What is Tarot Art?
And why should anyone care about it anyway?
Originally published January 11, 2010,
by Jess Karlin (Tarot nom de guerre or magie for Glenn F. Wright)
- Part I-The Artisan and The Master
- Part II-Games and Codes
- Part III-The Con-Game of Change
- Part IV-The Pictorial Key To The Sidetrack
- Part V-The Kent DICK & The Smith DECK, or who the hell is Herman Melville?
- Part VI-A. E. Waite, The Tarot Pharaoh, versus Pam Smith, Artist-Heroine-Slave
- Part VII-Ciro Marchetti, the Man Who Wouldn't Know Tarot
- VIII-Robert M. Place's Tarot Art
- UPDATE: Ciro Marchetti's Master Style
Originally, the following article was published on my old website, tarotica.com. The demise of that site (at least as a venue for me) removed a number of articles from the web which I think should still be available to read. So, I am republishing them here on glennfwright.com, starting with “What is Tarot Art?”
As noted below, the inspiration for this article came as I was listening to this podcast. Very little has changed in the time since the article was first published, except that its subjects have taken considerable umbrage to what I wrote. Ciro Marchetti has gone so far as to allege on tarotforum.net, that I made up or changed things I attributed to him:
“My issue was not [Karlin's] opinion or his trashing, but that like some sleazy tabloid reporter, he changed my words, took them out of context, and misquoted them.”—Ciro Marchetti, tarotforum.net
After I saw this, I asked Marchetti in email if he could substantiate that charge with any fact, or specific instance of my misquoting or misrepresenting his words in the article. Marchetti refused to do so, but still insisted his accusation did not need to be "cleared up".
The quotations I used in the article were taken from a publicly available podcast, from a book by Robert M. Place, and from emails sent to me by Marchetti and Place. Further, the quoted comments are consistent, not in disagreement, with the long-asserted policy positions of these two individuals. So, I would have had little need to conform their email responses, for example, to some agenda-driven talking points.
While Robert Place may have been unhappy with my review of his work, so far as I know, Place has never accused me of making up the quotations of his that appear in the following article.
Let us note a distinction made by A. E. Waite in his own Tarot, between the Eight of Pentacles, and the Three of Pentacles:
The “artist in stone”, or the artisanal worker, of Waite's Eight of Pentacles, employs his skill to obtain limited, purely selfish, ends. He may in fact be skilled in his works, but he uses these in an insincere manner; essentially he labors in support of a feeling about himself and who he should be in the eyes of others. Thus, to promote an image, he displays “souvenirs of achievements”, suggesting he has arrived at a place, which in truth he has neither the skill nor the knowledge to approach, much less enhance or repair.
He is the quintessence of the apprentice, the novice, the wannabe. And he is the guiding light of most Tarot card artisans.
On the other hand, in the Three of Pentacles, the sculptor, who, on the basis of a demonstrable mastery of his art, has been chosen to craft a house of the spirit for the many, and not just himself, understands completely, to the extinction of his merely selfish interests, that the “reward” is in fact the work, and the Great Work. Unlike all the other Pentacles, the light of these three amulets is sublimated and infused by the master into the Work. No appointment to this position comes merely from competence, nor from a lengthy résumé of selfish accomplishments. It comes from a surrender of one’s artistic talents to bring to being something deserving and demanding to live.
And this difference is one way of suggesting the key distinction between an illustrator of Tarot cards, and a Tarot artist.
The illustrator can competently render pictures—sometimes—with Tarot labels attached to them. The artist can make Tarot deserve to live again.
There are a lot of “artists in stone”, i.e., cheap chiselers or Tarot artisans.
But very few Tarot artists.
And that brings us to the subject of this article, which is an examination of the claims about the role of art in Tarot, that were made by two alleged Tarot artists and experts, on the Tarot Connection Podcast #95, hosted by Leisa Refalo.
Leisa’s guests for the show were Robert M. Place, tarotbook author, and the creator of several Tarot decks, including the Alchemical Tarot and Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery; and Ciro Marchetti, a well-known digital illustrator, and also a creator of several Tarots, including the Gilded Tarot, and Legacy of the Divine Tarot.
While Leisa Refalo, who always seems to have trouble staying coherent during these podcasts, drifted a bit with keeping the discussion topical, she did initially identify a focus for the discussion: the art of Tarot and specifically the role of art in Tarot. Of course this implies Tarot has some art, and raises the question of what it looks like and should look like. Is every deck somebody makes which they call “Tarot” a work of art? Or are most of them just selfish trophies? Or less, just affirming cardboard nostrums to peddle to ignorant consumers?
Leisa's guests made their points in addressing these questions, but their answers often raised more questions than they answered, particularly about the guests' assumptions on art and Tarot.
For example, Robert M. Place authorized what Leisa and he claimed were his strong opinions about art and Tarot by pointing out that he, unlike most people who had any opinions about this, was an artist.
He then authoritatively alleged:
“Tarot from the beginning is a work of art. It’s first and foremost a work of art. That’s what it was in the Renaissance. That’s how it started.”—Robert M. Place, Tarot Connection podcast #95
Now, it is always dangerous in Tarot to allege about one of its non-gaming aspects that's how it started. Or that something is first and foremost about it. Of course, Tarot certainly did start out being painted by artists, and copied by artists, and it had some kind of artwork on its cards since it began, right to today.
But why was this so?
And the answer to that is, first and foremost: Tarot was a game. That is how it started. And there would not have been any art in Tarot or aimed at Tarot unless, in the beginning, people in northern Italy had wanted to play some special kinds of card games.
Why that is relevant to the art we see in early Tarot is that first, the people who likely invented Tarot were noble families who could afford to employ skilled artists to make their playing cards, and especially the presentation decks which have survived as the oldest examples of Tarot. Secondly, the choice of subjects in the cards had to be easy to memorize, as a sequence of increasingly valued cards in the game, and easy to recognize as individual cards in the sequence. This was required because most early decks bore neither numbers nor titles, requiring players to recognize the cards solely by the images on them.
