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The Spirit of Secular Art

Chapter 1

Secular sacraments and the prestige of art

Robert Nelson

Like many old words with new meanings, prestige indicates something archaic in contemporary values. Prestige is a kind of magical esteem. It is used to describe expensive cars and property and other consumer goods, normally suggesting a value which does not derive purely from the material qualities of the object or place. Something of a cultural nature has been cultivated which gives the car or house or fountain-pen an exclusive cachet, an aura of traditional desire and long-standing demand, a mysteriously authorized glamour which cannot be explained by engineering, mechanics or geography.

Art is quintessentially prestigious, and not just because its material basis is marginal, nor even because the artist has invested imagination in the outcome. It is true that the canvas and paint are cheap and the component of invention explains a great deal of the price of a painting. The artist’s reputation, which is normally a good part of the prestige of the work, hinges on all the contributions of an artist’s career; and the work fetching a high price is understood to distil those creative qualities. But none of this would happen if art itself were not prestigious, if the artwork had not been institutionalized as a site in which you are charmed by a peculiarly artistic spell. Art, in short, has a spiritual element. When you look at art, you are not just looking at the work of one artist but a hallowed plane of signifiers, established in western consciousness from who knows what ancestral times. One artist—by dint of superior imagination or sincerity—may be able to satisfy the spiritual expectations of buyers more than another; and this may explain a local difference in prices. But the larger structure within which the connoisseur discriminates is underpinned by ancient spiritual values.

Prestige in this book is not exactly the quality that makes one painting more valuable than another. In a popular sense, ‘prestige’ refers to meaningful glamour.1 It is the quality that makes art distinctive among other commodities in a bourgeois economy. This book asserts that the inherited magic of art is based on anterior belief systems. Art is intrinsically cultish. All artistic things, except the prestige of art, can be empirically explained by examining style, iconography and patronage. What cannot be so readily explained is the reliance of all art—pre-eminently secular art—on religious intuitions which are carried forward from archaic times. There is a sacramental basis for the prestige of art, and this book provides a history of that foundation.

In matching art and the sacramental, we appear to be dealing with diametrically opposed ideas. Since the advent of modernism, art has been understood as freedom of expression, the untrammeled exercise of imagination, invention and experiment. Art means defying the conventions of the past and forging new visions. The concept of sacrament, on the other hand, is deeply institutional; it is stipulated in venerable authorities, based on age-old beliefs and practices rather than individual creativity. Nothing, on first glance, could be more remote from the liberality of art than the codified blessings of the sacramental. From the beginnings of a recognizable avant garde in the nineteenth century, art has been antithetical to religious observation. Notions like worship have long been discredited as uncritical, theocratically fostering in people an unquestioning submission to an order of absolute supremacy. The indoctrination required to induce in people the need to worship is itself felt to be repugnant in a culture based on the reasoned challenge to all spiritual assumptions and especially institutional faith.2

There is undeniably a cultish background to premodern art; but it is a popular misconception that the breakthrough of modernism involves the transcendence of religious institutions. First, secular art has a tradition long anterior to modernism. Second, there is a question of when and how the religious preconditions of art receded and the dependence on cultish ritual became inconspicuous. This book argues that those cultish contingencies were never abandoned: they were translated into secular enthusiasms, enthusiasms that paradoxically depend on the backdrop of arcane spirituality which they seem to transcend.

Most aspects of religious consciousness—right down to the sacramental—are preserved by a form of cultural abstraction in secular art. The process is a regular historical change by which art has seduced the religious, abducted its prestige and thrived on its spiritual assumptions. Art as we know it today could not have occurred without a sacred backdrop. Structures of a sacramental kind created the very preconditions of prestige in secular art and installed certain assumptions within it. Secularization in art does not simply mean abjuring religion. It means abstracting the sacred; it means commuting certain rituals—which, from epoch to epoch, have become historically exhausted—to a synthetic and autonomous spirituality which we call art. In this way, the sacramental element in art did not suddenly vanish but was transformed into secular guises of immense authority and influence, to the point that they are essential in the very definition of art. For two millennia, art has been eluding a liturgical role of one kind or another to achieve that freedom and autonomy which are axiomatic in art today. The sacramental status from the past is not dispensed with: it goes somewhere, whence it crucially informs the essence of art as an especially meaningful commodity. The sacramental component of art lies dormant and hidden in secular production; but it is all the more deeply embedded in the definition of art for its magic combination of spiritual prestige and philosophical evasiveness.

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In my role as an art critic for a broadsheet, I see a large number of contemporary exhibitions in a variety of media, many of which reveal a strange persistence of motifs that I have come to understand in sacramental terms. They all occur in circumstances that have no religious pretensions. An example is a video performance by Christian Thompson,3 an Indigenous artist based in Melbourne. In a screen divided into four quarters, the artist’s father is shown grooming his children, who are grown up men (Thompson himself and his brother). Juxtaposed to these sequences, the artist’s brother is shown again, only this time grooming his own child’s hair. The action in each case is gentle and touching. But the ritual of grooming was not always so intimate, the artist explains. In the days when his father was in the army, the family had to line up for its hair to be chastened. Now, it seems, the parental disciplinary roles have softened. A new ritual is constructed—the art work—in which the regimental pain of strict mornings before school is exorcized. The video stages the generational handing down of a necessary and ancient ritual belonging to childhood; but the gist of the combing action is morally mollified: the acceptance of passivity is now recast in favour of tenderness. By rehearsing the memory of father-and-son grooming (now almost absurd on account of Thompson’s maturity and the father’s middle age) the scenes recall the harsher times and recover from them the fondness that underlay the paternal order. The sacramental combing transforms the memory of discipline into affection.

The motif of exorcizing past psychological hurt—or expiating it on behalf of society—recurs in performative contemporary art genres and also extends to traditional media. Another Indigenous artist, Clinton Nain, recently gave a performance at the opening of his exhibition of paintings (a e i o u) in Melbourne.4 Nain painted 33 pictures containing the five vowels. Little else is included in the field beyond these vociferous letters. One picture has a little white fence around its border, a series of picket and rail, resembling crosses in an old graveyard. The rest of the enclosure is consumed by the letterforms denoting the five pure components of speech.

The works are not cheerful and the discourse hardly celebrates the elements of phonology. The pictures are mostly in deep browns and bitumen as if expressing the demoralizing gloom of learning a language imposed upon you. With dark colours, relentless bossy capitals and grim imagery, the paintings fiercely juxtapose the lessons with the sad Aboriginal reception of European education, someone else’s idea of language, represented by abstract codes of spelling. Nain sometimes includes the target in his pictures, which seems to double as the head of a person. Sinister connotations abound, reinforced by the titles. A black heart which is empty inside bears the title ‘they have dispossessed you’.

Against this history of displacement and stolen children, the triumphal linguistic system of European writing does not seem so glorious and universal. As Nain rehearses his primary school education, the repetition of “a e i o u” throughout the pictures acquires a poignant and reverberating timbre. It comes as a shock to realize that the pure vowels are the sounds of the scream and the howl. The baleful tone of the primal cry is shown at its most distilled by the five abstract analytical letters. Remembering the atrocities of white rule over Aboriginal communities is cause enough for prolonged wailing; and it seems a haunting paradox that the score for this mournful cry is provided by such a cerebral code for voiced sound. The rational spelling-based system, having abstracted the vowel sounds from their couch of consonants, leaves you with the pure agony of a voice that rises from the lung without the symbolic punctuation of language.

