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The Spirit of Secular Art

Chapter 6

The industrial spirit

Robert Nelson

One of Barbara Kruger’s largest exhibitions was at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, where viewers encountered an overwhelming installation.1 As spectator, you go into a room where gigantic text scrolls along the floor, like a conveyor at the airport. The floor becomes a projected page that spools in a loop toward the next room. The disorienting spectacle is a sliding blue carpet of verbal torment. Short grumpy refrains speak defensively, like ‘Don’t bother me’ or ‘Don’t kill me’. Others are evasive like ‘Don’t praise me’ and ‘Don’t trust me’; and some reveal cynical materialist philosophies like ‘Feel is something you do with your hands’.

In the next room, the floor is pink, as if rehearsing some kind of he says, she says dramatic routine. The sentences fluctuate between delirium and malice: ‘I can’t resist you. I can’t breathe. I can’t take it any more. I dreamt about you last night. I think I love you. You scare me. You used to be nicer. You’re not getting any younger…’ and so on. Bland, hurtful, frightened, these skittish emotional utterances recycle themselves under your feet as an endless power game, as of soap opera. It is hard to know who’s a victim and why. They’re stock emotional exchanges on TV.

The third room contains a more obvious critique of commercialized girlish desire. It is a static list: ‘Moisturizers, iPods, sneakers, drugs, computers, watches, cars, boats, gold, smaller noses, bigger lips, houses, diamonds, art, abs, breasts, shoes, blowjobs, sweaters.’ Consumer goods are equated with surgically inflatable body parts and sexual favours. The large room that comes next is spatially dominated by a huge anti-consumption slogan running around the wall: ‘Plenty ought to be enough.’ The floor has nine tableaux, each filled with lettering, sardonically flattering men of means, as in ‘You make history when you do business’. This is undercut by confessions of industrial guile: ‘For the merchant even honesty is a financial speculation’.

None of this prepares you for the video installation in the largest gallery. All four walls are treated as large screens, with aggressive mug-shot conversations. From wall to wall, angry or embarrassed people exchange insults, niggle one another competitively, undermine, reproach, belittle, threaten and humiliate. This litany of toxic sentiments plays out the power games on an intimidating scale, with loud sound track and sarcastic slogans below. The contrast between this room and the rest is extreme. In the first two, spectators reckon with their vertigo, laugh and wonder at the spatial relativity induced by a floor that seems to move. Children in the gallery jump joyfully among the messages. The rooms with the still text are more severe, claustrophobic and brow-beating, symbolized by the typeface crowding out all available space; but the denouement in the large room with the belligerent videos turns spectators to passive silence.

What sense do you make of it? The display of agro in the video conversations extrapolates the dramas of TV. Maybe Kruger has created a critique of an insidious dynamic in commercial media. You can sell malice on TV in the soap opera and then sell goods for advancing sexual capital during the ad breaks. We then go out to shop for weapons to gain the advantage over one another. Beneath the vicious video banter, one of the running texts declares ‘Not cool enough, not cruel enough.’ Some people might really think that way: you lack street cred if you are a nice guy. Kruger lives both in NY and LA and would have first-hand experience of the cultures closest to the movies. Maybe no one takes you seriously there if you are not angry.

If that is the case—and people are increasingly rude and unsympathetic because of commercial TV—then capitalism has a lot to answer for. But is it true? The allegation is artistically poignant but only if it reflects reality rather than paranoia. It is doubtful that commercial media and marketing make people antagonistic and horrible. People watch violent bloodthirsty garbage on TV but with some sense of irony: they know it is trash because the language of TV is shamelessly attention-seeking. Most of it is festive; but one of the cheapest ruses for gaining attention is for bitter people to act appallingly in close-up.

Kruger takes advantage of the emotional rape. Thanks to commerce, we are deeply brutalized and compulsively locked in a competitive orgy of spite. Or are we? Kruger falls victim to the overstatement and sensationalism of her nasty over-capitalized subject matter. There’s no love in Kruger that is not also a weapon to accuse the economy of abuse. The sentiment strikes me as pessimistic to the point of misanthropy and it makes me ask: whence this development of the artist as outsider, caught up in the bitter pith of social ills, seeking to denounce but forever the victim? After so many centuries of art as celebration, something happened with industrialization that created a new paradigm of art where the spiritual cadence is terse and stressful.

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The Enlightenment distinguishes itself from all periods before or since by its absence of sacraments. The world without sacraments looks very neat; it has a good sense of order, knows how to classify things with a sense of tolerance, engenders delight in questioning authorities, has unrivalled satirical wit, values fairness and reason, is devoted to human improvement, enjoys machinery and politeness, champions political analysis and begins the industrial revolution. As a rule, it disapproves of the vanity of pompous structures without utilitarian value, dislikes symbolic orders based on arcane principles and, while having abundant sympathy for theism, develops contempt for arbitrary codes of worship. It detests religious zeal. Ideas of sacrifice are abhorrent and a ritual action by which little people try to make up to a big God for inherent sinfulness seems more than absurd: it offends the spirit of reason; for the rationality and benignity of such a God who is flattered and gratified by all the little people’s genuflexions would be more than questionable. Insofar as the rites of propitiation—however abstracted—displace the discipline of analytical and critical thought, they are repugnant. The Enlightenment can be described as a polemic against the mystical.

One allows the existence of God; but it is God the theory, a provisional God without extensive holiness and with an obedience to reason. If God is not understood as reasonable, doubts arise that God has been correctly identified. If creation and all of nature’s wonders can be put down to God, God qualifies for the title by virtue of superior reason. If some aspect of creation were unreasonable, it cannot be God’s work. God is submitted to Reason; the jealous God of the Bible encounters a higher divinity—Reason—and, while everyone may acknowledge God as a necessary belief, the notion of divinity nevertheless slips into the fathomable and writers prefer to use euphemisms and personifications like Nature or the Sublime to describe the awesome and mysterious.

For many decades in the eighteenth century, no one seemed to have a heart for anything spiritual. A sign of this shyness of the ghostly is the way in which the sanguine lyricism of the late baroque gives way to the enchanted flutters of the Rococo. No one wants to see firm foundations for institutional persuasions; no one can bear the forceful sway of authority in a design and all sense of command and drive is deflected by daintiness and intimacy. Design loses its sense of gravity and energy; it only wants to tickle the airs of a late afternoon in rustic sweetness, whether the design of a plate, a dish, a chair, a candlestick or a table. Architecture turns its back on the severe structures of the classical tradition and leaves the force of urban traffic for gentler pockets of space. It craves the park, the designer grove, the hide-away, the overgrown theatre in the rural seat of some aristocratic patron, the humid pad of some invisible and indulgent lord who will allow one to perform spontaneous concerts and fêtes.

