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The Spirit of Secular Art

Chapter 9

In the name of critique

Robert Nelson

On account of its kinship with the mechanistic world of industrial progress, modernism frequently brought satire and ridicule upon itself. Let us ignore the sometimes inspired derision in which conservative art critics would exercise their wits against the new art. The more lasting satires were oblique and would come from the radical artistic quarter itself. It is possible to interpret much modern art (as the American art historian Donald Kuspit has done) as a form of parody, either of itself or of the whole idea of representation or non-representation.1 It is possible to interpret the Picasso of synthetic cubism as a jokester, for his work does not arise out of an intellectual or spiritual obsession (as Mondrian’s does) but from a kind of compulsion toward the prank, the modernized lyrical grotesque. It is hard to judge; for even allowing that Picasso sought to be humorous in a kind of abstracted burlesque, his work can still be seen as heroizing its own prowess of innovation, without its conceits being over-burdened by irony.

The satirical tradition of the twentieth century is seen more obviously with Dada. The movement has often been interpreted as a reaction to the First World War, an anarchic expression of disgust for all forms of authority. There may be some truth in this; but Dada has a critical dimension which is properly poetic, making bizarre folie à deux with the materialist philosophy which had informed the fabric of the industrial world and had recently gone so far as to colonize the psyche in the works of Sigmund Freud. In the performances and visual works of artists such as Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, the materialistic basis of modernity would be poetically satirized as absurd.

In Picabia’s painting Machine turn quickly, an assembly of cogs is figured in the flat idiom of mechanical drawing. The deadpan rendering of the geometric components—which do not make much sense from an engineering point of view—are offset by the absurdity of the title.2 It is true that some people implore machines to do something when they are in a transport of enthusiasm, rage or desperation (as when you swear at your bicycle for getting a puncture); but the invocation is in vain, for the machine cannot hear; and if it did hear, by some mechanical miracle, it would not understand. Everything is inverted. The psychological engagement with the machine (though in some sense instinctual) is misplaced. Instinct gives you the subjective identification with the mechanical; but logic (that is, an objective mechanism of thought) distances you from the machine, fills you with disappointment and possibly makes you laugh that you could ever have wanted to talk to a machine.

In Picabia’s Amorous Parade, a similarly irrational assembly of cogs, levers, counterweights and various processing units (perhaps boilers and so on) allegorizes sexual functions.3 The title refers to a demonstrating of erotic interests, as of courtship. The theatre of instinct is rather rudely translated to a mechanism. Nothing in the erotic scenario—whatever an amorous parade is—has a cause in a spiritual or wilful dimension of the soul. Machines work in complicated ways and are analogous to humans in their interaction of separate components, all assembled to lend one another some function which the other component cannot supply. But the organic character of the human body links all corporal matters to the mind, to controlling moods, to will and feelings. Machines lack feelings and will. The reason a flywheel turns is that an armature spins it; the reason the armature pushes and pulls at the wheel is that it is driven by a piston; the reason the piston pumps is the rhythm of pressure caused by the release of steam; the reason there is steam is that there is combustion … and so on. In the whole exegesis of the machine there is never a mention of will; for what is wilful and organically reciprocal can never be mechanical. The will of the machine entirely defaults to the person who built the machine or wanted it to function in the way that it does. And now that it has been built, it has no choice to function otherwise; nor will it ever experience any dissatisfaction, including when it grinds to a halt after being neglected by its careless operator.

The distinction between human and machine advertises the qualities of will and spirit which distinguish the organic from the mechanical. But since the writings of Freud, the distinction could not be maintained so complacently. While of course conceding that the human is inordinately more complicated than a machine, Freud nevertheless saw no reason to suppose that the psychological element of the organism is inherently spiritual, that is, non material. On the contrary, Freud imagined that all processes in the psyche ultimately have a material cause, even though we may never adequately understand it. Those dimensions of experience which we intellectually quarantine from the material world such as will and feeling probably belong to a biochemical system which behaves according to the laws of science just as much as the function of the liver or muscles. In the final analysis, all emotional phenomena may be reduced to the biochemistry of the body and its hormonal activity and neuronal relationships.

Although no biochemist, Freud effectively began the inquiry into the material nature of the psyche by identifying distinct parts within it which have a somewhat ‘mechanistic’ bearing on the other. Thus, the I (or ego) is conceived as a powerless centre of the psyche in which a person feels his or her identity; the ego is surrounded by three strong elements, the source of energy or drive, the voice of negation or conscience (superego) and the outside world. These forces lie in a difficult and stressful balance. Through the circumstances of a person’s life, any of the forces is likely to have a destructive dominance in the psyche and threaten the ego with the terrible consequences of neurosis. To see the psyche in this dynamic of stresses radically lends itself to a mechanistic revaluation of the spiritual, especially when Freud further defines the three forces in materialistic terms.

The element of will (which is clearly central to the spiritual defence against determinism) is considered an energy. The energy which causes a young woman to be kind to her grandmother is the same energy that gives her the sex-drive or allows her to write a symphony: in essence it is libido, diverted one way or another in sublimations either in her control or not. Freud would not deny that the young woman has a choice; but the choice would ultimately be an expression of the libido in its balance with the other forces.

The element of conscience (which again is central to the spiritual defence against determinism) is considered as a precipitate of experiences of childhood in which the erotic urges of the child make an adjustment to the economy of parental affection. Freud famously describes this as the Œdipus complex, a drama in which the young boy wants to get rid of his father and exclusively love his mother. In the successful resolution of this complex, the boy learns to assimilate the presence of the father as a form of authority, admirable in its own right; and this new ‘intellectualized’ affection in the child creates the inner voice of negation or conscience. Where once the child had to be physically or verbally discouraged from impulsive actions, now he or she generates the messages autonomously. Parental fear is abstracted and internalized in a potentially crushing inner decree, capable of making the child lose all confidence and worse. Conscience is not a voice of God; it is not learned through religion nor is it some innate part of the immortal soul. It is a condition of fear abstracted through various memories and installed in the mind for the benefit or disintegration of the personality. For thus challenging the spiritual understanding of the key mystical concepts of will and conscience, Freud is even more rancorously scorned and anathematized by spiritually inclined people than is Karl Marx. No one had advanced the frontier of scientific materialism so far nor so eloquently.