The rationale for sounds being divided into voiced and unvoiced categories is all for the sake of writing; the system works in any language, including the ‘ethnographic’ languages, which are being effaced as we speak. So, with Nain’s show, the spectator has some relearning to do. Our teachers tried to instruct us in primary school; but we could not really understand things at that age and the principles slip past our memory as a blur. The memory of early lessons is disempowering, because the material is both basic and abstract, something mystifying for the small children but also for philologists and lexicographers.

Nain takes us back to the blackboard, where we can also passively imagine a teacher explaining to children that Australia was discovered in 1770 or a bit earlier by the Dutch or Portuguese. One of Nain’s paintings looks like a blackboard, with nothing but emptiness. The dark void is inscribed with letters that look a bit like chalk on the blackboard: ‘what Australia looked like before colonization’. We would not make that mistake now. The media sees the centre of Australia as a land over-full of abuse and wrecked lives. Nain almost seems to shriek at those circumstances too, since sometimes he places his “a e i o u” out of order, as if the pupil’s mind is chroming, unable to fit the letters into alphabetical order. It is heart-rending stuff.

So is the sequence of salty ground under a blue sky that leads to a graveyard and the gallows. The history of subjecting Aborigines to white conventions—right down to the forbidding principles of orthography—is harrowing. Indigenous people were killed with bullets and books; and the art of painting expresses it in Nain’s hands. But by enacting aspects of the hurt, the confronting content becomes available to language and feeling and can be dealt with; it contributes to a larger consciousness in which the psyche can embrace its failings. This condition of invoking horror for the sake not of transcendence but psychological negotiation, is an element of what can be recognized as the sacramental. The deeper origins of this sacramental element which surfaces in contemporary art such as Nain’s remain to be investigated.

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It has a necessary history. Alongside some further examples of contemporary art, the epochs discussed in the chapters which follow reveal a series of historical changes from sacred to secular which roughly coincide with the growing sophistication of art and the public recognition of art as an independent consumable. In each case, there is a four-stage process, by which sculpture and painting (a) draw from an archaic sacramental order to express religious processes, (b) detach themselves from liturgical incumbencies and celebrate their autonomy, (c) appropriate the language of the former religious order by subsuming its prestige in an aesthetic refreshment and (d) achieve new spiritual glamour for the miracle of converting a conventional and ritual-bound spirituality to a more universal expression of the human spirit. These are, so to speak, the ‘moments’ at which sculpture and painting become Art in the sense commonly understood today: autonomous things, charged with cultural meaning, intensity and prestige.

In no epoch did the move from sacred to secular entail the abandonment of spirituality in favour of formal or materialist qualities. On the contrary, the awareness of a spiritual ambition is if anything heightened with the advent of secularization. Whereas in archaic times the spiritual content was a kind of default—the necessary substance to be taken for granted in the mission of religious art—the more sophisticated secular art which overtakes it is strenuously preoccupied with its claims to spiritual powers, for they are no longer inherent in the artistic mission. Art is no longer attached to ritual. If it is to deliver the prestige and claim spiritually efficacy, it must devote special efforts to the artificial task of achieving it. Art does not possess an inherently innocent magic.5 The peculiar immaterial qualities sought in art derive from religious motifs manipulated by successive generations, and historically evolving in a way which is integral to artistic tradition. This is the great self-consciousness of art which lies at the core of artistic prestige in a bourgeois economy and which creates Art in the sense commonly understood today.

In spite of the increasingly secular character of the western world, all western art has something sacramental about it. This is not a case of art retaining the spiritual, as if art were somehow a more conservative institution holding out with heroic tenacity against the onslaught of atheist materialism. The sacramental element in art is strategic. It is cultivated as an essential component of secularization, because the value of art in a secular context depends on the prestige of poetically rearranging the sacramental roots of artistic expression. The sacramental element is not a hardy left-over, an enduring relic which nobly survives in the production of newer artists. More often than not, the secular rearrangements of the sacramental roots of art depend on the new art rejecting tradition. There is little question of artworks somehow carrying an ancestral spirituality which is preserved inside them like a ruin abiding in barbarous times. Artworks actively and structurally exploit a sacramental tradition for their sense of spiritual value; they may even unscrupulously reconstrue religious ideas to flatter their own secular purposes. It may be that artworks paradoxically act as the nostalgic repository of spirituality in a world which has fewer and fewer sacramental vessels, but this guardianship of holy ideas does not proceed from piety for a religious past so much as an inherent reliance on the outdated privileges of the sacramental.

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But what does this mean, the sacramental? In this text, ‘sacrament’ does not necessarily mean ‘the sacraments’ in the technical Christian sense. At the same time, however, it is necessary to acknowledge the perception that Christians have a kind of copyright on the term ‘sacrament’. They (and they alone) have used it with specific meanings which, for centuries, were defined and debated in rich and earnest tracts. Perhaps the agreed meanings in Christian theology should rightfully prevail. There is a tradition—a Christian tradition—which has conferred so much meaning on the term that it would be naïve and reckless to ignore its historical basis and construct a new version in some kind of theoretical purity. But for all our debt to the Christian theology which massively cultivated the term over many centuries, there are two historical reasons which let us use the term with licence.

First, there is a history of the term anterior to Christianity. When Christians first used the word ‘sacrament’, they were translating the Greek ‘mystery’ (mysterion). Up to that time, the Latin word (sacramentum) had meant a pledge or oath, often used in the context of allegiance among military personnel. The classical Latin word carries a sense of ritual, but rather by way of duty; it is not pre-eminently religious but rather mechanistic, spiritually neutral and colourless as a psychological process and carrying only vague relations with the divine. The more spiritual usage of the Latin word therefore owes everything to the Greek concept for which the Romans required a translation in their indigenous language. In ancient Greek, mystery (mysterion) was used to characterize religious actions well before Christ.6 Pagan cults all had their mysteries. The concept of mystery was neither confined to the Christian cult nor subsequently the exclusive property of the Church.7 And of course today, mystery—unlike sacrament—is hardly bound by theological definitions; it is a word in very common usage with wide acceptations, running from the unexplained to the unfathomable to the divine.

Second, Christians themselves admit a category of human gestures with divine associations which have to be acknowledged as sacramental, even though they are clearly not ‘the sacraments’ of the Church. One such gesture cited by theologians is the washing of feet, with its biblical precedent of Christ’s insistence on bathing Peter’s feet. As with Thompson’s grooming of the family’s hair, this is not a sacrament in the strict sense but fits into another category of holy practices, a plain and humble action in which a sacred secret inheres, ‘the sacramental’ or a sacrament in the broader sense.8 This is the meaning intended throughout the following chapters. The strictly Christian definition of the sacraments encourages a mechanistic conception of the sacred and limits the richness of holy offices. Furthermore, the restriction in meaning of ‘sacrament’ to the seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, penitence, eucharist, marriage, ordination and last unction) is in danger of chauvinism. It excludes the sacramental in spiritual traditions which do not involve Christ.9

There is a risk that the archaic concept of ‘sacrament’—overwritten, as it is, with Christian dogma—is not particularly useful. Perhaps mystery would be a better word. But the great value in the idea of the sacramental (which is not so strongly conveyed by the term mystery) is the ritual expression of spiritual elevation by means of the sensual. The sacraments in all traditions involve the body.10 A gesture is performed of a corporal nature: one is washed or sparged or anointed or given to eat or drink; and the sensory experience in the body is an integral part of the ceremony.

