L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology, and the Visual Arts. 4. Art and Illustration

Hubbard believed that, unlike mere illustration, art always elicits a contribution from its audience.

by Massimo Introvigne

Article 4 of 8. Read article 1, article 2, and article 3.

L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology, and the Visual Arts.  4. Art and Illustration
Hubert Mathieu. From Twitter.

When the thetan understands himself as the cause rather than the effect of the physical reality, “he” (the thetan is always referred to by Hubbard as male, although women are incarnated thetans too) perceives the world in a new way. If he masters the appropriate techniques, he is also able to produce art with a very high communication potential. On what role technique exactly plays, Hubbard mentioned in a bulletin of July 29, 1973, his discussions with “the late Hubert Mathieu.” Although some who later wrote about Hubbard were unable to identify him or speculated he was a fictional character, in fact Mathieu (1897–1954) was a distinguished South Dakota illustrator and artist, who worked for magazines Hubbard was familiar with.

Based inter alia on the ideas of Mathieu, Hubbard concluded that in the arts communication (the end) is more important than technique (the means), but technique is not unimportant. Artists who are well-trained can communicate in different styles, including the non-figurative, and the audience intuitively understands that they are real artists. Perceiving the world and representing it from the superior viewpoint of the thetan is not enough.

Hubbard illustrates this point with an anecdote, which may be real or fictional. In order to understand why certain ultra-modern works of art were successful, and others were not, he decided to write a story in an abstruse “acid prose,” typical of cutting-edge novelists such as Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) or James Joyce (1882–1941)—and not typical at all of his usual fiction. Hubbard sent the story to the editor of a magazine that had published some of his short stories and, much to his surprise, was complimented for the quality of his new style and even invited to lunch to celebrate. Hubbard claims that he discussed the incident with Mathieu, who simply told him, “Well, you proved my point. There’s no mystery to it. Basically you’re a trained writer! It shows through.”

Gertrude Stein (credits) and James Joyce (credits).
Gertrude Stein (credits) and James Joyce (credits).

This is the core of the 1973 technical bulletin “Art, More About.” Three works of modern art may appear very similar. In the intention of their authors, they also try to convey the same message. Yet, only one is successful. Why? According to Hubbard (and Mathieu), the successful artist is the one who decided to use an ultra-modern style, perhaps abstract or surrealist, but would have been capable of producing a persuasive painting in a more traditional style as well. The audience instinctively recognized that this artist was not a charlatan. He (or she) didn’t choose abstract art because he would not have been able to produce decent figurative works. No matter what style he used, his technique showed.

The key for successful art, Hubbard concluded, is “TECHNICAL EXPERTISE ITSELF ADEQUATE TO PRODUCE AN EMOTIONAL IMPACT” (capitals in the original). Interestingly, to illustrate this point, Hubbard gives the example of the stage magician: “If he is a good magician he is a smooth showman. He isn’t showing them how he does his tricks. He is showing them a flawless flowing performance. This alone is providing the carrier wave that takes the substance of his actions to his audience. Though a far cry from fine art, perhaps, yet there is art in the way he does things. If he is good, the audience is seeing first of all, before anything else, the TECHNICAL EXPERTISE of his performance. They are also watching him do things they know they can’t do” (capitals in the original).

The example is interesting because among the artists trained in contemporary Scientology’s art courses there are stage magicians, such as Stan Gerson. I interviewed him in 2018, and he told me how he tries to apply Hubbard’s rules on art as communication to stage magic. Almost anticipating these future developments, Hubbard defended in 1973 the legitimacy of stage magic as a form of art. Stage magicians also deliver a message through an “adequate” technical expertise.

Stan Gerson.  screenshot.
Stan Gerson. screenshot.