The charming and intimate paintings of Watteau are the best portrait of the great Rococo abdication. Everyone has an invitation to be an aristocrat but only for a while and only in fancy dress; no one need take up the burdens of office and everyone can play in the garden. All vegetation is figured as a kind of cushion; the world is a shady parterre and any classical architecture upon it is a condiment of the fluffy grove beyond rather than a powerful reflection of social purpose. Relieved of the incumbencies of administrative or political action, all people can investigate how to relate to one another with infinite gentility, etiquette, polish and intimacy. If there is a spirituality in the park it is of a personal and intimate kind, without the tincture of an institutional discipline.

The enlightenment may have reversed some of these directions; but the one feature of Rococo which remained for the modern world is the replacement of the institutional by the personal. With the Rococo, the artistic renunciation of authority begins; and any language of spiritual emphasis came to be seen as uncritical, backward and gauche. The Enlightenment may have deplored the frivolity of the Rococo but it did not have any ambitions to restore the compelling zeal of baroque architecture and pictorial programs. The Enlightenment, as it were, calls a practical diligent gardener into Watteau’s park, cuts clean pathways through the shady groves, removes the ivy, chops the tall trees down, creates pastures with productive stock and gets all the make-believe aristocrats to do accurate measurements and useful calculations.2 The world becomes more reasonable, more co-ordinated and orderly; nature is happily exploited and no one can reasonably complain without accepting the optimistic philosophy of ameliorating the world with reason and labour.

The reason why authority vanished from the compelling expressive agendas of art and design is not, of course, that the world experienced any less authority. It is just that the old forms of authority—highly visible, given to pomp and ancestral ceremony—were bit by bit being replaced by more powerful and universal forms of authority which, however, were intrinsically invisible. The new authority was capital. Money has no presence; it is by nature transferable, decentralized and free. No one has special allegiances to one pile of capital as opposed to another, for money is money and only trading labour or stock gives a person any tangible sense of proprietorship. There is nothing tribal about money, even when it buys real estate; there is no symbolic order surrounding it and its genius is the abstraction of all other social forces. Money determines almost everything that happens in a community but has zero intrinsic symbolic value.

As Adam Smith investigates the machinery by which money orders the economy, the western world prepares to commit investment in production on an exponential scale, creating the industrial revolution, beginning in the 1760s and continuing its course to the present time. We still live in the in the industrial revolution. There is no date at which it ceased. Nor is there a date (if you exclude the Communist hiatus) at which money ceased to exercise supreme authority. The power of capital is as dynamic as its influence is inexorable. Of course certain people had always had vast wealth but it was relatively static, an inherited fund associated with inherited lands and their revenues; but the discovery of the industrial revolution was that money could be mobilized. If you make textiles, for example, and generate a profit, you can invest the surplus in technological improvements to production, improvements in distribution, improvements in quality or position in the market and so on. The result will be further profit.

The entrepreneur of the free market looks for any opportunity to invest prudently. A better return may be indicated in the transport business associated with a local distribution network. It may not seem so sensible to invest greatly in new machinery when the gains appear more available in another area. An entrepreneur is not necessarily attached to a traditional activity but can transfer interests. Almost like a living personification, money looks for opportunities, plunges headlong into risky ventures with high stakes and wreaks spectacular changes. It rapidly builds factories, towns, whole industries, transport reticulation which, by the nineteenth century, included rail. Mining plunders the earth; farming is reorganized for greater efficiencies; more food is available to feed a growing population. The idea of progress is reborn on a daily basis.

Money, which is powerful everywhere, is visible nowhere. You can see its results; but the tangible presence of a grid of power-looms in a multi-storey factory looks like industry rather than money. In the days when money was static, it was naturally embodied in monuments. With the industrial revolution, the money becomes dynamic; its habit is expansion, not where it ends up, not what it supports by way of a big house for a successful capitalist, not its consumption. The essence of money is its agency, its immaterial energy in affording strategic opportunities, its funnelling into activities by way of investment. The symbolism of money is confined to investors and economists who study the allocation of resources and the functioning of money. Money has a symbolic order around it; but it is bizarrely hermetic and hypostasized; for the symbolism of money deals only with money, its power to generate more money, its bearing on money markets and money managers. In no time, this becomes a professional vocation: to watch money, to watch what money is doing, which pool of money is destined to increase and which is likely to shrink and so on.

The new status of money is symbolized by the idea of interest. Before the industrial revolution, money used to be conceived more or less as a medium of exchange. It never was so simple but suffice to say that under the title of usury, the reality of interest met persistent disapproval. During the industrial revolution, the idea that money must yield something—not what it buys but what it earns—takes hold of the imagination. You are no longer a person who has money; you own money and this ownership entitles you to an income one way or another. Money as a generator of wealth per se becomes somehow reified, not merely a medium of exchange but a thing in itself, an agent, in a sense almost a master.

With the rise of capitalism, the western world obviously organizes itself along materialist lines. For an economist, the reorganization is rational rather than ritual. The ancient spiritual order which once shared in the authority of the social order recedes from relevance. It is something to which people may retreat—it may retain a special value as a sign of a Jerusalem which, as in prophetic times, is rapidly vanishing from immediate sight—but it no longer assumes a position of leadership, for all ideas of progress are configured in materialist language toward material ends. In the spectacular matter of progress, there is no structural role for religious ritual. It is not just a case of being ‘upstaged’ by the inexorable spectacle of industrial change. The predication of that change is financially dynamic and supremely materialist; it is absolutely alien to the spiritual establishments of ancient tradition.

Bit by bit in this circumstance, the spiritual defaults to the personal. The spiritual is drained of its institutional authority and the very idea of religion (which one might define as institutionalized spirituality) is increasingly tenuous. In the industrial period, nearly all aspects of the relationship between the sacred and the secular would have to be renegotiated. The sacred privileges no longer seem as prestigious as they used to. It would be a terrible time, for example, in which to be an artist devoted to painting holy pictures or sculpting saints. The challenge to the traditional relationship between the sacred and the secular was never openly acknowledged. In previous centuries a challenge to orthodoxy was met by formidable councils of cardinals and theologians assembling and vigorously propounding resolutions and edicts in response to the heresies which were to be unequivocally anathematized. In the industrial period, such reactions were no longer possible. The heresy, so to speak, was not religious in nature. There was no language with which to argue against the onslaught of capitalist materialism and to promulgate its antidote. Capitalism was never a heresy. Its incursions on spiritual territory were passive. It could not be damned and in certain cases even had to be praised for creating wealth, missionary patronage and colonial expansion. But it inadvertently rearranged all institutional priorities in favour of material values. In the fervid preoccupations of money as a symbol of the transfer of authority, religion became little but an ancient ornament—almost exotic and quaint—in the great deritualizing of the economy.

