The Art of Madness and Mystery

Art, like a birthmark, was inscribed on humanity’s newborn face before humanity dreamed of cities or mastered agriculture. Gradually, our features matured and our legs bestrode the earth, but, in spite of our prodigious growth, this primal mark, whether reflected on the walls of ancient caves, Pompeii’s villas, or the Sistine Chapel, seemed essentially the same. Then, in the middle of the 20th century, a change began and now recognizing ourselves in our art has become something of an adolescent struggle.

A clichéd narrative illustrates the relationship between the “uncultured” public and contemporary art: Out of curiosity or boredom, a man decides to visit a new exhibition. Initially, he carefully examines the artworks, but each successive encounter leaves him increasingly baffled. He gazes, for instance, upon a large blank canvass, piles of plastic cubes, old photographs of crowds superimposed with giant dots, and similar stuff—all respectively given bewildering titles like “White on White,” “Embankment,” “Hegel's Cellar: Two Boats,” and so on. Eventually, bafflement yields to frustration. The man leaves and declares to his friends that art museums nowadays are filled with bunkum. His friends, because they are somewhat civilized, respond that he simply does not know how to appreciate art. Nonplussed, the man cites his admiration for what is variously called “traditional” or “classical” art, and—if his friends humor him—he expends an hour or two bemoaning in ever dourer tones the prevailing condition of “artistic seriousness,” “propriety,” and “standards.”

Objections to this sort of diatribe usually do little to persuade the art reactionary that Willem de Kooning belongs to the same profession as Botticelli, but despite the bafflement of this stereotypical figure and the substantial portion of the public which harbors similar reservations, contemporary artists persist in eschewing the norms of their forebears. Simultaneously, artists who buck prevailing trends and produce art that should please the tastes of such fusty folks usually have as their audience little more than a small bunch of sentimentalists, technical fetishists, and middlebrow-hotel-lobby decorators. Nevertheless, traditionally made art produced in eras when such stuff was typical continues to command high prices as well as the adoration of hoi polloi and highbrow critics alike.  

It is as if historic artworks like the Venus de Milo or the Mona Lisa retain their value not merely as objects that conform to certain standards, but as objects understood to be valuable in relation to an intelligible-yet-defunct aesthetic paradigm. However, if that is so, it is odd, like a frog being derided for its unlikeness to a tadpole, that contemporary art regularly elicits uncharitable comparisons with its predecessor, but as with much puzzling behavior in the wake of abrupt change there is likely a fundamental confusion at play. That is, a toddler unschooled in the basics of amphibian biology who finds that a tadpole has become a frog, mutatis mutandis, might sound quite similar to someone who looks at a painting by Titian then another by Gerhard Richter.

In that vein, there are two popular accounts of the paradigm shift responsible for contemporary art. The first, which is the predominant view, portrays it as the organic expression of art as a practice unmoored from the strictures of pre-Enlightenment society and the second, the typical reactionary account, portrays it as the lovechild of commercialism, stupidity, cultural rot, and ascendant secularism. The equation underlying both accounts minus their implicit normative claims is essentially identical: artists plus modernity equals contemporary art. It is a simple and therefore attractive account, but the slightest historical analysis indicates that it does not quite add up.

The material, legal, and spiritual conditions of modernity popularly credited as the prime factors responsible for contemporary art have precursors in every historical period where intercultural markets thrived, art was not formally censured, and a less than pious mood prevailed. In other words, exceedingly cosmopolitan populations, whether in Alexandria, Athens, or Rome at their respective heights, should have—following the logic of such accounts—begot something resembling contemporary art. Yet, artists of such periods seem to have contented themselves with producing the sort of stuff that today stands in museums in those wings that frustrated reactionaries reliably decamp to after giving up on the newer galleries. Indeed, it is not clear why there is such a hard demarcating line between such galleries—why, for instance, some wings should feature many artists like Cy Twombly and others absolutely none. Accordingly, the seemingly mundane curatorial question of where to draw that line yields a crucial insight.

