Haus der kunst
+ 49 89 21127-115
Traces of the Spiritual
September 19, 2008-January 11, 2009
By JEAN DE LOISY
The prevailing interpretation of the history of 20th-century art developed under the auspices of the secular cult of the sun that was Impressionism. From Edouard Manet's supposed abandonment of the subject to Claude Monet's invention of all-over painting, what was identified in these pioneers was rather an advance in optics than any spiritual odyssey. And it is in accordance with this analysis that the successive developments in art have been interpreted in terms of a logic that leads from the waterlilies to the monochrome. This genealogy has been constructed on the basis of a formal, even formalist, rationalisation of the works themselves, although the great ruptures in the adventure of Modern Art were in fact less the result of reflection on form than of meditation on the world. Yet like a family secret hidden behind a more presentable cover-story, the sacred, or rather what was left of it after the rise and decline of the monotheistic religions that gave structure to our society, the traces of the sacred then, have been a crucial inspiration to many artists. This other history is not the only one possible, but it is of such a wealth as to forbid any attempt at the exhaustive. One has to proceed, then, by only highlighting particular topics, while leaving unexamined many episodes and artists equally important. There are, however, a number of essential features to the phenomenon to which the exhibition is concerned to bring to light: the crucial role in the constitution of the forms of Modern Art of the spiritual crises of the West.
We are familiar with the idea of the "disenchantment of the world" (Gauchet, 1985). Whether it is attributed to the rise of reason, to Protestantism, to the bourgeois revolution or to the advance of science, it did in any event contribute to the emergence of the first agnostic society in human history. And when eternity departs a community, when humans lose their fundamental sense of connection to the gods, the social and political consequences are considerable. Discussing the eighteenth century, André Malraux defined the transformation in these terms: "What is lost from Christian civilisation is not just its values, it is more than belief: it is Man's orientation to Being, replaced by an orientation to ideas, to action: ordering Value breaks up into values. What vanishes from the Western world is the absolute" (André Malraux, Les Voix du silence, in Malraux, 1989- 2004, t. IV, p. 722). He goes on: "As every metamorphosis of forms is tied to the artist's profoundest feelings, art could not be untouched by the disappearance of the absolute. What is surprising is not that it should have been affected, but that it wasn't affected more" (ibid., p. 723). In fact ñ and this is one of the hypotheses of the exhibition ñ the process of secularisation does indeed entail a change in the world, a change evidenced here, but, astonishingly, from Caspar David Friedrich to Wassily Kandinsky, from Kasimir Malevich to Barnett Newman, from Christian Boltanski to Damien Hirst, art continues to be what it always was: an expression of man's hopes and fears. It would thus appear that the end of art that Hegel foresaw as the result of the loss of its link to the transcendent has in fact led to no more than a displacement from the religious to the secular sphere. And this rupture, though accompanied by no change in metaphysical function of art, at the same time changes everything: its form, its mode of appearance, the way it is conceived of, the status of its creator. For the first time, the artist is free of the obligation to communicate dogma, free then to express his own doubts and interrogations in scenes of profane life. And if there often slips into these, as if from a subjacent realm of the sacred, a spiritual significance in which the divine survives as a vanishing point, the spiritual in the work no longer derives from the subject represented but from the inner life of its maker, an inflection foreshadowed in the Calvinist idea (Besançon, 1994, p. 353) that in every artist is a spark of the divine, possessed by him not as a Christian but as a creator. This conception of art would bring about a lasting change in the way the artist was seen, opening the way to the Romantic conception of the genius, the inspired, prophetic seer, and for the Symbolists, even priest.
Severed from a sacred that in the West now glows only in icons, expelled from the religious sphere in which the artist was the servant of the Church, art in a secular world remains haunted by its original vocation: "to dig into metaphysical secrets" (Barnett Newman, The Plasmic Image, cited in Bonn, 2005, p. 78). It is in this that Modern Art still bears within itself the traces of an innate sacred, one that in this most recent manifestation is called spirituality, and which even today makes every great work a reflective and meditative sign.