Freud’s influence on art has often been acknowledged, but with a common emphasis on the Surrealists and their absorption of Freud’s use of dreams in penetrating the unconscious. But the profounder Freudian contribution to the history of ideas seems more interestingly interpreted by the Dadaists, especially Picabia and Duchamp. In Picabia’s two works mentioned and Duchamp’s famous Large Glass: the Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, the mechanistic analogies to psychological processes are interpreted literally.4 Erotic scenarios are played out in the cipher of machines, which is very funny, since there is undoubtedly a mechanistic element in human response to stimuli; yet au fond we know that we are not machines and that we have will. When people behave mechanistically, we laugh, as had been noted in an uproarious little book by the French philosopher Henri Bergson, Le rire of 1900.5 Bergson believed that we have laughter in order to chasten ourselves of the mechanical. Laughter enables us to identify mechanical behaviour as absurd and thus, admonished by the ridicule, we can correct it and behave with the appropriate organic rhythms of life. He thought that laughter was functional: it prevented people from lapsing into the mechanistic and losing touch with the organic intelligence of the world around them. And so, ironically, Bergson’s interpretation of laughter as anti-mechanistic is itself a kind of mechanism. It is as if all metaphysical pathways lead to the absurd.

If in the nineteenth century, Nietzsche announced the death of God, the twentieth century would have to reckon with the death of metaphysics. Abstract artists from Mondrian to Rothko and Newman, would never acknowledge the crisis in which materialist philosophy had plunged metaphysics and would continue—with mixtures of delusion and pretension—to fabricate ghosts in the void. Their genre of spooky formalism is inoffensive and sometimes, as in Pollock, monumentalizes the gestural impulse, magnifying the spontaneous or automatic with memorable results. But the tradition of Dada more truthfully confronts the status of the spiritual in the century. The inner landscape has no gods, no totems, no established sacraments. But delightful paradoxes emerge in this recognition which lend themselves to aesthetic embellishment. First, the world of no spirit is absurd, for it is mechanistic. Second, the recognition of spirit is absurd, for there are no spirits but only processes which are ultimately biochemical. Third, the wilful attempt to erect a substitute spirituality—or will or psychological autonomy—is absurd, for it mechanically compensates for something which does not exist. A person can only live by having absurd faith in such things; and faith can only work if it is understood as absurd, for it has to countenance the void of spirit. And so, in a somewhat anarchic irony, the absurd reaches an extraordinary prestige and becomes the new sacramental genre of the century.

The prestigious new aesthetic is evident in Picabia and Duchamp whose absurdist works are utterly ambiguous, having no definite agenda if not the relishing of the absurd. But they are artworks, rather than statements of abstract philosophy, because they aestheticize the absurd by manufacturing more of it and apparently revelling in it. The works are garlands of lacunae, festoons of nonsense, artfully baffling over a self-consciously defective joke. And so Dada fulfils the great sacramental paradigm of art from the past. It displaces an earlier order of belief (or believed aesthetics) and installs in its place a more secular disbelieving art; but the new art finds its way to hold onto the aesthetic privileges of semantic grace and balance, and so claims the sacramental status of the older art while being infused with radical prestige for yielding up the spirit of the older art in a de-ritualized genre.6

Duchamp’s ready-mades represent the degree-zero in artistic belief, for they mock both the concept of representation and the ideal of aesthetic beauty. Taking a bottle-rack or a shovel or a urinal and putting it in the gallery with a facetious title is funny in a peculiarly severe way.7 The gesture of the ready-made can be interpreted in several ways, the most simplistic of which is a polemic against the institution of galleries, especially the arbitrariness by which their hallowed walls can classify anything as art. Against this naive dead-end ‘nominative discourse’, the deeper critical content of Duchamp’s ready-mades concerns the absurdity of reproduction. Unlike paintings, say, which reproduce nature, a bottle-rack is reproduced by a machine; but the machine can only reproduce—it has no choice—and the spiritual desolation of the progenitor-machine is reflected by the fact that each new bottle-rack is an identical reproduction of the last. Reproduction is something that nature and humans do by instinct; yet the instinct does not necessarily reflect reason or will; and in the potentially endless propagation of machinery, as when the bottle-rack is churned out in multiples through the assembly line, the rationale for each item has no intention or organic growth stamped upon it which would distinguish it from any other item in the mould. The art of representation is stripped of its most fundamental aesthetic quality, the sense of intention. For Duchamp, the only artistic intention to warrant belief is an arbitrary industrial object which, in the context of the gallery, suggests that aesthetic intentionality is as absurd as mechanical reproduction.

After the Second World War, the non-formalist tradition of Dada resumes, so to speak, in conceptual art. At times it is sanctimonious and gloriously leftist in a self-referential way, deploring the capitalist ownership of art objects—hence the overwriting of art with mainstream ideology—and seeking the salvation of art in the non-material or at least non-commodity. But at its best, that is, when poetic and not merely polemical, conceptual art is absurdist, funny and sacramental. Installations of alarmingly little content are intentionally confusing and offer an intellectual titillation in the conundrum of whether or not there is an intelligible purpose. The communicative absurdity of many installations is an aesthetic, even if the artist nourishes an ambition somewhere in the project to launch polemics against dominant ideology of aesthetics. The work in itself does not fulfil the polemic nor is it intended to. It is constituted as an art work by virtue of its obliqueness to the purpose, its absurdity, its aesthetic engagement with an interpreter. It is sacramental in the same way that Dada is sacramental.

As in Dada, the artwork is dispensable: performance is sometimes considered to offer a more direct route to the critical oxymorons of art—the messages which deal with the absurdity of a prefigured intention or teleology—giving the absurd a greater immanence. Also referred to as body art or happenings, performance art sometimes appears to be a return to a corporal liturgy (especially in artists like the Viennese Hermann Nitsch, who consciously evokes archaic blood sacrifices with learned references to ancient rites, or the Chinese Zhu Yu who devoured a human foetus in 2000), but the style of many art performances is cerebral and abstracted.8 In general, however, performance art follows the pattern of inverted spirituality noted in the other stages of the progress of western art: it renounces the spiritual economy of the established art object—what theorists called the aura of the artwork—and so displaces an earlier iconic code or symbolic tradition which encouraged belief. But the radical abolition of ‘auratic’ forms would leave nothing to view as artistic unless some translated manifestation of it managed to creep back into the minimalist genre. The new art without objects (post-object art) is just as auratic as the old object-based art; but it gains new prestige by seeming to make redundant the outdated symbolic status of older art, the very art whose spiritual or aesthetic interest it subsumes. The catch is, of course, that the progressive secularizing of recent traditions is predicated on absurdity—because, in the art of Dada, a believed aesthetic has already been obliterated—so that the progress of art becomes circular, rather as in the popular image of a dog chasing its tail. The artist is only interested in paradoxes: how can this manifestation relate ideas while resisting the commodified visual language for relaying ideas? How can I infuse the installation with the ideology of resistance against mainstream commodification while avowing an uncommunicative idiom? Art becomes more and more inaccessible; the essays written about it become impenetrable because they are the exegesis of aesthetic contradictions, sometimes with little to say beyond the absurd, while politicized intentions are constantly dangled in front of the work, artfully not imposing anything upon the precious ambiguity of the sacraments.