Why the body? Initially, the involvement of the body may seem at variance with the exclusively spiritual aspirations of the religion. Some theologians (like the Jesuit Christian Pesch whose formidable volumes on the sacraments gather Catholic wisdom on the theme from the premodern period) have a bland and mechanistic explanation for the involvement of the corporal in the spiritual. As sin is normally committed through the body, so the spiritual medicine against sin should be taken through the body.11 Pesch finds it appropriate that the supremacy of the spiritual over the carnal should be inverted when it comes to certain rituals of spiritual rectification. In fact, he sees something poetic in the address to the corporal for the failings of the spiritual.

There are two problems with this traditional explanation of the corporality of the sacraments. First, it seems rather limiting to see the sacraments as spiritual medicine. Penitence can easily be seen that way (for it directly relates to a failure of spiritual health) but other sacraments, such as baptism, are not such a good fit.12 Baptism is clearly a rite of initiation, a stamp by which a person is deemed to belong to the cult. Medicines are not prescribed for a sense of belonging. Nor does it seem appropriate to consider the spiritual medicine prophylactic: the rite of initiation, regardless of the agency of the Holy Ghost, is not an inoculation against sin but a sign of entry into the cult. Second, there is no logic in the argument that the body is the appropriate site for correction—if indeed that is all that sacraments are—when all sin is committed in the mind and can only be chastened in the mind. To direct attention to the body (simply because the body is an instrument of sin) is perverse. The traditional explanation for the corporality of the sacraments is far from satisfactory.

But it would be still more unsatisfactory to imagine that the involvement of the body is incidental, or for an effect of sheer spectacle. It seems more apt to see the body as performing a function in the rites, namely to symbolize the access of the institutional to the personal.13 Through contact with a sacramental gesture, the body becomes a kind of metaphoric opening to a person’s innermost privacy. Through the sacrament this most intimate zone is infiltrated by an outside institutional agency. The sacraments stage an encounter between body and institution; the body takes on an institutional influence and the institution enjoys access to the body. It is an exchange in which various messages concerning influence and ownership are induced to flow in the most pervasive measure.

Physicality is not the only element of a sacrament. In all traditions, the workings of the spirit are intangible and abstract. They need to be enacted on a physical level to have any persuasiveness or immediacy; but not every action which is the physical means to a spiritual end is a sacrament. A sacrament has to involve a corporal intervention, because the body represents the preserve of a person’s individuality, which is in some sense given over to the institution in the ceremony. A sacrament is performed with your body, not someone else’s body, because the spiritual end is not general but absolutely concerned with you as an individual; and a part of you, as it were, is resigned in the ritual. In the sacrament, your body is submitted as a symbol of your personal acceptance of the spiritual institution.

Theologians have often argued that the purpose of a sacrament is not to sanctify things but to sanctify people.14 In this, the sacraments distinguish themselves from consecration, the ritual by which ecclesiastical objects are established as holy and suitable for spiritual purposes. This is also physical; a priest performs certain actions while calling upon a superior spirit with appropriate traditional invocations. The spirit is engaged and the object is hallowed. Just as there is no corporal intervention, so there is no specific individual at the end of it who receives a blessing. The ritual is rather more general than a sacrament, pertaining to a scheme of institutional objects which do not directly relate to the sensory and those personal feelings which follow from it.

The centrepiece of the sacraments—sanctifying people—is also what distinguishes sacrament from sacrifice. A sacrifice is for expressing thankfulness or atonement, for making up to God, a form of ingratiation. Its scope is not to sanctify people, as with a sacrament, but to seek absolution by means of proffering a thing of value, a thing or being for which one has affection but which one will nevertheless resign to God as a victim.

The distinction is valuable but somewhat subtle. All the Christian sacraments derive their force from Christ’s sacrifice.15 They sanctify people but by invoking the agency of a sacrifice; they have a directly dependent relationship on a sacrifice and, in the Christian conspectus, they can never escape the haunting shade of the cross. It seems confusing to say that the purposes of sacrament and sacrifice are different when one of them presupposes the other, when one of them assumes all its efficacy from the other and is signally invoked for each rehearsal. It may be true that a sacrament is for sanctifying people while a sacrifice relates primarily to people’s relationship to God; but if a good relationship to God is not a sign of blessedness, what is? The sacrifice is made to God in the belief that God’s wrath will be appeased and consequently the person making the sacrifice—or the people on whose behalf the sacrifice is made—will ascend to a higher level of grace in God’s eyes than before. It is therefore artificial to maintain that the sacrifice cannot confer a certain sanctity on people.

Finally, one of the sacraments, indeed the sacrament par excellence—the eucharist—has traditionally been called a sacrifice as well as a sacrament.16 In holy communion, members of the congregation eat a wafer and drink wine in order to participate in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and thereby receive the grace issuing from it. The death of Christ is figuratively re-staged for each communicator who eats the body and blood of Christ in the form of the consecrated elements of bread and wine.

There is a useful distinction to be made between sacrifice and sacrament, but it lies in a different direction. A sacramental order is an abstraction of a sacrificial order. In a sacrament, you do not perform a sacrifice but appeal to an anterior sacrifice for obtaining the grace which can be drawn from it. A sacrifice has happened long ago; it is remembered in pious references and may even be re-enacted in a symbolic form (as with the eucharist), a ritual of physical gestures which mystically takes part in the sacrifice that it recalls. Of the Christian sacraments, the eucharist is clearly the example which most directly reflects and embodies the original sacrifice.17 But its relation to the original sacrifice, already abstracted by the very process of representation, is further abstracted by its context amid the other sacraments. It is not an autonomous ritual but a celebration which belongs to a sacramental order, in a ceremonial sense analogous to baptism, marriage or ordination, even though, in a structural sense, those other sacraments seem to have nothing to do with the altar. Unlike the eucharist, the other sacraments are far from the bloody terms of sacrifice, even though they conduct the virtues of the sacrifice to the soul of the participant. In confirmation, for instance, the recalling of the crucifixion seems utterly remote, even if it remains the sacrificial backdrop which confers upon the ceremony the ultimate efficacy. In bundling together the rituals of very differing proximity to the altar, the religion draws away from the reality of sacrifice and abstracts its meaning on a more universal plane of signs.18

To enjoy the power of the blood but not the substance, to move from the lamb on the altar to a chain of blessed signifiers, some of which lack even a corpuscle of sacrificial immediacy: these are the workings of the sacramental order. What makes it all religious is the metaphysical faculty for a symbolic object or process to ascend to spiritual virtue. It is no accident that sacrament owes so much to the Greek conception of mystery. There is a mystery in the recalling of the sacrifice—however remote—which does not immediately surface in the original sacrifice. The abstraction becomes the vessel of mystery. A sacramental action is not mysterious because it mechanically mimics an earlier sacrificial event but because it enshrines the spiritual justification of the sacrifice while removing it from the local circumstances in which it took place. The sacrament makes the sacrifice transferable and lifts it onto a supposedly universal plane, stripped of the contingencies of the original event.

In spite of the abstraction which structurally underlies the sacramental order, there is nothing less abstract than a sacrament. The sacrament is staged in a demonstrative fashion. It involves the tangible and sensory intervention of actions in or upon your body. So the sacraments are both abstract and immediate: they happen in a direct contact with your body but their meaning is exalted by virtue of mystically relaying the powers of an earlier sacrifice. This paradoxical dual nature of the sacramental order first creates the motif of a spiritualized corporality which is the fundamental paradigm of art. To appreciate the relevance of the sacramental to the development of self-conscious art in western culture is to trace the genealogy of spirit. For autonomous art stands in the same relation to sacrament as sacrament stands in relation to sacrifice.