The history of art bears witness to an intensely anti-institutional feeling which is often called Romanticism. Romanticism can be dated to the middle of the eighteenth century (immediately before the industrial revolution) in the etchings of Piranesi, in particular his series of Gaols or Carceri.3 Although building on an old baroque tradition of bizarre visual fantasies (invenzioni) Piranesi’s imaginative views of dungeons struck a note of sublime terror. They showed the prison as a deplorable place of torture, with disgusting cages, spiked wheels, dangling hooks and shackles and other horrific contrivances for the physical torment and psychological breaking of humans. The interior spaces of the prisons are giant extrapolations of Roman ruins but made somehow dysfunctional and irrational. They act as ciphers of the harrowed mind. The compositions crash this way and that with diagonal thrusts, registering in formal accents the violence suggested in the imagery. Although formulated primarily as exercises in the free use of imagination—and although remaining ambiguous and impossible to define in terms of intention—the iconographic result of the Carceri is radical. The individual is cast as outright victim. The institutional is represented as dire and depraved.

By the time Goya paints his gaols and madhouses around 1800, the industrial revolution was well advanced, especially in England and France though less conspicuously in Goya’s Spain. One way or another, Goya’s work adopts a kind of morbid rancour against the institutional. Like Piranesi, Goya does not define his intentions or allow the default of tradition to take care of his intentions. The work lies outside an established tradition in which the meaning was overwritten by institutional conventions. Goya does not paint the standard subjects of the previous centuries, such as Erminia among the Shepherds or the Martyrdom of St Sebastian, nor does he paint politically neutral genre subjects such as landscape or interiors. He hatches scenes of almost perverse originality. Often they are sinister, as in Maja and Celestina on the Balcony; sometimes they are morbid, as in the Caprichos; they can be violent as in The Third of May 1808 or exaggerated reportage of detestable cruelty, as in the Disasters of War.4 There are numerous scenes of witchcraft, from the Caprichos to the Black Paintings, in which Goya’s position is almost impossible to determine.5 He is fascinated by magic and wavers between relishing its alternative transports and satirizing its irrationality. Cruelty, too, is enacted as a hideous ritual of ambiguity. In numerous prints and drawings, Goya uses the convention of a wry title to comment on the subject matter; and through these lapidary lines, he often speaks through the chilling voice of the oppressor. Titles such as ‘he deserved it’ or ‘he should not have written for idiots’ somehow implicate the spectator in a disgusting agreement that the punishment of some poor victim is just and proper.

There is a pleasure in needling the conceits of the Enlightenment. The frontispiece for the Caprichos declares in simple Spanish that ‘the sleep of reason engenders monsters’.6 On the one hand, it could mean that it is necessary to remain vigilant against the sleep of reason, to avoid sleep, to command the mind with perpetual wakefulness lest the mind become abducted by irrational fantasies. On the other hand, it could mean that the sleep of the rational mind is inevitable and the zeal for constancy of reason is in itself irrational. I default to sleep; and, when I sleep, not only do I lose all watchfulness but I cannot control what I dream. This inner zone of the psyche is not subject to reason; and the tissue of quaint explanations of physical things which you call reason is only a thin overlay which conceals the real human beneath, wild with unexplained passions and instincts, fantasies and fears. Nothing in Goya’s art ever lets us establish which of these positions he intended to express.

Goya is not alone in fostering an inscrutable motive for representing a given scene. The same fearsome closeness to a horrible scene can be witnessed in the paintings of George Stubbs, already mentioned in connexion with the performative photography of Monika Tichacek. His pictures of lions killing horses also share with Goya’s the detached curiosity-value, an unwholesome distance between the immediacy of the image and the inaccessibility of the motive for representing it.7 Stubbs could be representing the ghastly event in order to document scientifically the pathology of a screaming beast and the lust of a carnivore; he might want to show the moral truth about nature; he might be making an allegory of the predatory ruthlessly conquering the harmless. It is impossible to place Stubbs’s sentiments. His pictures are poignant in their identification of natural forces; but they seem purposefully constructed neither to celebrate nor deplore their terrible subject matter. They represent a tour de force of painting as self-contained spectacle, without a scheme of references which explain it. The painting glories in its own extraordinary resources, a weird form of visual intensity detached from a direct communicative imperative. The autonomy of art draws nigh.

Ever since the enlightenment, artists became self-conscious in seeking subject matter. The commentaries in the Salons of Diderot bear witness to the interest in certain iconographic choices which artists were making, it seems, in a deliberately strategic way.8 Artists can distinguish themselves by finding poignant themes. Poetic wits can then criticize the artistic endeavours on the basis of their accuracy or integrity relative to sources or the critic’s own conception of human nature or any other form of nature. There is no longer an overarching confidence in iconographic convention or a compliance with governing authorities. The painter errs to novelty. It is unlikely that he or she reaches toward Ovid’s Metamorphoses for inspiration. Before the dawn of the nineteenth century, artists had reversed their franchise with traditional spiritual authority.

All of this can be seen most clearly in Goya. His iconography is somehow instinctual and his often raw visuality supports the pre-eminence of an impulsive, inborn artistic sense. Vision with Goya becomes detached from the comforts of courtly certainties, a realm to which the painter apparently had ready access. For reasons internal to the painter, the delights of the exquisite buildings and the privileges of majesty are no longer convincing. He resiles from the polished and balanced look of luxurious portraits and turns to a world of irksome fantasies. It is possible that this apostasy relates to social conscience; perhaps, as every Goya-lover wants to believe, the painter heroically abjures a luxurious life in order to campaign on behalf of the dispossessed. But Goya never leaves enough information to tie down his personal convictions. He observes cruelty against the disadvantaged; he recognizes the darkness of the prevailing social order and the irrationality which it engenders in the poor and ignorant; but whom, ultimately, does Goya deplore? From just before 1800, everyone in Goya’s art is in an unwholesome position; and even if some characters are innocent, their spiritually destitute situation overwhelmingly defines their identity. They are either victims, idiots, barbarians, bestialized by instinct or dehumanized by the machinery of authority, pompous inquisitors and deluded witches whose interest, perversely, is in wilfully transcending reason.

Once Goya ceases to represent the erotic economy of beautiful majos and majas, he defaults to misanthropy. The faith in a social order collapses and with it tumbles the artist’s personal faith in human nature. Misanthropy undoubtedly becomes a kind of centrepiece of the Romantic imagination. But it would be naïve to construe this misanthropy as a purely social or political expression of the alienated industrial soul. It is an aesthetic position; it is artfully crafted to be profoundly grave but grand and resonant at the same time; it is ethically evasive, concerned with the unfathomable, the sublimity of pessimism, the disappointment of failed rationality, the horror of the bottom of human nature, the terror of the emptiness of the faithless soul.

Goya is far from an isolated instance. Other Romantic artists like the French Gericault and Delacroix have been equally famous for their disturbances of an inherited complacency, their interventions against the spirit of explanation; for they relish scenes of tremendous dread and alarm whose psychological impact is properly inexpressible. Pessimism, violence, misanthropy, but misanthropy as artistic celebration, writ grand, forceful, showy, theatrical and richly sadistic. Check this with the gratuitously sexual slayings of naked women in Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus.9 It is all mayhem and despair but for artistic gratification, not to say pornographic satisfaction.

But Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus is hardly a unique case. In Delacroix, the celebration of despair is a commonplace, beginning with his early Barque of Dante. Works such as Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, Scenes from the Massacres at Chios, the Death of Ophelia, the Confession of the Giaour and so on demonstrate the same passion for the gloom, the listless acceptance of horror, which forms the final virtue of the Byronic hero.10 Any pretext for despair seems a suitable topic for a picture. Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa can be interpreted as one of the first grand pictures which heroizes a topical event.11 But the scene in which survivors cling hopelessly to a raft whose link with a life-boat has been selfishly severed is neither objective reportage nor a moral condemnation of an unconscionable deed against the survivors. The genre of outrage has not quite matured in the early nineteenth century. The rationale for the painting is artistic. The artist wants to paint despair and the raft lets him do it with nakedness, a great aesthetic condiment to vulnerabilty.

It is not totally theatrical and silly. A part of the cult of despair is necessary for the spiritual claims of art. The beauty of despair has a sacramental character; for in the spectatorship of disaster, despair demonstrates a heroism of awareness, a brave recognition of doom or certain death. Relative to heroic history pictures of the past, the view of spiritual virtue is mysteriously inverted. Greatness of soul is no longer registered as an abiding faith protested stoutly against ungodly adversity. Greatness of soul is defined as an absence of faith in the reckoning with mortality; it is the heroism which people have when they do not have God. Since the eighteenth century, no heroic moment would ever be shared with God. The encounter with death is staged entirely within the psyche of the individual; there is no appeal to the institutional, no hope of rescue by supernatural benignity; and indeed such fantasies are scorned as spiritual weakness. When the individual faces death with despair, a new sublimity of spiritual independence is found. It is not the quiet stoicism of the ancient Greek heroes but the anarchic dismissal of the artifice of institutional hope.

Romanticism comprises a new kind of rhetoric as well as subject matter. The rhetoric is also a scary polemic against the values of the enlightenment, especially against the positivistic philosophy of reason ultimately being capable of solving all problems. On a social level, Romanticism proposes a series of oppositions, many of which are artificial. For example, intuition is championed in opposition to tuition; the individual is opposed to the social. On an artistic level, the dichotomy must be framed in an opposition to classicism. Expressing passion is opposed to the static decorum of classicism; stylistically, energy is opposed to classical repose; vigour is opposed to classical organization; rough is opposed to smooth; complexity is opposed to classical simplicity; compositional tangle is opposed to classical clarity; effusion is opposed to restraint; abundance is opposed to sparseness; individual specificity is opposed to godly abstraction; stress is opposed to classical stability; imbalance is opposed to classical composure; and the spontaneous is opposed to the classically contrived. On a psychological or spiritual level, agony is opposed to sufficiency; emotion is opposed to classical impassivity; transport is opposed to intellect; impulsiveness is opposed to classical clear-headedness; mystery is opposed to reason; fantasy is opposed to intelligence; nature is opposed to culture.

Art as the detestation of complacency entails revolt. It means taking up the stance of rejection, of scorn for an imputedly self-satisfied ancien régime of the arts. You condemn any pictorial optimism as saccharine; you vigorously repudiate whatever spiritual values appear to have flattered political or intellectual conceits. Meanwhile, Romanticism means cultivating another form of grandeur, a sublime and even gruesome heroism which requires a renovated monumentality; and this is not without its conceits either. The greatest conceit of Romantic art is the heroism of the artist, able to resist the blandishments of aesthetic convention and instead entertain an agonized world of unpredictable imagination, violence, sublimity and instinct. It is self-flattering to a narcissistic degree; but the emotional force of Romantic rhetoric persuades the beholder that the spectacles do not arise from vanity but deep levels of insight and vision, an awesome inner clairvoyance which recognizes the tightest knots of the psyche.

In formal terms, Romantic paintings sometimes resemble baroque paintings, with their powerful diagonals, directional chiaroscuro, energetic shafts of form, circular compositions, the air of formal bravery as well as the iconographically sanguine. Of course they are entirely different in every other respect, technical as well as spiritual. One of the key differences relates to humour. Baroque painters in the Italian narrative tradition always acknowledge a kind of theatrical buoyancy in their fantasies; they know that the myths are ultimately only myths and leave a margin of disbelief in the very ornamental character of the work. And analogous observations can be made about their religious works—as pious as they are—for there is always a sense that the picture is but one reverent visual conjecture of an infinitely greater truth which is divinity. No matter how forceful and pompous, baroque painting leaves you in no doubt that the glory of heaven is greater. Romantic painting, on the other hand, lacks both the holy authorities which would induce such humility and the mythological enthusiasm which would encourage irony in pagan subject matter. Romantic painting is quite without humour. When it is grand, it is bombastic. And the pomposity is not leavened by a sense of supplication before the divine.

In fact there is nothing institutionally divine remaining in the artistic consciousness. The capitalist world of railways and industrial manufacture no longer structurally cultivates God, for the reasons suggested above. But the massive secularization of art which ensues—as in other epochs—does not entail a weakening in the spiritual claims of art. On the contrary, as with other epochs, art assumes greater spiritual status on account of its greater independence from a priestly order. In the Romantic period, the spiritual reputation of art swings from the institutional to the personal or to the individual’s relationship with nature. The very idea of nature, of course, is antithetical to all institutions. When the word is used in the late eighteenth century or throughout the nineteenth century, it denotes a realm of innocence and autonomy from human organization. It is not quite the ancient Greek view of nature (physis), meaning growth, a form of biological development, the default process by which all things are formed if they are not actually made by art. Nor do writers around 1800 use nature quite in the sense of baroque theorists, as when they used to encourage artists to ‘follow nature’ or ‘learn from nature’, which meant to use unprejudiced objective observation in drawing rather than be informed by artificial rules or formulae when representing objects. For the Romantic period, nature is a moral force, a paradigm of action which is not spiritually killed by intellectual legislation. Nature is the place and the scheme in which cultural definitions and laws are ineffectual, leaving the poet or wanderer free to enjoy unpremeditated contact with the element.

At the very time at which the objects of nature were being colonized, so to speak, by the taxonomic genius of the enlightenment and empirical science, a construct of nature emerged which was metaphysical and poetic, fugitive and compelling, immediate and earthy but ideal and ethereal. Depending on your cultural bias, nature could act as a refuge from the disciplinary basis of culture; it would be a sanctuary for the imagination to avoid the regimentation of classificatory systems, for experience of nature would proceed directly and freshly from natural phenomena, unmediated by the hieratic order of the vitrine or scientific tables. Nature would give the poet asylum from the universal grid of the encyclopaedia, for the encounter with nature would directly evoke feelings, moods, atmospheric resonance, which would defy the structural regime of scientific positivism.

