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The Spirit of Secular Art

Chapter 2

Mortal theatre

Robert Nelson

In contemporary performative art, which is often presented as video or DVD, rituals of death and sacrifice are not unusual.1 An example is the Australian artist Catherine Bell, whose works reckon with loss and killing in dubiously redemptive ways. In one of her works, the artist gathers snow on a Parisian rooftop. She packs this around her belly with a fond and tender action. As this is completed to form a mound in the shape of a pregnant woman’s tummy, the bundle is brought inside. We next witness the artist taking herself into the basement of the building and slowly and painfully dissolving the icy lump. This is not just an allegory of a termination or an aborted love-affair that takes the still-fecund artist perilously closer to looming infertility: it is a sacramental evocation of another tragic event (or nameless scores of fatalities in utero) in order to overcome their sadness.

Heavily concerned with ritual, Bell explores in other works the connections between the redundancy of contemporary western ritual and social aberrations such as infanticide.2 This relationship has been reinforced by anthropological study outlining an empirical link between social crisis in tribal communities and the performance of cathartic rituals to alleviate tension and offer psychological relief. As in ancient times, her work is about emotions in a cathartic dynamic.

The obsessive collection of newspaper articles that outline the heinous crimes involving women and children, in most cases their own children, luridly draws attention to some primal urge to kill one’s child that Freud adumbrated in his psychoanalytical interpretation of the legendary Oedipal story. Bell juxtaposes two groups of women: mothers who under desperate circumstances kill their children and another group of women desperate to have children who perform bizarre and unexplainable acts, sometimes violent, neurotic or—drawing upon the professional vocabulary that historically stigmatizes the womb—hysterical. In spite of its erotic overtones, her work Making a baby explores, through monthly ritual, certain morbid feelings during pregnancy. She bakes a cake in the shape of a baby and invites public interaction to cut and devour. The cake tins were designed for baking celebration-cakes for Christening and baby showers that have a perverse destiny of being destroyed and consumed.

In her Special delivery, Bell bakes and ices a baby cake every day for the duration of the exhibition. The remains of the baby are placed on perspex shelves, covered by lace food canopies attached to the wall at stomach height to suggest a line-up of pregnant bellies. This domed shaped device, used to keep flies and other pests away from the food has forensic implications in this context. It not only protects the identity of the mangled remains but metaphorically expresses the melancholy state of phantom pregnancy and miscarriage. These tragic outcomes of foetal loss have been known to trigger the crimes that Bell has uncovered in her research. The cake project introduces text written in icing. Subverting the function of the space left bare to print the usual merry sentiments or infant’s name, this cake collects disturbing headlines and criminal details. The viewer is enticed to cut and eat the cake but may be repulsed by the narrative. Those participating are reminded of their stomachs (the wrong tract) and, as if by a perverse sacramental induction, re-enact the crime. The remains of the day are placed under their lace-covered shrine. The sugary text is salvaged as epitaph and clue. Nine cakes were baked in total and nine shelves positioned in waiting to encrypt their mutilated offerings under the protruding lacy bulges.

Death itself, let alone the morbid thoughts that seem to invoke death in miniature, becomes strangely proprietorial in ritual. Rituals enable us to own death, even when we seek most vehemently to disown it, to distance ourselves from its inevitable triumph and dominion. What strikes us as morbid has a paradoxical allure, because the miniaturizing of death in the morbid fantasy enables a degree of tenure in the face of mortality. There are ancient, dare I say archetypical, motifs in this. They are traceable to the font of western reason, where grim frameworks and obscure spiritual practices lurk among the sparkling temples of dialectic.

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Two thousand years of poetic nostalgia for antiquity have distanced us from the spiritual basis of Greek art and design. In their origins, the art and architecture of that skeptical and sophisticated people were liturgical. They were steeped in solemn rituals involving all the elements of religion that ever compelled belief. These comprise worship of both an inspired and a formulaic kind: the demonstration of goodwill to the gods by means of incantation and reverent offering, banquets and intoxicated music and dance, the appeasing of deities through sacrifice, heroic enactments of tragic episodes which communicate the potency of divinity and the pathos of mortal supplication, the evocation of a higher order beyond mortal taint, an immaculate condition of heavenly euphoria which is only enjoyed by the blessed, and from which mortals are alienated through inherent baseness.

It is not poetic nostalgia alone that clouds our view of the deeper religious character of Greek art and design: it is the Greeks themselves in their apparent devotion to reason. Greek design, for example, seems to enshrine the discipline of dialectic, arguing the place of each member with a weighty sense of importance and majesty. In its almost obsessive articulation of parts, Greek architecture is intellectual, chaste and abstract. Like Greek design, Greek art from the archaic to late-classical periods is defined by symmetries and balance, a sense of order which is impervious to emotional transport. Greek art and design are free of capricious inventions or irrational fancies. The temples and statues are removed from the domain of passion and contention, even if they figure warfare; they are beyond the emotional contingencies of personality or private inflexion, either in their making or their subject matter. Stylistically and iconographically they carry no signs of furious or prophetic artistic genius. Particularly in architecture, the physical members are structured with a rigid ethos of division of parts which perfectly parallels—in a synthetic plastic medium—the habit of analysis with which the philosophical mind orders all phenomena in the great matrix of scientific intelligence.

Logic, restraint and intellectual deliberateness are striking in any Greek temple. The architecture is systematic and rigorous. Each part has a kind of inevitable multiplicity about it which consistently reinforces the presence of the whole. A column typically not only has three parts (capital, shaft and base) but each of those three parts can be further divided into separate parts. The whole thing is riddled with definition. The same can be said of all members in classical architecture and the ornament which attends them with expressive accents. The entablature with its several courses and registers, the articulation of triglyphs and metopes and so on all speak of the argumentative rigor of an intellectual system. Never was architecture so ‘straight’ in its conformity with an intellectual canon. The canon expresses the argument of stresses and support which belong to engineering. There is never a horizontal which has the character of a vertical or vice versa: each action has its proper figurative sign. It would not be hard to interpret Greek architecture as an allegory of logic, a triumph of reason over the spiritual.