One of the things this meant was that, right from the beginning, Tarot artwork was directly related to communicating a code—a sequence and value of the cards—which was pictorially represented, instead of merely being marked with numbers and names. Nevertheless, the numbers and names were what the pictures were pointing to, reminding the players of the game of what was really important, in the beginning, about Tarot.
There were other codes communicated too, religious and personal in nature, although their importance was secondary to the gaming function of the symbolism. While the image sequence and names of the cards became memorized and eventually standardized for wide distribution, the secondary codes were quickly forgotten, or the cards were reprinted in places where the codes were not familiar. This opened the door to speculations about the mysterious symbolism of Tarot.
In the Tarot Connection podcast, neither Place nor Marchetti mentions anything about Tarot as a game, because, in their myth of Tarot chiefly as art “right from the beginning”, they are framing a certain argument that will serve to explain and they hope justify their own contributions to the burgeoning stockpiles of modern Tarot commodities.
Their myth also demands that they diminish and virtually ignore the importance of occultism in the development of the art of Tarot, even though occultists caused Tarot art to experience a revolution in its symbolic motifs, and occultists also supplied Tarot with a dogma which served to explain and justify those changes.
This occult paradigm of Tarot not only changed basic things like card titles and the trump sequences, which resulted in a confusing but fertile creative tension, but it established the idea of rectification of the symbolism, which has been a recurring and renewing impulse to get back (in time and to certain places) to a purer, truer symbolic representation. This has had considerable impact on the aesthetic of occult and modern Tarot, for example introducing and raising to primacy the Egyptian model.
This acceptance of the need for a sweeping, paradigmatic overhaul in Tarot to make it truer, or in modern times more accessible, has led to what was eventually described, in the 1990s, as a postmodern Tarot aesthetic.
This was chiefly characterized by the authority of no authority (except the authorities ordaining this new order). This view of Tarot was not as a means to obtain an externalized carving of a better, more humane, person (the Masonic view of initiation), but instead saw Tarot as a perfect agent of self-expression and commercial exploitation.
In changing the focus, pomo Tarot promoted a consumerist view of perfection, where possessing the best-most articles of self-obsession and self-aggrandizement, was the sign of Tarot mastery. As the New York Times put it, in the above-linked article (Tarot Goes 'Po Mo'):
“Tarot has gone modern, even post-modern, with cards that are multicultural, nonhierarchical, nonthreatening, almost user-friendly.”—New York Times article on Tarot, 1993
The Tarot industry addressed the "almost" deficiency, and worked to promote universal user-friendliness and indeed, a Tarot of centripetal self-affirmation, as the highest form of their view of Tarotic arts and commerce.
This culminated with the publication of a host of books, like Nancy Garen's Tarot Made Easy, a hopelessly dumbed-down sop to “psychic” wannabes, whose most famous customer and advocate turned out to be Miss Cleo. Garen eventually sued Cleo's company, basically for following the instructions in her book. The Tarot industry rectifications also led to a flood of awful Tarot decks. All one had to do was to stamp “Approved by Dr. Jung” on the cards, blather some bombastic nincompoopery about rescuing Tarot from the evil patriarchy of occultism, and you could peddle even the most hideous foolishness as a Tarot.
I have discussed elsewhere the most egregious manifestation of the self-worshipping aesthetic, or view of the market; which continues to this day to derange most expressions and discussions of Tarot, its history and its meanings, into political exercises, or celebrations of personality cults. Admittedly, this fragmentation and antagonism of views is not much different than it has ever been in occult Tarot; but the rhetoric and the agendas have become, as with the world at large, more acutely philistine.
To the extent the Egyptian-Masonic aesthetic of Tarot had influence, the changes it promoted were about a delineation of the correct or true cosmic schematic of Tarot (mainly based on the Qabalistic Tree of Life), which was supposedly necessary for the cards to aid in the same kinds of rectifications in a human seeker.
The later, postmodern, Tarots that superficially copied the recipe of changing the forms of Tarot, without understanding or caring about rectifying the contents of a user's character, have only succeeded in making a vast and often grotesque muddle out of what had been a key disagreement amongst a handful of initiated esoteric theorists.
With respect to the concerns of the occult players still standing (we should note that the Cartofeminist movement and ideology now dominate Tarot), Robert M. Place made the following observation in the Tarot Connection podcast concerning what he views as the aesthetic defects of occult uses of Tarot:
“See what’s happened with the occult Tarot is they got very off on a sidetrack about turning it into a secret code. And it gets to be—they’re not even looking at the pictures, some of these people, they’re just reading their secret code. This card is this Hebrew letter and that’s related to this planet, that kind of thing you know. Which has nothing to do with the picture.”—Robert M. Place, Tarot Connection podcast #95
I asked Place, in an email exchange, what precisely he meant by this, and if for example he understood what Waite meant when he talked about the Key to Tarot being pictorial, and he replied to me:
“Although Waite was an occultist, he is not one who looked for a secret code. he has repeatedly written that there is no correlation between the Hebrew alphabet and the trumps. That is why his book is called the pictorial key.”—Robert M. Place to Jess Karlin
I then pointed out that this was a peculiar, and frankly obfuscatory argument. What precisely was the Key referring to—Key to what exactly? Didn't Waite plainly say that Tarot was an expression of what he called the Secret Tradition? And wasn't that about symbolism that was part of a code?
Place didn't seem to like that question, and never answered it, and in general he didn't seem to like being questioned about what he alleged was true.
For example, when I asked Place to provide some quotations of Waite's where he actually said, “there is no correlation between the Hebrew alphabet and the trumps”, or something to that effect, Place referred me to his book, Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination, which he claimed was full of Waite's words affirming this very thing. But, unfortunately, Place couldn't recall or refer me to anything specific, like a page, or an actual quotation.
Eventually, Place got so frustrated with my questions that he told me my ignorance was just too deep to bother an expert such as himself, particularly on the subject of art, and that I should go and read the entire library. He did not specify which library.