Before art became an institution of autonomous visual objects in galleries, there was already a paradigm of a spiritual uplifting through codified physical actions. This paradigm is the mysterious enactment of sacramental rites which are both corporal and abstract, corporal in their means and abstract in their agency. The preconditions of art did not have to be invented by artists. They were already established before artists were invited to contribute to the definition of the sacred and ages before anyone might have considered that art contains something mysterious in its own right.

But paradoxically, art has largely gained its contemporary status on account of being identified with the spiritual. Even people of a materialistic cast of mind—like me, I will admit—allow that art expresses a spirit. Often their idea of the spirit is empirical, as when art is taken as translating the social or intellectual character (or ‘spirit’) of an epoch or group. It may be unnecessary to ascribe to art a spirit of an animating kind, but it is very hard to talk about art without conceding that it involves the clinching of key attitudes which characterize the psyche of a given culture. And to that extent, art lays claim to the transcendental, for it is not merely a material object nor even a confection of codes but a symbol of deeper qualities, often cryptic and fugitive but fundamentally reflecting what is widely understood as a spirit.

To this spiritual charter, art adds the mystique of the aesthetic experience. To behold an art work is not merely to ‘read’ the spirit which is recorded within but to have the spirit impress itself upon you with demonstrative physicality. The visual qualities register on a profoundly sensual level. And so the artwork becomes visionary not just for showing certain key topics of belief in a community but for staging them with credible representational bodies, gestures, spaces and inventions. The work has prestige by a dual commitment of corporality and abstraction. It is esteemed by its success in evoking presence (corporality) and the simultaneous withdrawal from the direct circumstances of the objects portrayed. This paradox accounts for much of the potency of art.

No matter how accurately drawn, a painting is always a painting. It is never the motif which it depicts; it is always at one remove, abstracted from the particular thing which it figures, and lifted to that lofty general status of art, a universal window capable of reflecting all other visible objects. We are so used to art that we often forget what an abstraction it is in itself. When you look at a tree in a picture, even when painted in a naturalistic manner, you do not hear the wind in the leaves; you do not get your feet muddy when approaching it or feel the water shake itself on your shoulders when you stand underneath it. The great realm of sensory interconnectedness in nature and life is artfully undone by centuries of picturing in which only certain salient visual features are isolated for translation and expression on the two-dimensional plane.

Although there are structural parallels between art and sacrament which are by no means coincidental, the two phenomena are very distinct. The purpose of this book is not to argue that art is a de facto sacrament. On the contrary, it seems fair to assume that art as we know it today is by and large secular. But secular vision, as it expresses itself through the prestige of art, is predicated upon a series of underlying sacramental structures which derive from art’s archaic relationship with religious ritual. Some consciousness of this oblique spirituality is commonly assumed but never explained. It belongs to artistic subjectivity to guard its spiritual connotations jealously. For two millennia, art has had a dependent relationship on archaic mysteries and has profited by preserving an uncanny silence in the matter of its peculiar spirituality. This text is an attempt to explain the development of secular art in its continuing dependence on the prestige of the sacramental order which it has historically overtaken.

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This is by no means the first attempt to explore the sacred substrate of secular art. The most famous and influential study is Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This short but seminal text from 1931 describes how photographic reproduction emptied the artwork of its aura, devaluing its air of ‘here and now’ that is the property of authentically unique works.19 For Benjamin, there is a major difference between works that are created uniquely at one time—as once-off products—and those that can be churned out any number of times. The unique works reveal a link between once-offness and permanence or lasting duration (Einmaligkeit und Dauer) just as the editable or photographic works create a link between transitoriness and repeatability (Flüchtigkeit und Wiederholbarkeit).20 For the artwork, this distinction marks the demolition of the aura (die Zertrümmerung der Aura).

For Benjamin, the uniqueness of construction is synonymous with the aura of an artwork. Benjamin does not seem to contemplate that some unique works have no discernable aura, much less that reproduced works are the subject of aesthetic veneration (like the Caprichos of Goya, which are celebrated as much as his paintings). For Benjamin, the interpretation of an artwork may change over time but not the understanding of the aura, which is relatively absolute, because predicated exclusively on whether or not the work is unique. The example of a statue of Venus is given. Among the Greeks, the work was interpreted as divine and a core ingredient of the cult, whereas in the middle ages the same statue is regarded as an abomination. But for all that, the unifying feature for both was its singularity, in other words its aura (ihre Einzigkeit, mit anderem Wort: ihre Aura).21

For our argument, the significant and extraordinary part is not that Benjamin connects the aura with uniqueness but with cultish origins, the contextual integration of art in tradition. He explains that in early times, artworks originated in the service of ritual, first magical and then religious. “It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function.”22 For Benjamin, “This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable as secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of beauty.” However, it is also doomed. “The secular cult of beauty, developed during the Renaissance and prevailing for three centuries, clearly showed this ritualistic basis in its decline and the first deep crisis which befell it.” The crisis is completed by photography.

Benjamin proposed a powerful theory which announces the transformation of the ritual function of art to a secular aesthetic, an economy of appreciation which is independent of belief. Benjamin observed this change shrewdly, but his underlying motive throughout the analysis is to explain how reproductive technologies discredit the aura gained by unique-state artworks. Alas, because of limiting the auratic to the uniquely crafted, the theory reveals a mechanistic understanding of the aura.

Benjamin first identified the discourse and brilliantly gave it a name: the aura. His contribution to this field of aesthetic inquiry is immense. But there is a problem in his analysis, which reaches into the very definition of aura. For Benjamin, as noted, the aura is absolutely connected with once-offness, which in turn is expressed in ritual: “the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value.” But in a footnote, the word aura is defined as the unique appearance of something remote.23 Though enticing and perhaps evocative, this is also a remarkably physical construct of near and far.24 Something remote is unapproachable (Unnahbare) which is the salient feature of the iconic image in the cult (eine Hauptqualität des Kultbildes).25

And so, when Benjamin contemplates the agency of secularization, it is seen in terms of declining once-offness. As the cultishness of the image is secularized, the once-offness is progressively enfeebled. The uniqueness becomes a value enjoyed by collectors who adore authenticity; but this aside, “the function of the concept of the authentic in art appreciation remains unequivocal”; and with “the secularization of art, the authenticity of art replaces the value of the cult”.26

The way that Benjamin sets up the ritualistic basis of art declining into “secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of beauty”27 is problematic. What is this secularized ritual? The cult of beauty existed in religious times—notably Greek antiquity—and corroborates the holy portraiture of divinity. The movement from ritual toward the secular is not explained by Benjamin’s writing; further, it is hard to see how it occurred under the explanation that he offers. Mechanical reproduction indeed progressively overtakes unique works; and this arises in the same period, broadly, as secularization. But there is no historically causal relation between them; if anything, the two phenomena have a common cause in the obvious escalating materialism from the Renaissance to the current epoch.