Though they vary considerably, premodern philosophical accounts of art appear fundamentally kindred. Plato, for instance, derided artworks as mimetic in the sense that they are ontologically representative of the ordinary things of the world, which in turn are ontologically dependent on the eternal forms. Kant, roughly two millennia later, more charitably described art as “a kind of representation that is purposive in itself and, though without an end, nevertheless promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for sociable communication.” Hegel, even more charitably, characterized art as stuff that via sensuous perception reveals—more so than mere nature—the heights of metaphysical truth and deepest concerns of humanity. Hence, like a dozen medieval florilegia with sundry pictures of some particular specimen of exotic flora, taken collectively these accounts depict art as a thing that, at the very least, is representative and expressive, if not edifying. But when art burst through the dusts of history, whatever alchemical process occurred in modernity’s alien lights unshackled it from all hitherto known restrictions—rendering the old accounts as useless to modern philosophers as faded lithographs of roots to a child trying to sketch a flower.

No longer is it requisite for art to be representative of anything (certainly not in the colloquial sense). Abstract Expressionists like Rothko and Pollack painted canvases that easily defy Plato’s charge of mimesis, and the works of M.C. Escher, for instance, are often characterized less by the degree to which they represent the world and more the explicit representation of things that would be impossible within it. Likewise, the notion of art being “purposive in itself,” while ostensibly broad, seems to be explicitly rejected by a variety of contemporary art movements, such as Process Art, which emphasizes the process of creation over resulting objets d'art, thereby yielding art with a purposiveness outside itself. And further, if it reveals anything, contemporary art need not reveal the deepest concerns of humanity, as it might have in times past when artists typically sublimated their personal experiences to a point of universal relevance. Rather, contemporary artworks oftentimes and to great effect, reveal only the deepest concerns of an individual apart from humanity in the most profound sense of the term. In light of all this, many philosophers recognized that new accounts of art were needed.


In the 1980’s, philosopher Arthur Danto characterized art, in broad terms, as that which has a style, intelligible subject, engages audiences by means of an “ellipsis” (which audiences are charged with intuiting), and which requires an “art historical context.” Though these criteria are applicable to much traditional art, they conspicuously do not include anything about art being, for instance, mimetic, edifying, or singularly purposive. All that seems to remain is the capacity to convey, and even then—just to those in the know. Predictably, Danto’s characterization met with harsh criticism, both because it describes far more things than art and excludes things already recognized as art. Another characterization proposed by George Dickie—that art is made by a person self-conscious of his function as an artist and that the art itself is an artifact created to be exhibited to an “artworld public” prepared to some degree to understand art objects—drew similar criticism. Both characterizations, which are representative of a trend toward ever blander and bulkier accounts of art, illustrate the problem at hand: despite art’s historically clear-cut character, contemporary art seems to defy definition.

Given its inexplicableness, it is unsurprising that there is a school of thought that denounces contemporary art as puffery—fake art. Emblematic of this school, like the Roman guard who would not abandon his post during the cataclysm of Pompeii, the late Roger Scruton stands in lonesome majesty as the artistic tradition’s greatest defender athwart modernity’s aesthetic upheaval. In a typical invective against contemporary art, he writes that there grew around a few legitimate modernist innovators, “a class of critics and impresarios, who offered to explain just why it is not a waste of your time to stare at a pile of bricks” or “study a crucifix pickled in urine.” This class, to assure themselves that they were “true progressives, who ride in the vanguard of history,” built, according to Scruton, legitimizing institutions, which “trade in ‘originality,’ ‘transgression’ and ‘breaking new paths.’” But, Scruton laments, “these terms are clichés, as are the things they are used to praise. Hence the flight from cliché ends in cliché, and the attempt to be genuine ends in fake.”

It is tempting to agree with such a verdict; contemporary artworks do often seem incomprehensible and pretentious. That they are the senseless products of self-aggrandizing fools seems a simple enough explanation, but such a judgment perhaps relies overmuch on the strangeness of the works of art in question.