The same can be said of Greek ceramics, with their emphatic distinctions of foot, belly, shoulder, neck and lip, their regular horizontal articulation by means of borders, the dedication of the flattest parts to figuration and narrative, appropriately consigning the denser and more abstract repetitive patterns to the tighter spaces in which the curvature changes sense from positive to negative. Like the architecture, the ceramics have both a complexity of forms, a disciplined tightness in their placement. Like the architecture, their unity of shape is an allegory of control: the well-separated parts contribute to an overall shape of solemn circumscription and elegance. The combination of complicated parts and forceful whole not only argues for a sense of co-ordination but endows the object with an imperiously serene presence.

Reason, analysis, logic, control and order. Even the corporeal element of Greek sculpture seems to demonstrate the priority of the intellectual over the spiritual. From the archaic to the classical period, Greek sculptors moved from severe blocky standing figures, with weight carried equally by both legs in static poses and with schematized knees, chest, mouth, hair and so on, to figures of naturalistic rendering, with weight distributed through spine and legs according to a specific muscular action. The success of this naturalism depended on drawing skills, that art of working out ‘what is there’ when you observe the knee (say), how the parts not only have a separate identity but in what way they connect to one another in an organic whole. The skill of perceptual drawing that underwrites the accuracy and poetic poise of Greek sculpture is intensely intellectual: it is about recognition of individual elements in a larger whole; it is the appreciation of the proportions between these elements, their neighbours and the whole. As in contemporary science, these constructs proceed from analysis and trial; they involve the comparison of a conjecture and a reality and ultimately propose something which is falisifiable by critical examination.3

If we were so disposed, it would be easy to interpret the whole of Greek art and design by such intellectual preoccupations. As the abstraction of Greek language testifies from an early date, the penetration of logical thought was undoubtedly present at all levels of Greek consciousness, and probably nothing in Greek art and design was ever achieved without philosophical and technical rigor. But this is surely not the total story. Greek art may be all these things; but it is more than that. In particular, as you approach the whole motivation of Greek art and culture, headier forces dominate.

In addition to being impressively intellectual, Greek art is also compellingly erotic. Throughout Greek art, bodies are sensual, captured in a kind of lusty potential even when still. Greek sculpture and vase painting reveal adoration for the flesh, the love of flexing thighs, curving flanks, the shape of a breast beneath a chiton or male genitalia peeping out from under a skirt. And of course, total nudity is common for the heroic presentation of men from archaic times, reaching to women in the later classical epoch. The celebration of the carnal causes the most beautiful technical refinements. In order to show just how gorgeously the shoulder-blade is articulated, the sculptor’s modelling registers all the movements from bone to muscle, relishing all the tender spots and their organic relation with the skin. Though often possessing a kind of expressive austerity—especially in the impassive faces—the naturalism of classical Greek sculpture is ravishing in its subtle devotion to each inflexion in the flesh.4

Greek vase painting testifies to the openness of artists to represent overtly sexual practices, from courtship to love-making. These representations are not merely signs for the sexual act—like naughty graffiti—but are nicely developed line drawings, showing elegant bodies and draperies with a certain sensual conviction. They have a lyrical appeal, an artistic element that unites the erotic scenes with ornamental borders and the occasional piece of furniture. Stylistically, the vases are restrained and disciplined, for they follow an ethos of limited means, employing relatively simple frieze-like compositions without perspectival or tonal depth. But within those clear and tasteful parameters, the imagery argues psychological transport. It is not uncommon to find music and dancing on the vases, dynamic rhythms of bodies with heads flung back to the enchanted tones of the kythera. Not infrequently, the chaste styles of Greek vase painting belie a kind of emotional fury (mania) in which the reveller or comast experiences those conditions for which our words are still tellingly Greek, euphoria and ecstasy.

It is natural that these dimensions of Greek art and culture should be interpreted as hedonistic and without a convincing spiritual charter. Where the Greeks are not intellectual, they are lustful, abandoning themselves to the orgies of carnal delight. This view is strongly reinforced by the superficial reading of Greek mythology, according to which the gods were motivated by little which is edifying. The gods are prolific fornicators who, when not spending their energies in the irresponsible abuse of mortals, consume their libido in spiteful machinations against one another, usually also involving the unscrupulous manipulation of humans. The promiscuous gods of Olympus are so far from a spiritual condition that they connive pettily and seek adulterous unions with hapless victims whom they have no intention of ever rescuing when the momentary privileges of divine intercourse are exhausted. The gods seem ethically debased, competitive, vengeful and sly.

Critics of Greek culture would readily agree that there is a mythological basis to Greek art, but they would faintly begrudge this backdrop the title of religious piety. The Greeks undoubtedly inherited a consciousness richly informed by traditional stories; their artistic vision was therefore suffused with narratives of a coherent and authoritative kind, from which artists would draw and seldom depart.5 And certainly, the Greeks cannot be stripped of the religion proper to them, for the institutionality of their beliefs was made manifest in the patronage of the temples. These were enormous and expensive, indeed by today’s standards they were fabulously extravagant given the relatively scanty population of the Greek peninsula, the islands and the colonies.

