When Art Isn’t Just for Art’s Sake: The Uses of an Ugly Aesthetic in Satanism

Confession

Satanists tend to be proud sinners, so they probably shouldn’t have much in the way of confessions to make. For the most part, that’s true of me as well, but I do have one small one to get off my chest. I really don’t care for death metal or extreme metal or black metal or whatever you call super heavy heavy-metal music with growling or shouted vocals and lightening fast drumming that will surely some day end in carpal tunnel surgery. I’ve never cared for this style of music, and I still don’t.

As a Satanist, though, I nonetheless feel drawn to this genre because of its prevailing Satanic themes and imagery. When I decided to leave the closet and live openly as a Satanist, I began making myself listen to bands like Behemoth, Cradle of Filth, Satyricon, Rotting Christ, Dawn of Ashes, and so on. At the same time, I began wearing all black, surrounding myself with dark images and art like that of my friend and fellow Satanist SISU, attending rituals involving mock human sacrifice and gobs of fake blood—you know, stereotypical Satanist stuff.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: all this is tourist-Satanism, consumerist-Satanism, Satanic kitsch, conformist Satanism. It makes me the proverbial “sheep in wolf’s clothing.” But (in)authenticity and the tired old saw of whether it’s wise or desirable to live openly as a pubic Satanist are not the point of this post. Neither is evaluating prevailing Satanic aesthetics on purely aesthetic grounds. Like it, don’t like it: that’s not the point here.

Rather, I write now to ask a simple question: why is this stereotypical dark Satanic aesthetic a stereotype anyway? Might there be any other motivating force behind it than unhallowed tradition, blind conformity, and a shallow desire to shock? While I can’t speak for the thousands of self-proclaimed Satanists who adopt the whole tried-and-true gloomy thing as their personal aesthetic, I can and will here offer some of my own thinking on at least one very good reason behind such a choice that has nothing to do either what other Satanists currently do or with what they have done in the past. In particular, I argue here that a Satanic aesthetic of dark and disgusting images involving violence done to the human body directly serves the Satanic program of deconstructing normative morality as a means of reframing the purpose and functioning of groups. Before we get to that argument, let’s first consider why the choice of a “traditional” morbid Satanic aesthetic might not have much of anything to do either with tradition per se or with a morbid fascination with or even worship of death.


Reasons

As you might imagine for practitioners of a religion that didn’t get its start until 1966 when Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan, most Satanists aren’t too big on adherence to tradition. And this includes, by the way, those who are not affiliated with CoS and refuse to admit that modern atheistic Satanism per se didn’t exist prior to the advent of that particular organization. One finds, rather, a central antinomian tendency to Satanic belief and practice, in all its otherwise varied forms, that acts as a liberating and innovating force within the religion—or rather family of related religions. What Satanists most value over and against hallowed traditions are their own choices and behaviors undertaken for their own, personal, transgressive reasons.

Also, however paradoxical this fact may seem in light of the dark and morbid imagery of the standard doom-and-gloom Satanic aesthetic, Satanists don’t tend to be much on the whole death cult thing. Indeed, one common criticism I see Satanists leveling against Christianity is the charge of being precisely a death cult, with Christians seemingly fetishizing the excruciating pain and torture of Jesus in films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and plastering images of their Savior’s suffering during crucifixion and of his corpse all over both churches and even their own bodies, something that didn’t become standard practice in the religion until around the 10th century CE. Prior to that point, the lion’s share of images of Jesus in Christian churches and sanctuaries had been of a living being performing healing and teaching salvation to his followers. Indeed, the modern Latter-Day Saint movement tends to eschew the popular symbology of the cross largely out of a preference to emphasize Jesus’ life and resurrection over his suffering and death.

So if a Satanist like me isn’t forcing himself to swallow extreme metal while surrounded by images of forlorn skeletons and demons bearing bleeding apples for reasons of tradition/conformity or because we just oh so loooooove death, then what, precisely, might the reason be? Or perhaps the better question to ask is: what benefit accrues to this aesthetic choice as opposed to something else? Why might this particular aesthetic make particular sense, given the mission and modus operandi of Satanism as I understand and value them?