When being insulting and presumptuous didn't work, Place tried to switch gears and adopt a fawning familiarity with me, claiming he “liked” me (the email exchange was our first communication ever), and had read my book, and agreed with it. Presumably, I was to treat this as a collegial favor, and unquestioningly return it.
TRIGGER WARNING: MATERIAL BELOW CONTAINS A DISCUSSION OF A CLASSIC WORK OF LITERATURE! OPINIONS EXPRESSED MIGHT GIVE THE IMPRESSION IT IS IMPORTANT IN TAROT (OR EVEN IN REAL LIFE) TO ACTUALLY READ A BOOK SOMETIME. THIS COULD HURT THE FEELINGS OF "ARTISTS" AND OTHER ILLITERATES WHO VIEW "LOGOS" AS AN EVIL TOOL OF THE PATRIARCHY.
I want to deal here in some detail with one of the key points of dispute between Place and myself, as it raises some basic and interesting questions about Tarot, about whether Tarot is chiefly a visual or textual medium.
Does Tarot exist in some purely pictorial way, if such a thing is even possible, divorced from any practical demands placed upon the cards as communicators and veilers of a code? Or does the role of decoding the symbolism underlying the aesthetic expression of it, or perhaps of the aesthetic expression itself, have an equal or perhaps dominant position in people's experience of the cards? And that of course raises the question, much discussed but generally to vain ends, of what constitutes a valid experience and use of Tarot.
Repeatedly during our email exchange, Place accused me of being "prejudiced". When I asked him what he meant by this accusation, Place said:
“You seem to feel that artists are not as important as writers, That an idea is more important than the execution of the idea. You underestimate the contributions of Pamela Colman Smith. Even that we are using A E Waite's last name and Smith's first name is prejudicial.”—Robert M. Place to Jess Karlin
While noting to Place that he seemed to have confused the meaning of “prejudice” with “disagreement”, I answered him by pointing out that certainly context would be the main factor deciding whether illustrations or words ruled a certain artistic roost. I pointed out, for example, that a work like 300, graphic novel or movie, was really only captioned by the words, and that obviously the illustrations and the images were the main features of the works. I suggested to him a work like Moby Dick, on the other hand, could only be ornamented a bit by the addition of even the most artful illustrations.
Place replied back that I had certainly fallen into an obvious trap by choosing that painfully needy novel, Moby Dick, which he alleged had only been saved for reading, or any scholarly respect, by the publication of the 1930 edition, illustrated by Rockwell Kent. Indeed, the Wikipedia article on Kent alleges the “success of the Rockwell Kent illustrated edition [of Moby Dick] was a factor in its becoming recognized as the classic it is today.”
Oddly, the Wikipedia article on the novel, Moby Dick, makes no such statement about the importance of Kent's illustrations enhancing the view of the work as “classic”, and instead talks about the influence of literary critiques offered by Carl Van Doren and D. H. Lawrence in the 1920's, and F. O. Matthiessen in the 1940's. In fact, while illustrations can help make a novel more popular, it is the recognition by readers and mainly literary critics, of words, which can demand scholarly respect for a novel as a classic.
And by 1930, Moby Dick did not need illustrations to be seen and acclaimed as a classic work of literature. Indeed, in 1930, the New York Times noted that Moby Dick was “now secure in its place not alone as an American classic, but as one of the great books of its period.”
And that was the reason Kent was drawn to provide what the Times called “an adequate illustrated edition.” We might ask “adequate” for what purpose, and the answer would be to make a work of literature accessible to a much larger class of people (i.e. paying customers) than would normally be attracted to it.
These are the people who prefer to experience words by avoiding them, and who absorb narratives by looking at the pictures. While narratives might be thinly gleaned in this manner, any deep thoughts the words could have generated, seeing as how they might cause disturbing ripples on the surface of the happy-placers, would naturally be cast back for the consumption of giant squids.
Case in point, or illustration: the example of the Rockwell Kent-illustrated Moby Dick is, as Place said, particularly relevant to a question about the tension between word and image in Tarot, just not quite as Place claimed.
As it turns out, the 1930 edition of the novel, with Kent's illustrations, was so successful, that Random House produced a trade edition, which emphasized Kent as the real attraction, to the point they entirely removed any mention of Herman Melville, the author of the novel, from the book jacket or cover.
Apparently, “the classic it is today” is mainly a picturebook, and who needs a bunch of words, or the perpetrator of them, getting in the way of that?
I pointed out to Place, this emphasis of image over What's-his-name's words had other champions in the 20th century:
It is helpful to note that in 1930, a movie version of Moby Dick was also released, and yes, John Barrymore (Drew's grandfather) got the big credit, and they destroyed any possibility of suggesting the art of the author's words, by making the whole thing a conventional love story, but even they bothered to acknowledge who the author of the book was (again in tiny all-caps sandwiched in between the “Dick” and the “Bennett”):
A lot of people, having failed to read a great work of literature (and who gets to pick those, anyway, right?), settle on the notion that seeing the movie is pretty much the same; indeed it's better because the moviemakers do the hard work of choosing exactly how to imagine the pictures implied by the words.
Instead of millions of individual readers of Moby Dick imagining their version of the story, they are spared the pain of all that, and having to read the long book about a whale, for god's sake!, and can just get it over with in a couple of hours. Who knows, with some decent CGI and Ahab played by Drew Barrymore (why not?), the thing might not be too awful.
The people who stress “art” over and against “ideas” or “words” in Tarot, are like the moviemakers, wanting to take a complex work, with a long and particular literary tradition (and not just an occult one), and render it “viewable” to the masses. To do that, you have to change the story to make it attractive and accessible to the masses. You have to add a love story, and a very particular kind of love story—a story about how much the Tarot customer is in love with himself. And you betcha it has a happy ending.
While Robert M. Place continued over the course of a number of emails to tell me that I was being too persnickety (and prejudiced of course), and that he didn't have the time to be more specific with me than to tell me to read his book, I finally got him to give me several examples of what he claimed was convincing evidence that A. E. Waite wrote his book on the deck before ever seeing any of Pamela Colman Smith's card illustrations. That latter claim, Place felt, helped support the view that Smith was the sole designer of the deck, and that Waite had only contributed a few initial guidelines, and that this made Waite analogous, Place said, to a “pharaoh” ordering the building of a pyramid!