Modern Art gradually established itself on the ground of this immense transformation. The artist is hence forward subject to the tyrannical imperium of his inner vision, that is to say to the necessity of exploring the possibility of new signs, forms, meaning and effects. And so, rather than being an end, this substantial rupture in the history of civilisation, and hence in the history of art, was a beginning. This indispensable key to an understanding of what today continues to be, even if sometimes unknown to artists themselves, the ground of Modern Art, is not the only one possible. Other constellations also presided over its birth. But this seems to be of sufficiently far-reaching importance to justify the attention given it here. It needed a revolt for art to associate itself with this great transformation, and the artist who sensed it and whose work, still haloed in Rembrandt's supernatural shadows, returns them to a night without transcendence, is Goya, who in an irony of history, sold his prints from a spirits shop in the Calle de Desengaño — Disenchantment Street — in Madrid. His work is a sermon against the absurdity of tyranny, imposture and suffering. In rebellion against God, on account of evil, and against Napoleon, who was to have brought to Spain the enlightenment of the French Revolution but brought only horror, he opposes to the clarity of the Neoclassical darkness of the Disasters of War. In the etching Nada. Ello dirá (Nothing. We Shall See), placed at the beginning of the exhibition, the artist affirms the absence of any transcendence. A dead body, which although drawing on Rembrandt's example can no longer be that of Lazarus, holds in its fleshless hand the message it addresses to us from the world beyond: Nada, there is nothing. It was this same Nada that in an earlier Spain had darkened the nights of St John of the Cross. Behind this messenger of death are grimacing grotesques, figures that will be found a hundred years later in James Ensor. In front of them, emerging from the darkness, a teetering balance that can no longer be that of St Michael but which still weighs good and evil, the ultimate question faced by a world deprived of divine law. These are the consequences glimpsed by Dostoyevsky in 1880, when he has Dimitri Karamasov exclaim: "Without God and the future life? How will man be after that? It means everything is permitted now" (Dostoyevsky, 2002, t. II, p. 464). What is enunciated in this horrific etching, as by Dostoyevsky later, is that the essential question of the sacred is not so much that of eternal life as that of evil. Artists' faith in art's capacity to help put the world right, their utopian commitment to the creation of a New Man, the eschatological hope entertained by some of doing away with a civilization they believed corrupt, all these themes passionately defended by many of the greatest artists before the Second World War would come to ruin on the presence of absolute Evil at the heart of the 20th century. This is why, thus announced at the entrance, its terrible aura pervades the whole exhibition. Enormous in its human costs, enormous too in its impact on the art of the second half of the century, from Francis Bacon to Jerzy Grotowski and Bruce Nauman. Its paroxysmal triumph in the Holocaust produces, in fact, a significant inflection in the understanding of art's mission, no longer only a theological investigation concerned with such questions as "What is the divine?," "What is non-being?" ñ but an anthropological interrogation: what is man, what is the real nature of man, capable of both being victim and executioner?
Perhaps, from this terrible perspective, we are better placed to imagine the burden that weighed on the first Romantics, troubled by an as yet indecisive anxiety, by an obscure presentiment, "sick," as Goethe put it, with the sense of God's having withdrawn infinitely far from an abandoned creation. The endeavour of Caspar David Friedrich, archetypical instance of the artist as mystic, was in fact to transmute this secularisation of the world into a new form of Christian art, without the support of the Biblical imagery that had nourished art since the Middle Ages. He does this allegorically, by "suggesting a nature saturated by presence, penetrated by a primitive cosmic force" (Clay 1980, p. 142). His ruined churches are often wrongly considered to be an image of the collapse of religion. On the contrary, a consideration of the elements of a work such as Ruinen in der Abenddämmerung (Kirchenruine im Wald) [Ruins at Dusk (Church Ruins in the Woods)] (ca. 1831) shows that this is explicitly a spiritual manifesto. The partly ruined building is supported by a wooden structure in the form of an awning, a cross, an axis mundi that prevents the collapse of the church, that is, of society. At the base of the building a fire glows in the half-light, watched over by two figures, as if what were being tended here is a cultic flame that still burns for the divine in the heart of man. Romanticism is a vision of the world that left its mark on other realms, notably on metaphysics, science and politics. Its ambition may be summed up in a very Hegelian formula: to realise the spiritual content of Christianity and to make it consubstantial with existing reality (Marc de Launay, "Sécularisation," in Cassin, 2004, p. 1120). Considered in this way, Romanticism is not so much a style as a utopia, not so much an aesthetic idea as social project, a notion of art in which it is a vehicle for the spiritual transformation of the world. It is thus connected with another fundamental aspect of the age, and so of this exhibition, which is the idea of the creation of a new society, and for the sake of this, of a New Man, capable, through the radical revision of individual values, of resolving the crisis of European man brought to a climax in Friedrich Nietzsche's attack on the old morality. This idea of a "New Man," as political as it was spiritual in its utopianism, is crucial to an understanding of the transformation at issue in the birth of Modern Art. "The twentieth century thus began … with man as a programme, rather than as a given (Badiou, 2005, p. 238). Its consequences are considerable, not only for the invention of new artistic forms, but, more seriously, for its role it also plays in the great catastrophes that would follow. From Ferdinand Hodler to Malevich, from Filippo Marinetti to Piet Mondrian or Walter Gropius, many creative figures of the early twentieth century, seized by this spiritual idea, related in complex fashion to the cult of will associated with Nietzsche's superman, were moved by the desire to contribute to a radical reform of life and, essentially, to substitute for the vanished reference points of religion and morality a "beyond-morality" inspired and guaranteed by art and by a new spirituality. This idea of an aesthetic refashioning of man, of, in Mondrian's words, a "reconquest, in the new man, of paradise on earth" (Michaud, E. 1997a, p.85) is the programme that from Romanticism to the early Thirties would in one way or another characterize all the avant-garde movements, with the exception perhaps of Cubism. The successive traumas of the political, industrial and scientific revolutions are the mutations that drive the history. Directional, messianic, it can be seen as an advance to happiness. Understood in this way, politics is sacralised, accorded a new function, that of leading to a promised land. Hence the strength of Marxism and Nazism — secular religions promising the creation of a New Man. For many artists, the hoped-for kingdom could only be spiritual. For them, as for the others, this required the destruction of the old man. New relationships to science ñ whether rigorous or "illuminated" ñ to nature, to religious or neo-religious teachings, to the machine, to architecture, to violence, to the erotic: all these are obsessions that nourish the work of the artists of the time and are themes taken up by the exhibition, reflections of what for us is the central ambition of the first avant-garde: to explore the spiritual preconditions of the appearance of the New Man. Much of the art of the early twentieth century can be understood in terms of this project, and much of the art of the second as the consequence of its failure.