Although premodern artworks generally have an inherent, easily apprehensible aesthetic nature, contemporary artworks often do not. Strangely, they are free to be more than straightforward aesthetic signifiers: from a glance it is evident that Velázquez’s Las Meninas is an artwork, whereas Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII could, even under extreme scrutiny, pass for a mere pallet of bricks. Relatedly, popular accounts of art history tend to focus on artworks in their capacity as objects. It is typical, for example, to read an account of Enlightenment era art and find that the decline of religious art and the rise of secular art can be tidily accounted for by examining the shifting character of art’s patron class or sociopolitical sentiment. It is, in such narratives, as if the artistic machine were a mechanism in which the spirit of an age was fed in and a correspondent art funneled out, but something odd seems to have happened on the production line—something that a simple calculus of production cannot explain.

The products of yesteryear differed only in their type, like pastries piped with different jams, but the products of today do not seem like their successors at all. Put plainly, it seems the artistic machine is breaking down, if not broken and this notion is precisely the thing proposed in “The Archeology of the Work of Art,” a recently translated essay by Giorgio Agamben.


In the beginning of his “archeology” of art, Agamben cites “The Eclipse of the Work of Art,” an obscure essay written in 1971 by the brilliant, but obscure Romanian-Jewish exile philosopher Robert Klein. In it, Klein argues that the notion that the avant-garde was chiefly opposed to traditional art’s pretensions, clichés, cultural baggage, and so on—the prevailing view among art historians and philosophers—is wrong. Instead, he asserts that the avant-garde was above all an attack on art in “its incarnation as work”—that is, art as a thing manifest in objects. In illustration, Agamben quotes the French Situationist theorist Guy Debord: “Surrealism wanted to realize art without abolishing it; Dadaism wanted to abolish it without realizing it; we want at the same time to abolish it and realize it.” It is only in light of Klein’s thesis, Agamben claims, that such a statement and by extension, contemporary art (born of the avant-garde) is sensible. Yet, the radical character of contemporary art—its rejection of the privileged role of the object within the artistic machine—remains largely unnoticed by the artworld and public who typically view, price, and discuss contemporary artworks as they do traditional ones because, Agamben writes, “the being-at-work of the work of art has remained unthought.”

Long ago in Ancient Greece, the condition of the work of art was quite different than it is now. Artists, like other artisans, belonged to a class known as the technîta: laborers who produced things by practicing a technique. In relation to this, Agamben cites Aristotle’s Metaphysics, wherein he discusses the problem of dúnamis (potentiality) and energīa, a word that derives in part from érgon (work) and energós (active), which properly means something like “at work, in action,” or “being-at-work,” in the sense that a thing is performing an operation aimed at achieving its proper end. In explanation of the difference between these two concepts, Aristotle describes wood that is yet to be sculpted in the image of Hermes as involving the former whereas a finished sculpture involves the latter. 

The telos (purpose) of the sculptor, according to Aristotle, is the érgon, which itself is energīa and which in turn tends toward entelécheia (another Aristotelian term, which approximately means “possessing itself in its end”). Yet, there are instances, Aristotle explains, when the entelécheia is exhausted in use, as in eyesight. In these instances, the energīa resides within the person at hand. Because of this peculiar distinction, Aristotle’s contemporaries tended to respect a sculpture rather than an artist and a philosopher rather than a treatise of philosophy. In Agamben’s words, “he is a constitutively incomplete being who never possesses his entelécheia.” 

To that end, Agamben cites Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics wherein Aristotle asks whether there is a work that is the proper end of human activity (as there is with shoemakers and shoes) or whether man is born without a work. Famously, Aristotle answers that the work of the human being is the energīa of the soul according to logos (reason). Then, Agamben raises a profound problem, which is the human who is also a shoemaker.

Agamben writes, “in short, the human being as technites and constructor of objects? Will he not be a being that is condemned to a split, because there will be in him two different works, one that belongs to him as human being and another, exterior one that belongs to him as producer?” And while such a question might seem banal, if not laughable with reference to so lowly a profession as shoemaking, which may seem less weighty a work than the energīa of the soul according to logos—with regard to the work of the artist, the same dismissive sensibility does not seem appropriate. Like the work of the statesman or the priest, something about such work—despite its particularity and its existence as a necessary, but not universal domain of human activity—seems like it actually might be the stuff of such a conflict.