While there is a meaningful distinction to be made between myth and religion, it is technical. Myth is an inherited body of stories which have authority but no author; religion is the organized context for having a rapport with the divine.6 No definition of religion could exclude Greek spiritual practice, nor could Greek religion be denied the quality of piety. Sure, the gods were hedonistic and possessed of unfettered erotic impulses; but their flagrant randiness is an expression of their potency. Some of the female gods are without sexual appetite (such as Artemis or Athena) but, as befits the patriarchal order of Greek culture, the female deities are inferior to their male counterparts and their lack of sexual inclination matches their lesser authority and slighter prowess in all other respects.

For the Greeks, the free expression of libidinous energy equated with perfection. A god is not a lesser being for exercising this faculty but demonstrates the ability freely to enjoy pleasure. The gods experience bliss in its most complete forms; their perpetual access to orgasmic delight is far from shameless but a sign of their supremacy. Thus the gods are unabashedly sensual; their consumption of food and drink in the proverbial nectar and ambrosia is another dimension of divine privilege under a superintending order of destiny. The gods have all enviable attributes—including immortality—and all imaginable pleasures belong to them in an almost archetypical way.

The revelry with which the Greeks worshipped the gods proceeds from these assumptions. What may seem an unholy carousal to puritanical eyes is the logical expression of a sharing in the god whose divinity is steeped in voluptuous transport. The means of approaching a deity in ancient Greece were not limited to prayer (for, depending on the epoch, prayer was possibly confined to invocations of a rhetorical temper) but more compulsively involved rituals pertaining to the physical and psychological character of the god. Worship as a kind of standardized beseeching is not much in evidence, though there is a rich iconographic tradition of votive offerings and, especially in early times, there were definitely acts of sacrifice which were held to propitiate an enterprise. The participation in feasts, music and inspired dances—though apparently merely hedonistic—delivered the comast from the incumbencies of daily life and brought him or her to a sacred and sublime state, a being-in-the-god (enthousiasmos) which gives us our word enthusiasm. Though seized only momentarily in the rapture of harmonious sounds and dance with head flung backward, the condition of euphoria allowed ravishing contact with the life which the god leads in perpetuity. The dancing seen in Greek vase painting testifies to a corporal ritual of definite spiritual significance. Through the mania of dance and musical incantation, one could reach a sensual rapport with a god.

Greek sculpture contains a dual aspiration which embodies this transport. From the classical period, almost any sculpture of Apollo or Hermes or Aphrodite is extraordinarily sexy in its evocation of the carnal, but the face is aloof, impassive, emotionless. We sometimes imagine this rather chilly expressionless perfection in technical terms, as if the sculptors were simply not up to figuring the passions. But even so, it fits with the image and role of Hellenic godhead. The deity is entirely satisfied and no expenditure of zeal is necessary on the god’s part to contact the infinite pleasure that matches his or her eternal life. The god is self-sufficient, not exactly narcissistic but assured of universal admiration.7 Not a muscle in the face is ever caused by local contingencies to be stressed. The god is expressionless because, in some sense, he or she represents the consummation of all desirable expression and has nothing to express but the wholeness of his or her being. Godhead in Greece is the freedom of desire being constantly and serenely gratified; and therefore desire is forever stabilized beyond the point of consummation.

Direct access to this grace is impossible. You will never enter their heavenly abode. Your abjection as a mortal must be overcome by ritualistic experiences in order to capture so much as a glimpse of the remote condition of the gods. And this depends on the god. A celebration for Dionysos would not be appropriate for Athena. The classical period undoubtedly inherited protocols from remote centuries, prescribing by unwritten but traditional formulae the appropriate rhythms, mood and level of solemnity for the relevant god. Heady banquets were by no means the appropriate gesture for the more sober among the gods. And so it is that the differences among the gods balances the ecstatic with the grave. An overarching sense of majesty prevails and subsumes even the wildest frolicking, making the protagonists seem vulnerable, fluttering in sensual display for the benefit of the god, an act of ‘giving over’ to the god.

But the abjectness of mortals and the sublimity of gods are not the whole story. Somewhere between them are heroes, mortal to be sure (unless by exceptional and late dispensation, as with Herakles) but aspiring to the nobility of the gods in their great actions, brave temper and aristocratic privileges. Greek art devotes much attention to the heroes, as does Greek literature and, though apparently artificial or literary in a chivalrous genre, the heroes are central to the beliefs and practices of Greek religion. Like the gods, the heroes are represented in classical times with impassive faces; they are sexy, charismatic and they enjoy a kind of eternity by means of their fame. But there is one outstanding difference: the heroes are nearly all tragic. And in their inevitable demise you find the key motif of the religion: sacrifice.

The blood sacrifice of humans at the altar is exceedingly archaic, probably predating the development of the Homeric poems; but traces of it are present in the myths, as with Iphigenia and Polyxene.8 The idea of a priest slitting the throat of a human victim at a ceremony devoted to the occasion was deleted from the delicate canons of Greek religious practice and would have been entirely obliterated from memory had it not been for theatrical reworkings of myth in Greek literature. But the motif of sacrifice is nevertheless carried forward in numerous artistic representations which once had religious status.

Greek tragedy is read today in the context of today’s drama, from Shakespeare to Beckett to Joanna Murray-Smith, intellectual and poetic, to be sure, but circumscribed by a humanist understanding of the autonomy of the play as an art work. The origins of tragedy in Greece were less artistic than ritualistic and would have been as near to sacramental as anything else in Greek culture. Initially tragedies were not performed in theatres in urban contexts for people’s recreation or entertainment. They were first a part of festivals which drew people from towns—rather like pilgrims—to a religious event.9 In the drama, a hero is brought down. The play ritually stages the necessary killing of the hero. All spectators know the outcome before the play begins. There are no surprises. A chorus (literally dancers) chants the verities of the catastrophe on a more general plane. The rehearsal of the hero’s death is a kind of aesthetic abstraction of the killing which took place in ancient times. The repeat performance attempts to relive the immediacy of the trauma so that the spectators can share in the fear; they can subsequently recognize a divine order and can experience a reconciliation with its omnipotence.