The idea of holy war, of supreme commitment, with all its blinding exaltation, pervades the thinking of a number of artists, among them Otto Dix, and, in more mystically inflected manner, Franz Marc, whose own fate is a sacrifice in the purest Romantic tradition: the sacrifice of biological life in the name of the spiritual.
Between 1909 and 1918, for Futurists and Expressionists, for French and Russians, war, "the only hygiene of the world" as Marinetti called it, would be felt as a necessary and sometimes longed-for trial, a stage on the road towards this new, more spiritual society. "War? Well, yes: it is our only hope, our reason for living, our only desire" (Marinetti, "Kill the Moonlight!" reprinted in Calvesi, 1976, p. 15). For Kandinsky, for whom the peril was imminent, the recurrent theme of the Flood has in his Composition VI (Sintflut) [Composition VI (The Deluge)] a clearly millenarian aspect, being seen as an opportunity for resurrection rather than as a catastrophe. "Out of the most effective destruction sounds a living praise, like a hymn to the new creation that follows the destruction" (Kandinsky, 1994, p. 138). And this illusion survived even into the War, as he then writes to Paul Klee: "What happiness when this appalling age is over. What will come after? A great liberation, as I believe, of the purest forces, leading to the realization of human brotherhood" (cited in Nigro Covre, 2002, p. 280). Such sentiments are echoed in the words of Franz Marc, writing to Kandinsky in October 1914 "The spirit of Europe is more important to me that Germanness … As for me, I live in this war; I see in it the healing, if also gruesome, path to our goals. It will not be regressive for man, instead it will purify Europe, make it ready" (Letter to Wassily Kandinsky, 24 October 1914, in Marc, 2006, p. 405). At the same time, and in the same millenarian spirit, Natalia Goncharova in Russia produced an album of 17 prints, entitled Voïna [War] or Mystical Images of War. If, in their desire to see them, Guillaume Apollinaire, Fernand Leger, Max Beckmann and Dix insisted on finding beauties in this catastrophe, the encounter with the metallic horrors of the trenches would lead to a first breach in the myth of the New Man, evidenced in a work by Wilhelm Lehmbruck, originally a murdered Siegfried and then in 1915 a "Stricken Man" before being exhibited in 1916, in the midst of war, as Der sterbende Soldat [The Dying Warrior]. This legendary work became the universal symbol of the senselessness of war. This is no longer the Wagnerian hero, the invincible conqueror of Evil killed by treachery, but the negation of the mystique of sacrifice, a representation of the banality of death in combat, underlined by the sculpture's lack of pathos. The metaphysics of war was dead, for a time. Lehmbruck would commit suicide in 1919. Inhabited by these same spectres of violence, Vaslav Nijinsky would dance in the January of that year his Marriage With God. With a cross of velvet on the floor, arms outspread, a living cross himself, he announced that he would dance them the war: " ... we saw him, you might say, hover over the dead bodies. The audience remained seated, their breath taken away, horrified, struck by a strange fascination" (Nijinsky, R., 1934, p. 416). A dance of life against death, a battle lost, the great artist's last, terrifying, appearance on stage. His wife concludes her description thus: "A last shudder wracked a body that seemed to be cut to pieces by machine-gun fire, and the Great War claimed one more life" (Romola Nijinsky, cited in Reiss, 1957, t. I, p. 143).
The ideal of the New Man thus finally lost all hold shortly after the end of the war, but the connected and more disturbing idea of a new society took on flesh. "The ideal of the Bauhaus," wrote Walter Gropius, "was to educate the individual in the interest of the whole community" (cited in Michaud, … , 1997a, p. 42). In this utopian vision intended to bring about a harmonious reconciliation between the age, the city and mankind, inspired essentially by the hope of governing modern society by an aesthetic law, the Bauhaus, as Michaud says "concluded a pact with the devil in order to lay the foundations for a new order, both visual and moral" (ibid. p. 35). This endeavour found parallels in the less well-intentioned ideologies of regimes that perverted an ideal originally spiritual which in their hands became totalitarian: State Communism, Fascism and Nazism invaded Europe, only 100 years after Friedrich's death, in a horrifying triumph for the prophecies of Goya and Dostoyevsky.
In this blasted landscape only Dada, disgusted by any order, ancient or modern, and impervious to the absurd appeal of war, the self-proclaimed "fools of God" (Huelsenbeck, 1980, p. 170), would succeed in 1916 in entirely remaking art and poetry. Other endeavours in this age of distress, guided too by overtly mystical ambitions, would result in the simultaneous emergence of a number of artistic revolutions, the work of artists of the stature of Frantisek Kupka, Malevich, Mondrian and Brancusi. If some shared in this way the dream of laying foundations, through art, of a more spiritual world, exalted by fertility of new territories they were exploring and the revolutionary climate in which they bathed, their works, powerfully inward, untouched by desire for power, unswervingly oriented to the absolute, are themselves this new realm. Malevich in 1916 and Mondrian in 1920 both celebrated its discovery in the same terms, the first lyrically ñ " … a surface lives, it has been born ... The square is a living, royal infant ... Each form is free and individual. Each form is a world" (cited in Nakov, 2007, Vol. II, p. 49) ñ the second more laconically: "The new art has been born" (Piet Mondrian, "Neoplasticism," in Holtzman, James, 1986, p. 147).