Benjamin is to art history what Freud is to psychology. He puts the subjective experience on a material plane, dispelling romantic projections and sentiment in favour of dialectical method. And like Freud, Benjamin nevertheless tackles the matter of deepest emotional charge, because at the heart of aesthetic appreciation you might detect the aura in the same way that a person has a soul. For Benjamin the agency of the aura can be traced from a role in religious practice to commercial or political manifestations.28 But the case is confused. On the one hand, ritual is turned into a secular form of the sacred; on the other hand, it loses its aura and is a desacralized form of exhibitable exchange value.

The language that Benjamin invented is sharp and has retained its currency. But the story of what happened to the sacred (and indeed what the sacred agency is) remains inscrutable in his writing. Sometimes, you feel that the opposite point can be made with the same terms. For example: “When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in the cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever.” It seems more plausible to argue that the artwork, having lost its dependency upon holy institutions, has now been liberated and has therefore won its autonomy in aesthetic terms (if not exactly in market terms).

Benjamin left more questions than answers. How much mechanical reproduction interfered with the auratic remains a puzzle and is by no means solved with Benjamin’s assertion. To this, we can add: what parts of the sacred make themselves available to the secular and survive and in what forms? What is the theology of art that Benjamin referred to? The doctrine of art for art’s sake is a new aesthetic theology, he says.29 Is the theology only art for art’s sake? That sounds very unlike the kind of theology that was practiced with such diligence for two millennia in western ecclesiastical and academic tradition. How does art achieve credibility if it lacks an aura? How does the aura survive (pace photography) if there is no cultish basis for the art, which is apparently the precondition of the aura? Secular art is quite prolifically devoted to one-off production, as with painting and drawing. So where do such media manage to get their aura or can they never escape being conceived photographically, once photography was invented? Do they therefore lack an aura entirely and in perpetuity?

Who decides what is an aura, which works have it—on what grounds and in what measures—and which works do not have it? Benjamin’s terms are brilliant but I sometimes fear that they have survived for 75 years partly because they are so vague. They accommodate many interpretations, which writers have found convenient; because the conundrum that he uncovered acquired in his writings the air of critical authority. At one point, Benjamin comes close to explaining the debt to the sacred owed by the secular, when he talks about the parasitic existence of art in relation to ritual; however, the discourse is how technological reproducibility emancipates art from such a parasitic condition.30 It is not really an explanation of how secular art borrows or colonizes or transforms the sacred.

Since Benjamin, many writers have followed with learned studies of the sacred and its rapports with the secular, especially in recent times. Up to a point, these studies concern the larger question of the status of art and what the sacred gives—in some form—to the secular. The literature is rich. Two texts by Hans Belting approach the theme through the idea of image anthropology31 and special reference should also be made to Arthur Danto’s (1997; 2003) works concerning the philosophy of art and art history. Of particular relevance to the later chapters in the present book is James Elkins (2004; 1997), whose study of religion in relation to contemporary art is useful and imaginative; and the studies of David Morgan (2005; 1999) also explore the field with contemporary acuteness. Mark C. Taylor (1992; 1984) has contributed two texts of signal relevance to the connexion between art and religion, and the monumental book by David Freedberg (1989) elucidates many of the processes by which pictures elicit a response which might answer the auratic. But none of these studies solves the riddles left by Benjamin, least of all by plumbing the depths of sacred traditions and comparing their sacramental agency with the calibre of contemporary art. The link between sacrifice, sacrament and art—at least to my knowledge—has never been explored.

It seems a curious time to explore sacrifice as the origin of certain types of aesthetic agency. As we will see, individual artists themselves, like Clinton Nain, have no difficulty invoking the cruel blow of a punishing order in which the individual finds redemptive awareness. But art historians, like theologians, are no longer so sure that they want to go there. Even the religions with the greatest possible historical interest in the matter are not keen to acknowledge or preserve the abstraction of sacrifice as the basis of sacraments. For example, contemporary discussion of the sacraments in a land as Catholic as Brazil reveals an unmistakable shyness in relation to the bloody origins of the key sacrament, holy communion. In an official exegesis of the eucharist for the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, the word ‘sacrifice’ is not used.32 This beautiful Portuguese text by José Ariovaldo da Silva, a Professor of Liturgy at the Franciscan Theological Institute in Petrópolis, explains the historical movement of the eucharist in a way that I find warm in personal terms but coy in terms of cultural history. Da Silva describes how the eucharist in the first millennium is understood primarily as a celebration, recalling Christ’s death and resurrection, to be sure, but bringing to the ingathering the real presence of Christ. Da Silva goes on to show how in the second millennium, the service became intellectually abstracted, remote from the oration, and detached from the real presence of Jesus. During this period, it was also studied, held up as an academic object, a thing, reified, further rending its efficacy in directly affecting the soul. Furthermore, a prevailing individualism dictated the terms of divine contact, displacing the great communitarian devotional sway of the previous millennium. This gave a privilege to learned people who were able to understand the Latin incantations.

In contrast to this, Da Silva says, the Constitution promulgated by the Holy Council of Vatican II restores the mystery of faith which was always installed in the eucharist during the first millennium. It is rescued with the real presence of Christ throughout the celebration; and so the communitarian transportative agency of the rite is also recovered from ancient times. But it is notable that, unlike Da Silva’s exegesis, the Constitution of Vatican II uses the word ‘sacrifice’ to describe the eucharist—just as Franzelin and Pesch had done around 1900—in full acknowledgement of the sanguine origins of the sacrament. Perhaps for reasons of a new decorum, this bloody source is somewhat sanitized. And I feel that it is possibly the same with art. We do not really have a heart to uncover the archaic basis of our most aesthetically pure productions, with their aspirations of beauty, sensitivity and spiritual salvation. But with so much contemporary art obliquely approaching the theme, now is the time to encounter the story behind the history.

*     *     *

The method followed in this book neither adds historical information nor increases the body of knowledge in the archive. The text does not find out new facts about the priesthood, the household or the workshop; it does not discover new contracts or social ties between sacred or secular institutions and artists. In one sense, it retells a story which archaeologists and art historians already know, resting on a history of styles, subject matter and patronage which is the stuff of any good university survey of western art history. What the book identifies within that received history, however, is not well known; indeed, the very ‘commonness’ of knowledge about the standard chronological art history discourages curiosity about the deeper relationships between spirit and art which have been fostered within it. In seeking the shape and substance of the changing relationship between art and spirit, this text does not run to the esoteric borders of knowledge but confronts the traditional mainstream art history in order to uncover its spiritual assumptions.

While restaging a more or less canonical art history, interspersed with evidence of the contemporary urgency of the themes, this text examines the spiritual implications of cultural and artistic progress. There would be numerous other ways of telling the history of art, emphasizing many of the ideologies, social themes and practices, particularly dwelling on the people and objects excluded by the canonical history of western progress. Just as there were political reasons for establishing the canon, so there are political reasons for challenging it and presenting alternative material. This book, however, is not intended to replace the canon nor even to propose historical or geographical areas in which the canon is deficient. It is not revisionist in its art-historical subject matter but radical in its interpretation of the spiritual calibre of art in the western canon.

In places, the text presents unorthodox links between the cultural and the technical, perhaps modestly increasing the scope of the standard art-historical narrative. An example might be the interpretation of the changing conventions for framing pictures in the Renaissance, or the linking the technique of transparent glazes in baroque oil painting with metaphors in contemporaneous poetry; in other periods, the relations between art and media or popular culture may even contest the dominant paradigms of art history. The purpose of such discussions is not to contribute a novel slant for its own sake but to chase a single insight through material that we already know all too well.