The canonically inscrutable directions of the visual arts occur against a backdrop of a new medium, a medium of infectious popular appeal which historically outstripped the public attention of any other art form, namely film. Like photography, film has all the rights of technological superiority over existing art forms and, from the time when it was widely distributed, film must have seemed poised to make all the other arts redundant. Even photography, with its seduction of verisimilitude, was surpassed by film. In a film, things do not appear to be staged (which of course they are to a heightened degree) but to happen in front of your eyes with urgency and drama. The ability to effect changes in time, to create sudden movements or expressions or mutations of mood, was unprecedented and uncanny. In its narrative continuity and sensory impact, some immaterial aspect of the film apparently passes into your being; it follows through by showing you the results of actions; the sequences and performances have a narrative or documentary destiny which is the fulfilment of the story or message; and these contingencies do not seem gratuitous, as in abstraction, but functional and necessary.

The moving image solved many of the most problematic embarrassments of photography; for just as a photograph is good for recording static or fleeting appearances but not particularly distinguished at representing narratives, film had a pre-eminence in narrative, challenged only by literature. The attempts to render narrative photographically always tended to lack credibility. You could obtain credible actors; but the characters are never given a generous histrionic space in time in which to show off their lines. Even if you made a series of instants, the actor in each one risked the character of a prop. You also then need a viewer who can ‘read’ this sequence, which is liable to be either obvious or obscure. In all events, the performance of the actors would be summarized by a second’s exposure and this précis could result in something iconically stilted; for the medium tends to pre-empt the action and freeze it like a zoological specimen in a vitrine. Performative or theatrical photography resulted in some brilliant photographs, like those of Charles Dodgson, but we tend to marvel at the life of the actors more than the feigned protagonists of the theatrical scene.

Narrative in film seemed believable, indeed compelling in being rehearsed in one’s own space, unlike, for example, the very dignified but remote medium of theatre. Perhaps for that reason, early film-makers were quick to exploit the power of the medium for horror. A monster about to attack a helpless female arouses more sympathy and fright than in any other medium because of the sensational proximity of the movement to the perspective of the viewer. But this dramatic prowess by no means mapped out the confines of the medium. Ever since, film-makers have been exploring the inexhaustible potential of the medium for memorably conveying information or sensory transport or emotional predicaments, issues of social justice, the different emphases in the consciousness of men, women and children and so on.9 Film seems to synthesize the visual power of image-making and the argumentative power of literature. It is, effectively, a form of literature; but adds to the traditional text-based medium an unparalleled immediacy and accessibility. Never before had so many people been able to share an enthusiasm for an artwork (or a story or however we label the experience of the new medium) and talk about it, dream about it, be moved to tears, be haunted, exhort other people to see it. These qualities of public involvement can be witnessed any day of the week among almost any bunch of westernized people. Seldom does one hear anything similar of people’s encounter with an artwork in the purely visual arts.

The advent of film did not have a direct influence on the other arts. For example, film did not lessen the viability of narrative in painting; for painting had long abandoned the genre in the decades of early modernism. The potential competition between media which was discussed à propos painting and photography did not really arise. Yes, certain people undoubtedly did consider painting an inferior technology, rapidly to be made obsolete; but for the most part, spectators simply regarded the two media as different and incomparable—which in a sense they are—and no particular challenge was felt. The fact that the public used its increasingly disposable money and leisure time to see films, and very little by way of the visual arts, did not reflect per se on the status of the traditional visual arts.

If anything, the advent of film confirmed the elliptical directions taken by the visual arts. It now seemed provident that painters had opted out of narrative and illusionism and had identified a direction exclusively proper to the static visual plane in which film would not be able to follow. Their prudence was not merely strategic but logical and faithful to the essence of the visual arts. When film gathered its extraordinary public momentum, artists would gain a sense of history corroborating the trajectory of modernism. The sacramental offices of painting as abstraction were somehow more mysterious as the expectations of pleasing a vulgus had been dispelled by the priority of film among the crowds. Everything that film had to offer which was exceptional—and no one doubted that—amounted to a checklist of qualities which the visual arts had spurned during modernism for the sake of its sacramental status. These filmic qualities could be described as communication, direct expression, the relaying of information, the representation of spaces, human interaction, moods, specific emotions, specific messages, ideological comment and protest. The visual arts had found the route to ascend to sacramental status by disowning these features (once also memorably cultivated in painting and sculpture) and rather exclusively defining the terms of modernist practice as uncommunicative. Film, as the medium of communication par excellence, not only represented no challenge but enhanced in its complementary art the quality of sacramental stylistic exclusivity which is the genius of modern art.

Even the extent to which film lays claim to sacramental status of its own did not change the complacency of this relationship. Films are extraordinarily keen on sacrifice. You can hardly watch a film but there will be an untoward death in its plot. The genre of suspense, for example, jealously glories in the moments before a death, stretching out the imminence of the predictable blow, so that spectators are all steeling themselves in dread anticipation; for what they await will inevitably be fulfilled, rather as in classical myth. Presumably the benefit of watching the fictive catastrophes of film lies in a cathartic process. It seems very uncharitable to interpret the nightly sacrifices of people on the big screen as merely gratifying the sadism of the viewing population; for so many people cannot all be depraved, or at least it would be too rude to recognize it.

The sacrificial economy of film is different to that of ancient theatre, in which the salient quality of the fatal hero is a superintending destiny governing that person who will be undone at someone’s hand, possibly a god’s. In ancient tragedy, the hero’s death is understood before the play begins, for there is a prior mythical role for each hero which cannot be averted any more than his or her identity can be changed. The structure of myths involves fate, all established in a known cosmos of names, places and deities; the plot cannot be invented. The basis of film is generally different, depending for its dramatic power on the skilful invention of plots, each copiously producing heroes and anti-heroes, the number of whom seems almost beyond count. Even when mythological or well-known historical themes are treated in film, the status of the heroes loses its sense of destiny; for the handsome movie-stars induce the same suave and exciting charisma on the classical protagonists as they normally give to their contemporary roles. You have the sense that the hero’s deeds are staged not for any spiritual value in the inevitable sacrifice but to entertain a relatively uninformed audience with memorable surprise actions, bodies, phrases and inventive episodes. As a medium, film is generally secular. That is not to say that film cannot successfully treat religious subjects and give them either a traditional or a new and imaginative inflexion. But the spiritual film-maker in some sense has to countenance the basically secular character of the filmic language in order to do so, a language which will easily overwrite holy conceptions with secular ones, ultimately profane and economically overdetermined with its famous and beautiful actors hitching their charisma to pious archetypes. Many filmakers attempting to represent the life and death of Christ, for example, fail, especially in conveying the numinous; and their work is Kitsch. Film is inherently machina, not much Deus.