The public suffers during this spectacle. There is anxiety, terror and bitterness, the grief of seeing one’s affection for a charismatic figure rudely cancelled by fate. Through the pain felt as a spectator, a psychological subjugation is tendered toward destiny: not only is the hero given up but a superior interest must be accepted. An almost erotic transference of respect takes place, as the heroic mortal is punished and the hand of godhead must be revered. The efficacious aspect of this process was noted and discussed by Aristotle who used the term purgation (katharsis) to describe the result of the tragedy. But the cleansing that he had in mind was of a mechanical kind. The mind would be cleared by entertaining fear, as if—like an enema—the thought of something terrible would chase out the impure thoughts that accrue in a chaotic unholy life. Greek tragedy is more than that. The experience could also be described as a salutary humbling. It reconciles the public with its impotence, the victimhood of mortality, that vulnerability by which the hero submits in an exemplary killing.

It is not that Aristotle is wrong but simply that the ritual element has a role which is not completely exhausted by his definition. You go to the theatre and relive the death of a hero; and witnessing the killing of the hero induces a bitter submission in your mind, not exactly a humiliation but an absolute deference to the divine order that enforces your mortality. There is certainly a sacramental element in the sacrifice. But because the drama is an artificial re-creation and not a mere catechism, it belongs to an aesthetic realm in which the wits of the poet are magically exercised in brilliant labours of lyrical evocation. As Greek literary culture evolved in the fifth century BC, the presence of the poet’s artifice reaches impressive heights and prepares the way for the modern world to see the drama as a more or less autonomous art form, with certain residual object lessons from a body of myth with suitably grave topics of psychological agonies.

From our perspective in the modern world, Greek drama is the perfect antecedent to our own. The tragedy is offset by the comedy—both impeccably Greek words, like the very words drama and theatre—so that the key preoccupation can be identified with a creative exploitation of narratives, no matter what they are about, provided they grip the audience with suspense, eloquence and ingenuity. Admittedly scholars and theorists have always been ready to concede that there is an awesome dimension to tragedy. But the manipulation of ancient myths tends to be construed as a kind of working with necessary cultural givens, perhaps analogous to the way in which Renaissance painters were constrained to paint the Virgin when in fact they had equal interest in painting Venus in a passionate embrace with Mars. Instead of being the spiritual basis of the tradition, the mythical content is sometimes understood as little but a pretext for creative expression, perhaps a condiment to the genius of an author, a way of steeping the dramatic content in the sublime, a dark tremendousness which satisfies all the earnestness of a deep and poetic genre. In its origins, Greek theatre is more than that. It is profoundly religious.

Greek sculpture is similar. As sculptors gain in skills and personal reputation, their work is increasingly easy to categorize as pure art, perhaps even the purer for dwelling on a godlike form. The ideal body of the Greeks seems absolutely hermetic and aloof from expressive concerns other than its artistic completeness. It is as if art sought utter perfection and therefore resorted to a representation of the heroic nude as the most total expression of nature’s perfection, the only appropriate subject matter for art. The goddesses on the east pediment of the Parthenon, the Lapiths in the metopes of the same temple, the Hermes with the infant Dionysos of Praxiteles, and gracious works such as the Apollo Belvedere seem to bear this out.10 Far from the narrative immediacy of the myths and the consequent specificity of emotional expression and gesture, these figures hold themselves with a kind of lofty disdain for the world in front of them. The congruence of the lofty style and haughty subject matter is in itself one of the marvels of art history and virtually defines the concept of the ‘classical’. But it is not the style which requires the ideal but the ideal which requires the style.11 That ideal is divinity, a height of being, a sublimity, the consciousness of which had been fostered for centuries before any satisfactory incarnation in marble.

Grace, beauty, equipoise, harmony: these virtues are surely human and artistic; but there is a prior claim on their agency. The copyright, so to speak, is held by the gods, those infinitely superior beings in every sense, whose disposition allows even intoxication, fornicating and killing to be undertaken with enchantment. For their every movement in whatever dire action is fatally appealing, forever valorizing the contempt which they are privileged to bestow upon mortals. Throughout all of Hellenic culture, the Greeks never lost sight of the Olympian proprietorship of the human, and especially the charismatic figure of the hero. But the way in which Greek sculpture refers to the archetype of perfection is not immutable. Just as it develops through several stages from the sixth to the fifth and fourth centuries BC toward the high classical style—moving from static and stylized bodies to accurately drawn nimble bodies—so the art of sculpture in the succeeding centuries exceeds the humility of its classical aspirations. The great inversion of western spirituality begins with the Greeks; for Hellenic culture indeed sees the exigencies of art overtake the worship of the gods.

Beauty and perfection as autonomous artistic conceits had a certain immanence in sculptural production from the time—let us say the fifth century BC—when the ideal human form was confidently embodied in figures with free and subtle movements. But in the Hellenistic period (by the third century BC), the divine recedes to a series of illustrious cues, no longer the governing rationale for the work but the authoritative and academic pretext for a brilliant sculptural conception and execution. Certain works retain the sublime tenor of a god-fearing past (such as the awesome Nike of Samothrace) but, by and large, the high religiousness of the classical period declines in favor of an artistic spectacle for its own sake.12 Often, they are contrived with overwhelming sophistication, repudiating the simplicity of classical statuary and engaging the most extravagant compositional and expressive resources.