The Reason

I’ve written in the past about how what makes Satanism, as I understand it, culturally dangerous and difficult to practice—but also potentially very beneficial to modern society at large, antinomianism notwithstanding—is its complete rejection of parochial group identity as anything other than pure recreation. I argue that this rejection of corporate or group identities stems from taking LaVey’s thoroughgoing critique of externalization and writing it large, applying it to any and all external sources of value to which humans make constant recourse for everything from shoring up the individual self against the looming specter of death to forming binding in-groups that take strength from organized denigration of and even outright violence toward out-groups. Far from being an attack on the idea of “Satanic community” à la CoS, this is actually a liberation of the concept of community from the time-honored human tradition of using it as a tool and weapon in evolutionary competition with other groups of humans. I’ve argued for tearing down the structures on which we hang dualistic systems of morality, with one much stricter standard applied to those with whom we feel externally motivated affinity and another much laxer standard (or none at all!) applied to those toward whom we feel antipathy and whom we treat with a corresponding amount of dehumanization and inhumaneness.

In his 2014 book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, author Joshua Greene calls this kind of inter-group conflict and competition “the tragedy of common sense morality.” Both Greene and fellow moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in the latter’s 2013 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion make the point that much of the impetus behind this tragic conflict stems from automatic, hard-wired intuitive reactions to feelings of disgust and disrespect. That is, humans tend to react to other humans, at least initially, on the basis of intuitive, often emotion-laden snap judgments arising from flashes of affect at perceived disgusting and disrespectful behavior and then to rationalize their unconsciously motivated reactions with ad-hoc ex-post “reasoning” that is really just so much confabulation created by the second channel of the “dual-process moral brain” to cover the fact that the reactors simply cannot introspect on the hows or whys of their own gut reactions. What really counts initially in human-to-human interactions is this first flash of affect that either positively or negatively predisposes us toward others. Psychologists label this phenomenon “affective primacy.” What’s interesting, though, is that much experimental evidence has shown that such flashes of affect can be crafted and honed over time through repeated exposure to a given stimulus.

Human societies cultivate these intuitive feelings of disgust and disrespect, linking them to often arbitrary cultural practices they wish to denigrate, like widows eating fish, something which strikes most Americans as entirely unobjectionable, even if bizarre to contemplate, but against which people of Orissa, on the east coast of India, react with strong, moral outrage. And once these links are made within the cultural system and inculcated through socialization and education, members of human societies begin to insist on these externalized values as what cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach have called “sacred values.” Such sacred values are ingrained moral judgments of propriety and impropriety that are largely immune to critical reflection and conscious reasoning for any purpose other than confirmation or justification. Sacred values don’t tend to be altered in any way, other than by becoming even more entrenched, when challenged on factual or logical bases.

So now you’re probably seeing the connection between Satanic aesthetics and the Satanic project of remaking the bases of human group interaction, aren’t you? If intuitive, often emotional feelings of disgust and disrespect underwrite human groups’ constructions of strong, visceral reactions against out-groups to the point where they’re willing to fight over “sacred values” as embodied in often arbitrary concerns treated as deeply moral issues, then perhaps one way to break out of that whole cycle is to start by deprograming automatic reactions of disgust and disrespect in general. And since our primal affective responses can be altered over time through repeat exposure, we can use the kinds of imagery and associations with which we surround ourselves to change the nature of our automatic affective responses.

Through its often violent, morbid, disturbing, and anti-authoritarian imagery, the traditional dark aesthetic of Satanism mounts what can only be called a sustained attack on values of “good taste” and propriety, the very intuitive, emotion-laden areas of concern precious to traditional, arbitrary “common sense morality.” And this sense of propriety that is under attack begins with the body. The body is “the primary site of pollution concerns” that, across cultures, result in elaborate systems of taboo which undergird feelings of disgust and disrespect. Studies have shown a strong and stable link between feelings and perceptions of bodily cleanliness or uncleanness and moral judgment. For instance, experimental participants who were exposed to repugnant physical stimuli (like aerosol fart spray) or reminders of physical cleanliness (like being asked to wash their hands with soap) before facing moral decisions tended to end up making harsher moral judgments. One series of experiments even demonstrated that subjects who filled out surveys about their political preferences while merely standing in the presence of a hand-sanitizer dispenser reported more conservative attitudes, while participants in a laboratory who were reminded to use hand wipes in an effort to “keep the laboratory clean” demonstrated moral judgments of greater severity toward violations of sexual mores.