Still, what are all those deaths about? Screen-death multiplies exponentially with the advent of television. Every night in any westernized metropolis, a person can choose to watch murders in all colours, involving all kinds of motives. Most of the murders are fictitious and have to be, for real murders are not sufficiently prolific and many are needed each night. A westernized child is used to seeing more carnage in a week than the average Roman adult saw in a lifetime at the Colosseum. Even cartoons involve shootings and killings. Is this sophisticated barbarism an outlet for aggressive urges in a remissively disciplinary society? Or are the murders sacrificial in some yet unexpressed dimension?

Perhaps the questions are unnecessary. Even in archaic cultures not all deaths were sacrificial, not even all publicly staged deaths. Indeed, the sacrificial killings would have represented a small proportion, mostly involving animals. The route from sacrifice to sacrament to aesthetic is by no means the only cultural course in which death is presented or represented. The bulk-death of television seems both pre-sacrificial and artistic, without a proper sacramental element from which the viewer draws spiritual elevation or, as Christians say, is sanctified. But who would be so bold as to deny the nightly slaughter some ghostly efficacy? It would be imprudent to say anything with finality because, among other possibilities, one effect is certain: the viewer becomes insulated from the shock of violent death, accepts—at least on television—the reality of killing humans and prepares to take deep breaths with equipoise. The viewer knows that the deaths are ritual killings, that is, regardless of the narrative, they are artificial and performed by actors under the careful stewardship of numerous experts. And they know that the story hangs around the motif of a murder or murders plural. The murders are there for the pleasure of viewing a ‘mystery’ (a coincidental term in our discourse?) or ‘suspense’ and the manipulation of the murder and its circumstances is the key to an aesthetic experience. One kills people in order to have fictions. The sacrifices are performed to grant importance to acts of imagination within the medium.

Television is not quite the same as film, though clearly there is overlap and the spatial uniqueness of film is constantly threatened by films receding to DVD—sometimes even run through the computer—with their exegetical and confessional appendices which give the austere filmic genre a familiarity and humour unknown in previous generations. But from the outset, the main difference between film and television is a kind of domesticity in television, not merely in the physical location of the cathode-ray tube or liquid-crystal display in a lounge-room or family-room but the constancy, the familiar sequencing, the everyday-ness, the way that television proposes intimacy with the viewer through regular personalities who present movies, the news, the weather and so on, people who say hello and goodbye and smile at you as if they knew you. Sometimes they are called hosts. Film is structured around the idea of an artistic masterpiece which is spellbinding, whereas television—while obviously screening numerous films with the values inherent in the medium of film—tends to be structured around the idea of continuity, the eliciting of loyalty in the viewer to choose one channel over another. The television series is the best symbol of this, taking a limited bunch of actors on weekly episodes or, as with soap opera, daily episodes. Of course they encourage a following, even an addiction. Children will cry if they miss a certain program and, on certain nights of the week when popular series are screened, urban restaurants suffer a loss of patronage. The rhythms and the face of television have a diurnal complexion. The television sits in the living space with an air of belonging, commanding the domestic environment and even offering a keynote to the furniture and definition of rooms.

It is difficult to imagine that television has not affected visual relationships, the very understanding of ‘viewing’ and visual participation.10 It is not necessary to go out of the house for the most thrilling and absorbing encounter; and a new forceful language of the visual (in part just a dynamic extension of graphic design) creates almost tribal attachments in the community to certain programs and personalities. On television, the normal visual world and its rhythms do not stand up very well; they need to be laundered, garnished with clichés and animated with an appropriate televisual pace. Like all media, television is highly artificial; but unlike most other media it pretends to a ubiquitous domain of experience, from the world-wide perspective of current affairs to the most intimate levels of emotional engagement in families.

Alongside television (and where in the western world can one avoid television and not be alongside it?) all other arts are apt to seem esoteric. The exception is film but only because it is televised or might be or can be enjoyed in portable format, as noted, and played at home at call. The visual arts can be televised but rather by way of reportage or art history, ironically turning the visual arts into a rather bookish genre. As with film, the visual artists are free to ignore television and most do, for very similar reasons to those that explain the marginal status of film in the sacramental consciousness of artists.

But other artists, coinciding with the early proliferation of television in the United States, tackled the theme of popular culture in works of the most tellingly equivocal kind. Pop art, as in the UK, did not particularly relate to television but popular imagery of all commercial kinds. Popular, in the modern world, means commercial. The communicative energies of capitalism were discovered in their new prowess, the faculty of infiltrating popular consciousness with the quality of newness and generating celebrity through new entitlements of exhibitionism. Television is still probably the ultimate channel of infiltration, giving to products the new prestige of the mass-market, conferring upon the object a must-have status.

In this world in which the value of objects is given a commercial representation to the widest public, a radical inversion takes place in the very notion of prestige. In the past, the value of something has stood in inverse proportion to its availability. If something is rare, it is proportionally valuable. The reason silver is more valuable than aluminium is that silver is less available than aluminium; there is consequently less supply and greater demand for silver; so the price for silver is higher than that for aluminium. But the world of media sets other values which may not have the material presence of money but which have enormous currency. Industrially reproduced products and photographically reproduced figures from film and popular music have a prestige related to the extent of their dissemination rather than their rarity. In Andy Warhol’s silk-screens, objects, such as the Campbell’s soup can, and stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley are reproduced with degraded resolution, perhaps suggesting the number of times the image has been reproduced.11 Nobody could ever count the number of images of Marilyn Monroe. There would have been millions, most of which have perished. A given image of the voluptuous diva is effectively trash—because common—but the prototype has mythical status on account of the very process of mass-reproduction which paradoxically consigns any single image to the near-worthless.

But if this is the historical backdrop to Warhol’s work, the images make no attempt to synthesize the inversion of value in modern media. Warhol’s images are artfully resistant to any form of comment. All that we know is that the brand names, the stars, and certain images such as the electric chair and spectacular motor accidents are famous on account of mass-reproduction. The works do not say anything about the condition; ‘equivocal’ is too strong a word to use of Warhol’s work, for the mechanically reproduced silk-screens do not quite equivocate between messages. They are without messages, iconographically radical but non-committal, drained, scarcely even acknowledging that there might be any distinctive messages among which a person might identify a higher virtue. Similar things can be said of other pop artists, such as Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselman or Mel Ramos.