Nature represented an escape from both the political determinism of capital and the perceived emotional straight-jacket of scientific measurement of all phenomena. And because it offered such a refuge, it attracted reverence; in due course—at least among intellectuals and artists—nature overtook the spiritual prestige of God. Unlike the organized spirituality of a religion, the new cult of nature did not require a systematic structure; it needed no invidious hierarchy of cardinals authorized to cast grave anathemas on heretics. With the cult of nature, there was neither orthodoxy nor dissent (even though there may have been barbarians who do not appreciate it) but freedom to communicate with spontaneous force. The cult was attended by inspired mystics, enthralled observers, none of whom had superior gifts of prophecy but all of whom were pilgrims and intrinsic hierophants, artlessly given over to the rapturous contemplation of mountains, moss and trees.

Nature as a spiritual resource was an invention of the industrial revolution, which it has largely remained to the present age of eco-tourism in which rapt greenies take their holidays in planes and cars to visit wilderness. The machinery of both engineering and the social order inspired the recreational hallowing of nature. In previous centuries, nature was a realm of still-uncultivated land, rough, unpleasant, dangerous, unproductive, harbouring crooks and wolves. Mountains were an obstacle; travel across them was beastly. The industrial revolution redefined nature as sanctuary, not only because a spiritual antidote was needed against the psychological machinery of industrial life but because the same industry which forced people into the competitive struggles of capital also yielded leisure. The conspicuous consumption of leisure is registered in paintings toward the end of the nineteenth century, especially in those memorable impressionist pictures (such as La Grenouillère, painted by both Monet and Renoir) showing the bourgeois enjoying luncheon or boating outside Paris. The opportunities to move away from city life to absorb the restoring humours of the country must have been building up throughout the nineteenth century.

For the Romantics, however, the interest was not on a social milieu removed from Paris for the lyrical charms of a lazy weekend. The Romantic poets and artists—from Wordsworth to Wilson, from Eichendorff to Caspar David Friedrich—sought to be moved by the primacy of nature. They variously appreciated in nature the inclement transport, the imposingly grandiose vista, the raw impact of the endless complexity of nature upon the senses. Everything which could not be replicated by human construction, everything which defies the imagination, contributed to the cult. Nature emerged in Romantic consciousness as a pre-existing cathedral of infinite shrines, places where a person could go in prayerful silence and reflect on the wholeness of the world through contemplating a tiny fragment of the earth. Some Romantics may have imagined that the ultimate cathedral was that built by God; but the genius of the cult was to make the speculation on an institutionalized deity redundant. The cathedral, in this metaphoric sense, is the godly; for it is not an ornamental shell to be filled by sermons and liturgy but an animating spirit which organically creates and relates all living and inanimate matter. Nature in this autonomous spiritual guise received the dedications of the faithful, certain people (all relatively privileged on the social scale) who could let the sublime thought of nature into their soul, to be spiritually transfused by the encounter.

The artwork which promises to fulfil the terms of this encounter is sacramental. It replicates the physicality of the world on a spiritual plane; it rehearses a reverent predisposition toward the tangible presence of nature. The rich atmospheric dimensions of a vista are studied for their power of transfusing consciousness. It is what distinguishes the nineteenth-century landscapes of Constable, for example, from their seventeenth-century Dutch antecedents by painters such as Ruisdael and Hobbema. The masters of Dutch genre are powerfully atmospheric, evocative, and charming; but a part of their seductiveness is the way the picture is wrapped up, as it were, in a moody consistency, an aesthetic intonation, a resonance achieved by means of umbrous glazes. In Constable, the encounter with the givens of nature seems fresher, more palpably perceptual, capable of reckoning with organic anarchy, and lacks much of the aesthetic convention of the past. Constable’s paintings are often iconographically unceremonious: you see the rear of things, a view from a ditch or the view of an illustrious structure (such as Salisbury Cathedral) which is substantially obscured by trees.12 Meanwhile, the rich intonations of the layered transparent technique of the baroque masters is abandoned in favour of a more alla prima application of paint, sometimes extending to the placement of white on the canvas, untempered by ochres or any other earth glaze. The perception of the disorderly sparkle of wet surfaces no longer submits to the artificial unification of warm glazed tones; the hallowed technique of ‘brown and green paintings’ is rejected in favour of an ‘importunate optic’, a splashing and dashing, a flickering of lights which in nature are all varied and diverse. The illusion of a view gains a new primacy, for it separates itself from the coherent skin of the glazed picture plane. The new pictorial epidermis, so to speak, spontaneously acknowledges the multiplicity of visual information without the intermediary of a conventional dark and sonorous luminosity. Nature is all encountered through reflection of light; in Constable you do not have the sense of penetrating the shadows to see forms in their richness but rather the sense of forms impressing themselves upon the eye with immediacy. The painting technique seems uncontrived. The recognition of nature’s richness invites the ‘raw’ handling of the medium of paint.

Painting becomes both more scientific and artistically spontaneous: it registers optical effects with a minimum of prejudice and it expresses a ‘natural’ engagement with the landscape and the medium. It is not exactly a mystical paradox (for it is logical and at times unemotional) but art emerges as an exalted clairvoyance into the untutored and irregular sights of nature. Not only does art involve a new seeing-power which realigns the subject matter but the optical recognition within the art expresses itself through the magic presence of the gestural brushstroke. Constable’s application of paint is as unorthodox as his iconographic vision is unceremonious. But in dispensing with some of the inherited ‘ceremonies’ of painting, Constable more fully expresses what the century wanted from nature, ironically a kind of sacramental encounter which would abstract the genius of nature (and its infiltration of the eyes, lungs and consciousness of the beholder) and thereby act as an artistic substitute for the institutionalized sacraments of religion.

In many ways, Turner is not dissimilar. Although undoubtedly having greater affinity with past conventions and a greater readiness to assimilate them into the fabric of his pictures, Turner also represents the combination of a searching iconography which discovers hitherto unrecognized phenomena with a heightened expression of the medium.13 The thrashing, surging and seething of Turner’s seas, mountains and clouds are the qualities which most generally identify Turner as a Romantic, expressing the untrammelled emotional engagement with the moods of nature. His pictures have the air of narrowly avoided disaster. But the writhing sinews of his paint (often gorgeously intermingled with old-master glazing) are only one half of the pictorial renovation which Turner’s pictures achieve. Like Constable, he can recognize an aspect of common reality which had never featured in painting, the new technologies of steam-power, the reality of wharves working through the night to load coal and save time—hence capital—or new transport systems, such as rail.

In a well-known picture memorably called Rain, Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway, Turner shows a locomotive flying over a bridge beneath our gaze.14 How radical this picture is cannot be summed up easily. In traditional terms the perspective is unseasonal. It proposes a viewpoint above the land. The train rushes toward us but beside us at the same time; there is a sense of its enormously dynamic presence but also its imminent vanishing, leaving the landscape to its wet silence and timeless stability. The approach of the train is a kind of visual crisis, emerging from a kind of inchoate suggestiveness amid the misty rain and enacting some overcharged epiphany which is chased by an almost simultaneous disappearance. Some of the radical pictorial content is conveyed by the title. There was never a picture in the past with the word ‘speed’ in it. The expression of distance divided by time is astonishingly abstract, especially in the context of old-fashioned nouns like rain and steam. Of course this variety of steam (steam produced by coal combustion) is unseasonal, like the speed and the perspective: it is industrial, an expression of modernity. But the painting equally expresses the way in which the infinite mantle of nature subsumes even the most violent interventions of modern machinery. The overpowering embrace of nature is a theme which Turner also visits in marine pictures showing a steamer struggling against high seas.