Though without any factual link between them, at the summit of their art all three shared the same ideal of attaining to a dematerialised absolute. No longer colour, but light, almost no longer form, but energy. In these worlds of the spirit, the work emerges almost in the absence of matter, a veritable parousia of a new art. Forms are reduced to their essence; or rather, they are no longer any more than the residual signs of essentiality, opening onto a rarefied world whose sign is the disappearance of the superfluous, the investment of the minimal. That in these three cases the art is the highest expression of its creators' spiritual aspirations and their sense of the cosmogenic is evident, as is clear in Malevich's declaration: "The white square carries a white world (the world's structure)" (cited in Nakov, 2007, Vol. II, p. 335). Similarly Mondrian: "Art although an end in itself, is, like religion, the means by which the universal comes to be known, that is to say, can be contemplated in tangible form" (cited in Michaud, … , 1997a, p. 85). And Brancusi, referring to the bird ready to embark on its voyage to the infinite: "Through this form, I could change the cosmos, make it move differently, and I could also intervene directly in the workings of the universe" (cited in Schneider, 2007, p. 41).
The exhibition, and the need for (over)-generalisation that this kind of exercise imposes, conjures up at the same time another theme, embodied in Dionysus, a crucial figure for European culture, to whom Nietzsche claimed to be the last to have made an offering, declaring himself to be the god's "last initiate" (Marc Delaunay, in Alizart, 2008b). Dionysus in his many aspects haunts modern art from Hölderlin to Cameron Jamie: he is Dionysus the Oceanian whom the artists of Die Brücke would seek, following the footsteps of Gauguin in the Palao Islands; he is the Nordic that Stravinsky celebrates in the Rite of Spring. It is for him, the Italian, that Mary Wigman dances at Monte Verita; it is him, the African, that Pablo Picasso discovers at the Musée de l'Homme; and him again, the Greek, whom Nijinsky dances in L'Apres-midi d'un faune, and once again, he is the Hopi, celebrated by Aby Warburg and then by Max Ernst and André Breton, witnessing the Snake Ritual in the United States. And it is to him, finally, that the review Acephale is dedicated by Georges Bataille in 1936. The Dionysiac is an ever-present possibility for any search for the spiritual after the death of the Judeo-Christian God. He stands for the untimely archaic, for laughter, terror and sacrifice, in the face of the Passion, for the privileging of the Greeks over Christ.
The Dionysiac is also a response the artwork's loss of aura, offering the possibility of restoring to it a power stripped away by its desacralisation, the pagan possibility of convoking the sacred directly, without mediation. This is why Picasso speaks not of the style of African art but of its power: "I understood why I was a painter. All alone in that awful museum with masks, redskin dolls, dusty manikins. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not at all because of the forms; but because it was my first exorcism painting ñ yes absolutely! That's what separated me from Braque. He loved the Negro pieces, but, as I said, because they were good sculptures. He was never afraid of them. He never needed an exorcism. Because he never felt what I called the Whole, or life, I don't know, the Earth? (ibid., p. 19).
It is this search for the tremendum* that Bataille brought to its highest pitch in seeking to found a religion around the journal Acephale and the Collége de Sociologie, a "sacred conspiracy" brought to an end by the advent of war in 1939: "a religion with no other god but the … apocalyptic sovereignty of ecstasy" (Michel Camus, "L'acéphalité ou la religion de la mort," in Acephale, 1995, p. ii). It was under the guidance of Nietzsche, the subject of a forceful rehabilitation in the first article of the first number, that Acephale embarked on this atheistical investigation of sacred enthusiasm. It is in its desperate mystique of sacrifice that Bataille's approach is "fiercely religious" (Bataille, 1936). If it is inspired by the anthropological discoveries that he found so fascinating, by his "somewhat over-excitable reading of the history of religion" (M. Camus, "L'acephalité ou la religion de la mort," art. cit, p. III), it is nonetheless true that he carried with him in his fascinating excess the likes of André Masson, Picasso, Eli Lothar, Pierre Klossowski, Roger Caillois and Michel Leiris, all attracted by the goal of rediscovering through art the intensity of the sacred. This perilous endeavour, this intrepid quest, was made possible by the sacrifice of all the gods, depicted by Masson in a series of prints (Sacrifices, 1936). Following Nietzsche to the letter, the question for this small band was to go beyond deicide by means of the transgression that opened the way, beyond good and evil, to a superhuman life invested by Eros and death. This would see the emergence of a free man, emancipated from the God of whom the head was the image, freed from original sin. "He found beyond him not God, who is the prohibition of crime, but a being who doesn't know prohibition. Beyond what I am, I meet a being who makes me laugh, who fills me with anguish because he is made of innocence and crime" (Bataille, 1936). Intoxicated perhaps by his Dionysiac sincerity, Bataille nonetheless opened a path to the absolute for art. He was furthermore intransigently lucid in the face of the deathly chill of a Fascism that was gradually extending its sway over Europe. In 1939 there appeared the last number of the journal, marking the centenary of Nietzsche's madness, and within it a mystical call to arms against Nazism that begins: "I am joy in the face of death."
