Witch-Aesthetics and the Elitism of Curmudgeonry

Witch-Aesthetics and the Elitism of Curmudgeonry March 10, 2018

Hello, beautiful creatures, and welcome back to “Misha’s Had Too Much Coffee and Not Enough Sleep!” In today’s episode, we’re gonna talk about witchcraft and aesthetics, and the fact that some of us (ahem) older witchy types can get just the teensiest bit cranky about them. Ready? Let’s do this!

I’ve been spending more than a little time in recent days obsessively cogitating about the ways in which magical praxis, occulture, aesthetics, and generational divides intersect to produce a veritable witch’s brew of misunderstandings, elitism, bad attitudes, and all-around crankiness. This has been bubbling away for some time now behind the endless, featureless white wall with the big iron door labelled BRAIN GNOMES AND PSYCHOPOMPS ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT which cordons off the back half of my brain1, but it all came to the surface in a recent post I made to my personal Facebook page, which read as follows:

“The part of my brain that is utterly disgusted with the current wave of ‘lifestyle witchcraft’ is locked in mortal combat with the part of my brain that sees it and thinks, ‘Okay, that’s actually kind of cool.'”

Those of you unfamiliar with the trend I’m referencing here might need me to do a little unpacking. By “lifestyle witchcraft,” I was referring to the sort of pop-witchcraft one can see in photosets on Tumblr, Pinterest, and Polyvore, as well as everything on the #witchesofinstagram hashtag. It’s covered in any number of Broadly, Teen Vogue, or Buzzfeed articles. It’s fashion and interior design marketed with a vaguely occult-ish flavor. It’s coordinating your outfit and makeup to the phase of the moon, aiming for something between Hot Topic and Anthropologie, Urban Decay and thrift shop chic. It’s glittery pumpkin spicerack witchcraft, in other words, and it’s almost exclusively by and for young women.

(Photo by Александр Раскольников on Unsplash.)
This is hardly a new trend, as anyone old enough to have actually practiced witchcraft when The Craft was first released in theaters2 should already know. Still, it’s easy to see this latest wave of pop-occulture as nothing more than vapid corporate attempts to sell products by funneling sincere spiritual hunger into a hollow, surface-level aesthetic. It’s easy to be disgusted at the number of people—at the number of young women, mind you—treating what our culture, practice, and spirituality like a fashion accessory.

I know it’s easy, because I agreed with all of this, right up until I started really thinking about it. Once I did, I started to feel profoundly uneasy about dismissing the world of “basic witch-aesthetics” out of hand. The conversation which ensued on my Facebook post was edifying, in great part because it helped me to tease apart exactly what it was that bothered me. Some of it was genuine disgust at corporate packaging of the trappings of occult spirituality—which, as noted, is as old as the hills. Some of it was the boringly predictable outrage endemic to being a middle-aged person in a fringe demographic, shaking my fist at random passersby and complaining that Kids These Days Are Doing It All Wrong.

And some of it, I must confess, was me giving in to the usual, tiresome sort of dismissal of Things Women Like.

I was embarrassed, even ashamed, to realize I’d fallen for this trick. It’s precisely the sort of ruse I’m trained to see through, and I failed… or rather, I was only able to get past it once a few friends of mine—mostly women and people of color, I will note—pointed out with extraordinary delicacy and patience that my prejudice as a white person assigned male at birth was showing.

So, here’s a few bold statements, and possibly unpopular ones at that:

One of the things witchcraft is for is empowering people who’ve been disempowered, trodden down, and systematically fucked over by the Powers That Be. In other words, it’s for people who’ve been Othered. In modern Western culture, that would include women, people of color, queer people, trans people, and anyone else whose agency and self-possession have been stripped from them.

When looking at pop occulture, it’s crucial to discern between witchy folks who are on the hustle and market-driven corporate exploitation, and to separate out critiques of consumerism from attacks on oppressed people—women, girls, queer folks, trans folks, and especially queer and trans people of color—who are exploring their own avenues of self-expression. There absolutely are instances of what I’ve called “lifestyle witchcraft” which are nothing more than a corporate entity making money off the desire of a certain demographic of women to have an edgy bohemian aesthetic… but there are folks for whom witchcraft is aesthetic, commercial and spiritual. It is in incredibly poor taste to tell oppressed people how they should or shouldn’t engage with their spirituality, their aesthetics, or their survival. In a capitalist society such as the one in which we live, it is the height of privilege to suggest that combining magic, commerce, and fashion is somehow invalid, impure, or immoral.

As for the dismissal of “witchcraft-as-aesthetic,” well, the good folks over at Oxford Living Dictionaries define an aesthetic as “a set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement.”

If witchcraft is an art—and it is, my dear ones, it is—then it had damned well better have an aesthetic.

