors it experiences about its own behaviour. In the New Age confusion between image, experience and reality, the spectre of the hoaxer has returned as something of an urban myth, like the Halloween sadist who puts razor blades in trick or treat candy. One ufologist, known for his zealotry, compares UFO and crop circle 'hoaxers' with those who throw acid on religious paintings. "You destroy what is beautiful," he told me, as if aping God - or, in this case, ET - is an iconoclastic act of debauchery. Even if this made sense, iconoclasm is aimed at the power of imagery and is therefore a perverse form of appreciation of it - hardly a sceptical act.
1. In this context the word 'hoax' has become hopelessly emotive, useful only to those quick to ascribe motive to action.
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Photo: Rob Irving.