The single theme is the re-spiritualizing of art, the induction of sacramental status upon art in the very process of art becoming secular. The information already lies to hand: it calls only for a candid expression. This book proceeds from a feeling that there are obvious things which need to be said about art and spirituality which, for understandable reasons, have either been unrecognized or suppressed. To understand the spiritual dynamic of secular art it is necessary to acknowledge a number of features of artistic production and appreciation which are unflattering and even distasteful from either a spiritual or artistic point of view. First, while art is initially heavily patronized by religious institutions, it historically pulls away from them. Second, art is highly dependent on the spiritual privileges of institutional faith which, in some sense, it forsakes. Hence there is a kind of inbuilt duplicity in secular art, a kind of pretension in arrogating spiritual status to itself while disavowing the premises which, to a large extent, it relies upon for its prestige. In many ways, therefore, this is a story which suits no one. It is melancholy for the pious and confronting for the unreligious.

Art is a reluctant servant of religion, anxious and ambitious for its freedom. When it wins a degree of autonomy, however, it craves spiritual power. Every step that it takes toward spiritual autonomy marks a further stage in the abstraction of religious principles. Art is therefore never entirely secular. Its secularity is asymptotic, for the conservative nature of its prestige is structural. Art finally disappoints most radical sentiments and even its most adventurous manifestations menace the hope for a materialist intellectual autonomy which is free of spiritual conceits. Art is the bitterest pill for the radical avant garde which enthusiastically cultivated new visual languages since the nineteenth century and contributed the striking formal redefinition by which art is often understood to have reached the pinnacle of intellectual independence.

Art historians, by and large, have not shown themselves to be eager to explore these home truths. But the evidence is in almost every history of western art from the first chapters. Let us reread the basic story-line with a special curiosity for the spiritual afterlife of secular art.


1     The Latin term (normally given as the plural praestigiae) meant trickery and juggling, deceptions, legerdemain; its origins refer to the physical or technical motifs of tying, grabbing, holding, drawing together (stringo). These motifs have nothing to do with the phonologically similar concepts of pre-eminence or superiority (praestantia) or the verb for surpassing (praesto) which, coincidentally, the term prestige relates to today.

2     However, the sacraments were not extensively theorized by theologians until the period of early modernism. Although central to dogma, they seem to have resisted systematic explanation and to have remained with the contemporary understanding of mystery. Sacraments have been practiced continuously but they exist more on a practical level (almost corporal) than a theoretical level. As the Jesuit theologian Christian Pesch has noted: “Ex hac enim disciplina arcani intellegitur, cur Patres de sacramentis satis parce loquantur, et ubi loquuntur, non raro verbis obscurioribus utantur; cur integros tractatus de sacramentis non ediderint, sed res singulas, in quantum necessarium erat, explanaverint.” [“From this learning, the arcane reasons can be understood for why the Fathers spoke little enough about the sacraments, and where they do speak, they use obscure words, why they did not publish an entire or comprehensive tract but only explained individual things in so far as it was necessary.”] See Pesch (1908, 1:37). This convenient text in two volumes, published in the year of Georges Braque’s Grand nu, faithfully gathers the wisdom of scores of Catholic authors and serves as a summary of the sacramental tradition to the date of its publication. For this reason, I have drawn upon the authoritative and well-argued account in developing the view of sacraments for comparison to the agency of art.

3     Army Brats, Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne, November 2006 – January 2007.

4     Clinton Nain, ‘a e i o u’, nellie castan gallery, 12 River St, South Yarra, until May – June 2006; some of the paragraphs here are grafted from my review “Agonized voice of scream and howl” in The Age (Nelson 2006).

5     Though we sometimes spontaneously use the word ‘magic’ in art appreciation, the term is quaint and familiar—rather like ‘fabulous’, which is abstracted from the fabled—and is slightly foreign to the institutional promotion of artefacts that I seek to explain. It is perhaps telling that as an oriental word, the term is not indigenous to Hellenic tradition. In Greek, magic is a loan word, which somehow lacks authority. It is sometimes qualified with its origins, as in Plato’s phrase “the magic of Zoroaster”: Alcibiades 1.122a. Already in antiquity, the concept has enough currency to enjoy an adjectival form as given in Plato Politicus 280e, and to function as a verb as in Euripides Iphigenia on Tauris 1338. The personal noun is much associated with the Persian tribe, the Magians, as in Herodotus The Histories 1.101 or 7.37; but the associations readily shade into vulgarity, with meanings of ‘charlatan’ or ‘impostor’, as in Sophocles Oedipus the King 387, or Euripides Orestes 1498. Of course, the personal noun was redeemed by Christian tradition in the magi or wise men from the East. In nearly all of these senses, magic is diametrically opposed to ‘mystery’, which preserved impeccable hallowed status until the term ‘mystification’ was coined in the modern age.

6     It is difficult to find an instance of the word in Greek which is not solemn and religiously grave. The word is used most often in the plural and carries an awesome onus of secrecy in ritual. The mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis were especially famous and revered in antiquity. See the word in the tragedians Aeschylus Fragments 479; Sophocles Fragments 804; Euripides Suppliants 173, and the comic playwright Aristophanes Frogs 887. The mysteries are in a sense abstracted by literary means on the tragic stage, as Chapter 2 of the present study examines.

7     Parallels between sacramental systems were noted in antiquity and were not viewed with inclusive spirit in patrological literature, even though the religion was grafted into Graeco-Roman culture along syncretic lines. Rather, affinities with heathen religion were viewed with horror by the Church Fathers, such as Tertullian: “Diabolus ipsas res sacramentorum divinorum in idolorum mysteriis aemulatur”. [“The devil mimics these very things of the holy sacraments in the mysteries of the idols”.] See Praescript 40 in Patrologiae Cursus Completus (Migne 1844–64, 2.51). It is notable in this sentence that the connotations of mysterium and sacramentum are different. The Greek term trades in the pagan but the Latin does not. Tertullian would never have substituted the two words in the sentence. Meanwhile, scholars at the end of the nineteenth century became more systematic in comparative studies of religion and implicitly noted the affinities between diverse sacramental traditions of the Mediterranean. This was in keeping with the glamour of the learned mystical cults of Florentine Humanism: see Wind (1980). See also Anrich (1894); Cumont (1902); Dieterich (1903); Hepding (1903); and Koch (1900). A certain anxiety resulted on the part of some Christian theologians, who sought to deny the parallels on doctrinal grounds, suggesting that parallels were in name only. Thus: “Nam sacramenta christianorum sunt ritus quidam sacri, quibus homo cum Christo, persona illa historica, de cuius vita, morte, resurrectione evangelia referunt, spiritualiter coniungitur eiusque meritorum et satisfactionum particeps fit. Nihil tale vel simile in mysteriis genitilium. Unde etsi nomina saepe sunt similia similesque ritus, res tamen his nominibus significata et his ritibus repraesentata toto caelo est diversa.” [“Because the sacraments of Christians are a kind of sacred rite, in which a person is spiritually conjoined with Christ—that historical person to whose life, death and resurrection the Gospels refer—and becomes a participant in his worth and fulfilment. There is nothing similar in the mysteries of the gentiles. Thus, even if the names are often similar and by similar rites, the thing signified by the words and represented by those rites is poles apart”.] See Pesch (1908, 1:3).