I have some thoughts about the aesthetics of witchcraft and witchcraft-as-aesthetic, and some self-involved ruminations about my own aesthetic… but they’re probably more appropriate for another column, another time.

Until then, dear ones, wear all the glitter you damn well want. ♥

  1. Yes, I’m aware that my brain is a strange place. Hey, you only have to live with it. I have to live inside it.
  2. The Craft was released on May 3, 1996. Here, I’ll do the math for you: that was just shy of twenty-two years ago. It was rated R, so if you saw this movie in theaters, as I did, congratulations! You’re officially old.

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18 responses to “Witch-Aesthetics and the Elitism of Curmudgeonry”

  1. [Moderator’s note: Hello, The Wild Monk! I see from the text of your post that you’re a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, and a transphobe. Since you’re new around here, you probably aren’t aware of your free speech rights around here: namely, you don’t have any. What you have are “don’t piss off Misha with your speech” rights, a policy of which you’ve just fallen afoul. I also have a strict NO RACIST SEXIST TRANSPHOBIC HOMOPHOBIC CHUCKLEFUCKS policy, of which you’ve ALSO fallen afoul. I note with interest your other Disqus comments, which indicate that you’re a Christian white supremacist, which is pretty much a bingo for getting banned around these parts. So, you’re toast. Bye!]

  2. Man. I saw The Craft in the theater in 1996 (of course I did). At the time it was like Representation, Wow! Yet it felt pretty weird to see my mother watching it this morning, since I remember being quite emotionally attached to it at the time. (Fortunately, awkward questions like “is that’s really what it’s like?” were not asked.)

    • I still love parts of The Craft, but I think I was far enough outside its target demographic that my reaction was more bemusement than emotional identification. And yeah, that last one is always fun. “Um… not really?”

  3. I see this as a result of the “flat” hierarchy of witchcraft. Since the older generation aren’t being asked for advice, we’re just gonna hold forth with our judgment. It is perfectly inevitable that witch-interested people from Western culture will come to it through what they know: the material world, relative celebrity, and social markers for tribe-ascription and status. We did the same, more or less. Just with different markers.

    • I think you raise a valid point, though I wonder if the older generation aren’t being asked for advice, and the advice being given simply isn’t relevant to the world in which today’s young witches live. I mean, that was somewhat true for me when I was an inquisitive witchlet back in the ’80s and ’90s. I was lucky enough, in my late twenties, to stumble across a Brit-trad Wiccan community which was (mostly) robust enough to handle my questions… but even then, a lot of the advice I got felt 15-20 years out of date.

      • On the one hand, I think you are absolutely right. There is no obligation to listen to old people in our culture. Paganity isn’t any different than anywhere else.

        On the other hand, the few who want to grow past competence will have to swallow their pride and find teachers who have seen the elephant, and don’t just talk a good game.

        • Well, sure. I would suggest that’s less about swallowing pride, though, and more a function of how tradition has been transmitted historically. I wanted to learn a trade—in this case, British traditional Wicca—so I got as far as I could with books and whatnot, then went out and apprenticed myself to a real-life Wiccan coven. I learned a great deal there, some of which I might wish I hadn’t, but some of which has served me well.

          What I find curious about the open-source witchery we can see on Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest et al. is the extent to which it seems to be a response to lacking the kind of mentorship that witch-elders could offer, but for the breakdown in communication that’s clearly happened. It’s easy to blame Kids These Days for not wanting our advice, and maybe there’s some truth there… but I also think it’s incumbent on those who would presume to teach to do so in a language their would-be students can actually understand, rather than deriding students for not already knowing what they’re here to learn.

          That’s another soapbox, though, for another day.

  4. As an enthusiastic Witchblr participant, I thought I’d give some more insight into the Tumblr witch community and the aesthetics found there. A lot of what you find perusing there are countless pictures of crystals, themes wallpapers and various nature themed gifs as well as general witchy fashion posts and on the surface it’s understandable to think that the community isn’t much deeper than that, but trust me, it does.