It is perhaps not coincidental that modern, especially Protestant, churches in America present such clean, almost sanitized interiors, even as messages from the pulpits emphasize the idea of possible contagion to one’s moral sensibilities from the world and society at large. Christians are often told they should be “in the world, but not of the world.” In this context, you can come to a better appreciation of the very real connection between the concept of “Sunday best” and a moralizing concern for respect and propriety. Churches that advertise “Come as you are” aren’t just selling a different standard of dress or life choices, but a variant moral standard as well.

It is perhaps also not coincidental that the ubiquitous presence of hand-sanitizer dispensers in places of public accommodation like museums, shopping malls, sports venues, and grocery stores has always irked me. Unless I’ve just done something that actually and clearly fouls my hands, I see no reason to reach for the sanitizer out of anything other than a sense of “fussiness” about the world that I suspect reflects fears wider and more human in focus than mere germophobia.

It is, therefore, also natural that Satanic imagery should be especially rich in transmogrified, bleeding, rotting, skeletal, or otherwise violated bodies, as a physical reminder and—quite literally—embodiment of the Satanic challenge to traditional societal norms and moral schemata. A keen and unique irony arises, therefore, in a religion where bodily inviolability holds such primacy of place and yet, on the ground, popular aesthetics, imagery, and even practice in the form of body modification and suspension seem to value outrage and disrespect toward the integrity of the physical form. As I listen to screeching metal in my office, surrounded by images of demonic skeletons, horned devils with lambent serpents entwined about their arms or legs, a man holding a jar containing his wife’s heart (an image I also bear in the form of a tattoo on my upper arm), and a blood-drenched apple, my ears and eyes must endure simultaneous assault. It all takes (and took!) some getting used to. When I look up to the shelf above where I write and see the Baphomet statue—angelic wings, bestial head, female breasts, male shoulders and arms—I again face an image of bodily miscegenation that is fundamentally violative of several physical categories all at once. And of course that’s the point.

The same as I’ve argued here can likewise be said, mutatis mutandis, for Satanic sexual mores and ideas about gender. There’s good reason why those Satanists who, as I see it, correctly understand the backbone principals of Satanism have no problem with kink, fetishism, polyamory, genderqueer or non-binary identities, and so forth. True to a more serious version of Anton LaVey’s vision of human beings crafting artificial human companions, we’re engaged in the project of creating a new way of being human and a new form of human being, a way not predicated on identity-as-weaponry forged in the furnace of intuitive moral judgments of disgust and disrespect writ large as “sacred values.” Such entrenched and inflexible values can only get in the way of individual humans interacting with other, individual humans, as we see every day in internet forums and the nightly news cycle.

LaVey’s choice of the phrase “the Devil’s fane” to characterize the “flesh” in which “the sinews of Satan” move is an ironic one. The word fane is an archaic term for “temple” or “sanctuary.” Christians, whose religion entertained spirited debate during its formative centuries over the practice of body modification in the form of self-castration as inspired by the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:11-12, seem in the modern-day to have come down firmly on the side of “the body is God’s temple and you can’t just do with it as you please,” a conclusion applied equally to the contentious issues of abortion, body modification, and transgender identity. Since LaVey explicitly equates human beings with the Devil (“man has become closer to himself and farther from ‘God’; closer to the ‘Devil’”), our body-as-Devil’s-fane remains entirely and solely within our own possession and subject to our own sovereign wills alone. It is no coincidence that LaVey writes that one possible outcome of our realization of this essential fact of our bodily nature is that one “escapes from the cacklings and carpings of the righteous,” or rather from the cacklings and carpings of Haidt’s “righteous mind.” By desensitizing us to disgust over perceived desecration of the physical body, the Satanic aesthetic encourages us to challenge traditional conceptions of cleanliness and bodily purity and to overcome our innate revulsions on the basis of which we can, quite quickly, turn to physical violence against other human beings’ sovereign wills and inviolable bodies.