Turner’s recognition of industrial objects is unusual. Most of the industrial revolution occurred without artists ever deigning to notice it. Why should they? Their business is sacramental. Considering the great bulk of nineteenth-century pictures, there are few factories, machines or distribution networks represented. To find a full-blooded enthusiasm for such subject matter, you have to wait till the futurists of the twentieth century and artists like Léger, by which time the interests in the reality of appearances is so severely challenged by internal pictorial interrogation that industrial plant and production are never really credited or dignified with the visual information proper to them. In a sense, the industrial revolution somehow escapes the sovereign spiritual notice of artists. And for a simple reason. The industrial revolution and all its machinery contained no sacramental cues. Turner is thus the exception that proves the rule. He paints modern powered machinery when it is upstaged by the sublimity of nature, when it demonstrates the infinite atmospheric lap of the earth in which dark and nasty little mechanical interventions contend with inelegant pumping exertions. Turner never shows machinery for its own sake and, if he had, we would not be looking at it today; for it would not be recognized as art.

The freshness of Turner’s vision is not to be denied and is well celebrated by the vivacious and stressful technique; but the most modern element in his art is not the presence of machinery but—as with Constable—the absence of narrative. Neither artist wants monumentality to arise from an Aristotelian drama with a beginning, a middle and an end. The mythical personages in Turner’s Claudian landscapes are pip-squeaks; even when he wants to recreate the baroque nostalgia for antiquity, the mythical substance of the themes is insignificant.15 Turner just wants the sunset kissing the leaves and columns from the side, the expansiveness of the waters driving through the centre of the perspective; he wants the atmosphere of a distant kingdom but not in order to animate it with sanguine baroque immediacy but to drop it into a kind of historicist sfumato. His heroes no longer strut the heroic stage upon which they will commit sacramental actions; they slip to the props where they only enjoy their own decorativeness. Their role recedes from the potency of heroism to the insignificance of a pretext for painting a certain kind of picture.

From Constable to Corot, Courbet and the impressionists, the painted world reflects the anonymity of capital. The illustrious names of heroes are irrelevant to the artistic project. Ironically, there is a rich and seductive academic tradition of figure painting which keeps the Greek myths and Judeo-Christian narratives in currency; it is relatively well patronized and represents mainstream, orthodoxy, classicism, the establishment, everything, in short, against which Romanticism struggled. Academic painting continued to cultivate the names of ancient history and myth; but it added a large number of less familiar names which would have been esoteric for a baroque audience. With relative prosperity and the airs of pomp and authority, academic painting strains hard to achieve excellence in learning and moral probity; it seeks to be both grand and useful, bristling with antique names, lessons and rhetoric. Academic painting throughout the nineteenth century shows no signs of collapsing or losing its technical finesse. Sometimes, the historical themes seem artificial and the gestures of protagonists are hammed or stilted; and, compared to baroque painting, academic painting is unnatural, stressfully ambitious and psychologically remote.

Of course painting as edification in academic painting has almost nothing to do with capital or industrial progress. But like Romanticism, it works by opposition to the mainstream of organized production. Art is understood as something about itself. It does not reflect the social conditions of the day but the greatness of soul of former times. Neo-classicism is nostalgic and Romanticism is challenging and forward-looking; but both are structurally united in their preoccupations internal to art itself. Art is about being art. It is not about the changes to the fabric of cities or the development of technologies. It is about the resources of a medium, pre-eminently painting—from the optical to the literary—which would help lift the spectator to a higher plane of contemplation. Absorbing this material attention to the agonized gaze would be prestigious and spiritually transformative. Art is about secular sacraments.

Within this somewhat introverted economy of self-challenging picture-making, an artistic ethos emerges which, at least ostensibly, pays direct attention to the appearance of the age, Realism. Realism rejects the rhapsodic spirituality of Romanticism but has no time for the oratorios of neo-classicism. The movement is not unrelated to its immediate predecessors. Realist artists such as Corot clearly owe much to Constable, as does the whole Barbizon School.16 But when it comes to painting the figure, the distinctiveness of realist motivation emerges more clearly. The key personality (and such a personality!) is Courbet, an energetic self-publicist and rebel, endowed with the confidence to establish his own exhibition—at a time when solo shows were rather unknown—when his works were rejected by the academy because of their radical content and treatment.

Courbet professed to seek no manner of artifice in his works. His celebrated challenge “show me an angel and I’ll paint one” well characterizes the determination of the materialist spirit. No Ossianic fantasies, no revelry of woodland nymphs or esoteric assignations of lads and lasses of Boccaccio’s Florence. Courbet ambitiously sought heroic content in the boring days and menial work of ordinary people, especially those in the countryside, some distance from the sophistication and prestige of Paris. From there he painted his best known works, the Stonebreakers and the Burial at Ornans, paintings of new and surprising pathos.17 In the Burial at Ornans, the unceremonious obsequies for a recently deceased member of the village community shamble their way across the canvas: the composition takes its cue from the randomness of the bleak landscape, and the scenography of poses and gestures reveals a disjointed combination of poignant grief and the indifference of the funerary routine. The presence of the dog at the burial seems indelicate, scandalous, indecorous; the hole dug for the coffin yawns horribly and the pious blessings induced by the cross seem ineffectual.

In the Stonebreakers, Courbet shows a very young man assisting a lean older middle-aged man in breaking rocks. Presumably their toil is for screenings, perhaps for a railway or road—who knows?—but their labours are not related to an end-use. They are required by the destiny of capital to bend their backs to the work, to slave away at the most unrewarding task (proverbially making little rocks out of big rocks) in order to feed themselves and their families. There is a suggestion, too, of mortality: the boy will grow into the figure of the older middle-aged man, with no opportunities for corporal grace or dignity. This is what it is like, you sense Courbet saying, if you are underprivileged. Your life is bespoken by poverty. There are no ways out. You just have to bend your body to whatever unglamorous work is available and be rewarded by such a tiny pittance that no escape form the oppressiveness of a miserable life will be dispensed by fortune.

