"The idea of the demonic . . . cuts across not only the early modern literature of magic and witchcraft but also that of art, making possible a kind of mutual refraction that illuminates both." (621)
Michael Cole’s article, "The Demonic Arts and the Origin of the Medium," traces the path of the artist as it intersects with and weaves through the history of magic and possession. Interested in applying the philosophical understandings of reality as illusion to the academy of art history, Cole leads the reader through classic explanations of inspiration, creation and possession. He argues that through their effort to embody or reproduce a moment of reality, artists share many similarities with more liminal creators, like sorcerers, witches and spiritual mediums.
Both the artist and the medium seek to draw out, from the realm of the immaterial, something concrete and observable. Both seek to embody that which cannot be seen. Both seek to represent something sacred and therefore potentially dangerous. Cole walks the reader through the importance of the immaterial quality of spirits and inspiration. He then explains the role of religious beliefs in each practice and concludes with a discussion of boundaries. How is the line drawn between heaven and earth, good and evil, agency and possession? Artists, like witches, were seen to cross the boundaries of earthly materiality and to strive for a glimpse of heaven. Whether that is interpreted as sacred or profane, it is indisputably reaching beyond the realm of man and always creating “a window, something one looks through no less than at.” (622)
Cole most interesting conclusions regard the similarity of artists and sorcery in his discussion of inspiration. This drawing in of life to the work of the artist- this animating principal- shared the same atmospheric quality from which the demons were summoned. Air, the medium of life- that which is never seen and yet provides energy and life force- is both creative and destructive. Creative, in that it allows man sight and connection and also destructive, in that it allows possession and manipulation. “The painter, and the demon, resort to air for the same reason that they resort to other binds: without it, all becomes discrete, things fall apart.” (634) Both artists and witches summon this force through their search to embody and represent. In this way, they both call on the same energy and mediate it through their art.
Cole’s article grounds many modern media theories, in that it provides a historical context for the overlap between the spiritual and the artistic- an arena explored by McLuhan, Benjamin, Kittler, Kandinsky and many others. The goal of all media is representation and/or communication of some human thought, vision or essence. In this way, both artistic representation and spiritual mediumship are unique in their ability to provide a mediation between that which can be sensed by all, but only clarified and represented by a few.