Proviso

Of course, this might all itself be just one long rationalization of cognitively opaque and inexplicable matters of personal taste (de gustibus nil disputandum!). Yet the empiricist in me thinks it would be very interesting to see how Satanists of my ilk fare in Jonathan Haidt’s experiments, when presented with stories designed to elicit feelings of outrage and disgust prior to making moral judgments about them. Such stories include one about an ethical vegetarian working in a hospital pathology lab who, when faced with having to incinerate a fresh human cadaver, thinks it a waste to dispose of edible flesh, so she cuts off a piece and takes it home, where she cooks and eats it. Or the one about a brother and sister pair who, one night while alone together far from home, enjoy consensual sex with one another without fear of the possibility of an unwanted, potentially biologically damaged child resulting from the act since the sister is on the pill and the brother uses a condom in order to be extra cautious. As a Satanist, how do you think you would decide?

As another test case, consider Haidt’s discussion of his three-month-long stint of fieldwork in eastern India and how it altered his own moral perceptions and judgments, imbuing his Western, individualist mindset with a new appreciation of what psychologist Richard Shweder has called the “ethic of community” and the “ethic of divinity.” In light of the “vertical dimension of social space, running from God or moral perfection at the top down through angels, humans, other animals, monsters, demons, and then the devil, or perfect evil, at the bottom” that these two ethics of community and divinity conspire to supply, Haidt began experiencing the rigidly hierarchical society of Bhubaneswar, India, where he was living—with its constant concern to separate oneself from omnipresent sources of potential physical defilement from both animals and people dedicating in the streets and its pressure to honor and respect the limitations of mutual duty within strict relationships of gender and power—in a more understanding way. He then reports how, once back home, he had a renewed understanding as well for why conservative religious interests could be so up in arms over “artwork” like Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph called “Piss Christ,” which shows a plastic crucifix immersed in a glass of the artist’s own urine and has been subject to numerous acts of vandalism at shows throughout the world. Such conservative interests often refuse to call works like Serrano’s “art” at all and argue that such works have no place even in museums, since they “make the world dirtier, more profane, and more degraded” just by their “mere existence.” Haidt suggests that less conservative, less religious parties can better understand the nature of the offense in such cases by simply reversing the political values and imagining instead images of Martin Luther King, Jr., or Nelson Mandela so treated instead of Jesus. “Could such works be displayed in museums in New York or Paris without triggering angry demonstrations?” Haidt asks, “Might some on the left feel that the museum itself had been polluted by racism, even after the paintings were removed?” I would be genuinely interested to know how, again, Satanists of my ilk would react to such things.

Personally, I see nothing wrong with “art” that treats images of civil rights or other “sacred” icons of the left in an outrageous manner, though Haidt’s question about the “taint” of racism is a valid one. If there’s anything I’ve found that makes Satanists of the sort I most associate with uneasy and apt to overreact in emotive ways it’s Nazi and white nationalist symbolism. I’ve seen people run out of Satanic groups merely for appearing in photographs together with another person sporting such symbols. On the one hand, I understand such reactions as arising from impulses to protect an already vulnerable demographic group. It’s not as though most people’s attitude to open Satanists is one of “live and let live”; most in the general population would like nothing more than to have yet one more reason to fear and demonize Satan and groups of Satanists. On the other hand, though, I do suspect that many on the self-described left do have the same kind of deeply engrained instinctive reactions of disgust and moral outrage toward apparent racist images and symbology as those on the right do to degradations of religious and patriotic symbols, as Haidt says. I would expect, however, that most Satanists in my mold who don’t have a particular organization or vulnerable community to protect would not care overly much about the potentially offensive symbols others choose to sport, so long as symbol stays mere symbol and isn’t used to incite violence against others’ sovereign wills and autonomous bodies. Of course, when dealing with Nazi symbolism and motifs, that’s entirely where the proverbial rub lies. Is such a use of Nazi symbolism for its own sake even possible? Part of the problem with Satanic display of Nazi imagery has always been the suspicion that admiration of the aesthetic betokens unacceptably positive feelings toward the ideology, which ineluctably leads to violation of the core universal principle of sovereignty of will and inviolability of body. On the other hand—and on that very score—it is has also been pointed out that the image of the Nazi holds a certain cachet in bondage circles, where the icon of the twentieth century’s most notorious oppressors (to Westerners, at any rate) has been re-deployed in service of transgressive, erotic fantasy, something I find very inherently Satanic. As irony would have it, getting too worked up over the “tasteless” use of Nazi imagery for subversive purposes may, according to the arguments from moral psychology presented here, actually serve merely to reinforce at least part of the very group ideology that made the Holocaust possible to begin with.

