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The material stretched by the spiritual

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The Spirit of Secular ArtNelson, Robert . The Spirit of Secular Art: A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Values. Monash University Press, Melbourne. RRP $37.95

Pious or superstitious, whichever it was, the practice once obtained of opening either The Aeneid or the Bible at random and taking to heart the first words upon which the eyes lighted. An exercise of that kind would be a good way to come to terms initially with Robert Nelson's The Spirit of Secular Art: A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Values.

Here is a brief yield from my own thumbing and peeping. 'Hence there is a kind of inbuilt duplicity in secular art, a kind of pretension in arrogating spiritual status to itself while disavowing the premises which, to a large extent, it relies upon for its prestige. In many ways, therefore, this is a story which suits no one. It is melancholy for the pious and confronting for the nonreligious.' 'Somewhere deep within the secular appropriation of the sacred there is a slight but new sacramental function.' 'As technically brilliant as they are, the Gothic cathedrals stand as a monument to the material stretched by the spiritual.' 'Venetian painters used glazes on all flesh: bony old men and beauties alike are kissed, as it were, with the radiant blessing of Venetian luminosity.'

Samuel Johnson expressed astonishment at the notion of reading books through, but even he might be given second thoughts by a book like Nelson's. As I hope may be clear already, The Spirit of Secular Art abounds in quasi-aphoristic dicta, happy formulations which might, taken in isolation, illuminate much: it could seem greedy to ask for more.

But in fact the whole book is driven by a thesis which, even when its expressions may be contentious, remains powerfully illuminating. Early in the piece, Nelson remarks that 'This text is an attempt to explain the development of secular art in its continuing dependence on the prestige of the sacramental order which it has historically overtaken.' It is an ambitious enough task, but in Nelson's hands not a hubristic one.

'This author', as Johnson would have called him, can scarcely be equally at home in every phase of art, because nobody could be, the thing being both too various and too mysterious for that. But Nelson is enviably and admirably close to that ideal, a dexterous rover from the archaic to the postmodern.

Nor, for all the vigour and confidence of his formulation, is he one to scant complexities or to evade surprises. A couple of pages from the end of the book, he remarks that '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'. Even if one is disposed to cock an ironic eyebrow at that unalloyed 'secular progress', one may salute Nelson's alertness to the imagination's paradoxes.

One of the benefits of this book is that, while its brief is for the visual arts, Nelson is steadily aware of the fact that they are attended by 'sister arts', including poetry. Engaged as I am in the latter affair, I should count myself fortunate if I were able to write as tellingly of painting as he does when he says, for example, of poetry:

'The numbers in poetry are for a hallowed undertaking. The language of divinity is measured; the stresses do not fall randomly but have a cosmic order about them ... Metred speech is a rhythmic symbol of destiny; and the poet is a kind of priest whose inspired vocation is to listen to the spiritual pregnancy of received stories and to find the measured language to express their rightness. Prosody is the sacramental stewardship of language.'

If you can do this kind of thing in the margins, the central text is more than adorned.

'The Enlightenment', Nelson writes, 'can be described as a polemic against the mystical', and anyone who thinks that that polemic was essentially benign has reckoned without the Terror, among other things.

The Spirit of Secular Art, for all its rigour of attention to the work of human hands when they are largely devoted to festivity, often has a clear eye on the surge and jumble of human affairs at large. When Nelson says, for example, that 'Art is a peculiarly bad system in which to interrogate for its whole social predication is celebratory', this is suggestive well beyond the danse macabre of postmodernism: it can function as a challenge to many of the central themes of contemporary political life in Australia. But that, as Kipling used to say, is another story.


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Professor Peter Steele (University of Melbourne)

Peter SteelePeter Steele SJ is a poet and scholar and a longtime contributor to Eureka Street. He is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Melbourne. He also holds a a visiting chair at Georgetown University in Washington DC, to which he will return in July.



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Thanks for a nice piece, Peter. I was with him till the bit about the Enlightenment. I'd like to put it to Nelson that if the Enlightenment denied 'the mystical'(the Mystery), it was moved to do so by associating it with habits of mind and perversions of morality long embodied in the life of both Church and State. Anyone who thinks the order that Voltaire savaged in Candide was essentially benign has not reckoned with what he shows us of that other 'Terror', the state's readiness to resort to the cruelty of war or of the Church's complacency in the cruelty of the Inquisition (or what we know from elsewhere,its acceptance of slavery, and its participation in the practice of judicial torture). I'm a bit of a fan of Voltaire. I think he had a secret spot up the back in Vatican 2. I think there may even be a strain of mysticism involved in his strong commitment to truth and human values.

Joe Castley | 02 March 2008  

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