Courbet is only cheerful if the picture is about himself or his erotic investments. Bonjour Monsieur Courbet is an example of the painter’s conceited buoyancy; in numerous other self-portraits, his narcissism is apparent.18 None of his pictures is without a rhetorical temper. They tend to be large and have an air of monumentality in their drawing. Courbet professed to seek no kind of inflexion on the accurate visual recording of the things which he saw in front of him. But if that were the case, his pictures would be expressionless. And that they are not. If anything, they tend to the operatic, as in The Bathers of 1853.19 And the two works of thorough realist conviction (the Stonebreakers and the Funeral at Ornans) are intended to convey the most poignant expression, namely the social desolation of the rural proletariat. They are painted in the most objective manner possible but they can hardly avoid the rhetorical temper of projecting pathos, the sense of the histrionic, the stage-managed rehearsal of poverty by a sophisticated and ambitious painter. Try as he may to persuade us that he only paints what he sees, Courbet asks people to pose in his studio: a whole ritual is undertaken by people who definitely are not so oppressed that they have no time to act for him as studio models. The artificial nature of working on ‘low life’ can be seen in the picture with the most tellingly paradoxical title, The Artist’s Studio (A Real Allegory), in which numerous down-and-outs have been clustered in one part of the composition to represent not themselves for themselves but the radical subject matter of art for the radical painter.20 They are answered by the figures on the other side of the composition, poets and intellectuals who similarly synthesize the facts of the great unwashed to produce the insights of genius.

Courbet’s socialism is crucial in all this. As a socialist, Courbet believes that everything that is and everything that ever was has a material cause. There is no mystery, neither in the patterns of historical change nor in the motives for contemporary religious beliefs; at the heart of organized spirituality there is a habit of manipulating people into submission, perhaps at best based only on superstition to which no self-respecting intellectual would ever succumb. There are no sacraments but any number of greedy spiritual groups ready to prey upon the gullibility of the oppressed and uneducated masses and recommend submission as supreme virtue. This critique may all be fair enough; and as Courbet really believed it, he must be recognized as the first artist ever to have consciously and actively defied the spiritual basis of art.

For the most part, Courbet’s paintings bear out the philosophy. At least in the late 1840s and early ’50s, they are relentlessly ordinary, showing a staunch rejection of spiritualized subject matter and stylistic conventions. But there is a philosophical contradiction in Courbet’s materialism, a paradox out of which the artist creates a new kind of art, an agonized art of implied manifestos and theoretical difficulty. As a socialist, Courbet would seek revolutionary overthrow; he would want his work to contribute to class struggle and convey a point about social justice. He would not go so far as to create propaganda for the revolution but neither would he want to create ideologically neutral art; for that would mean acceding to the capitalist complacency of bourgeois consumption. Alas, the same ideology also asks him to stick to the facts, to paint only what he sees (as he says himself) and to exaggerate nothing. In following such Realist principles, Courbet denies himself a whole level of expression. He cannot easily engage allegory, narrative or symbolism, much less expressive exaggeration or theatricality, rhetoric in gestures or emphasis; for these tropes fly in the face of the Realist credo to paint only what one sees, proceeding from materialist principles of objectivity and faithfulness to unromanced perception. The social campaign which would follow from the same principles is disappointed by the artistic requirements.21 Courbet cannot easily be both socialist and Realist. And of course he errs to the artistic side of the dichotomy.

Courbet’s later work is seductively erotic (as in the Lesbian Sleep); it appeals to cheeky bourgeois taste and could easily be read as an ideological sell-out.22 But rather than interpret the later work as a sign of failure for Courbet’s philosophy, it makes more sense to read it as a proof of the stresses which make Courbet’s earlier work so compellingly modern. The agony is inherent in all Courbet’s work: first, to paint something which is candid and untampered, so to speak, by artistic ruses and, second, to champion the cause of social reform or revolution. That leaves very few things to paint. Courbet probably exhausted many of them with the few pictures of the rural proletariat from early in his career; thereafter, his art becomes more and more an imaginative demonstration of the self-conscious agonies themselves, as in The Artist’s Studio, mentioned before.

With Courbet, art gains an avant garde; it gains a sense of being progressive in strong alignment with a political avant garde. After Courbet, it would become more and more difficult for an artist to be understood as progressive without being implicated in a whole network of contradictory and almost impossible demands. It would no longer be possible simply to paint an expressive picture along the heroic lines of the Romantics; for pictures with a simple expressive power do not display efforts to grapple with the material ideological status of the work; in fact, they elude such an effort beneath a subterfuge of expressive bombast. Painting at its most progressive cannot glory in the rhetoric of tall tales, high mountains and high seas, when that very rhetoric insulates art from a tough engagement with its own material ideological underpinnings.

In all this, however, art remains art. It still has a pre-eminently aesthetic or perceptual charter and cultivates the magic of seeing-power to a high degree, discovering exciting artistic potential in topics hitherto considered unworthy of art and undoubtedly cued by photography. As noted, Courbet’s paintings of low life are on a monumental scale, the same scale as assumed by ambitious Romantic painters. And despite all theory to the contrary, Courbet’s images are usually immensely rhetorical, engaging every strategy for artistic self-importance which Romantic painting ever projected. The difference with respect to the Romantic tradition is the substitution of its spirituality, the rejection of the numinous assumptions behind the reverence for nature, the rejection of nature, in fact, as a spiritual force or even an interesting motif in art. This turning away from the spiritual assumptions of the previous traditions is similar to all the stages of secularization considered so far; for the challenge to the anterior metaphysic occurs while the awesome properties of the tradition—Romantic painting as a statement of rebellious magnanimity—are still conferred upon its successor. The stirring thrill of the Romantic revolution animates the zeal of the Realist; and the whole Realist urgency and pregnancy owes everything to the rebellious agonies of Romanticism, the very art whose spirituality Realism rejects.

Courbet, in this sense, is a shameless appropriator; he glories in his status as genius rebel with implied greatness of soul and monumental vision and he paints his miserable rural proletariat with a kind of majestic authority. He would undoubtedly like to think that his expressive remoteness from the poor was due to his uncompromising objectivity and dispassionate distance; but it could equally be ascribed to a natural coldness and lack of sympathy, the same kind of objectivity that allowed Stubbs to paint horses being mauled by lions and let Delacroix paint the vicious mayhem of a lion hunt. The thrill of transgression is offset by the hallowed celebration of greatness of soul, the artist’s power of witnessing the sacrificial, the confession of the artist’s sturdiness of spirit in relaying the truth of the victim.

The sacramental character of Romanticism is carried forward in Courbet by the further heroism of ideological conviction: the expressive prestige of his art is sacrificed to a higher social good, on account of whose strenuous requirements the artwork is agonized, denied its age-old privileges of fantasy and inventive licence, its imaginative seduction, its poetic liberties. The artwork is submitted to paradoxes and the artist is a kind of priest who proffers impossible reconcilement between aesthetic privileges and moral obligations. Art, in this sense, becomes a jealous God, subjecting its artistic mediators to agonized devotions. With Courbet, the archetype of the modern artist is born: to make the ideal of progress sacramental. From the empiricist view of the Enlightenment—to effect progress by undoing the religious tradition—the movement of socialism into art paradoxically reintroduces a mysterious element of poetic judgement in an otherwise rational domain. The severity of a materialist philosophy at some stage bends and becomes art. It is the classical moment of reinvestment of spirit, the adoption of privileges of a previously spiritualized art to serve a more skeptical and critical aesthetic order. The outward spiritual rationale is denied but the sacramental privileges are retained for the greater prestige of the new art.