8     Christian tradition separates the two concepts of ‘sacrament’ and ‘sacramental’, the former referring to the canonical ritual and the latter to the spiritual quality that arises in pious but uncodified gestures. Thus the washing of feet (archetypically by the Magdalen) is sacramental but not a sacrament. Christian Pesch refers to the judgement of St Bernard that it is a sacred sign but only sacramental in a general sense: “Itaque lotio pedum erat Bernardo sacramentum, quia, ut ipse explicat, est sacrum signum, sive sacrum secretum, seu sacramentum latiore sensu vel sacramentale” [“Thus the washing of feet was a sacrament for Bernard, because, as he explains himself, it is a sacred sign or a sacred secret or a sacrament in the broader sense, or the sacramental”] Pesch (1908, 1:39).

9     Even Jewish sacraments are considered by Pesch in a somewhat begrudging spirit to be true sacraments, being aligned with legalistic reasoning. They may be denied sanctifying agency: “Imprimis igitur certum est sacramenta veteris legis non contulisse gratiam sanctificantem.” [“First it is certain that the sacraments of the old law do not bring with them sanctifying grace.”] As a lower-order religious institution, they appear somewhat limited to ‘dirty work’: “sacramenta veteris legis conferebant sanctificationem legalem seu ‘sanctificabant ad munditiam carnis’, ut loquitur apostolus … Ergo quia rationem sacramentorum ex iis diiudicare convenit … dicendum est sacramenta omnia aliquem sanctificationem conferre, legalem quidem, si ad ordinem legis mosaicae … pertineant.” [“the sacraments of the old law confer a legal sanctification or ‘they sanctify toward the cleansing of the flesh’, as the Apostle says… And so because the reason for the sacraments can be judged by such… it is necessary to say that all sacraments confer some legal sanctification, if they belong to the order of Mosaic law.”] See Pesch (1908, 1:8). Through the Council of Trent, the distinction between Jewish and Christian traditions pertaining to ‘sacrament’ was dogmatically affirmed: “s.q.d. novae legis sacramenta a sacramentis antiquae legis non differre … A.S.” [“If someone says that the sacraments of the new law do not differ from those of the old law, it is anathema.”] See Denziger (1932, 727).

10    Attempts to abstract the sacraments away from the body toward greater spiritual purity were long resisted by orthodoxy. Thus “Lutherus … docet sacramenta non aliud esse nisi signa mere theoretica, quae ut efficiant quae significant, sola fide suscipientium fieri.” [“Luther teaches that the sacraments are nothing other than a merely theoretical sign which, to render what they signify, only works on the faith of the participant.”] See Pesch (1908, 1:46).

11    “Quia homo corporalibus maxime allicitur ad peccatum, per corporalia quoque medicinam spiritualem applicari convenit” [“because man is most of all drawn to sin through the bodily things, it is also appropriate to apply spiritual medicine through bodily things”] Pesch (1908, 1:1). This brings to mind Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae 3.61.a1.): “sic igitur per sacramentorum institutionem homo convenienter suae naturae eruditur per sensibilia, humilatur se corporalibus subiectum cognoscens, dum sibi per corporalia subvenitur; raeservatur etiam a noxiis actionibus per salubria exercitia sacramentorum.” [“thus it occurs that by the institution of the sacraments, man can conveniently be improved in his nature through the senses, be humbled in recognizing how he is subject to things of the body when he is seduced by things of the body; for he is insulated from evil actions by the healing exercise of the sacraments.”]

12    There are many ways to categorize sacraments, according to whether or not they are repeated for an individual and whether they are related to a stage of life. See Pesch (1908, 1:44), the section titled “de sacramentis vivorum et mortuorum”. Baptism does seem clearly a sacrament of character, that is, “signum spirituale animae indelebiliter impressum, quod maneat, etiamsi gratia et fides amittantur” [“a spiritual sign indelibly stamped on the soul, which remains and even brings grace and faith”]. And further: “Hac qualitate homo configuratur Christo. Sancti enim Patres characterem describunt ut ‘affinitatem ad Christum’, ut ‘sigillum, quo ab angelis cognoscamur pertinentes ad familiam’ Christi, ut ‘conformitatem ad Christum’, Dominum nostrum” [“In this quality, the human approaches Christ. Because the Holy Fathers described the character (or stamp) as ‘an affinity with Christ’, as ‘a seal, by which we are recognized by the angels as belonging to the family’ of Christ, as ‘conformity with Christ’, our Lord” ] (Pesch (1908, 1:79–81).

13    Even in canonical interpretation of the sacraments, a peculiar sympathy was imagined to exist between the communicator’s body and the body of Christ, which is the fons et origo of the prestige of the body in Christian cosmology. This enjoys maximum force in holy communion. See Franzelin (1899, 304): “haec tamen mystica unitas carnis nostrae cum carne Christi suam pleniorem consummationem et velut sacramentalem consecrationem accipit per coniunctionem glorificati corporis et sanguinis eius cum ipsis corporibus nostris, in qua coniunctione celebrantur nuptiae Agni cum sponsa sua Ecclesia adhuc peregrinante in membris singulis, quae iucundiores et plenioris unitionis solum celebrabuntur in patria … Sic igitur ex sacramentali coniunctione oritur peculiaris illa affinitas, qua Christus sponsus considerat carnem digne manducantium carnem eius et bibentium sanguinem eius speciali titulo ut carnem suam. Et propterea conformat carnem nostram carni suae incorruptibili ac glorificatae.” [“this mystical union of our flesh with the flesh of Christ receives its fullest consummation, and indeed a sacramental consecration, by the conjunction of His glorified body and blood with our own bodies, in which conjunction the wedding is celebrated between the Lamb and his spouse the Church, till then wandering in its separate parts, which are more happily celebrated in a fuller union only in Heaven. Thus it occurs that from the sacramental marriage, that peculiar affinity arises by which Christ the husband considered eating the flesh worthy of his flesh and drinking his blood the special quality of his flesh. And for that reason, our flesh conforms to his incorruptible and glorified flesh.”]

14    Thus: “non quamlibet rem sacram sed principaliter sanctificationem hominis significant, idque non theoretice sed practice seu efficienter.” [“It does not signify some kind of sacred thing but principally the sanctification of people, thus not theoretically but in practice and toward an effect.”] See Pesch (1908, 1:5).

15    As noted in Pesch (1908, 1:3): “Nam sacramenta christianorum sunt ritus quidam sacri, quibus homo cum Christo, persona illa historica, de cuius vita, morte, resurrectione evangelia referunt, spiritualiter coniungitur eiusque meritorum et satisfactionum particeps fit.” [“Because the sacraments of Christians are a kind of sacred rite, in which a person is spiritually conjoined with Christ, that historical person to whose life, death and resurrection the Gospels refer, and becomes a participant in his worth and fulfilment.”] Christ is considered the author of the sacraments: “Christus est auctor sacramentorum, quatenus passione sua virtutem eorum meruit” [“Christ is the author of the sacraments, in that he granted their virtue by his passion”] (Pesch (1908, 1:86).

16    See Pesch (1908, 1:250: “itaque sanctissima eucharistia consideranda est ut sacramentum et ut sacrificium.” Note as well the section “De sacrificio, speciatim de sacrificio eucharistiae” [“Thus the holy eucharist is to be considered as both a sacrament and a sacrifice”], in Franzelin (1899, 307 ff).