Sculptures such as the Crouching Aphrodite, the Sleeping Hermaphrodite or the Aphrodite Kallipygos are sensational displays of an artistic intuition, a personal infatuated vision of a sculptor. They are artistically autonomous spectacles which bear witness to the domestication of divinity in later Hellenism: to the greater worldliness of the period and a wholesale weakening of the ritual significance of ancient myth.13 We call her the Crouching Aphrodite but there is little evidence that she is even Aphrodite. She could be any beauty, wringing out her hair in a lovely coquettish tilt of the head, very self-conscious and aware of catching the incidental glance, cute in her knowledge of being looked at. Why a goddess at all? Why not a young woman at a pool? And indeed the sculpture would be well placed at the poolside of a wealthy bourgeois townhouse such as we know better from the culture of imperial Rome.

Sculptures such as the Sleeping Hermaphrodite are also delicious essays on the evocation of domestic phenomena, the hot night spent lying bare in bed and twisting restlessly, charged with a youthful eroticism and needing all the sexual gratification which the form invites by reciprocation from the spectator. In one sense, there is a simple continuity with the classical tradition of the eroticized immortal, inspiring a breathtaking reverence for an ideal gift of beauty and sexual prowess. But as beautiful and sexy as such figures are, their eroticism is not so self-contained, not so remote or high-born. The figures direct attention toward us and consequently seem dependent on our interest in them; they seem to require an engagement with us, seem to be on the point of inviting our participation in a gorgeous intercourse. Although dwelling in this erotic immediacy, the works are by no means frivolous but they no longer signal the detachment and reserve of the impassive Olympians of the classical period.

Hellenistic sculpture—and we assume painting—appears to have been prolific in appealing to a similar poetic interest and possessing a similarly vague spiritual calibre.14 The guidance of the work is no longer pre-eminently religious: the imperatives are all aesthetic, involving a canon of taste which balances the seduction of a naked figure with a level of dignity proper to the ideal. In this decorous matter of inspiration and judgement, the artist functions as an individual, no doubt earning a reputation for courageous steps taken in both technique and accomplished transgressions of previous limits. Art begins its tussle with decorum, endlessly inspiring for the artist and fascinating for the public.

Other works notoriously deal with the tragic emotions, masterpieces such as the Laocoon group and the Apollo and Marsyas.15 More than any sculptures before them, the narrative figure groups of the Hellenistic age bear the fear and pity which are the passions moved by tragedy and sanctioned by Aristotle’s Poetics. Not only are the works formidably emotive but they stage the hero’s decline with memorable immediacy. Pain and the anxiety of knowing one’s grueling doom are represented with sensational acuteness by tense muscles, facial contortion, swollen veins and compositional stress. But through the excellence of this life-like performative element, the works transcend the dread of their subject matter. They are an artistic tour de force of sensory engagement. That is the one quality which tragedy does not require in bestowing upon the hero’s death the ritual values of sacrifice.

In the heroic scheme of tragedy, the terrible end of the hero stands for a result, a necessary spending of human life for the consummation of divine desire. The suffering is sacred; it is ultimately elevating on account of ‘heroizing’ the acceptance of mortality. For a killing to qualify as a sacrifice, the sense of resignation must be installed in the victim, a dignified form of passivity, a knowledge that the fate which one must undergo is inevitable and, even though wretched and bitter, almost seductively harmonious. The Laocoon group and the Apollo and Marsyas qualify as tragedy in every sense except this: they are more about an atrocious process of killing than a result in which the energies resolve themselves in divine serenity. The sensational immediacy of the deaths deflects the consciousness of an awesome spiritual justice. The Laocoon group and the Apollo and Marsyas are about timing rather than the timeless: the sculpture registers the momentary affections rather than the eternal—and repeatable—yielding of life to divine might. The sculptures are bound to their physical symptoms. The interest is pathological. And beyond this iconographic emphasis, the dominant visual characteristics are stylistic, as the spectator is overwhelmed by the technical ambition of rendering the physiognomic gestures and the momentary spasms of agony.

Hellenistic sculpture is the first example in western art of the transition from a religious art of emotive simplicity but spiritual complexity to an autonomous art of emotive ambition but liturgical emptiness. It is the secularization of art but with all the privileges of the sacred miraculously retained, rolled over, appropriated. The transition in art occurs under the auspices of a religion, ostensibly the same theography that inspired the development of art from archaic to classical times.16 But the age was no longer religious. It was interested in some religious ideas and signs but the enthusiasm had shifted from the hallowed engagement with local myths and deities to worldly abstractions, allegories, personifications, a kind of signifying allegorical machinery analogous to the new world order that blew the arrogant trumpet of empire across the Mediterranean and beyond.

Sculptures were dedicated to powerful forces like Victory (Nike) and emphasized the might of the mightiest gods, especially Zeus, in conveying the inevitability of destiny, or the fate of the world which had, co-incidentally, bestowed all power upon the rulers of enormous lands. Gone was the local devotion to the deity whose shrine was poignantly remembered in conjunction with certain actions that took place in the vicinity. Certainly Greek myth had always enjoyed a kind of universality. The deeds of the god Dionysos at Naxos were known throughout the Greek world, not just in Naxos. But the demands of religion in the Hellenistic age discouraged the awareness of the local roots of myths. The later cults instead celebrated the universal embrace of a superintending destiny which somehow valorized the authority of worldly potentates.

Both classical and Hellenistic art have a certain solemnity and grace; but the religious element in the classical yields to a secular element in the Hellenistic. From a culture of holiness, we move to a culture of glory. The discreet and tender worship of godly perfection gives way to the forceful show of grandeur, magnificence, prowess, and the invincible power as a thing in itself, an abstraction which gratifies the arrogance of ambition. The sculptures on the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon are the ultimate expression of this pride.17 With muscular extravagance, the gods displace the order of giants as if famous warriors deriding their vanquished foes. From the classical plinth of divinely self-contained glamour, the gods have descended to a kind of allegory of magnificence, entirely suitable for attachment to the pre-eminence of the despots of Pergamon.