Place had claimed early on in our email exchange:
“When Waite wrote The Pictorial Key to the Tarot he described Pamela's illustrations as though he was seeing them for the first time. He even misinterprets what he is seeing and makes mistakes about the details. The evidence for this is in my book and in Waite's.”—Robert M. Place to Jess Karlin
The examples Place provided in support of this view are interesting because, on the one hand they point to the difficulty of decoding whatever Waite was attempting, or not attempting, to say in PKT (Pictorial Key to the Tarot), and on the other hand, they point to the danger to readers in relying on the confidence of alleged Tarot authorities such as Robert M. Place.
The first example of what Place called “Waite's incorrect statements about Smith's designs for the trumps” involved Waite's comments on the VII-Chariot trump. I have spent a good bit of time analyzing this card, and Waite's comments, so I was not unfamiliar with the claims Place was making. First off, Place pointed out that, while Waite was “clearly influenced” by the design of Eliphas Lévi's VII-Chariot, his comments in PKT are inconsistent with the card Smith illustrated.
“Smithʼs Charioteer is holding a scepter not a sword and his shoulders have armored plates that, in profile, appear like waxing and waning crescent moons, not the stones used for divination by ancient Hebrew priests.”—Robert M. Place to Jess Karlin
In other words, Place says the Urim and Thummim are not on Waite's Chariot or Lévi's, even though Waite says they are there. Additionally, Place pointed out that Waite's text on XV-Devil seemed at odds with Smith's drawing of that trump:
“For the Devil card Waite makes a similar error. Although it is not there in Smith's drawing, [Waite] states that ‘At the pit of the Stomach there is a sign of Mercury.’ (Waite, page 128) What he is describing is the caduceus that stands erect in the Devilʼs groin in Leviʼs illustration titled “The Sabbatic Goat.” Again, [Waite] is writing about Levi and not looking at or knowing what is in Smithʼs picture.”—Robert M. Place to Jess Karlin
Place claims that these are “two of the most startling examples” of Waite's errors in his descriptions of Smith's illustrations.
So, the main point Place is making is that if something in a Tarot text seems different from what we see on a Tarot card the text describes, that means the writer probably didn't see the card he is describing, and so the artist had free rein to do what she wanted, regardless of what he wanted or expected.
I would say before we start the analysis of Place's claimed evidence, that the notion Place is expressing, especially in the realm of occult writing, is naive, to say the least, and is insulting to Pamela Colman Smith, making her seem too daft to properly follow instructions. First off, regarding Waite's text, there are a lot of reasons that Waite, who was in charge of the project, might have seen fit to suggest a change or let stay an image on a card, which his text nevertheless seems not to reflect or which it may seem to contradict. Waite in fact tells us that he isn't going to tell us everything, and presumably his Tarot will not reveal everything, or it might reveal or indicate something that Waite does not even think is correct. Waite is an occultist, which means he is a devotee of obscurantism, and took delight in the notion that the average viewer or reader might be confused.
This seems a reasonable explanation for the example Place gives, of the seeming omission of the caduceus on Waite's Devil card. If, as Place, claims, Smith was going her own way, and not following Waite's instructions, or for that matter Lévi's model, what would her motive have been?
In fact, Waite tells us his version of Devil is going to be an accommodation, or a compromise, between different symbolic ideas that had formed the tradition of the card. Waite does in fact write that we should find in his compromise Devil “the sign of Mercury”, but he does not say this is the caduceus. And yet, Waite explicitly states the caduceus is to be included on another card, the Two of Cups, where of course we do find it. Why, if Smith is sloppily or impudently leaving out caducei on Waite, does she not do it at the only place where he actually says one belongs?
While I have said my own share of mean and dismissive things about A. E. Waite, especially when I was younger, I have come to respect his insights, his sense of humor, and most definitely his intelligence. This is in fact one of the biggest problems facing writers like Robert M. Place, when they take on subjects like occult Tarot. In many respects, they simply are not up to the mental challenge of deciphering what they are looking at. This is especially true when they superficially read and consider the supporting texts, such as The Pictorial Key To The Tarot.
But what about this “sign of Mercury” at the pit of the Devil's stomach? Well, assuming Waite means by "pit" a literal location, that area of the Devil is so thoroughly veiled by thick fur, pretty much anything could be lurking behind the lines. This may sound like an evasion, but consider the following comments by Gertrude Moakley:
“You will notice that the Fool is the only card which does not bear Pamela's caduceus-like initials. If there, they are so blended with the markings in the rock as to be indistinguishable from them. This must have been Waite's idea. The mystical meaning is too clear to need spelling out.”—Gertrude Moakley, from her 1959 introduction to A. E. Waite's Pictorial Key to the Tarot.
And, for a deck that is supposed to be immune from Hebrew letter correspondences, check out this curious blend in the “pit” of the Devily fur:
Also, I would simply suggest that a more beneficial approach to deciphering this card, which seeks to interpret the symbolism, and not denigrate or deify either Waite or Pamela Smith, is to consider that the caduceus is itself a symbolic complex, which can of course be broken down and reconstituted a bit, to be present in spirit, but reimagined in symbolism.
Again, Waite discusses these possibilities as he reviews the evolution of the card, and points to parts of that evolution, specifically a change he attributes to Papus, that he finds “progressive”, and so helping to rectify the motifs. It is possible, in other words, that the caduceus is the very “sign of Mercury” Waite did intend, and that it is in fact on the card. Study the card for yourself and see if you can discover the way in which this interpretation can work.