"The gates of hell were opened and the Earth fell prey to every kind of misfortune." Man had failed to profit from the greatest of God's miracles, as described in the opening intertitles of Murnau's Faust, that he had given Man the freedom to choose between good and evil. Goya's premonition had once again proven itself exact. Western civilisation, so refined, had been no bulwark against barbarism. Its humanism had been no defence against political savagery. Man after the death of God, whom man was to invent, had failed to appear, and it was thus in "the void of vanished man" (Michel Foucault, cited in Badiou, 2005, p. 241) that art, like philosophy had to be thought after the supreme inhumanity.
The task faced by artists was simple: to attempt the refoundation of Western culture. The great artists of the new period were faced with the necessity of inventing their works without recourse to now disqualified traditions and without reliance on the political watchwords that had characterised modernity. An endeavour that could not be undertaken except by reaching the very foundations of being, to be encountered as directly as possible, wiping the slate clean of the past and searching for resources uncompromised by the recent horrors. Those who had worked on the representation of Greek myths, such as Mark Rothko for example, would become resolutely abstract, in search of a form of expression more universal, more inward and more absolute. It was necessary in fact to replace utopia by atopia, that is, to embark on a meditation on the reality of the real rather than to attempt to transform it. This endeavour can be summed up in Jean-Michel Alberola's illuminated phrase La sortie est a l'intérieur (The Exit is Within). Even if in the United States Abstraction became a hegemonic presence, in Europe abstractionists like Alfred Manessier and figurative artists like Alberto Giacometti produced their work side by side. In this great effort of reconstruction that was the birth of contemporary art, every mode of expression had its place, and if this marks the beginning of period of what Arthur Danto called "the unlimited synchronic diversity of art" (Danto, 2003, p. 575) it is evidently because, while the world and culture lay in ruins, the issue was not the invention new forms, but rather the transformative analysis of being, by every means: an ascesis, a spiritual exercise.
While Barnett Newman declared that he had to "begin from scratch" (Newman, 1990, p. 287), Bacon, in what perhaps amounts to the same thing, wanted, in the words of Michel Leiris, to get "close to the bone" of man, doing this with no religiosity, no halo, no psychology, no artifice: just flesh that cries out in the silence of the painting. To have been, like Bacon, thirty in 1939, is to have disaster preside over ones coming to maturity. The cruelty that he depicts, however, is not particular. It is ageless, motivated not by any special interest in horror but rather by the need to pose the problem of the human in its entirety. This too is the ambition of Antonin Artaud, in the Portraits he showed at the Pierre Loeb gallery in June 1947 ñ "an empty force, a field of death" (Antonin Artaud, "Portraits et dessins," reprinted in Hulten, 1981, p. 157) ñ in which he seeks to descry a face mid-way through a century that had annihilated the figure of Man. The issue is not to make artworks, but to find out how to restore the human. A face that will have nothing to do with that of the God in whose image we are created but will be rather the expression of being "as it is in itself." The drawings are outside art. As he warns us in his preface, "There will be hell to pay for anyone who thinks of these as art" (ibid.). They are indeed anterior to any formalisation or any aesthetic reflection: they are metaphysical acts, blows to sound the depths of our humanity, true exorcisms.
They testify to Artaud's self-destructive labour on himself in the effort to extract from his pain the possibility of a new covenant between man and the world; for him the urgent necessity is, after the war, to lift the spell from a mankind bewitched by its beliefs and appetites. It to this complete recasting of man's relationship to the gods, to sex, to the body and to industrial capitalism that he addresses himself in 1948 in his script for the broadcast "Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu" (To Have Done with the Judgment of God), a small-scale model of the Theatre of Cruelty. A demythification, an orality in extremis, a bitter draught for the healing of Western man, this radio-poem was banned by France Culture, to be broadcast only in 1973. It was however discovered by artists in 1958, thanks to Allen Ginsberg, whom Jean-Jacques Lebel fortunately supplied with unauthorised copies of the recording, an ashen voice which when heard in the United States would add its poisonous vigour to the rebellion sparked off by the poets.