Like the art of the classical period in the lesser genres (especially vase painting), Hellenistic monumental sculpture presents a bewildering variety of emotional conditions, all somewhat tied to the cult of the gods. To match the bawdy scenes of Greek vase painting, there are flagrantly erotic manifestations such as the Aphrodite Kallipygos, a kind of ancient strip-tease in which the woman—if she is not the goddess imputed by the title—draws aside the long chiton to reveal her bottom and thighs, all the while looking over her shoulder to survey with narcissistic delight the attractiveness of her contours. To match the classical heroic character of narratives on the Parthenon and elsewhere, there are tragedies a-plenty in Hellenistic sculpture. Then there is always a stock of static deities standing around in civic uprightness, populating venerated locations, or stoic representations of the dead in cemeteries for pious commemoration. And finally, to match the scenes of bathing, education and the receipt of athletic prizes in Greek vase painting, Hellenistic sculpture monumentalizes wrestlers, rhetors or a boy taking a thorn out of his foot. In one sense, nothing changed between classical and Hellenistic. All sculptures have an excellence in technique which is the envy of subsequent ages. But classical and Hellenistic have a different inflexion. Whether driven by political bombast or bourgeois domestic intimacy, the art of the Hellenistic period is precocious, show-offy, arty, sensational. Hellenistic art is awesome as art rather than awesome as subject matter. If the subject matter in Hellenistic art is awesome, it is nevertheless executed in such an exaggerated way that the meaning of the work is somehow hijacked from contemplation of the event, and invested in the fabulous imagination and skill of the artist.18

In this promotion of art at the expense of the spiritual inspiration which initially caused its development, the post-classical epoch foretells the conceit of art for art’s sake, that paradigm associated, above all, with modern art. It is further advanced in Roman times when Greek production continues through the so-called Roman copies of Greek originals. Once Rome enjoyed hegemony over the Mediterranean, the Greeks had already developed the modern concept of art as commodity, an object produced by artists, sold at a market price and enjoyed as a prestige object in a civic or domestic context. Somewhere within this status as art-object is the ancient objective: to be ‘of’ the god or to enact a divine event. But that is almost a precondition, like a dead metaphor. Sure the sculpture deals with the gods or some other vaguely ceremonial matter, such as wrestling. It is subject matter for art. It is not art for the subject matter. The priority is the condition of being an object of aesthetic admiration. To that end, art engages the most sumptuous concepts, reaching to divinity. The divine is a resource to be exploited for its repertoire of glamorous themes and legendary, beautiful bodies. The divine survives by means of its exploitation by the secular.

Rome consolidates these attitudes. Secular authority had reached impressive heights of legal and administrative principle: armies, markets and entertainments functioned efficiently by due bureaucratic reason, and domestic life was greatly enriched by relative economic prosperity. In this thoroughly materialist climate, art flourished as a wonderful condiment of Greek culture, pointing to that world of erotic license, music and philosophy which Romans cultivated as the basis of an ideal education. And so the demand for ideal figures was met—still pre-eminently by Greek artists—by reworking the masterpieces of Hellenistic sculpture in variants of considerable charm and historical prestige. Roman patronage explains how Greek sculpture, with whatever originality, came to fill up the museums of Europe and America with that superb proliferation of august and imaginative figures.

The Romans no doubt sought Greek art for spiritual sophistication but, ironically, their indigenous traditions of portrait sculpture were infinitely more steeped in family piety. Perhaps uncritically, the Romans bought Greek sophistication in an indivisible item which today would be identified as art. Even more than the worldly Hellenistic upper class, the Roman patricians would have felt tremendous awe for mythical antiquity. Five hundred years separated them from classical Athens: the legends of Phidias and Myron and so on had enviable cachet but the myths to which they appealed were unimaginably anterior. The myths embodied an authority which the Romans could only latch onto with diligent scholarly and poetic labors, as in the work of Virgil. The Romans were the first neo-classicists. They could never quite see their touching portrait heads—based on the deceased family members and set upon tiny domestic altars—as great art. Having bought Greek sophistication, the Romans must have construed those morbid relics as part of a naive tradition belonging to a relatively uninformed priscitas, a reverence which is old enough to seem out-of-date but not ancient enough to reach to universal claims for divinity. That was the preserve of the Greek patrimony.

For many centuries, comprising the Hellenistic and Roman periods, Graeco-Roman art achieved its peculiar spookiness, its special claim to spiritual values which, in different guises, it has retained to the present time. One speaks of ‘art for art’s sake’ but this is not quite the point. Art is not intrinsically vested with such prestige, as if by being totally autonomous it is utterly spiritual. Art in the bourgeois economy derives its peculiar prestige from a three stage contact with earlier traditions. First, it seems to subsume the spiritual calibre of an anterior religious epoch. All intuitions of Aphrodite or Hermes are deposited in this work, say, and our understanding of them is somehow updated by the sculptor’s imagination and sympathetic powers of identifying with the divine. Second, the sculpture apparently transcends the narrative context in which the myths were told: it potentially stands in a neutral space, suitable either for a temple or a domestic garden, either for leisure or worship, as if it would not matter which. And third, by means of confidently projecting powerful metaphors of beauty, grace and charm upon the divine figure, the work seems to inherit the qualities formerly imputed only to godhead, that high self-sufficiency, the sublimely inscrutable mind of the god, the lofty aura of Olympian inspiration and immortality.

