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The Spirit of Secular Art

Chapter 11


Robert Nelson

On the basis of the sacramental paradigm, you could theoretically predict the next movement in the history of western art. All you need do is identify the dimension of current practice which lays claim to some abstracted sacredness—or which entails a belief in the spiritual efficacy of art—and you can be sure that in short order a movement will arise which will (a) extrapolate from its forms, (b) reject its involvement with spiritual belief, (c) nevertheless enjoy the prestige of the disowned spirituality and (d) gain extra artistic credit for carrying an unsustainable belief into a critical new abstracted aesthetic which requires fewer ties with spiritual institutions. Since archaic times, western art has generally conformed to this paradigm and, given the continuing trajectory of western reason, there are grounds to believe that for the foreseeable future it must conform to the paradigm. Art is structurally located as an activity which abstracts from a spiritual order and yields an aesthetically disembodied spirituality in a post-liturgical community. It lifts the spiritual from institutional authority to individual disposability. Of course it is possible that art in the future may have a different role; but not all visual production attains the title of art even today, and it is possible that the visual production of the future which does not conform to the sacramental paradigm may also not be called art. We reserve the title of art for the abstraction of the cultish. In western societies, art is intrinsically an activity which negotiates between a constantly evolving ritualistic spiritual authority and a constantly evolving skepticism, forever critically reviewing the cultural predication of a previous aesthetic, and facilitating a spiritual movement from institutional authority to private fancy. In the celebrated cases in which art assumes the political role of resistance to dominant ideology, the same pattern is manifest, even if a little more ambiguous and structurally introverted.

There is a question, however, of the value of the art which fulfils the sacramental paradigm. In some epochs, the results form a succession of masterpieces while in other epochs, the adherence to the same paradigm yields aesthetically questionable visions. The paradigm yields brilliance and embarrassment; it explains the inspiration of one epoch but could equally help identify the destitution of another. It may be that there are no values intrinsic to the structure of art. The paradigm, after all, is a process, not a result. Values cannot automatically be ascribed to its outcomes, else all art would be granted equal and unilateral credit. But given that the paradigm is central to artistic vision, can it be used for distinguishing good art from mediocre art?

There is no rule but sometimes the art of greatest merit is produced when artists sympathetically appreciate the archaic spiritual order which centuries of secular progress have obscured from contemporary view. Artists who understand that art is ritualistic in origins and cultish in its historical structure are perhaps more likely to clinch the vital concept of the next secular sacrament in their own epoch. When art is produced in the consciousness of its sacramental pregnancy, there may be something genuine and profound about the next appropriations of sacred privileges. It is not an issue of being respectful toward the surpassed; it is an issue of integrity, an honesty and awareness about engaging a spiritual status whose spiritual authority one disavows.

Consciousness of the archaic religious background to art and its progressive abstraction in the aesthetic also discourages in artists the arbitrary innovation, the changes in style which have no justification other than a desire for distinctiveness, which amounts to the distinctiveness of the gimmick. For stylistic advancement to assume cultural profundity, it is less important to symbolize the newness of contemporary life than to revise the understanding of sacredness which has been inherited from remote millennia.

But I am not a soothsayer. Artists are commonly exhorted to think of the future rather than the past when working out their vision. This advice is part of a great positivistic enthusiasm which probably sustains many artists but it also has its limitations: it flatters the vanity of those conceited enough to trust their clairvoyance and who believe that they can always be prophetic innovators. Yet the past has laid all the terms of spiritual investment in art; and significant developments in art seem to be those which renegotiate the stressful dialectic relationship between the sacred and art. It seems unlikely to me that art will ever exist without a sacramental structure in its aesthetic underpinnings.

There is a danger, on the other hand, that artists could exaggerate the cultish element of art and reify it in a way which disappoints the sacramentally abstracting virtues of aesthetics. In particular, the awareness of archaic rituals surviving in contemporary art could prompt an unproductive enthusiasm in the practice of sacrifice. For decades, the high-priest of this excitement is the eloquent Austrian performance artist Hermann Nitsch. His practice draws heavily upon the prestige of archaic sacrifices and refers to recent aesthetic history by way of justification.