Now, let us take a look at the other example Place gives of Waite's supposed errors, the VII-Chariot trump. Here are the Waite and the Lévi versions of the card, side by side:
For convenience, let us call Lévi's original design of VII-Chariot, CL, and Smith's copy of it CW-S. Now, Robert M. Place would have us believe that Waite's instructions to Smith for CW-S amounted to very little more than “copy Lévi's card”, and that Waite, upon issuing these instructions, would later have been surprised to have found that Smith actually did what he instructed, especially regarding the main features of the card. Yes, the scepters in both cards reside in the Charioteer's left hand (from the viewer's perspective), just where Eliphas Lévi, in Transcendental Magic, originally said it should be:
“[the Charioteer] holds in his left [literally 'other'] hand a sceptre surmounted by a triangle and a sphere.”—Eliphas Lévi, Transcendental Magic
Robert M. Place acknowledges on page 75 of Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination that “[Lévi] described the charioteer as carrying a flaming sword in Chapter Seven of volume one”, and Place says the fact it appears to be missing from Lévi's drawing of the Chariot is “curious”; but later in his description of CW-S, Place ignores the curiosity, and says Smith is “true to Lévi's model”, which of course does not obviously show any sword, flaming or otherwise. Place implies that Waite, for some reason, told Smith to draw a sword, and she failed to do so.
Again, Place claims this is evidence Waite never saw the final design of the card, until after his text had been written and it was too late to change the card or the text. Place, and those similarly disposed to this view, think this claimed disconnect on Waite's part serves to demonstrate he had little design oversight on the deck, and so Smith's role as the true designer of the whole pack, trumps included, is well established.
One obvious objection to what we might call the Pro-Pamist view is that, if it were true that Smith's illustrations are in contradiction to Waite's instructions, and that his text reflects his not seeing the cards until after they were finished and ready to be printed, why would Waite have maintained his text, sans any correction or comment about the difference, in the expanded edition of the Key, i.e. in The Pictorial Key To The Tarot?
Of course one could argue Waite simply saw no reason to draw attention to the seeming error on his part. On the other hand, the seeming error is not particularly hidden, and so it seems Waite was content that the text fairly represented, or perhaps properly occulted, the visual representation on the card.
We should also again consider that just because Waite's comments differ from what seems to be presented on the card, does not necessarily mean it is Smith who is the author of the difference. It is just as possible that Waite himself introduced a seemingly contradictory element intentionally, and used his text to either hint at or to conceal something. After all, as Place acknowledges, respecting the missing flaming sword, Eliphas Lévi's words describing the Chariot are (at least in one part of his book) seemingly inconsistent with his own visual interpretation of the card.
With respect to Place's second criticism of Waite's Chariot, involving the “Urim and Thummim”, which Place claims are not present on either Lévi's or Waite's version of the Chariot, Place here has made a basic blunder, failing to read, or absorb at any rate, text he claims as a source for his opinion in his bibliography. Recall that Place had claimed “[the] waxing and waning crescent moons [were] not the stones used for divination by ancient Hebrew priests”, i.e. the Urim and Thummim.
However, in Lévi's description of his Chariot card in Transcendental Magic, the source Place alleges to have read, we find this comment:
“...on [the Charioteer's] shoulders [are] the Urim and Thummim of the sovereign sacrificer, represented by the two crescents of the moon in Gedulah [i.e. Chokmah] and Geburah...”—Eliphas Lévi, Transcendental Magic
In Place's book, he assures us that there is no such “detail” on Waite's card, and that this must be the case because Smith is being “true” to Lévi's version, i.e. copying Lévi. Yet, as we see, Lévi plainly contradicts Place, and supports what Waite indicated.
For what it is worth, this interpretation of the shoulder coverings of the Charioteer being the Urim and Thummim is standard occult dogma for the card, and is repeated in a number of sources.
I thought this was a particularly striking and troubling error on Place's part, and I asked him in straightforward terms if his intention was to mislead his readers, or if he had simply made a blunder. Unsurprisingly, at this point in our exchange, Place became more than a little bit defensive. He accused me and not himself of being unfamiliar with the terms of engagement of “real research”, and of going out of my way “to disagree instead of finding common ground and building.”
Place did confess what seemed to me obvious:
“I am not claiming that I have the final word on this subject.”—Robert M. Place
Yet, on the back cover of Place's book, it is claimed to be “a truly complete guide to the Tarot” which will provide the reader with “reliable history”.
Even if I had an intention of building upon anything Robert M. Place was doing with Tarot, he terminated that possibility, claiming that my insistence on being critical of his work, which frankly seemed in need of some criticism, had rendered our conversation pointless in his view:
“I see no point in continuing this discussion. It is turning into a waist [sic] of time. Please do not email me again. I will no longer be answering.”—Robert M. Place to Jess Karlin
I should say Place refused to answer many of my questions, and one of the more interesting, in my view, was one regarding how it should be that, four years after he published his book, which in many searches for Tarot subjects comes in at or near the top, he should not have had anyone, an alleged Tarot expert or maybe just an industrious reader, point out to him the questionable nature of his thinking on Waite's authorship of his own deck, and at the least the clear blunder Place had committed regarding the Urim and Thummim.
Is it the case that people buy Place's book because it is alleged to be “complete” and “reliable”, but then either never read it, or they just take it for granted the writer is telling them the truth? If the latter, and as we have said many times, that is always a mistake, even regarding (the few) good and interesting writers on the subject of Tarot, which is a different class than the one to which Robert M. Place belongs.
Place's place in the hierarchy of Tarot writers and ideologues is a crowded subculture of cartofeminism, although the behavior of this largely male auxiliary is hardly expressive of any feminist interest. For they act out of some addled sense of Victorian chivalry, to make sure the poor girl, Pam, is saved from the clutches of domineering, obscure and emotionally distant A. E. Waite, Victorian Patriarch, or as Place called him, the Pharaoh of the project.
There is a poverty of imagination exhibited by these Pro-Pamist Percivales, who cannot ever allow for Waite to be anything but a glorified mid-level manager (perhaps with a hint of Snidely Whiplash), lording it over the more talented and unfairly treated artist-slave. But is there any indication that is how the artist herself viewed their working relationship?