    For example, a lot of younger members are in the broom closet and still living at home and can’t have open displays of things like crystals, herbs, symbols, etc. So they use pictures as stand ins for their workings. Aside from being generally nice to look at, the images and aesthetics many of us post are to visually share resources with members of our community who can’t keep these things on hand, either because they aren’t in an environment that’s supportive, or because they can’t afford such resources. There are also msny aesthetic request blogs that are geared solely towards pagan and witchcraft imagery. These are usually very supportive, inclusive blogs where there’s a high emphasis on filling personal requests that hell people have a little peice of art that reptesents them and the culture they come from or adopt. It’s a great way for lgbt, poc, and neuro atypical pagans (like me) to be represented positively and participate. I’ve had several aesthetic posts made for me and personally, when the material, mundane neurotypical world gets to feeling a little too claustrophobic, it comforts me to look at ny phone, see the wallpaper one of my favorite Tumblr witches made for me and be reminded of the deeper, bigger and infinitely more weird world that I have a spiritual connection to. It seems like a small thing, but it’s like a tether reminding ne of more important things. And well, I really do enjoy the cool, quirky fashion aesthetics you find there. Anyway, I hope I didn’t ramble too much, I really enjoyed this post and just wanted to give a little background info on some of the attachment those of us on the witchy side of Tumblr have to pur aesthetics. Btw, there’s also a lot of really good study aids, q&a blogs, trade communities and even a few open blogs where we share and organize history, mythology and diety offerings to try to make it easier for baby pagans to find info and source material they might have a need for.

    • Thank you so much for your comment here, emily! I’m a tentative participant in the witchy side of Tumblr—I’m at, though it’s mostly posts of my columns here—and I’ve seen some of what you’re describing. I’m delighted to hear there’s even more of a community than I’ve encountered to this point, and especially to hear that it’s so welcoming of POC, LGBTQIA+ folks, and neuroatypical folks. ^_^ And no, you didn’t ramble at all. Thank you for reading, and for posting!

  5. Watching “The Craft” makes me officially old? Now, I remember watching “Bell, Book and Candle” starring Kim Novak which came out in 1958! I must be ancient. 🙂

    • Ha! ^_^ Bell, Book, and Candle is still one of my all-time favorite witchy movies. I had the unalloyed pleasure of showing it to my partner last year, and it still holds up delightfully well.

  6. Your article was quite a joy to read. Your diction and sentence structure are varied and interesting, your thoughts are fleshed out in a sincere and engaging way, overall the writing is very good. From one writer to another, that’s some good quality work. Cheers.

  7. Your point about dismissing things that some women love is so on point that I want to wrap you in glitter and hang sparkly keys from your finger tips! While $90 candles from Anthropologie are outrageous, the embracing of all things witchy by the youngsters warms my black rhinestone heart. <3

  8. Hello! I do believe that, despite being a regular reader of Patheos, this is the first time I’ve actually left a comment beneath a post. My apologies for my reluctance to be more active. I do find the concept of “witch aesthetics” an interesting one, and very worthy of discussions, though my thoughts on the matter are no less jumbled than your own!

    To be frank, I stumbled upon “witchblr” (though I don’t recall if it was named so back then) about five or six years ago and that’s what set me on my current path. Yes, initially it was purely about reblogging photos of crystals and dried flowers for me, but it grew into a genuine interest and urge to devour witchcraft-related literature, be it historical, educational or something along the lines of the contemporary link between witchcraft and female empowerment (granted, there has always been one, but flower-crown-wearing feminists seem to be drawn to it like bees to honey). In that sense, witchy aesthetics can be a gateway to a much deeper connection and one need not forsake the visual appeal of it all after establishing that link.

    Furthermore, as somebody in the comments mentioned, it is also a way for those who’ve yet to come out of the broom closet, whether it be by their own volition, because they live in a conservative household, or any other reason, to express themselves in a different way. Technological witchcraft is on the rise, whether one wishes to take it seriously or not and I was an active part of it – my altar and setup used to be visual images on a computer screen until not too long ago. Granted, the idea of performing emoji magic is somewhat repulsive even to me, but hey to each their own. Is that not what we witches preach?

    To put it this way, I don’t think that the attention that witchraft aesthetics garners is harmful in any way. I mean, compared to historical witch hunts, being portrayed as big-nosed, green-skinned, devourers of human children isn’t all that bad, haha! I believe that those who truly wish to walk the path of witchcraft will find their way amongst the clutter of pretty images and comfortably shallow pop culture advertising. The rest will simply find something else to occupy their attention with time. And, as you said, witchcraft is a form of art and art has a cyclical nature when it comes to approval and disapproval. Anything relatively new to the scene will be regarded with a tinge of reluctance until enough time passes for it to become a normal, or even preferred manner of self-expression.

    Anyway, I’ve rambled on for too long. Thank you for this article and sharing your caffeine-induced thoughts with us and have a brilliant 2019!

  9. As I was reading this article… selfies came to mind. It is easy to dismiss selfies, like witchy aesthetics, as vapid, empty, narcissistic actions by insecure “girls”… but then there’s the uplifting, supportive, self-esteem raising element. The ownership of identity and willingness to bravely put oneself out there on the grand stage of the interweb-net to be judged by one and all.

    Oftentimes, appearances are not what they seem. I applaud you for looking into the reasons and unpacking the whys in relation to your negative reactive to the witch aesthetic. <3 <3 <3