17    Hence the incomparable prestige of the eucharist in the Catholic faith, as the principal sacrament. See Pesch (1908, 33: “quia autem septem sacramenta non sunt omnia inter se paria … Ita interna dignitate omnibus praestat eucharistia, ad quam propterea alia sacramenta tamquam radii ad solem referri possunt. Paenitentia vero sub hoc respectu est infimum sacramentum.” [“the seven sacraments are not all equal among themselves… because for its internal dignity the eucharist rises above all the others; and for that reason, all the other sacraments refer to it as do the rays to the sun. Penitence in this respect is the least of the sacraments.”] The centrality of holy communion is revealed in the phrases by which it implicitly comprehends the other sacraments on account of its substantiality (read corporeality): “Immo non raro vocatur simplicter sacramentum per excellentiam, quia omnium sacramentorum est excellentissimum; est enim sacramentum quia signum gratiae, est excellentior omnibus sacramentis, quia est ipsa gratia substantialis” [“So quite frequently it is called the sacrament par excellence, as it is among all sacraments the most excellent; as a sign of grace it is a sacrament excelling the others, because it is substantial grace”] (Pesch (1908, 1:251).

18    Sacraments are always referred to in semiotic terms, even in the most generous definitions; “Praeterea sacramentum dicitur signum alicuius rei sacrae et latentis” [“a sacrament is said to be a sign of some sacred or latent thing”]. See Pesch (1908, 1:5). Perhaps here Pesch is echoing Augustine (Epistulae 138.7.): “signa, cum ad res divinas pertinent, sacramenta appellantur” [“signs which belong to divine things are called sacraments”].

19    “Die Umstände, in die das Produkt der technischen Reproduktion des Kunstwerks gebracht werden kann, mögen im übrigen den Bestand des Kunstwerks unangetastet lassen—sie entwerten auf alle Fälle sein Hier und Jetzt” (Benjamin 1931, ch. II: 13). A good analysis of the implications of Benjamin’s ideas in the Australian context can be seen in Butler (2002, 501–518).

20    “Und unverkennbar unterscheidet sich die Reproduktion, wie illustrierte Zeitung und Wochenschau sie in Bereitschaft halten, vom Bilde. Einmaligkeit und Dauer sind in diesem so eng verschränkt wie Flüchtigkeit und Wiederholbarkeit in jener. Die Entschälung des Gegenstandes aus seiner Hülle, die Zertrümmerung der Aura, ist die Signatur einer Wahrnehmung, deren »Sinn für das Gleichartige in der Welt« so gewachsen ist, daß sie es mittels der Reproduktion auch dem Einmaligen abgewinnt” (Benjamin 1931, ch. III: 15).

21    “Die Einzigkeit des Kunstwerks ist identisch mit seinem Eingebettetsein in den Zusammenhang der Tradition. Diese Tradition selber ist freilich etwas durchaus Lebendiges, etwas außerordentlich Wandelbares. Eine antike Venusstatue zum Beispiel stand in einem anderen Traditionszusammenhange bei den Griechen, die sie zum Gegenstand des Kultus machten, als bei den mittelalterlichen Klerikern, die einen unheilvollen Abgottin ihr erblickten. Was aber beiden in gleicher Weise entgegentrat, war ihre Einzigkeit, mit anderem Wort: ihre Aura” (Benjamin 1931, ch. IV: 16).

22    “Die ursprüngliche Art der Einbettung des Kunstwerks in den Traditionszusammenhang fand ihren Ausdruck im Kult. Die ältesten Kunstwerke sind, wie wir wissen, im Dienst eines Rituals entstanden, zuersteines magischen, dann eines religiösen. Es ist nun von entscheidender Bedeutung, daß diese auratische Daseinsweise des Kunstwerks niemals durchaus von seiner Ritualfunktion sich löst” (Benjamin 1931, ch. IV: 16).

23    “Die Definition der Aura als »einmalige Erscheinung einer Ferne, so nah sie sein mag«…” (Benjamin 1931, ch. IV: 16, footnote 7).

24    “stellt nichts anderes dar als die Formulierung des Kultwertes des Kunstwerks in Kategorien der raumzeitlichen Wahrnehmung” (Benjamin 1931, ch. IV: 16).

25    “Ferne ist das Gegenteil von Nähe. Das wesentlich Ferne ist das Unnahbare. In der Tat ist Unnahbarkeit eine Hauptqualität des Kultbildes. Es bleibt seiner Natur nach »Ferne, so nah es sein mag«. Die Nähe, die man seiner Materie abzugewinnen vermag, tut der Ferne nicht Abbruch, die es nach seiner Erscheinung bewahrt” (Benjamin 1931, ch. IV: 16.

26    “Unbeschadet dessen bleibt die Funktion des Begriffes des Authentischen in der Kunstbetrachtung eindeutig, mit der Säkularisierung der Kunst tritt die Authentizität an die Stelle des Kultwertes” (Benjamin 1931, ch. IV: 16, footnote 8).

27    “Der einzigartige Wert des »echten« Kunstwerks hat seine Fundierung im Ritual, in dem es seinen originären und ersten Gebrauchswert hatte. Diese mag so vermittelt sein sie will, sie ist auch noch in den profansten Formen des Schönheitsdienstes als säkularisiertes Ritual erkennbar” (Benjamin 1931, ch. IV: 16–17).

28    “Von der photographischen Platte zum Beispiel ist eine Vielheit von Abzügen möglich; die Frage nach dem echten Abzug hat keinen Sinn. In dem Augenblick aber, da der Maßstab der Echtheit an der Kunstproduktion versagt, hat sich auch die gesamte Funktion der Kunst umgewälzt. An die Stelle ihrer Fundierung aufs Ritual tritt ihre Fundierung auf eine andere Praxis: nämlich ihre Fundierung auf Politik” (Benjamin 1931, ch. IV: 18.

29    “Der profane Schönheitsdienst, der sich mit der Renaissance herausbildet, um für drei Jahrhunderte in Geltung zu bleiben, läßt nach Ablauf dieser Frist bei der ersten schweren Erschütterung, von der er betroffen wurde, jene Fundamente deutlicher kennen. Als nämlich mit dem Aufkommen des ersten wirklich revolutionären Reproduktionsmittels, der Photographie (gleichzeitig mit dem Anbruch des Sozialismus), die Kunst das Nahen der Krise spürte, dienach weiteren hundert Jahren unverkennbar geworden ist, reagierte sie mit der Lehre vom l’art pour l’art, die eine Theologie der Kunst ist. Aus ihr ist dann weiterhin geradezu eine negative Theologie in Gestalt der Idee einer »reinen« Kunst hervorgegangen, die nicht nur jede soziale Funktion, sondern auch jede Bestimmung durch einen gegenständlichen Vorwurf ablehnt” (Benjamin 1931, ch. IV: 17).

30    “die technische Reproduzierbarkeit des Kunstwerkes emanzipiert dieses zum erstenmal in der Weltgeschichte von seinem parasitären Dasein am Ritual” (Benjamin 1931, ch. IV: 17).

31    Art History After Modernism (Belting 2003) and, with special reference to Chapter 2 in the present study, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art (Belting 1994). See also Belting 1987.

32    “A Reforma ‘Eucarística’ do Concílio Vaticano II Vista dentro do contexto histórico geral da liturgia”, documents of CNBB, Conferência nacional dos bisbos do Brasil, 02AREFORMA_EUCARISTICA.doc.


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Cite this chapter as: Nelson, Robert. 2007. ‘Secular sacraments and the prestige of art’. The Spirit of Secular Art: A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Values. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 1.11.20.

The Spirit of Secular Art

   by Robert Nelson