Instead, what Pamela Colman Smith had to say about the value of ideas and images is summed up in the following:
“But let the student begin young, and with all the necessary aids for the broadening of his mind. Composition first, and all the other rules and rudiments, in order as they come. As much literature, music, drama as possible (all to be thought of in relation to that idea so safely tucked away in the corner of the student’s mind), to be worked at from the vantage point of knowing what they are to aid.—Pamela Colman Smith, from the article “Should The Art Student Think?”, published in The Craftsman, July, 1908 (Vol XVI, No. 4)
Now, what Smith meant by “that idea so safely tucked away” was an idea of the kind of artist one aspired to be, meaning the nature of one's specialty, e.g. portraiture or if the job arose, painting Tarot cards. Clearly, thinking about what the image was intended to aid or illustrate was a key concern for Smith, and in the Tarot deck that would naturally mean thinking about, and taking into serious consideration the ideas about Tarot supplied to her by A. E. Waite. In fact, considering that Smith very clearly viewed the Tarot project as a “job”, it would have been insulting to her craftsmanship to suggest she couldn't follow her employer's instructions. Instead, the claim is made is that Waite gave Smith a few basic guidelines, and let her design the deck pretty much as she pleased. At the least, so the myth goes, Smith certainly wasn't bothered with silly old occult symbolism, like that stuff they had at the Golden Dawn, because, as Robert M. Place alleged, Waite just wasn't into secret codes or symbolic correspondences, even though Waite plainly said “the true Tarot is symbolism” and that Tarot symbolism becomes “a kind of alphabet”.
The campaign to diminish Waite's serious involvement in the creation of his own deck mirrors the very same effort by cartofeminists to discredit and disparage the contribution of Aleister Crowley in the creation of the Thoth deck. In both efforts, we see an obtuse ideology dishonestly perpetrated to achieve an intentionally unfair objective. In my article on cartofeminism, I discuss the commercial advantages seen by the Tarot marketers in getting rid of the occultists, and raising to prominence the Tarot artists. Tarot images, divorced from the ideas they represent, are stripped of meaning and left to open-ended interpretation by even the most ignorant person, and for the most inane purpose. The customer of these postmodern deviations is generally not informed he is getting a dumbed-down or repurposed product, but is instead assured he is getting the more authentic, image-based, insight and encouragement.
This is nothing Pamela Colman Smith or Frieda Harris, the artist of Crowley's Thoth Tarot, would have agreed with or tolerated. Their artistic achievements in Tarot were enabled and enhanced by their occultist partners. In both cases, the artists were the students of the writers whose ideas they were illustrating. In both cases, the writers valued the artists because of a certain ideological emptiness, and even incapacity to some extent, they felt the women displayed, which they understood was balanced by an intuitive depth which could transcend their intellectual limitations. It is fair to criticize that prejudice of course. If the artists had been men, it is reasonable to question whether such a shortcoming would have been seen as a virtue instead of an obstacle. But in that time and this one as well for many people, women were viewed as naturally more intuitive than men, who allegedly had the advantage in reason and certainly in occult literacy. Essentially, the cartofeminists, and the pomo-Tarot marketers, adopted the Victorian male prejudice about the naturally superior psychic gifts of women, and the superiority of psychic products over those of reason and intellect, a message many women and men in the newage are ready to accept as gospel.
In any case, whatever the true depth of intellectual or dogmatic insight possessed by these most important Tarot artists, the Smith and Harris would never have questioned that without the texts supplied by their male partners, their cards would have been mostly opaque mysteries to most people. Of course in Waite's case, even with his book, that remains the situation for many readers. And, while Crowley's book is much better in revealing and discussing certain details of the cards, and while Harris told Crowley his book was essential to an understanding of her cards, in Thoth also the Tarot book accompanying the cards is an introduction to a study of incredibly complex and deep (in some cases also ridiculous) ideas.
I have neglected so far saying very much about Ciro Marchetti, and his point of view about Tarot and art, in part because he had such a hard time so often getting his opinion articulated on the Tarot Connections podcast; as noted Marchetti was repeatedly interrupted by Robert M. Place, and often sounded intimidated by him. Also, as I discovered in another email exchange, this time with Marchetti himself, he views "success” with Tarot mainly in terms of sales figures, and so discounts the opinions of people he views as occult eggheads, who have criticized his work as superficial and actually Tarot in name only (TINO).
I should say before anything else, that Marchetti, as an artist, is generally counted as a skilled digital craftsperson, and has won a number of graphic design and digital art awards, his main digital tool being Photoshop, his “software of choice”, as it is with many modern Tarot illustrators.
While Marchetti admits his entry into Tarot was basically for commercial interest only, as he previously knew and cared little for Tarot and its beliefs and practices, yet he says that this wasn't really a limitation since his professional experience in advertising meant he “was considered the ‘expert’ at being able to recognize the core elements and message behind [a product or service]” and he could “project that in a cohesive and compelling way to the target audience.” And Marchetti said: “In that context Tarot is no different.”
And since Marchetti's measure of success “in that context” was entirely commercial, he viewed his first Tarot project, the Gilded Tarot, as a great success. Most people would agree, given that the Gilded Tarot allegedly sold 200,000 copies—at least Marchetti alleges this—but I have no independent evidence it is true. In any case, Marchetti viewed these sales numbers as a confirmation of his insight into “the core elements and message behind” Tarot.
He understands the sales figures as indicative of a particular reality, which he summed up in a question he put to me, one which he said he had posed in many Tarot forums, and presumably to some serious students of Tarot, and had previously gotten no response.
This was Ciro Marchetti's question:
“I'm assuming that you are as you suggest a serious student of Tarot, and presumably far more knowledgeable than the ‘consensus or majority’. Using the reference I've just provided. A deck that's flawed in Tarot accuracy, overloaded with artistic license, dismissed by reviewers as shallow, yet used by many. Are they, the users, fooling themselves, are the millions of readings using that (or any other deck considered to be academically wrong) flawed???”—Ciro Marchetti to Jess Karlin
In the last reply I sent to Marchetti, to which he has yet to respond, I answered his question. I acknowledged to him that he probably wished he had not gotten it.
My answer to Marchetti's question basically came down to two points.