For my own part, I have a self-styled “Satanic tarot” deck made by my good friend James Bridge that includes a couple of symbols on the major arcana that could be construed as potentially racist: a “squared” (i.e. non-rotated à la Nazi hakenkreuz) Indic swastika and the twelve-spoked sun-wheel symbol known as the sonnenrad which has been adopted by various Germanic pagan and esoteric groups, some of which promote racial supremacist ideologies. When I first encountered the symbols, I experienced a visceral reaction of disgust and felt troubled by their use, though the explanations for them that James provides in his accompanying book make perfect sense, and I am confident that no racist ideology or insinuation lies behind their choice. Quite to the contrary, I suspect that the thinking behind their inclusion in a specifically Satanic tarot deck stems from the same principles I have discussed above.

As a postscript before reaching the conclusion of this article, I’ll share that, just after I finished drafting this piece, a post turned up in my Facebook feed featuring a close-up from the 1890 painting “Murder in the House” by Austrian painter Jakub Schikaneder. The closeup shows the image of a dead woman lying face-down in what looks like a cobblestone street, a halo of blood surrounding her head and her body somewhat contorted in an unusual position. The caption above the picture reads: “When you ask [name redacted] for a relaxing music recommendation, this is the picture that comes up. #JustSatanistThings.” Two of the comments to the post read: “she does look Very relaxed tho.. [sic]” and “That looks very relaxed….” I can think of no better illustration of the kind of dark Satanic aesthetic and general irreverence it occasions that I was writing about above than this.


Conclusion

The rationalist idea that morality ultimately has to do solely with questions of justice and harm is clearly a recent product of modern, wealthy Western democratic societies. You simply do not see this narrow conception of morality reflected in prevailing moral ideas within traditional societies around the globe—nor even in our own knee-jerk responses of moral outage, for that matter. In these environments, the body, the idea of physical contagion, and primal affective responses to disgust and disrespect drive moral judgments, with reason coming online after-the-fact in order to justify and rationalize our automatic reactions. By making sovereignty of will and bodily autonomy and inviolability the pinnacle moral and ethical concern, modern atheistic Satanism stands clearly in the so-called WEIRD cultural tradition of Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic societies that tend to place special emphasis on the individual and the question of how best can society serve individuals’ needs.

The real struggle in Satanism is to complete the transformation that has taken place in the WEIRD world, to divest an already self-altered humanity and the communities humans form of the last vestiges of weaponized communal moral standards and group-think, the ultimate goal being a world of atomic individuals coming together for mutual enjoyment and strengthening while acknowledging, respecting, and honoring the sovereign desire of each individual to come and go and do as they will so long as they maintain observance of the universal principle of sovereignty of will and bodily autonomy. Dark, gloomy, and not at all idealistic, as it is, the prevailing Satanic aesthetic actually helps us in this quest. Or so I’ve argued here.

3 thoughts on “When Art Isn’t Just for Art’s Sake: The Uses of an Ugly Aesthetic in Satanism

  1. “When I first encountered the symbols, I experienced a visceral reaction of disgust and felt troubled by their use…”

    (wipes a happy tear from his eye) And now I can become one with the earth and rest in the knowledge that my aesthetic choice had exactly the intended effect.

    All joking aside, this essay was terrific. I agree with your argument that a core function of Satanism is to broaden or even break the Overton window through which reality is defined as “normal” or “appropriate.” Just masterful, thank-you.

    Liked by 1 person

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