Because of its address to popular culture, pop art has sometimes been construed as an early form of postmodernism. It forsakes the hallowed goal of abstraction—which is the genius of modernism—and seeks no lofty universals, no totalizing aesthetic principles, no visual supremacy in the form of geometric planes or gestural ciphers of powerful instinct. It is an art of specific reference: it refers to well-known commodities, personalities or other popular media (such as rock music, advertisements or comic books) and it is also an inclusive art: it brings into the high aesthetic realm of large paintings the icons of contemporary life, which would have been rated vulgar by former connoisseurial standards, and it takes on cultural circumstances of an almost indiscriminate kind, linked only by fame, popularity or notoriety. For the first time, too, it confronts its audience with the equalizing force of media, in which a politician, a filmstar and a serial murderer are in some sense equated with Campbell’s soup. Warhol does not have motifs; he has images, things which are already art. His work is art about the economy of images, which seems, in its self-reflexiveness, rather a postmodern discourse.

Of course, postmodernism remains to be defined (let us attend to that presently); but the term postmodernism is not necessary for a discussion of pop art. For all its lack of interest in universal aesthetics, pop art is thoroughly modernist. You could say that pop art is post-formalist but that epithet is neither remarkable nor useful. German expressionism is somehow post-formalist but it is assuredly modernist. The modernism of pop art lies in two fundamental tenets: first, its celebration of newness via stylistic novelty and, second, its semantic evasiveness. Pop art works on the old ambiguities of modernism and ultimately has nothing to say about popular culture. The acknowledgement of popular culture does not lead anywhere; when you look at one of the stars, you are not caused to remember their lines or their melodies, any more than you are induced to recall the sugary-salty savour of Campbell’s soup. Warhol visits popular culture not by a phenomenological devotion but because he is addicted to its mechanisms of fame; he is fixated at the threshold where a person becomes a commodity, where he or she enters a commercial ambience mechanically geared to promoting fame exponentially for commercial reasons.12 Relative to any person of flesh and blood, the personality emerging from such processes has a strong dimension of the absurd.

If we wanted to gild the lily, we could easily argue that Warhol’s work is expressive in that much. The figures whom he represented in high-contrast and artificially coloured silk-screens are disembodied, are the product of machinery, are the bloodless wraiths of fame. But true to modernist habits, the works do not really seek to communicate; and interpreting them as an ambitious poetic critique of popular culture undermines what magic they have. Their magic is the old modernist ambiguity which is essential to the innovative displacement of subject matter by novel style. Warhol is undoubtedly seduced by the radical look of modern imagery, but especially if it can give him a new visuality on canvas. And so he extrapolates the poor resolution in a photograph of a film-star, enhances the tonal depredations of mass-printing, and enlarges the weak photographic volumes on an epic scale. Confounding the one medium with the other yields an unsettling dissonance, inducing upon the star the aura of freak, at once monstrously overwhelming yet absent, transfigured, repographically unfleshed, abstracted from normality and glorying in the medium of visual trash as the ghost of popular fame.

Credit must be given to Warhol for this idea which, once having been invented, required no imagination to rehearse any number of times with the same mechanical blandness that belongs to the very mass-produced imagery which is his subject-matter. It is a credit which must be extended to all artistic innovators, the sacraments of artistic change in which an art-form from the immediate past is secularized or taken out of its liturgical context and stripped of its faithful spiritual agency. The new art returns the spiritual content in an abstracted form and obtains the credit for universalizing what was formerly confined to the faithful. And so while taking away the liturgical context, the new art nevertheless retains the spiritual prestige and seems yet more aesthetically powerful on account of dispensing with former cultural incumbencies and making the spiritual autonomously artistic.

Warhol’s work is all these things with respect to popular culture. It takes on the glamour of the famous filmstars but lifts their disembodied images into an abstracted and weird visuality which disdains any part of their popular cult. You get the thrill of the presence of Marilyn but never encounter what makes Marilyn special. Warhol takes the spooky magic but accepts no responsibilities by way of narration or cult-building. The sacramental paradigm was never more parasitic (to use Benjamin’s word, cited in Chapter 1) than with Warhol; for he adds little but subtracts to achieve a new stylish universality whose very emptiness has a spiritualized aura. Warhol’s pictures are extraordinarily flimsy, predictable and neutral; but art-lovers get a great buzz out of them. That is because, for all their faults, they lay claim to the sacramental and, without further skill or scruple, assume its agency in the contemporary art-lover hungry for contemporary sacraments.

The reason Warhol is not postmodern is that his work does not belong to a critique. Nor, incidentally, is it a celebration; it is a perfectly impassive vehicle of expressive neutrality, just like the work of Mondrian or Rothko. The theoretical antithesis of this abstracted tradition is postmodernism. The simplest definition of postmodernism is that it is a critique of modernism. It is unfortunate that the word postmodern suggests ‘after’ modern, as if postmodernism followed upon the demise of modernism. But modernism is not extinguished by postmodernism. The two are concurrent and complementary. The continuing relevance of modernism is in fact necessary to postmodernism.

Beginning with architecture in the seventies, postmodernism arose as an antagonist of modernist uniformity. Against the abstracted and universal language of form cultivated in the Bauhaus and the international style, postmodern architects, beginning with Robert Venturi, advocated an architectural iconography which communicated the distinctive identity of communities, their associations and symbols.13 Buildings must accommodate and assert difference: they should find the popular vernacular and, rather than impose a universal language of form, buildings should reflect on the cultural roots of communities or institutions. Though perhaps not always appreciating the nuances of Venturi’s writings, architects world-wide during the eighties demoted clean and uniform neutrality in favour of expressive presence, especially the accenting of doorways and windows by means of pediments, columns, arches, canopies, entablatures and other classical motifs, suitably reincarnated in contemporary industrial materials and serving very few of the ancient principles of ornament. Unlike their modernist predecessors, postmodern architects had recourse to the styles of the past; but they usually engaged the historicist spirit in a backhanded way, wilfully undermining the gravity and logic of the august tradition which they quoted by means of flimsy materials and inappropriate articulation. Architects enjoyed not only the idea of an eclectic patchwork of ancient and modern, high and vulgar—mixtures which were described by the term inclusiveness—but relished the idea that architecture could be witty, full of ingenious contrapposto, conceits and caprice, full of contrasting references and whimsical formal contradictions, just as it was with the architecture of Giulio Romano in the sixteenth century. All of these eccentric features contrasted radically with the humourless austerity of modernist architecture, professing an exclusiveness of form and reference in the ideal abstract geometry of line and plane.