This conflict, Agamben proposes, was the historical impetus responsible for contemporary art. Beginning in the Renaissance, he explains, art withdrew “from the sphere of activities that have their energīa outside themselves” and “has been transposed into the circle of those activities that, like knowing or praxis, have their energīa . . . in themselves.” Hence, “The artist is no longer a banausos [simple laborer] . . . but like the contemplative, he now lays claims to the mastery and titularity of his creative activity.” The historical process leading to this withdrawal, according to Agamben, was catalyzed by medieval theology wherein there emerged the notion that a creation resides not in a work, but in the mind of its maker as the thing considered in order to realize the work at hand. “It is from this paradigm,” Agamben writes, “that there derives the disastrous transposition of the theological vocabulary of creation onto the activity of the artist, which until then no one had dreamed of defining as creative.” Thus, “While in Greece the artist is a sort of awkward remainder or a presupposition of the work, in modernity the work is in some way an awkward remainder of the creative activity and the genius of the artist.”

As a way of conceptualizing art, Agamben hypothesizes that “érgon and energīa . . . are complementary yet incommunicable notions that form, with artist as their middle term . . . the ‘artistic machine,’ of modernity,” which can be visualized as a Borromean knot intertwining the aforementioned parts into a mutually indivisible mechanism. With regard to the condition of this knot, Agamben juxtaposes two enigmatic twentieth century figures: the celebrated avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp and an obscure Benedictine monk, Odo Casel.

Casel, a founding figure of the Liturgical Movement, developed a theology wherein liturgy (which Agamben notes derives from the Greek leitourgía, meaning “public work” or “performance”) is a thing of mystery in the same sense as the central rites of Greco-Roman mystery cults—a thing composed of theatrical actions and particular gestures enacted for the purpose of salvation. This notion, Agamben explains, framed Christianity not as a mere web of doctrines, but rather a performance whose actors are Christ and his mystical body, the Church. 

Such a notion, Agamben contends, is key to understanding the avant-garde. Starting in the late 19th century, the culture industry—the standardization and commercialization of virtually all cultural goods—went into full swing and artists and poets who were practitioners of “pure art,” who produced art irrespective of profitability, became quite marginalized. Simultaneously, many of these marginalized figures (notably Mallarmé), who comprised the nucleus of the avant-garde, began to take an extraordinary interest in liturgy. Soon, many of these figures began, according to Agamben, to consider their practice as a liturgy in the full religious sense of the term. To wit, art acquired a soteriological dimension, wherein the salvation of the artist was concerned, and a performative dimension, wherein the act of creation became a sort of rite—disconnected from bourgeoisie ties of siginification and status and effective entirely through its celebration.

Therefore, what fundamentally defines these artists and their contemporary heirs is, according to Agamben, the rejection of the “mimtetic-representation paradigm” in favor of a “genuinely pragmatic claim.” That is, in contemporary art, the artist is freed from the task of producing an aesthetic object, instead functioning as an absolute performer: an aesthetic liturgist who coincides with his own celebration and is effective ex opera operato and not, in Agamben’s words, “through the particular intellectual qualities of the artist.” Accordingly, when Duchamp produced his infamous readymades—prosaic manufactured objects which via selection or slight modification were rendered into “art”—he was not, Agamben contends, acting as an artist and knew it. Rather, Duchamp understood that art’s historical progress was being obstructed by art itself in its incarnation as work constituted by “aesthetics as an autonomous reality,” and by presenting ordinary objects, such as a urinal, as works of art, he was trying to throw a wrench, so to speak, into the artistic machine.

However, Duchamp’s urinal-sized wrench did not quite bring the old artistic machine to a grinding halt: a gang of profiteers seized upon his readymades and re-rendered them into “art.” Nevertheless, Agamben claims, the artistic machine rather than now functioning in a novel way is “running on idle—but the semblance of movement manages to feed . . . those temples of absurdity that are the museums of contemporary art.” So, Agamben concludes, we ought to “abandon the artistic machine to its fate” and with it “the idea that there is something like a supreme human activity that, by means of a subject, realizes itself in a work or in an energīa that draws from it its incomparable value.”