In the Graeco-Roman period, art had all the privileges of religion but none of its responsibilities. It could draw upon all the sacred names and physical attributes that ever attracted reverence but it would ultimately owe nothing to a priestly function. Art and liturgy parted company; but in the parting, art took the liturgical trappings and gravity with it. Art incorporated these pretensions into its own aesthetic order of grace and immortality; it incorporated the illustrious knowledge of myth and insight into the psychology of the gods, a thaumaturgical power beginning with that magic to make the object ‘come alive’, as ancient writers often say very nearly happened.

From the Graeco-Roman period, art began its ascent as a spiritual entity in its own right, apparently no more dependent on myth for its subject matter than myth was dependent on art for its fame. In all events, art was quite free of a priesthood which would define objects for liturgical ends, as in the ornament of temples. Judging by the more domestic scale and appeal of the works, patronage came from elsewhere; yet the aspiration of high-minded bourgeois collectors and even state authorities was nevertheless for something illustrious, the sum of art, the most brilliant conception and the most ‘divine’ execution. In these circumstances the sacred is of course used for secular ends. The more interesting consequence is that the secular is accorded a sacred character. It is the modern role of art. A new spirituality arises which is ‘artificial’, perhaps in the best postmodern sense of the word. It takes a cult of worship, abstracts it in aesthetic terms, retains its glamour and projects—through synthetic magical means—a route to immortality.

The key element in this argument is the abduction of an anterior sacred order into a secular form of sophistication which reinterprets the holy as divine entertainment. But if this is so, what should be said of the religious calibre of the new secular form, this new sophisticated synthetic prestige which parallels so much of the sacred and aspires so much to its powers? Is it entirely bogus, pretentious and deserving of contempt? That seems unfair. The art which survives testifies to belief of a kind, for it is extraordinarily well-conceived in artistic terms and is technically consummate. It is hard to see something so rich in its own integrity as mere posturing. Somewhere deep within the secular appropriation of the sacred there is a slight but new sacramental function.

Hellenistic or Graeco-Roman sculpture may not relay the sublime indifference of the gods or the passing of heroes in a particularly sacred way. However the sacrifice that it does relay is, ironically, the passing of a spiritual order. To look at a Hellenistic or Graeco-Roman image of divinity involves the melancholy awareness that simple belief in a deity is no longer possible. Each sculpture of the later period is a kind of nostalgic hymn to its counterparts of an earlier period, a wistful acknowledgement that former cults were closer to a spiritual identification with the gods. All neo-classicism is like that. It is a restaging of a famous artistic attainment which was rightly or wrongly destined to collapse, which was unsustainable in a world so irretrievably changed. To relive the experience of a now-unpossessable worship is painful. Sure, the belief is no longer current, but it still enjoys credibility on account of once having been accorded such an artistic embodiment. The naïve belief has evaporated but its artistic vestiges are poignant. Your admiration for the artistic evocations of gods and heroes promotes the legitimacy of the lost spirituality. The former conventions of reverence are more than a superb lullaby; they resonate with consciousness which cannot be properly reinvoked. You grope for the lost contact in the re-creation, only to realize all the more poignantly the loss of each and every precondition for its survival.

Art begins to find its own sacraments. They are built upon a spiritual tradition, but rather than simply reproducing that tradition and hoping to achieve an identical sacramental virtue, the new sacraments are a dirge for the loss of the old sacraments. It is not just that everything is second hand—as the very concept of tradition encourages us to consider—but that everything is inverted. And far from recovering the former spiritual beliefs, the new artistic gestures are somehow anachronistic and therefore highlight the unavailability of the prestigious earlier consciousness. The new art, however sophisticated in technical terms, is melancholy, bitter-sweet, and divinely pathetic in an artistic way. A new glory is invented: the paean to a past of supposedly superior spiritual values. It is the first manifestation of a neo-sacramental order, proffering a form of grace for the present by mourning the sacrifices of time. In gross terms, the neo-sacramental order of art is art history, that knowledge of unrecoverable practices past, which were destined to be forfeited by progress toward the present. Progress, both social and artistic, displaces the past in the same way that the Olympians displaced the Giants. You live your consciousness on account of it; everything that you are and think is the result of what has occurred before you. Simultaneously, this life-giving and life-defining passage of time is also what kills the things of the past. It is sad beyond all hopes that the future might bring redemption.

The neo-sacramental order may seem weak when compared to the compelling forces of ancient ritual—the almost sexual identification with divinity and the serene expression of Olympian self-sufficiency in the classical period. There is no direct contact with divinity by means of swooning riotous dancing, no grief-bound witnessing of greatness of soul in the tragic confronting of mortality, no trust in the rhythms of festivals and performances that left their sublime erotic residue in art. But Greek religious practice had never been efficacious in the sense of leading to redemption or eternal life. It had only ever promised people a bitter-sweet reconciliation with mortality, a heroism of reckoning, a spiritual majesty to live a short life with the full awareness of never sharing anything godly—beyond ecstatic or orgasmic moments—but the feeling of inferiority relative to the gods. Thus, the sacramental rites were modest in their scope, and anything of an artistic character in the neo-spiritual periods was not necessarily vastly inferior in its effect.

When art lost its direct connection to the rituals of the temple it did not lose any glamour in the public imagination but, on the contrary, gained prestige as a surviving route to ancient spiritual virtue. In addition, it gained a new power of embodying in its very re-creations the melancholy dying of earlier stages of art history, remote periods in which art functioned in a more directly worshipful manner. This becomes a monumental blueprint for the ascent of art in its role of replacing a religious order. Much that happened in the modern world is foreshadowed by Graeco-Roman art, not just the stylistic basis of western artistic progress and the famous canon of beauty but the spiritual positioning of its meaning.


1     Australian performance art has a history embracing aspects of the spiritual: see Marsh (1993), especially chapter 3, Body art, shamanism and Western ritual, 96–140.