This stance might seem very far removed from that of the American abstract painters, yet Newman and his friends were equally sensible to the moral crisis of a world destroyed: "We began, so to speak, from scratch, as if painting were not only dead but had never existed" (Barnett Newman, "Response to the Reverend Thomas F. Matthews," cited in Bonn, 2005, p. 56). For them, as for Artaud, "the defence of human dignity is the ultimate subject matter of art. And it is only in its defence that any of us will ever find strength" (Barnett Newman "Teresa Zarnower," in Newman, 1990, p. 103). One cannot but be impressed by the methodical effort ñ expressed in research, publications, and exhibitions ñ put in by such as Newman, Adolph Gottlieb, Wolfgang Paalen, Newman and Lee Mullican in their fundamental reconsideration of the history of Western and non-Western art, from prehistory to the contemporary Eskimos, from the Egyptians to the Navajo, from South-East Asia to Pre-Columbian America, undertaken so as to make it possible, after the collapse of the modern, to lay the foundations for a new art that would be universal in responding to the tragic condition of Man. If the German Expressionists and the Fauves and later the Cubists had been passionately interested in "Primitive Art," it was not so much to provide their work with new forms but to supply it with the charge of the irrational that it required. What the Americans were looking for was neither the forms ñ on which they drew very little ñ nor power or greater subjectivity of expression, nor a new grammar, but an attitude, the possibility of art having a function for man and for the world. As Gottlieb put it in 1943: "If Modern Art found its first impulse in the encounter with the forms of Primitive Art, it seems to me that its real significance lies not just in the play of forms but in the sense of the spiritual that underlies all primitive work" (cited in Kirk Varnedoe, "L'expressionnisme abstrait," in Rubin, 1991, t. II, p. 615). They would adopt the most simple, most timeless and most elevated point of view, a stance like that of the very earliest artists, for "the first man was an artist" and "The purpose of man's first speech was an address to the unknowable" (Newman, 1979, p. 121). This search for origins, for "the hidden meaning of life," would lead to a philosophical art that found expression in an abstract form that was a heroic meditation on the tragedy of life. Man is confronted by the sublime, which is not represented but conjured by the painting, which becomes the site, the temple of this experience. Art's function is then not to provide an object of meditation but to organise an experience that the viewer must undergo, must live through the work, an experience of transformation: "Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or 'life,' we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings" (Newman, 1990, p. 173). The work becomes a sanctuary, and one can understand how the experiences of such as Rothko and Newman could have found embodiment in a chapel for the first and a synagogue for the second, but for them, as for Matisse at Vence, art, even in an ecclesiastical context, is not subordinated to religion, the work of art having an intrinsic spiritual function that exceeds the dogmatic purposes it may be made to subserve. Like Artaud, who prefigures it in his scorching theatrical work, or Newman, who ñ after having changed, with his friends, the reference points of the creative process after Hiroshima ñ succeeds in realizing it within the space of the painting, contemporary art ñ from the spiritual point of view with which we are here concerned ñ will be concerned with the experience and exploration of the self, the experience of the work, the transformation of its creator and sometimes of its viewer, with what Jerzy Grotowski calls "art as vehicle", meaning by this that its goal is less the invention of style than the invention of the self. Like Newman, Grotowski ñ travelling in China, Benin, India and Central America ñ took stock of the traditional theatrical forms that he encountered there, seeking to identify those practices that might be of universal significance, responding to our most fundamental concerns. Like Tatsumi Hijikata's, his work pursues the all-conquering catharsis that Artaud had sought in his radical challenge to a literary and psychologistic theatre, finding the sacred in the possibility of a sacrificial theatrical experience, which, at the price of a rigorously demanding ascesis on the part of the actor, brings him to a condition of absolute psychic nakedness. Art is here, like religious self-abandonment, a means to a real and not merely symbolic transformation of being. The artist is no longer just a performer or interpreter, but the very medium that must undergo a spiritual and bodily metamorphosis if he is to succeed in offering the public, in sacrifice, an intense, shared, mystical experience. Here again, while Grotowski's Theatre Laboratory was based in Wroclaw, only kilometres from the old concentration camp, it was in Auschwitz that the director chose to set his production of Stanislaw Wyspianski's play Akropolis, seeing it as the cathedral of the 20th century, because there, in its inmates, was made manifest the sublimity of man in his utmost destitution. In this terrible judgment, he rejoins the Hölderlin who claimed "... where danger is / Grows too the saving power" (Friedrich Hölderlin, "Patmos," in Hölderlin, 1967, p. 867). His project is almost shamanic, in any event therapeutic, and in this comparable to that of Joseph Beuys, who also sought to discover in the ancient rites of many civilisations, from the Siberians to the Celts, and indeed in Christianity itself, a knowledge that through art might heal society of its pathologies and restore to the individual all his creative potential, a precondition for the reconciliation of man with his natural environment.
But another stance was available, less burdened, more cheerful, more optimistic, more sensual, that called for the employment of different means, of all means possible, indeed, to expand perception and thus promote a higher consciousness. This endeavour, equally aimed at the transformation of the self, is based on a happier conception of humankind. As Bruce Conner put it: "I think that one of the themes of [my] work is the affirmation of man's goodness" (Phillips, 1995, p. 84). The notion that society is coercive but that the individual is good serves as the programme of the Beat and then the Hippy revolution of "Make Love Not War." It is this conception of man that Ginsberg sings in his performance of his long poem Howl in 1955, which snakes out into its time like a jazz solo, and whose "footnote" declares, in an intoxicating mantra: "The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy! / Everything is holy! everybody's holy! everywhere is holy! … / The bum's as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy!" (Ginsberg, 1977, p. 31).