The movement did not constitute a recovery of the past; it involved very little nostalgia and was sometimes intrinsically and knowingly cynical in its ‘abuse’ of the classicism which it deliberately cited in bad faith, denying the classical motifs the function and dignity proper to them. The aim was to be smart with the complexity of references where the modernists had been smart with the elimination of references. There was no question of a return to the ancestral authority of the classical tradition with its gravity and power of concertedly articulated forms and logically emphatic ornaments. By the nineties, the twisted revivalism had lost energy and architects returned, alas, to the uncommunicative buildings of modernism, which lack an address to the street and fail to accompany the pedestrian with familiar rhythms and the supportive presence of measured space. Architecture is still broadly historicist but its historical quotation centres on disruptive moments (modernism itself) and lacks the classical symbolic sympathies with human scale, proportion and articulation.

In the fine arts, the historicist temper was also felt, with a strong return to figurative painting, soon, in turn, to be chased by an equal and opposite appropriation of conceptual art. The historicism was not pursued for its own sake but in order to proffer a critique of the moral and aesthetic assumptions which underpin the styles and iconography of previous traditions. When an artist cultivated an illusionistic idiom, for example, he or she was expected to spike the homage by undermining its seriousness with non-classical or non-linear interventions, to disrupt the pictorial space or the logic of the illusion or the narrative and so on. Artists have found such strategies very easy to carry out, for they succeed when they fail, when the authority of the picture is lost, when the illusion is disappointed or deliberately mucked up. For artists with few drawing skills, the agenda of self-contradiction and paradox was a god-send.

Some artists, like the Russians Komar and Melamid and the Italian Carlo Maria Mariani, managed to bring off a bland rehearsal of illusionistic traditions while still acutely parodying the symbolic order which promoted them; but most artists, having little intrinsic faith in the project of representing space and volume by a gestural argument of perceptual intuitions, found it both physically easier and ideologically safer simply to confound their illusions with multiple layering. Thus, lumping together images of an incongruous visuality, they produce pictures which owe more to collage than to traditions of handling coherent space. The example of collage has spooked most postmodern picture-making. As pastiche became the new originality, few postmodern artists who quote older traditions have successfully avoided it.

For the rest, postmodern practice had a certain resemblance to modernist practice. Italian and German neo-expressionism may have had more references than German expressionism around 1911; but the exorbitant brushstrokes in strong colour (now on boastful large-scale canvases) look similar and speak of a similarly conceited heroism in the artist, regardless of any subtexts which may be supposed to undermine the cavalier style. Developments in the eighties were hectic and short-lived. By the end of the decade, neo-expressionism was already unpopular and neo-geo or new abstraction became a hit. But wherever postmodern art visited the forms and meanings of modernism, the result was visually difficult to distinguish from the brash antecedent which it sought to parody or, as some people said, ‘ironize’ or ‘problematize’. As an artistic movement based so comprehensively on theory, the issue of such a tenuous separation did not escape the attention of artists and commentators.14 But the productive effect was limited. The very embarrassment of not being able to distinguish the critique from its target was understood as a great postmodern confession of artistic complicity, an allegory, in effect, of the way in which art-historical agendas co-opt their own revisions and implicate their own critique in semiotic treachery. So long as the work could be represented as somehow confessional, somehow revealing its faults with self-reflexive rhetoric, all failures could be heralded as successes. There was never a movement which attracted so many Jesuitical apologias, busily obsessing about the extent to which the work deconstructs itself, confesses its artifice and makes a thousand mea culpas over drawing from a discredited past. The minor industry in writings to accompany exhibitions was—and still is—entirely necessary to establish the credibility and artistic worth of the work.

This aspect of postmodernism is unchanged. Outside the ambience of people who understand the concept of deconstruction, who read abstruse exhibition catalogues and knotty articles in forbidding magazines, new art is unintelligible and inaccessible. This, too, is regarded as good postmodernism, not because there is anything intrinsically appealing about public incomprehension but because the ultimate dependence of the artwork on texts finally discredits the myth of artistic autonomy, that is, the idea cultivated throughout modernism that the artwork should stand by itself, obtaining recognition for its own fetishistic visuality and requiring no extrinsic information, narrative or ulterior structure of language, ideology, symbol or myth. The gruelling exegeses of postmodern art are understood as countervailing the modernist conceit of radical independence from cultural givens. Art is a form of discourse. It was during modernism as well but was never recognized or acknowledged, for it served the shamanistic conceits of modernists to project the aura of total autonomy from cultural traditions. Modernism as a transcendent abstraction aspiring to universality of form and content discouraged the identification with cultural incumbencies. Postmodern visual practice, on the other hand, would reject this autonomy—larded, as it was, with numinous pomposity—and would freely signal its debt to the medium of text.

The argument is not silly but the outcome is. The failure of the artwork to communicate on its own would be understood as a candid virtue, an honest sacrifice of unearned artistic privileges. The virtue-loving critical spectator would be required to find the profound critiques within inscrutable artworks of unrewarding visual calibre, using texts of impeccable sanctimony. Sometimes it was possible to recognize a well-intentioned idea. It was seldom possible to respond directly to it, however, as the form and content did not match and were purposefully pushed out of alignment in order bravely to disrupt the former authority of the artwork and deconstruct the seamlessness of an inherited semiotic system.

Postmodernism (which in many ways is noble and profoundly intellectual) perfectly matches the sacramental paradigm which has operated throughout the progress of western visual art. It is a process of secularization: it inherits a series of forms associated with sacred ideas—as in the hallowed universality of abstraction, the transcendental aesthetic experience autonomously distilled and concentrated as artistic essence or supreme spirit—but rejects the holy implications, seeks to send them up and make polemics against their spiritual authority. In creating this artistic critique, however, the radical new secularizing art still depends on the old forms; it regurgitates them by necessity and necessarily enjoys their undeconstructed prestige. Postmodern art selfconsciously ‘endgames’ with complicit intentions; but the net result is to have the privileges of modernism (or any anterior tradition) without its responsibilities, without the beliefs, without the conviction of an artistic destiny to move the spectator emotionally to higher planes of consciousness. Yet because it passes off the old forms in the guise of a deconstructed and de-ritualized series of arguments, postmodern art gains the further prestige of translating the visual material of a belief-structure into aesthetic agnosticism.

