If Thoreau’s quest to “live deliberately […] and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” were cross-bred with A. N. Whitehead’s insight that creativity is the driving core of all things in the universe, the “universal of universals,” then today’s “artmonks” are children not of Marx and Coca-Cola (as Godard once labeled the activists of the 1960s and Xiaoping Lin more recently called the Chinese artistic avant-garde), but children of Thoreau and Whitehead.
The monastic ideal has always been about living deliberately. And in a world that is rapidly outgrowing the secular-religious divide — becoming simultaneously post-secular, for those outgrowing the constraints of secularism, and post-religious, or at least post-traditional, for those no longer in obeisance to inherited religion — monasticism today is reinventing itself in interesting and creative ways. “Artmonks” are those who bring a mindful deliberation and dedication to the creative process, following it wherever it leads them. They are the monks of immanence, post-traditional devotees synthesizing the vita contemplativa with the vita activa in an age of Burning Man and the internet.
The Art Monastery Project is “an international community of artists dedicated to applying the disciplined, contemplative, sustainable monastic way of living to the creative process.” Local chapters of the International Otherhood of Artmonks, which describes itself as a “secular (dis)order of creative, contemplative activists,” now number in the hundreds of members. As Nathan Rosquist defines them, artmonks live “at the intersection of three worlds”: spirit (contemplation), ethics (activism), and art (creativity).*
Rosquist asks “Can you name any” artmonks, and then lists Theophane the Monk and Leonard Cohen (okay, Zen Buddhist) alongside Charles Baudelaire, Gary Snyder, and Sunn o))) (at which point the list has gotten really eclectic!).
Some others who’ve pursued their creative visions down whatever spiritual rabbitholes they led them include Joseph Beuys, Yves Klein, Marina Abramović, Stan Brakhage, Genesis P. Orridge, David Tibet, Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Andrei Tarkovsky, Derek Jarman, Carolee Schneemann, John Cage, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, Richard Long, Betsy Damon, Mary Beth Edelson, Vito Acconci, outsider artists like Henry Darger and Ferdinand Cheval, and on and on and on.
(*If it were up to me, I would spin Rosquist’s triad only slightly differently, so as to follow a Peircian understanding of the “normative sciences” of aesthetics, a “first,” which pursues beauty, or the “admirable in itself”; ethics, a “second,” which pursues right action and conduct in relation to others, therefore activism; and logic, or ecologic, a “third,” which pursues habits of thought by which an understanding develops of how things fit together. Each flows out of, and depends on, its previous — logic on the ethical, ethics on the aesthetic, with the aesthetic grounding them all, and all three in action constituting creativity. Come to think of it, some philosophers ought to qualify as well, Peirce among them.)