Robert Nelson The Spirit of Secular Art, A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Value (Monash University ePress, 2007) is an ambitious project, a complete history of western art from Ancient Greek art to the present day. Very ambitious as it requires the author to have a good knowledge of the entire history of art which Nelson does have.
Along the way Nelson does make some interesting arguments about the architecture of frames in medieval altar pieces, progress in academic art in the nineteenth century and the limitations of symbolism compared to Freudian psychology. See Peter Steele’s review “The Material Stretched by the Spiritual” in Eureka Street Vol18 no.4
Ambitious as the project is, it is unfortunately a rather conservative project. Nelson follows the usual strata of art periods; Ancient Greek, Medieval, Renaissance, etc. The idea of broad layers of styles defining a time, does not fully explain all of the art being created during that period nor is it a clear guide to the history of influences on artists.
The book is also a bit of a jeremiad, a general complaint about contemporary art. Nelson writes several times that contemporary artists are “sacrificing their talent”. Although I am now antique I don’t want to be a grumpy old man and complain about the standard of art today. It is as boring and false as complaining about the youth of today ever was.
However, the real problem is art’s the sacramental roots and however much Nelson knows about the history of western art, he is not as knowledgable about the history of western religion.
Throughout his history Nelson tries to demonstrate how the sacred added an aura to art in different ways at different times. The term ‘sacred’ is a fuzzy and elastic word, even in comparison to the word ‘art’, and poorly defined terms are the downfall of many studies. For Nelson spirituality haunts art and exorcism is impossible even for secular artists. I have doubts about anything artificial having essential and eternal features as such elastic apparitions may give an object any aura you imagine.
Art’s relationship to the sacred appears to be both complex and varied, leaving many trace elements behind in the mix. Artists may be inspired, or even possessed by muses, spirits, ghosts, gods and genii. Art, particularly the abstract and mathematical nature of music, could be considered an emanation of the divine. And this is not an exhaustive list.
In Roberto Calasso’s book, The Marriage of Harmony and Cadmus, he explains, in his simple but elegant manner, the relationship between beauty and the gods. The gods appreciate beauty, music, perfumes in the same way that we do. For if they did not we would have nothing in common with the gods, there would just be an immense power imbalance.