Transgression of every kind was on the agenda for artists, as illustrated by the fascination with visionary nonconformists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Arthur Rimbaud, who serve as models for living, as exemplars of artistic probity, the engagement with ecstatic practices of Tantric or shamanic inspiration, the exploration of the effects of psychotropic drugs, the interest in Eastern mystics, the emphasis on sex, the sustained attention to Gnosticism, Kabbala, black magic, to the poetry of the mystics, all bathed in rock and jazz. This state of mind, whose vitality nourishes John Cage and Robert Filliou, Ginsberg and Jay DeFeo, has its vocabulary in energy and pleasure, finding expression in a spontaneous creativity, in a rebellious intoxication of the senses that makes the poet a seer and a buccaneer, hostile to all convention and concerned only with soul: "The soul of the individual is in danger … By soul I don't just mean clarity of mind but the sense of being aware of ones whole body. While this body, tender and full of feeling, is in danger, we have to try and express its scream, its tears and prayers through art" (Allen Ginsberg, "T. S. Eliot Entered My Dreams," City Lights Journal, No. 4, 1978, pp. 61-65. Citation not verified - Trans.). This attention to personal spiritual development was essential to these artists, all of whom engaged in religious study or practice. They were "sky-eaters," as John Giorno puts it: Gysin was a Sufi, Filliou ended his life in an ashram, Ginsberg met the Dalai Lama, and Kerouac wrote a life of the Buddha, to mention only a few of many examples. But if this was a focal concern, it found its expression for the most part in art. When, for example, in 1948, Ginsberg had a vision that would have a profound effect on his work, it wasn't the Virgin Mary or the Buddha that he saw, but William Blake, which shows very clearly that the divine that was sought ñ the sacred whose traces we are following ñ was embodied in the poets. What followed from this was the ambition to open "the doors of perception" ñ a phrase that deliberately evokes the book of this title published by Aldous Huxley in 1954 (Huxley, 1954), and which finally derives from Blake, whose lines offer a precise description of the programme adopted by artists of the period, from the Beat poets to the rock musicians of The Doors, and whose influence is equally strongly present in the psychedelic "revolution": "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. / For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern." (William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). And this today is still the project of an artist who explicitly acknowledges the influence of this generation, Bill Viola, who can declare: "There really is another dimension, which can be a real source of knowledge. It is so as to find it and make contact with it that I cultivate these experiences and that I do what I do" (Interview with Bill Viola, infra, p. xxx. Citation not verified). The inaugural manifesto of this expansion of the artistic universe was John's Cage's 4'33'': for Any Instrument or Combination of Instruments. Having attended Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki's lectures on Zen at Columbia University from 1945 to 1947, and having used chance, more especially the I Ching, to free sound from its traditional musical straightjacket, Cage had David Tudor perform 4'33'' Woodstock in 1952. In three movements, marked only by the lowering and raising of the lid of the piano's keyboard, its only material consisting then of the sounds made by the world about, Cage "makes us aware of the miracle of existence as a whole, and this is how this silent piece, entirely open to the sounds of the environment, must be understood" (Daniel Caux, "En résonance avec les arts visuels. Musiques hors limites," in Loisy, 1994, p. 324). This work, inspired by Zen and by Rauschenberg's White Paintings , stands for the possibility of a reconciliation between Man and the universe, and its spiritual impact would be decisive. The years between the late Forties and the Seventies thus saw the emergence of a new vision of Man and a new vision of art. From Henri Michaux's Dessins mescaliniens to the hallucinogenic lighting effects of the Dream Machine and the poisonous flowers of LSD, from DeFeo's mystic rose to Giorno's spiral poems and Roberts Smithson's Spiral Jetty, driven by their spiritual concerns these psychonauts explored a part of the world hitherto undiscovered by the traditional arts or positive science. During this intoxicating period, art was indeed a means to the perfection of the self, but a means so powerful that artists could hope that it would also transform society. This was Filliou's project, for example, in his Le Territoire de la République Géniale, combining oriental wisdom with utopian socialism and positing an ideal not only of individual liberation but of a true democracy of permanent creativity: genius rather than talent, perpetual movement, the abolition of power, with the destructuring of the self and the world leading to harmony. Filliou's Un, eins, one (1984), a great mandala made up of thousands of cubes bearing a single dot on each face, is the spiritual cathedral of the exhibition. In it, the great game without winners, the repeated invocation of the unique, the diverse and the fragile, the unity of the whole and of each of its parts, Chagall's cosmic circle and Smithson's territory, the concentration of Malevich and the laughter of De Dominicis all come together to celebrate the spiritual marriage of art and life.
The Shadow of God
In today's postindustrial world the idea of the transformation of self or society through art has lost its power. But in parallel with the changes in the world, since Pop Art artists have manifested, in the face of our supermaterialism, a need to explore the mystery of things, the obscure presence of the "numinous," to use the term coined by Rudolf Otto in 1929. This is what Andy Warhol does ñ a pioneer in this as in so much else ñ in his Shadows, in which one rediscovers the blinding illumination of earlier Annunciations. Produced just before a series on a religious theme, The Last Supper, it is impossible to see them, however sceptical one might be, without being impressed by the suggestion of a light from behind, an energy hidden by the panels that seem to block our access to it. Warhol seems to be seeking here the effect of veiling that Rothko sought in his Houston chapel, inspired by the biblical description of the construction of the tabernacle, a misty obscurity intended to protect the witness to the blinding light of God's self-manifestation (Clair, 1997, p. 92).