First, I was curious how he knew millions of readings were being done with his deck, that "I certainly do not see people asking about it, or how to read with it," and noted that even if his claims about the numbers sold were accurate, a lot of people buy decks to collect, as curiosities, without any interest in using them for anything at all. That is particularly true of decks "overloaded with artistic license", i.e. ones openly contemptuous of Tarot tradition.
Also, I pointed out to Marchetti a basic idea, which after making three alleged Tarots, he still didn't seem to understand:
“The fact your cards get read, or don't get read, doesn't necessarily make your cards good Tarots, or any kind of Tarots at all. And asking what does make something Tarot or good Tarot would have been a good thing to have asked in the first place.”—Jess Karlin to Ciro Marchetti
But Ciro Marchetti's notion about art and Tarot is that first, he considered his ability to discern what he called the “core elements and message” to be validated by his advertising experience, while at the same time he personally operated from what seems to be a bigoted point of view regarding occult expertise in Tarot:
“I simply cannot buy into an already nebulous genre such as tarot, Waite, Crowley, Levi etc etc, all pontificating on their take, dismissing those who came before.”—Ciro Marchetti to Jess Karlin
Instead of buying into a nebulous genre, and learning something about Tarot, before pretending to remake it, Marchetti, understanding that a deep grasp of Tarot symbolism was irrelevant to commercial success peddling art cards, produced a series of decks, which carved out a new genre for Tarot, something I would call glam-Tarot, or hood-ornament Tarots. I suppose, to do justice to Marchetti for founding this genre, we could call it Ciro-Tarot.
Ciro-Tarot, fully acknowledging that Tarot is after all a nebulous genre, aims to descend way below the clouds with simple, garish, glam-tricked Vegas acts. These may in fact pack in the average Tarot customer, whose attention span surrenders to flashy bric-a-brac; but they tend to make people who have bought in to the nebulous genre roll their eyes in wonder at how Tarot once again finds success in a freak show.
Marchetti has just released his latest aesthetic impugning of the nebulous genre, called Legacy of the Divine Tarot. He calls it “my third and almost certainly my last tarot deck.” He once again admits to taking “considerable artistic licence.”
The problem for Marchetti, is that even though he shows some slight improvement of his grasp of Tarot sensibility in his newest deck; for example he can now indifferently paste some occult symbols here and there on the cards; if anything he has descended from his former gimcrackery to something even less interesting: Hallmark cards.
While I know of people who think Marchetti is a very good, even great, Photoshop artist, I find his work in many respects to be utterly vacuous aesthetically. Unlike in my critique of the Aquarian Tarot, which is also allegedly based on Pamela Smith's illustrations, and where I allowed that Smith might not be the better illustrator but clearly she was the better artist, I am not sure Ciro Marchetti can even draw as well as Pamela Smith.
One of the problems in the age of Photoshop, and photo-collaged or assisted artwork, is that one is never quite sure how much work was done by the artist and how much by the Photoshop filters. That is not necessarily a bad thing, if the resulting artwork shows some real aesthetic insight, and especially of the product being advertised. In that respect, examine this card, from Marchetti's newest deck, as an example of his allegedly mature Tarot style:
The Gilded-Goldfish-Goblet neatly displays the problems with Ciro-Tarot. First off, conceptually, it looks like somebody got tired of their Spencer's Gift's magic goblet and tossed it into their fishtank—to enlighten their goldfish!
Just to make sure occultists, who of course are above mundane levels of communication and so need hints not required by regular people, will get that Ciro's talking their language, Marchetti kindly provides them with the official occult logo for Water—∇. Even the myopic initiated can know for sure what brand of Ace the card is supposed to be. And the average viewer can be impressed that yes, in this fishtank, mysterious symbols lurk. Must be Tarot.
Meanwhile, understanding at this point Photoshop filters and add-ons can create prefab fish, oceans, lights from above, vegetation, bubbles, and cheap plastic goblets, maybe the only thing that looks possibly hand-crafted on the whole card are the goofy-looking goldfish.
Let me cut to the watery grave here: a crappy-looking cup inside an aquarium is NOT symbolism! NOT interesting! NOT Tarot!
And that is the case even if the insouciant artist tosses a symbol-bone to people for whom he clearly has nothing but the deepest contempt. Certainly, anybody impressed by Ciro-Tarot as something artistic or Tarotic especially, rates that contempt.
Here is an example of Marchetti's Hallmark-cardism:
OK, first a definition:
Hallmark-card(ism)—a pleasing, insipid tableau, suitable for sending as a palliative to family and acquaintances you hope never are sufficiently intrigued by the content to imagine you would actually like to see them or something.
In the Ciro-Tarot3 High Priestess, we see a good example of the basic error of “condensation”, or Ciro's alleged getting to the “core elements”. People who claim a mastery of the “core elements”, when all they demonstrate is a lame ennui posing as concision, often resort to filling up cards they clearly do not understand with a BFF—Big Fucking Face! Even though the bodies on the trumps of occult Tarots are generally considered complete (though complex) symbols, you will see dumbdowners like Marchetti toss them into whatever trash bin they use to make up their “artistic license”.
The thing is, that is completely fine with most people who consume Tarot. After all, people have busy lives. Who the hell wants to waste their time on what Ciro, the artist, condemns as a “nebulous genre”, and what most people clearly consider an ornamental hobby, i.e. something to show people as a hollow symbol of what gives the hobbyist a superficial identity?
But, seriously, if you want to get serious about Tarot as an art and an art form, you need to start with the recognition that it is about a hell of a lot more than the imagination of Ciro Marchetti, or Robert M. Place for that matter, could possibly access on their most enlightened days—which unfortunately were not the days on which they crafted their awful Tarots.
The fact these people are considered authoritative or commercial crème de la crème in the Tarot world continues the long, dreary, demonstration of how pop Tarot functions mainly as a veil, not a revealer of anything you couldn't get on a bubble-gum wrapper.
I know this sounds like I am beating poor Glitter&Kitsch to a pulp purely for the satisfaction of kicking a bad Tarot artist when he's begging for it, but let me as a last point here show you a little example of why Ciro's attitude is so defective and destructive of anything worthwhile and aesthetically interesting in Tarot.