1     Barbara Kruger, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 111 Sturt St, Southbank, 2005–2006. The following introductory text is grafted from a synchronous article in The Age (Nelson 2006).

2     Partly because it privileged the ‘inaction’ of reverie (as opposed to the ‘action’ of historical narrative; labour; the pursuit of knowledge), Watteau’s subject-matter of idyllic love and landscapes was not accorded high status by his peers. See Cafritz (1989, 149–181); also, Plax (2000) provides an account of Watteau’s artistic achievement that highlights his complicated relationship with the culture of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture.

3     Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Invenzioni Capric di Carceri all Acqua Forte was the title of the first series of etchings featuring imaginary interiors, issued ca. 1745. The second series was a re-working of the first; titled Carceri d’Invenzione, it appeared in 1760, and then in its finished form in 1761. For a sustained comparison of the two series or states, see Gavuzzo-Stewart (1999), who also permits systematic comparisons of the images.

4     Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Maja and Celestina on the Balcony, 1808–1810, oil on canvas, collection of Batholomé March, Madrid; Los Caprichos, a set of eighty-four etchings with aquatint first published in 1799 by Goya himself; The Third of May, 1808 (The Executions on Príncipe Pío Hill), 1814, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid; The Disasters of War, 1810–1820 but unpublished during the artist’s lifetime—the first printed edition of these eighty plates appeared in 1863, almost forty years after Goya’s death.

5     Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Black Paintings, 1820–1824, oil transferred to canvas from mural, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Executed in oil on the plaster walls of the cottage known as la Quinta del Sordo, these fourteen paintings were given to the Prado Museum in 1881. See the very readable portrait of Goya and his work by Hughes (2003). See also Junquera (2003) on the matter of archival evidence for the attribution of these works.

6     Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos, plate 43 of Los Caprichos (intended as the title plate), 1796–1797.

7     See Morrison (1997, 108–116).

8     See Diderot (1995).

9     Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827–1828, oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris. On the scandalized reactions and reflections that this painting provoked on being exhibited at the Paris Salon see Jobert (1998, 78–88), who quotes at length from contemporary documents.

10    Eugène Delacroix, The Barque of Dante, 1822, oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris; Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, 1835, oil on canvas, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt; Scenes from the Massacres of Chios, 1824, oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris; The Death of Ophelia, 1853, oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris; The Confession of the Giaour, 1825–1840, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

11    Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris. See Grimaldo Grigsby (2002, 165–235), who reads this painting in terms of the cultural politics, violences, and ambiguities of colonial contact: “And certainly Géricault’s picture also redeems the raft survivors as martyrs—as victims not victimizers. What has been sublimated is the narrative of brutal sacrifice: of women, of blacks, of foreigners, of the poor … Géricault’s painting redeems the raft’s survivors but it does so in terms at once more radical and more difficult than the [popular, contemporary] narrative offered by [Jean-Baptiste-Henri] Savigny and [Alexandre] Corréard” (232).

12    John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds, ca. 1825, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden, 1826, oil on canvas, Frick Collection, New York. The former is a full-scale oil study for the latter; both are amongst the numerous views of the Cathedral made by Constable during the years 1811–1829, as a result of a commission from Bishop John Fisher.

13    See Venning (2003). In its analysis of the historical context of Turner’s works, Venning’s monograph foregrounds the complexity and variety of the artist’s oeuvre, in particular as a function of Turner’s own conception of history.

14    Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway, before 1844, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London. See Rodner (1997).

15    See Nicholson (1990): in her study of Turner’s use of mythical subjects and traditions of idealized landscape painting, Nicholson prefers the idea of “interpretive play” between narrative and other elements. “The stories [Turner] told about heroes like Regulus, about the gods and nymphs of the Metamorphoses, or about ancient civilizations, exalted nature’s critical role in the narrative of antiquity … The straightforward account promised by the paintings’ ostensible subjects (and the titles Turner himself crafted) is inevitably complicated and enriched by the development of the imagery” (291).

16    See Adams (1997, 48–52); as well as John Constable, the author singles out painter Richard Parkes Bonington for his influence on early nineteenth-century French landscape art.

17    Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1849, oil on canvas, formerly Gemäldegalerie, Dresden (destroyed 1945); Burial at Ornans, 1849–1850, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

18    Gustave Courbet, Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (The Meeting), 1854, oil on canvas, Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

19    Gustave Courbet, The Bathers, 1853, oil on canvas, Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

20    Gustave Courbet, The Artist’s Studio (A Real Allegory), 1855, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

21    The contradictions characteristic of Courbet’s approach were strongly reflected in interpretive discourse on his painting in American art criticism of the second half of the nineteenth century: see Meixner (1995, 142–193).

22    Gustave Courbet, The Sleepers (Sleep), 1862, oil on canvas, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris. See Kosinski (1988, 187–199).


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Cafritz, R. 1989. “Rococo Restoration of the Venetian Landscapes and Watteau’s Creation of the Fête Galante”. In Places of Delight. The Pastoral Landscape, edited by Cafritz, R.; Gowing, L.; Rosand, D. Washington: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 149–181.

Diderot, D. 1995. Diderot on Art, edited and translated by Goodman, T. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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Grimaldo Grigsby, D. 2002. Extremities: Painting Empire in Post-Revolutionary France. New Haven: Yale University Press. 165–235.

Hughes, R. 2003. Goya. London: Harvill.

Jobert, B. 1998. Delacroix, translated by Grabar, T.; Bonfante-Warren, A. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 78–88.

Junquera, J. 2003. The Black Paintings of Goya, translated by Evans, G. London: Scala Publishers Ltd.

Kosinski, D. M. 1988. “Gustave Courbet’s The Sleepers: The Lesbian Image in Nineteenth-Century French Art and Literature”. Artibus et Historiae 18: 187–199.

Meixner, L. L. 1995. “Courbet, Corot, and Democratic Poetics”. In French Realist Painting and the Critique of American Society, 1865–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 142–193.

Morrison, V. 1997. “The lion and the horse series”. In The Art of George Stubbs. Sydney: Sandstone Books. 108–116.

Nelson, R. 2006. “Belligerence that silences the viewer”. The Age. 25 January, p. 18.

Nicholson, K. 1990. Turner’s Classical Landscapes: Myth and Meaning. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Plax, J. A. 2000. Watteau and the Cultural Politics of Eighteenth-Century France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rodner, W. S. 1997. J. M. W. Turner, Romantic Painter of the Industrial Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Smith, A. 1977. An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. Chicago. University Of Chicago Press (first published London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1776).

Venning, B. 2003. Turner. London: Phaidon.

Cite this chapter as: Nelson, Robert. 2007. ‘The industrial spirit’. The Spirit of Secular Art: A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Values. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 6.16.19.

The Spirit of Secular Art

   by Robert Nelson