The verbs associated with the postmodern project are seldom affirmative. Postmodernism is always ‘interrogating’, ‘asking questions about’ and so on. Celebration is structurally problematic, for it is not discursive or dialectical. Much of our spiritual hunger is ignored. This paradoxical exclusivity in a movement based on inclusiveness rather makes postmodernism unsustainable; because, apart from the narrowness of its communicative scope, it has little appeal among people who do not have an axe to grind with a dominant symbolic order. And even among those who are understandably disaffected with mainstream values, the resulting productions are ungiving, inscrutable and frequently boring. An art which merely interrogates is unpoetic, often making bad discourse as well as bad visuality. Art is a peculiarly bad system in which to interrogate for its whole social predication is celebratory. This leaves only one aesthetic joy for postmodernism and that is the beauty of the absurd, the same motif as that indulged by Dada.

Postmodernism as a series of inclusive ideological propositions is likely to survive as long as modernism survives; but as an energetic artistic movement, it seems to have dubious prospects. It has difficulty creating excitement and is vulnerable to all kinds of unholy impulses from popular culture. Meanwhile, a tidal-wave of modernism has crashed upon the empty discursive beaches, scattering all before it: the global enthusiasm for digital technology.

Computers had been used in banks and other bureaucracies for decades; but in the eighties, the personal computer began its exponential proliferation, entering homes as much as the workplace with new and advanced methods of handling information. During the nineties, the hardware and software improved to such an extent that millions of private domestic users could enjoy modem-access to commercial servers, linking them with global information sources on the internet.

The new technologies are unlike the old computer systems, full of arbitrary codes and reams of data inaccessible to all but computer boffins and unintelligible to all but accountants. The new technologies are based on a visual interface in which people can see options in a graphic display (often of some beauty) and physically engage with it using the gestures—admittedly somewhat rudimentary—of wrist movement and finger-pressing on a mouse or touch-pad, all of which registers visually on the screen. Looking down a constantly unfolding avenue of illustrations, the virtual traveller in a suburban lounge-room can discover information of a personally interesting kind anywhere in the world. The experience has an almost transcendental dimension, as the user overcomes incredible physical distances in an effortless slipping between icons in order to contact virtual spaces, images and texts, or ‘sites’ as they are better known.15 The sites are visually configured by their proprietors to offer an interactive experience which reflects a communicative desire on their part, usually to advertise or sell goods or services. The virtual landscape of the internet is charged with expressions of desire. It runs through electrical impulses but is driven by hormones. The visual language developed for the internet tends to the biomorphic: graphic designers are engaged with an enviable talent for integrating text and abstracted image, resulting in a peculiarly synthetic sign-making idiom cultivated in advertisements on television and elsewhere. The virtual universe is a world of seduction.

Part of the seduction lies with the interactive nature of computer software. Other media have probably entertained people with greater style and poetic grace but the digital media offer the incomparable flattery of being a vision-manager in the centre of the universe—finally superseding Renaissance perspective—able to control the material flashing up on the screen with instant commands. There is no longer a ‘spectator’ but a user, a person dynamically empowered with choices, one who is no longer structurally passive, absorbing whatever has been patronizingly prefigured for entertainment, but an agent who decides what is to be presented. Never mind that in many cases the decisions are negligibly greater than those offered by a passive telly-watcher holding a remote control; never mind that most sites prefigure what you want to see just as patronizingly as a film does. The structure of the computer suggests the opposite: you have infinite choices, total power to manage the virtual spaces which you enter, flit out of, revisit or use as a launching pad for some other trajectory.

Part of the seduction lies in decentralization, both physical and metaphoric. The physical sense is obvious enough: the idea that you, personally, have to go to a greater metropolis to enjoy certain experiences is weakened. Information (which includes the experience of events) is infinitely transferable, linked by any number of references. One no longer needs to live in New York to know a great deal about the institutional life of the town, and even to have some interaction with it (mostly as a consumer). But the metaphoric sense is equally compelling: your engagement with a medium no longer has a centre in the intention of the creator; there is no longer an artistic master narrative which you have to follow—as with books or films—but an infinitely fragmented series of visual and textual vignettes linked by inviting choices. It is the medium of nomadic attention; it offers a perpetually empowered distraction in the wandering of interest, in which instructions to proceed down a linear path must be made sufficiently enticing in order to attract a following. The sense of authorship, the confidence in a single narrator, is largely absent, unless you get hooked on a game. You visit things as if they merely inhabit a periphery, lacking an authorial presence until invested by the grace of your attention.

And then there are less personal and more universal metaphors. Part of the seduction of the digital network lies in the metaphoric embrace of the new technological system itself, progressively acting less and less like a machine and more and more like a neuronal system, a global organism that pulses with a live expression of physical and mental interaction. Since they were invented, computers have been invested with the fantasy of replacing the brain or making the brain redundant. Now the empire of such fantasies is global, presenting a world-brain, trafficking all significant exchange of information and even material in the form of money. Nearly all money—except the few dollars in your pocket—is digital. So all economic and intellectual aspects of the world are not only represented in the digital environment but they actually occur through it, exist within it and can no longer exist without it.

Since the twenties, modernism has been obsessed with the machine and the organism. Many aspects of modern art have been devoted to making the organic seem more mechanical, just as many aspects of modern design have been devoted to making the mechanical more organic. With computers, the modern vision is fulfilled; for at last we have a machine which, regardless of its appearance, acts like an organism with intelligence and promises to make organic processes happen without biological fallibility. Of course, the extent to which computers replicate the simplest neuronal activity of the body is negligible; but nobody is discouraged from entertaining the fantasy. What computers really offer is the promise of a mythical future in which anything will be possible.

Like photography and film and television before it, digital technology does not replace the established arts like painting and sculpture, and presents no challenge to them. If anything, it acts as a convenient vehicle—just as photography did with painting—by creating virtual galleries which are carefully constructed to preserve the high prestige of the manually created object and spaces. There is no threat to the classical media for two reasons: first, the digital medium is unsuited to registering a gestural language and abstracts from the corporal with a certain technological remoteness. Second, the fine arts have long been addressing a tiny elite of art-lovers, unconcerned with dominant media such as television. Painting and sculpture have plenty of conceits upon which to survive and in most senses retain the proprietorship of artistic prestige. But that is not to say that the fine arts will not use computers prolifically, especially in projects which involve the trafficking of information.