Remember Ciro claims that his advertising background enables him to quickly and really effortlessly absorb the “core elements” of a subject or product, and that he can visually render these without bothering to expose himself to the details of unworthy nebulous genres. The notion is that whatever is in or on Tarot is really obvious and easy to mimic in such a way that the average viewer will get as much out of Ciro Tarot as he will out of a legitimate occult model from which Ciro might cop a fatuous feel of Tarot.
But take a close look at the following, a screen capture of the video Ciro Marchetti uses to promote his newest Tarot deck, The Legacy of the Divine Tarot.
Now a lot of you are probably saying “so what!”—it's just a mistake, after all. Yeah, but it's a mistake which betrays an indifference to the basic facts of Tarot. After all, until I pointed this error out to Marchetti, nobody else had done so, and he didn't spot it himself. His target audience views arcane symbolism, even that which is really pretty mundane stuff and almost mainstream, like the zodiac, as unimportant, since the alleged beauty of Ciro's images overrides all other considerations.
And Marchetti of course developed and promoted his Tarot ideas in a place which he assumed was ground zero for what he calls the “pulse of the Tarot community”, Tarotforum.net, the largest enabler and pusher of worthless Tarot notions and products in the world. Marchetti himself was a defender of the absolutely atrocious Transparent Tarot, a pack of infantile plastic scrawls which consistently rates high praise (for example, at Amazon.com) from people who know and care nothing whatsoever about Tarot, or art apparently.
Finally, because I have spent so much time discussing Robert M. Place's deficient understanding of the Waite-Smith Tarot, I did not take much time to look at his own decks, which Ciro Marchetti told me certainly qualified Place to speak of himself as an accomplished Tarot artist.
But, and this is substantiated in the Tarot Connections podcast as well, Place seems quite enamored of a few basic aesthetic ideas or styles, which he milks, or in some cases simply appropriates (to the detriment of the original of course), the result of which is hardly different in its antagonism to the occult tradition of Tarot than the gilded grafts of Ciro Marchetti.
Place would be better off not calling our attention to the source of his “inspiration”.
For example, in his near-worship of the 19th-century artist, Edward Burne-Jones, whose name he could not however remember in the podcast, Place admittedly lifted entire images, essentially cutting and pasting them, though he probably would describe it as an “allusion”.
The thing is, even if he had actually cut and pasted the far better originals, it is difficult to see what would have been improved Tarotically for doing so. I am sure Place knows, or at least comes across as knowing, much more about occult ideas and symbolism than Ciro Marchetti; but Place's devotion to an anemic, woman-hating, aesthetic, which is flat, bloodless and boring, makes him actually an even less interesting Tarot artist than the founder of Ciro-Tarot.
Place's and Marchetti's general contempt for occultism, which I have seen in the attitudes of quite a number of self-proclaimed Tarot historians and artists, is demonstrably counterproductive to any research process aimed at determining the facts and the truth. It also contributes to the production of superficial, really anti-Tarotical Tarots.
This shows up in Place's skimming over inconvenient details, and Marchetti's treatment of Tarot basics, like the zodiac, as mere ornaments, the alleged artistic significance of which is not dependent on the symbolism being correctly displayed.
There is probably a fundamental difference in worldview, between occultist understandings of the role and art of symbolism, and the superficial needs of “artists”; but I do not think this conflict is in any way a natural or necessary thing.
Rather, it is one created, chiefly by bad artists, to disabuse themselves and others of the hated notion there is any obligation on their part to know what they are doing with Tarot symbolism. Thanks again to Leisa Refalo for giving a platform for the Tarot industry to put big, inviting targets on its most egregious performers.
(jk)—Jan. 11, 2010
Recalling the discussion in Part I of this article, which examined the difference between two Tarot card ideas of artistic mastery, as illustrated in the Waite-Smith Eight and Three of Pentacles, let us look at a version of the Three of Coins, as performed by Ciro Marchetti. This card, from Marchetti's Legacy of the Divine Tarot, operates, in view of what we have discussed here, as a policy statement from Marchetti, as well as kind of confessional, that the Holy Church of Ciro Tarot is not exactly a cathedral of the spirit.
Here is Marchetti's card:
Looking once again at the Waite-Smith model, and considering what an artist committed to actually learning something about Tarot—while repeatedly exploiting it for financial profit—might evolve towards, how can Ciro Marchetti explain the fact that his latest Three of Coins looks like a closeup of Waite's Eight of Pentacles?
Is the difference supposed to be that the figure (Marchetti himself?) is older and supposedly wiser? But if that is true, why is he still displaying his work as "souvenirs"? And why in fact is he engaged in making externalized Pentacles (which we note Marchetti ALWAYS refers to as Coins), instead of embedding the value and the symbolism in some Great Work?
It does not have to of course be identical to the Waite-Smith metaphor, the master sculptor at work on a cathedral. But Marchetti's almost pathological contempt for the actual meanings of Tarot cards, and indeed his antagonism towards the notion that occult meanings have any value, renders his cards confused, shiftless, and absolutely worthless, as Tarot.
It is fine that many consumers are drawn to Tarotic-appearing things that cheaply glitter. Tarot is after all, for the vast majority of people who buy decks and buy a little into the mystery, a carnival exercise, and nothing to be taken seriously.
But it may be helpful for the few who would push deeper into the values taught in occultism, and in Tarot's representation of these, to recall the following:
“Truth lies deep, and must be fetched up at Leisure [i.e., slowly, as a cultivation]. How many Mysteries are there, which God hath placed out of our sight; and which are only to reached by Thought, and Contemplation! The Notions of the Divinity are Profound and Obscure; or else perhaps we see them without understanding them.”—Seneca, from A Contemplation of Heaven
“Tarot designers, and book writers, who presume to tell us what it all means, without their bothering to first learn what it all means, invariably beg the audience to succumb to whatever emotional appeals the peddler has to offer. And these are usually pretty vulgar...and pretty boring.”—J. Karlin, 2000, alt.tarot
Glenn F. Wright
April 13, 2013