But “how masterly an expertise [should be]? Not very masterly, Hubbard answered. Merely adequate.” Hubbard warned again that “a lot of artists are overstraining to obtain a quality far above that necessary to produce an emotional impact.” Once the technique has been acquired, the artist should feel safe enough to focus on communicating the message and experiment with whatever style he or she would regard as appropriate. The audience, educated or not, would recognize true art at any rate.

In two technical bulletins dated 26 September 1977 and 15 April 1979, Hubbard moved one step further in his theory of art as communication, by proposing a distinction between fine art and illustration. Hubbard may have resented that Mathieu, of whom he thought highly, was always dismissed by critics as a mere “illustrator.” On the other hand, Hubbard did not think equally highly of critics:

“Usually nothing is required of an ‘authority,’ he wrote, except to say what is right, wrong, good, bad, acceptable or unacceptable. Too often the sole qualification of the authority (as in poor teaching of some subjects) is a memorized list of objects and their creators and dates with some hazy idea of ​​what the work was.”

A key principle of Hubbard’s thought is that errors arise when words are not defined. Fine arts and mere “illustration,” and good and bad arts, are distinguished based on mere “’individual taste,’ contemporary standards and, unfortunately, even envy or jealousy.” “Contemporary” standards are largely arbitrary, and Hubbard calls this “invalidative” or “destructive” criticism, not to be confused with “constructive” criticism, which identifies the problems in the artist’s communication and suggest “practical means of doing it better.”

In fact, Hubbard believes that the difference between art and illustration can be clearly defined, but only if we take into consideration both the artist and the audience. “True art always elicits a contribution from those who view or hear or experience it. By contribution is meant ‘adding to it,’” while in illustration no contribution is solicited from the audience.

The ranch in La Quinta, California, where Hubbard lived between 1976 and 1980. Source: lronhubbard.org.
The ranch in La Quinta, California, where Hubbard lived between 1976 and 1980. Source: lronhubbard.org.

The distinction may seem obscure, and Hubbard tries to explain it through an example: “An illustration is ‘literal’ in that it tells everything there is to know. Let us say the illustration is a picture of a tiger approaching a chained girl. It does not really matter how well the painting is executed, it remains an illustration and it IS literal. But now let us take a small portion out of the scene and enlarge it. Let us take, say, the head of the tiger with its baleful eye and snarl. Suddenly we no longer have an illustration. It is no longer ‘literal.’ And the reason lies in the fact that the viewer can fit this expression into his own concepts, ideas or experience: he can supply the why of the snarl, he can compare the head to someone he knows. In short he can CONTRIBUTE to the head. The skill with which the head is executed determines the degree of response. Because the viewer can contribute to the picture, it is art” (capitals in the original).

As he reiterated in 1979, “The division between fine arts and illustrations is that fine arts permit the viewer to contribute his own interpretations or originations to the scene whereas illustrations are ‘too literal’ and give him the whole works.”

The distinction derives from both Hubbard’s definition of art as communication and his theory of emotions. In true art, there is a two-way communication, which includes “the return flow from the person viewing a work,” where in illustration there is no such return flow. The artist tries to evoke emotions, but this can only be achieved if communication flows both ways: “To evoke an emotion in fine arts, the spectator must be invited to contribute part of the meaning. In a poster, the viewer is most often intended to be clobbered. In illustration, the viewer is intended to be informed. A work of fine art can elicit quite different emotional contributions from one member of an audience to the next as he is left free to some degree to contribute meaning and emotion at his choice. In fine arts, the viewer must supply something to make it complete. Fine arts evoke some chord in the viewer’s nature or past.”

Hubbard believes that his distinction may also solve an intractable problem among art historians, whether photography is a form of art. The problem, he claims, has gone unsolved because historians limited themselves to consider “how much the photographer has contributed to the ‘reality’ or ‘literalness’ in front of his camera, how he has interpreted it.” Here again, Hubbard takes into consideration not only the photographer, but also the audience. “The point is whether or not [a] photograph elicits a contribution from its viewer. If it does, it is art.”

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