The signs, however, indicate directions which fulfil the sacramental paradigm encountered so often in the past, and not the least in the disruptive movements of the twentieth century. Where the fine arts deal with the digital or the televisual it is by way of strategic complication, an aesthetic of resistance, which the average user will never appreciate. The media are configured by capital to provide easy access; when the artist uses the digital media, the digital works become either abstruse, deconstructive, absurdist or satirical. The artist takes a medium already laden with metaphoric conceits—conceits suggesting the digital substitution of spirit, an autonomous neuronal activity beyond the body but abstracting the bodies and energies of the world community—and sends it up, confounds its agency and makes fun of its supposed universality and futuristic pretensions. But in conducting such interventions, the new art does not shun the high prestige of the new media of which it offers a critique; on the contrary, it accepts all the glamour of the spiritualized machine and retains it while secularizing the content as satire. Through the deconstructive jokes and opaque critiques, the naïve mystique of the digital is enhanced by embracing a witty knowingness. If the new digital art did not contain this secular sacramental element, it would not be recognized as poetic or artistic at all but simply another manifestation of information technology. The artistic part is the sacramental part. It was ever thus; and whatever progress the hectic pace of digital innovation may bring, it will not change the definition of art, established from archaic patterns and translated into the age of critique with the same structures to translate belief and spirit into a de-ritualized aesthetic.


1     Kuspit (2000a). First published in 1993, this forceful essay addresses the assumptions inherent to definitions of modern art, taking a psychoanalytic approach. See also Kuspit’s (2000b) collection, which witnesses painting as the foremost medium amongst the array of artistic practices competing for attention under the rubrics of modernism and post-modernism.

2     Francis Picabia, Machine tournez vite (Machine Turn Quickly), ca. 1916–1918, gouache and metallic paint on paper, laid down on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

3     Amorous Parade, 1917, oil on cardboard, collection of Mr and Mrs Morton G. Neumann, Chicago.

4     Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (widely known more simply as The Large Glass), 1915–1923, oil and lead foil between glass, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. Moffitt (2003, 169–224) pursues the content and signification of The Large Glass in terms of Duchamp’s spirited fascination with esoteric literatures and alchemy.

5     Bergson (1911). The material of Le Rire was first published in 1900, in a series of articles in the Revue de Paris.

6     On relationships between Dada and the twentieth-century history of American modernism, see Naumann et al. (1996). This exhaustively documented exhibition catalogue amounts to a celebration of Dada activity, in all its irruptive yet auratic variety, as translated to America, and furthered by its encounter with the tumultuous context of 1920s New York.

7     Marcel Duchamp, Bottle Dryer (Bottle Rack), 1914 (lost original), readymade, galvanized iron bottle rack; In Advance of a Broken Arm, 1915 (lost original), readymade, wood and galvanized iron snow-shovel; The Fountain by R. Mutt, 1917 (lost original), readymade, porcelain urinal with black paint. The Bottle Dryer of 1914 is usually described as the first ‘pure’ or ‘unassisted’ readymade.

8     The Art of Destruction: Writings of the Vienna Actionists (Green 1999) documents the self-consciously ‘extremist’ and radicalizing work of the four artists known as the Vienna Actionists: Hermann Nitsch, Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, during the period of particular notoriety in Europe’s post-war art scene, 1962–1974.

9     Film was well placed to explore the richness of Freud’s inquiries. On historical and cultural parallels between the technologies of cinema and psychoanalysis, see Kaplan, (1998, 152–164). Hence, for example, “… Hollywood very quickly gravitated to a popularized version of Freud’s theories in the post-World War II period, when, as a result of war traumas demanding psychoanalytic treatment, Freud’s theories were circulated even more widely than before. Freudian ideas seemed to offer the authority of ‘science’ for the stories the cinema was already telling … Producers saw the relationship between the dreams of their audiences and the ‘dreams’ Hollywood put forth on the screen” (158).

10    See Farmer (2000). This catalogue of the eponymous exhibition on work about, using, and demonstrating the influence of television by artists in America and western Europe who engaged directly with the mass media (as distinct from other contemporaries preoccupied by the more exclusive, aesthetic values of abstract expressionism).

11    For immediate background to Warhol’s 1962 silk-screened images of Campbell’s Soup cans, and of Marilyn Monroe, see Watson (2003, 79–83).

12    On Warhol as no less than “an enduring brand” now, see the introductory comments in Watson (2003: xi): “It is just as if Andy Warhol never went away. He was simply transformed into a tote bag, or a gender studies dissertation, or a reality TV show, or a thirty-seven cent postage stamp.”

13    See Venturi (1966) for a defence of stylistic inclusiveness and diversity. See also Venturi, et al. (1972): together these two titles can be called Venturi’s key contribution to theorising architectural postmodernism.

14    One of the most beautiful expositions of the art and art theory of the 1980s is the Australian Rex Butler, An Uncertain Smile, Artspace, Sydney 1996. In many ways the creative response to the period in writing is the memorable part. See also the bafflingly eloquent Edward Colless (also Australian), The Error of My Ways, IMA, Brisbane 1995, for which Butler provides an insightful introduction.

15    Beardon and Malmborg (2002) provide articulate perspectives on digital art as a field of practice still emerging and reaching for definitions, which convey the positive potential typically ascribed to virtuality and to digital technologies. This volume draws together twenty-seven influential articles originally published in the journal Digital Creativity.


Beardon C.; Malmborg, L., eds. 2002. Digital Creativity: A Reader. Innovations in Art and Design. Lisse: Taylor & Francis.

Bergson, H. 1911. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, translated by Brereton, C.; Rothwell, F. New York: MacMillan.

Farmer, J. A., ed. 2000. The New Frontier: Art and Television, 1960–65. Austin, Texas: Austin Museum of Art. [Exhibition Catalogue.]

Green, M. 1999. The Art of Destruction: Writings of the Vienna Actionists, translated and edited by Atlas Arkhive 7. London: Atlas Press.

Kaplan, E. A. 1998. “Freud, Film, and Culture”. In Freud: Conflict and Culture, edited by Roth, M. S. New York: Knopf. 152–164.

Kuspit, D. 2000a. The Dialectic of Decadence: Between Advance and Decline in Art. Aesthetics Today. New York: Allworth Press.

Kuspit, D. 2000b. The Rebirth of Painting in the Late Twentieth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Moffitt, J. F. 2003. “Duchamp in New York with Esoteric Patrons and the Large Glass, 1915–1923”. In Alchemist of the Avant-garde: The Case of Marcel Duchamp. SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions. Albany: State University of New York Press. 169–224.

Naumann, F. M.; Venn, B.; Antliff, A. 1996. Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art.

Venturi, R. 1966. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. New York: Museum of Modern Art in Association with the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. Distributed By Doubleday & Company.

Venturi, R.; Scott Brown, D.; Izenour, S. 1972. Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Watson, S. 2003. Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties. New York: Pantheon Books.

Cite this chapter as: Nelson, Robert. 2007. ‘In the name of critique’. The Spirit of Secular Art: A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Values. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 9.19.18.

The Spirit of Secular Art

   by Robert Nelson