Two weeks ago, my boyfriend and I drove to Salvation Mountain for my birthday. We have a running list of things we want to do or see in Southern California--things we don’t always remember about or get to because either we’re stuck in our routine or they’re activities that require a bit of pre-planning. This trip was the latter, but we had the excuse of a special occasion and the weather looked like it was going to be favorable (always a major consideration when dealing with Southern California heat) so we made a decision and went for it.
If you haven’t heard of Salvation Mountain by name, chances are you’ve seen images of it here and there, perhaps without quite knowing what you were looking at. It was featured in the 2007 movie Into the Wild (based on Jon Krakauer’s book of the same name) and was recently used as a filming location for a couple of music videos. Essentially, it’s a large mound, situated on the edge of the off-the-grid community of Slab City, fashioned out of adobe and straw, and decorated with an mind-blowing amount of donated paint. Though all the literature promoting the attraction insists that the artist created it in order to express his belief that the love of God is available to everyone regardless of religion, the words and images that are painted on the mountain are all about coming to Jesus for salvation--I mean, one of the landmark’s most prominent features is a cross at its summit--so the theme is undeniably Christian.
Beyond being conceptually interesting and visually bizarre, many people see Salvation Mountain as the work of a holy man, a prophet--as a place of great spiritual depth and significance. I probably would have felt the Spirit there, too, if I had visited fifteen, or even as recently as seven or eight, years ago. However, when I went two weeks ago, what I found was just a weird little desert hill with a bunch of paint on it and a lot of people taking selfies. Maybe I shouldn’t mention the selfie-takers, as I’m not writing to go into a critique of the narcissism of social media culture; my actual point is that I didn’t feel anything supernatural when I saw the place. Nothing pulled me past the Instragram-ers (of which I, admittedly, was one) and into a transcendent mode of being; nothing made its way past my eyes and mind and penetrated my soul. On the contrary, if I’m being completely honest, what I saw was the very hard work of someone I fear might have been mentally ill, or at least significantly traumatized by some kind of (perhaps religious) experiences earlier in his life. I mean no disrespect to the artist (one Mr. Leonard Knight, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 82), but when I see the phrases “I’m a Sinner” and “Repent” painted with a seemingly obsessive frequency, they kind of cancel out the equally prevalent messages of “God is Love” and “Love is Universal” for which the monument is popularly known.
My encounter with divinely-inspired art at Salvation Mountain was only the most recent in a series of episodes in which I’ve noticed a somewhat depressing trend (well, depressing to me anyway): that pieces of art I used to or am expected to find especially moving in a spiritual sense are falling a bit flat since I lost my religion. Back in November of last year I was visiting Rome and Florence, and the same thing happened. The first time I found myself in these cities was thirteen years ago, as a whole-hearted Christian. At that time, I walked through the Uffizi, blanketed by a sense of the holy as I strolled down long hallways of Virgin Mary after Virgin Mary and crucifixion after grueling crucifixion. I took in Michelangelo's David--as much as anyone can take in that overwhelming masterpiece--and thought the whole time of the man from the Bible whom I believed truly defeated a giant. I bowed my head in worship at St. Peter’s Basilica, and stood gape-mouthed before the perfect Pieta, all while consciously sensing the vibrant presence of God. Six months ago, though, the same sculptures were just sculptures, the same paintings were just paintings, and the same buildings were, in the end, just buildings. There was still the awe-factor in that these things are pieces of genius even in a secular way, but a certain spark was gone--is gone--without the supernatural narrative that used to inform everything. The “aura”, to use Walter Benjamin’s term, was extinguished.
Part of me wants to pretend that it’s still there, that I can still feel the sacred glow. If I pay attention I can sense a small motor running inside of me, like a tiny humming generator somewhere in my chest cavity, trying with all its might to manufacture that same sense of divine presence. But I know it’s fake. Which is not to say that God was every really there back when I still believed in him, only that my intentions were pure then and even if I was making it all up I still sincerely believed that I wasn’t. In that context, truth was relative, in a sort of way, and reality was beautiful and, more importantly, meaningful.
I’m a person infatuated with meaning. I find it everywhere, but I also look for it a bit too much sometimes. Part of growing up for me has been working through my need for constant emotional stimulation. This is the kind of psychological orientation, after all, that believes drama is a sign that love is present and that anguishing over a situation is the same thing as doing something about it, which is not a very healthy or helpful way to live. Christianity, it turns out--at least Evangelical Christianity--is a religion that idolizes anguish and infuses every earthly moment with dramatic significance thanks to its metaphysical saga, so it’s no surprise I took to it quite well. But now I’m getting off-track. To return to the subject of taking in art as a secular or atheistic person, what I ultimately want to say is that I’m a little bit sad about it and I don’t quite know what to do. It’s a part of the sloughing off of the old, I suppose, and shaping myself into a more mature and relevant model. There is loss of the familiar in this process, and the truth is that the new things that come along don’t always feel like a gain.
I asked my boyfriend what he, a non-believer who was never a devout follower of Christ, feels at a place like Salvation Mountain. Nothing “spiritual”, he said, standing in front of Knight’s odd creation. For him, it’s fascinating in an intellectual way, and also aesthetically, but he did not sense a presence beyond the material. That’s what I felt too, but with the connotation of “empty”--like something was supposed to be there for me that wasn’t. Have I gone too far into skepticism for my own good? I mean, what about all the people who do feel something there? Maybe they need it, I guess. Maybe their minds or their hearts need to make it up. Maybe even a crazy but well-intended pile of color and clay, quietly waiting in the middle of miles of rejected desert, speaks to the people who are listening for something they really need to hear.