You know that in my theatre, beasts are eviscerated, initially sheep, later oxen. Even in Trakl, the butchering of a beast is rehearsed and in Kokoschka there is a celebrated picture in which an almost-living wether is painted together with a hyacinth, a turtle and a water-newt. Hoffmannsthal derives all lyric poetry from the sacrifice of a ram. In an early work there is a discussion in which the fact of substituting a human offering with an animal offering is compared to the way that actual sensory experience is replaced by language (Jocks 1998, 163a).

With regard to the violence of spent entrails, this artist represents no danger at all. Nitsch stage-manages his rationale with Viennese grace in a properly sacramental aesthetic. It is true that he tears the guts out of animals but they were dead already and, above all, the evocation of sacrifice is theatrical and not propitiatory: there is no god and no cult of traditional authority which is not entirely artificial. And so while Nitsch hacks up animal flesh with an air of ancient ritual, he in fact (a) only mimics a religious liturgy for dramatic effect, (b) draws upon the brutal prestige of archaic sacrifices while acknowledging none of their responsibilities to divinity, (c) draws upon the recent aesthetic tradition which refers to blood sacrifices and (d) obtains credit for transferring the raw spirituality of prehistoric cultures to an avant-garde transgressive art-form which is universal in all westernized urban agnostic cultures.

But under this comedy, there is in fact a real sacrifice which Nitsch has made long since, as so many promising artists have done upon graduating from art academies the world over for almost a century. As we contemplated with the history of modernism, Nitsch has sacrificed his talent. He can perform sanguine allegories and critiques of cultural meanings; he can use talents such as philosophical judgement to identify issues and can engage his wits to conflate a contribution to history by representing elementary ideas in an unsynthesized visual or performative idiom; but he can never allow his artistic talents to become vested in a celebratory manifestation. And Nitsch is by no means the most modest artist. For the rest, the outlook for talented artists is grim. The international altar of deconstruction is hungry for youth to lay their talents upon the icy slab; the sting of the avant-garde blade is brief and then there is surely a promise of a great artistic life beyond, the outre-tombe of talent which is the fame of artistic progress.

The sacrificial nature of contemporary art is full of ironies, balancing bitterness and humour in a marvellous parade of clever installations. The artist, having sacrificed his or her talents that were cultivated since childhood (especially identified by parents and teachers through drawing and painting), is inclined to create forbiddingly unintelligible works for the general community; the arts community is inclined to stand in awe at the dedication of the artist, witnessing the entrails of talent, so to speak, seen on the wall, the floor or the monitor; and the public, if not totally alienated, is intimidated and confused by the spread of spectacles, from outlandish and exorbitant installations by dedicated fanatics to minimal works of ascetic severity. In Germany and Australia, for example, there has been a spate of installations and videos dealing with the everyday. The spectator is treated to a display of young people demonstrating their lackadaisical coolness, their glamorous insouciance, their passive subjection to fashions, lifestyles, popular music and sympathy for advertising. The air of compliance with a dominant capitalist economy may be disheartening for many spectators, expecting revolutionary sentiment from artists, a spirit of resistance that characterizes the art of modernity from Romanticism onward. But maybe the scandal is predictable, for the young artists concerned are wilfully sacrificial, willing irrational indifference upon their destiny as artists rather than the high calling of social critic or visionary.

Rightly or wrongly, none of this makes me feel at all pessimistic. Artists generally do what artists must. The results are sometimes perplexing and apparently meaningless, all of which deserves to be interrogated with due curiosity. Sometimes, unfortunately, there is an unhelpful mixture of complacency and mystification which, when embraced or promoted in the personality-cults of a local art-scene, requires a web of insincerity to make artificial integuments for the symbolic coherence of the art. But although you can from time to time identify symbolic scandals in the arts press, the present embarrassments of art do not toll the end but signal the enduringly logical and formidable agony central to the development of western art. In essence, it is the clash between a dialectical progressive mindset and a sacramental backdrop that still gives art its claim to spirituality.


Jocks, H. N. 1998. “Hermann Nitsch: Über Blut, Fleisch und Gedärme in Kunst und Literatur”. Kunstforum International 140: 163a.


Cite this chapter as: Nelson, Robert. 2007. ‘Conclusion’. The Spirit of Secular Art: A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Values. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 11.111.3.

The Spirit of Secular Art

   by Robert Nelson