The growing globalisation of the last thirty years has brought to the desacralised West an awareness of artists from societies that have retained a strong cultural link to the religious, who through their employment of a westernised language enter into dialogue with our secular art. In their works, now incorporated into "our" art-world, they again pose the question of sensation, for a long time ignored. What Rudolph Otto called the mysterium tremendum, bringing with it the trembling of one's whole being in the face of "presence," has been explored by artists, either to investigate the phenomenological qualities necessary to produce the effect, as in the case of James Turrell or Anish Kapoor, for example, or to provoke a meditative attitude close to piety, as do artists such as Bill Viola and Yazi Oulab. Rather than see in this a return to the devotional in art, at a time when the question of a possible desecularisation has assumed a global importance, one might better consider it as demonstrating an interest in the effectivity of the medium of religious expression in the organisation of the sensible. The vocabulary that it provides, deployed acerbically by such artists as Wim Delvoye and Mounir Fatmi, or in more conciliatory fashion by such as Marc Couturier, often unites the public in an ambiguous consensus, and perhaps in this way, given a brief introspection, even more effectively opens our eyes to the cunning springs of our fascination for the genius of liturgy. And perhaps then to overcome our attraction to these ancient narratives, allowing us, should we wish, to raise to the dignity of the spiritual our own demand for demythification, as does Abel Abdessemed in his Also sprach Allah (2007), abandoning himself, in accordance with the injunction of Nietzsche's Zarathustra, to the impulse to self-overcoming.
In his Musée imaginaire Malraux underlined the novelty of the situation: photography had made the art of every age easily available, and for the first time in history artists bore the weight of a vast inheritance against which they had to measure themselves. This idea today is of even more general relevance. All the world's music and all its masterpieces are accessible by a simple mouse-click. In this hyper-information society every artist is aware, almost in real time, of what all the others are doing. But what is it that we know when we can know everything about a reality that comes to us in MP3 format? Digitalized, pared down and compressed, the acoustic or visual message is simplified to an extreme. The effect of reality is banished, though one may not always be aware that all one is looking at is a logo. Art and things have lost their substance. Like the music in our iPods, the world is compacted, abridged, and life becomes a blur. So like empty bodies wandering an unknown planet, we think to ourselves perhaps, in the melancholy words of Ann Lee in Pierre Huyghe's video One Million Kingdoms, "It's a lie, there's nothing, just dust." The ecstasy of the commodity is only there to protect us from the fundamental truths, the same as they ever were. As Damien Hirst says, "I think contemporary art is a myth. It's like a fashion, there's only ever been one idea in art, all the arts deal with it, and you have to look beyond fashion to see it …— The question of life and death? — Exactly, Gauguin's old question" ("Damien Hirst in Conversation With Hilario Galguera," in Hirst and Galguera, 2006, p. 11, citation unverified).
The difficulty that artists face, however, is the blindness and deafness resulting from that mass of information crowding in on each one of us and the confusion between art and entertainment that is deliberately fostered by the culture industry. For some artists, then, Hirst certainly, and Maurizio Cattelan too, in another way, the urgent need is to provoke, through violence, or irony, or horror, a crisis that will allow us to feel, to understand, to rage, in other words, to become alive once again, and to dispel the fog that has arisen between us and the world. It is no longer a matter, as it was in Klee's time, of bringing about a better world, nor even of disclosing metaphysical truths, as Nauman somewhat ironically proposes to do in the work that lights up the entrance to the exhibition like an advertisement for beer. Today, almost forty years later, words have been dissolved by Jonathan Monk's lucid observation in Sentence Removed (Emphasis Remains). No, it is simply a matter of managing to speak the world and ourselves when reality is hidden, infinitely pixellated, invisible in the dazzle, vanished in a fatal overexposure. Like St John at the foot of the cross in Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1515), the artist testifies to the real at the heart of the void, just as it was necessary to testify to man in the void of his vanishing in 1945. So it is that Paul Chan's First Light, which stands in the present exhibition as a summary of our present condition, suggests the darkness that pervades us despite the glaring brightness of our cities. Evoking a world on the verge of disintegration, he celebrates the light that emerges in the excess of light. The struggle here is not that between day and night in Murnau's Faust, but that between the light of the mind and the gleam of things. In this shadow-play, presided over by a telegraph pole that suggests the Cross of Calvary, we witness the ascension of the products of our consumer society. Telephones, iPods, scooters and whole trains rise to heaven, while the shades of men hurtle down into the abyss, like the suicidal, murdered bodies of the victims of the Twin Towers, falling flaming to their deaths. The image, gradually changing with the changing light of day, evokes the apocalyptic prophecies of the Christian fundamentalists so influential in United States and the obvious disgrace of a society that has lost its way, in thrall to the cult of materialism, insulated from and indifferent to the distress of the world. At the intersection of the spiritual and political, of the religious and the philosophical, Chan shows where we are today, at a point where the poet, the artist may yet still save us, being one of the "sentries on the endless road of "Who goes there?'" (Breton, 1965, p. 13).
And so the extraordinary adventure of art, animated by a fire whose fuel has changed but whose ardour has not cooled with time, still fulfils its role, no longer speaking of the gods, but bringing to a world shaken to its foundations the last trace of the sacred remaining on the earth, the precarious grace of the real, the fragile grace of man.
— Traces du Sacre © Editions du Centre Pompidou, Paris 2008, ISBN 978-2-84426-362-9.