2     The Raw and the Cooked, Blindside, Melbourne, 17 November – 3 December 2005, an exhibition which included Stephen Garrett, Pip Haydon and Victor Meertens as well as Catherine Bell. Some paragraphs in the text have been grafted from my writings in the catalogue.

3     See Hacking (1992, 29–64). In this influential article, Hacking argues that the unity of modern science lies in scientific practice rather than theory. He has characterized modern science in terms of the ‘robust stability’ of experimental, laboratory practice.

4     See Stewart (1997), especially Stewart’s discussion of the choice of medium for sculpture as integral to the meaning and connotations of the resultant figures, in “Tooling the Body,” 43–60.

5     See Boardman (2002).

6     See the discussion of specific myths closely linked with religious practices in Graf (1993, 101–120).

7     “Against those in contemporary society who might debate the very existence and reality of the gods, the tragedians and artists reply most emphatically that they are present in our midst, but stand eternally outside the laws that govern human behavior” (Tarn Steiner 2001, 95). Steiner reads the expression of Greek statues closely, concurrently with literary sources on images. See also Spivey (1996, 173–186), for a socio-cultural perspective on the particular eroticism of Aphrodite as a motif and subject.

8     For a discussion of the two traditions concerning the sacrifice of Iphigeneia and Polyxena, and their consequences for reading or ‘decoding’ images in Greek art, see Woodford (2003, 4–9). Woodford’s book is a detailed study of different ways in which painters, sculptors and other artists engaged with the heritage of narratives in classical Greece.

9     See Wiles (1997) on the simultaneously religious and political logics of theatrical space for Greek tragedy.

10    The goddesses (perhaps Hestia, Dione, and Aphrodite) from the east pediment of the Parthenon, ca. 438–432 BC, marble, British Museum, London; Lapith and centaur, metope from the Parthenon, ca. 438–432 BC, marble, British Museum, London; Hermes and Dionysos, ca. 340 BC, marble, Archaeological Museum, Olympia; Apollo Belvedere, 2nd century AD, marble, Vatican Museums, Rome.

11    For poetic and philosophical comments on the concept of the classical centred on Greek sculpture, see, as published for the first time in English, the reflections of Kantorowicz (1992, 123–135) in “The Concept of the Classical and Classicism,” fragments brought together as the final chapter in her work The Inner Nature of Greek Art. See also Focillon (1948).

12    Nike of Samothrace, ca. 190 BC, marble, Louvre, Paris.

13    Crouching Aphrodite, 2nd century AD, Roman copy, marble, British Museum, London; Sleeping Hermaphrodite, Roman copy after an original from the 2nd century BC, marble, Louvre, Paris; Aphrodite Kallipygos, Roman copy after an original from the 2nd century BC, marble, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.

14    For a study of our problems in evaluating Greek spirituality, see Veyne (1983).

15    Agesandros, Athenodoros and Polydoros, Laocoon and his Two Sons, 1st century AD, marble, Vatican Museums, Rome; The Hanging Marsyas (from a 3-figure group depicting the flaying of Marsyas), Roman copy after an original from the 3rd century BC, marble, Louvre, Paris. See Weis (1992).

16    Robertson (1993, 67) cites the statue of Athena for the library at Pergamon (2nd century BC, marble, Staatliche Museen, Berlin) as “an example of one kind of statue with a religious affiliation which could hardly have been made before the Hellenistic period: the adaptation of a classical cult-figure (originally designed to be approached down the long darkness of a temple-cella) to a totally different setting and purpose.”

17    The Altar of Zeus from Pergamon (reconstructed), ca. 175 BC, marble, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

18    “The world’s first art histories were written in the Hellenistic period, and traced a linear development of constant innovation along a trail blazed by a canon of great artists towards ever better representations … These art histories established the influential idea of ancient art as an autonomous cultural phenomenon” (Smith 2002, 69). Smith’s article is a stimulating overview of the use of images in the modern discipline of ancient history.


Boardman, J. 2002. The Archaeology of Nostalgia: How the Greeks re-created their Mythical Past. London: Thames & Hudson.

Focillon, H. 1948/1989. The Life of Forms in Art, translated by Hogan C. B.; Kubler. G. New York: [Publisher unknown].

Graf, F. 1993. “Myth, Sanctuary, and Festival”. In Greek Mythology: An Introduction, translated by. Marier, T. London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hacking, I. 1992. “The Self-Vindication of the Laboratory Sciences”. In Science as Practice and Culture, edited by Pickering, A. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 29–64.

Kantorowicz, G. 1992. The Inner Nature of Greek Art, translated by Benson, J. L. New York: New Rochelle. 123–135.

Marsh, A. 1993. Body and Self: Performance Art in Australia 1969–92. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Robertson, M. 1993. “What is ‘Hellenistic’ about ‘Hellenistic’ Art?” In Hellenistic History and Culture, edited by Green, P. Hellenistic History and Culture, 9. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Smith, R. R. R. 2002. “The Use of Images: Visual History and Ancient History”. In Classics in Progress: Essays on Ancient Greece and Rome, edited by Wiseman, T. P. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Spivey, N. 1996. “Revealing Aphrodite”. In Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Stewart, A. F. 1997. Art, Desire and the Body in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tarn Steiner, D. 2001. Images in Mind: Statues in Archaic and Classical Greek Literature and Thought. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Veyne, P. 1983. Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes? Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Weis, A. 1992. The Hanging Marsyas and its Copies: Roman Innovations in a Hellenistic Sculptural Tradition. Rome: Bretschneider.

Wiles, D. Tragedy in Athens: Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woodford, S. 2003. Images of Myths in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cite this chapter as: Nelson, Robert. 2007. ‘Mortal theatre’. The Spirit of Secular Art: A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Values. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 2.12.15.

The Spirit of Secular Art

   by Robert Nelson