But that contemporary art museums have become macabre spectacles wherein the awkward remainders of artistic works are left to rot for the amusement of an ignorant public and the delight of auctioneers is not reason enough to pronounce such a severe judgment. Certainly, contemporary art is strange: what art was, it denies and by that denial is denied the intimacy of the general public. But to therefore look upon it and declare it a monstrous child of an aesthetics gone awry, which ought to be abandoned—would be to abandon nothing less than a letter from the name of humanity. Art—along with religion, language, and music—is one of those ancient things that at once distinguishes us from the beasts of the field and bridles our natural beastliness. As we have grown, these things have grown in accord with us. To that end, there is a profound historical bond between the work of the artist and the priest, which Agamben hints at, but which fully explicated reveals that contemporary art rather than being the stuff of tragedy is the means by which the great historic tragedy of man and beauty is brought into reconciliation. 


Before art or religion burst into the clarifying light of recorded history, man, just as now, made paintings and some of the most ancient and enigmatic of those paintings, dating back to the early Magdalenian period, are to be found in the caves of Lascaux. Following their discovery, archeologists working on the site were unsure of the reason for their production. Leisure was posited, but given that leisure must have been a costly thing in an age of scarcity and danger, the hypothesis was quickly abandoned. Next, the acclaimed Jesuit scholar Henri Breuil, hypothesized that the paintings were an exercise in sympathetic magic wherein animals were drawn with wounds to facilitate hunting—and given the ostensible primacy of the hunt in prehistoric life, this hypothesis proved popular. But it was soon displaced by another explanation proposed by a French anthropologist and archeologist better known for his pivotal influence on Derrida’s notion of différance: André Leroi-Gourhan.

The sympathetic magic theory, according to Leroi-Gourhan, was implausible because firstly, most of the animals depicted were not hunted at the time, and secondly, the distribution and frequency of the animals throughout the caves seemed far from random. So, based on an exhaustive mapping of each animal and its position followed by a structuralist analysis of his findings, Leroi-Gourhan contended that the paintings exhibited a deliberately dualistic symbolic pattern. Hence, he theorized that the paintings were essentially ritualistic in nature—a notion that initially seemed somewhat fanciful, but has been bolstered by a variety of subsequent findings. For example, the realistic details uncovered in some of the paintings, suggest that occasional marked deviations from realism, for instance horses with surplus legs, are not imputable to underdeveloped artistry, but rather—especially owing to similarities with depictions of later mythological beings like Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir—evidence of a sophisticated mythos. Likewise, based on the appearance of crystalline growths between various superimposed animals in the paintings, it is now known that many of the paintings were regularly re-painted over a period spanning thousands of years—meaning that the paintings were, at the very least, a significant cultural practice. Perhaps most suggestively, researchers have found that footprints in the caves predominantly belonged to adolescent males. So, based on these and other findings, there is an emerging consensus among scholars that not only were the paintings—as Leroi-Gourhan theorized—of a ritualistic nature, but were themselves produced as a mysterical initiatory rite; man’s most ancient art, it seems, was at one with his religion.

In that vein, in this period as in much of early-recorded history, social functions nowadays divided among various professions were also one and the same: to talk of statesmen was to talk of warriors and to talk of priests was to talk of poets. But humanity differentiated. Over a mere couple of millennia the primitive shaman, for instance, was supplanted by the podiatrist, theologian, and psychotherapist. Naturally, the historical moment at which two functions split affords insight not only into the character of the functions at hand, but into the character of the age which split them. For example, the gradual differentiation of the statesman from the warrior over the course of the late Middle Ages reveals not only the distinction between the functions of justice and might, but also that the period in which this divorce occurred was one wherein justice and might were increasingly best embodied in separate stewards. In such a way is much revealed in the differentiation of the artist and priest.

Certainly, we are fortunate these two functions have separated: a theology that can function as an aesthetic makes for a religion that worships the beautiful at the expense of all else and an aesthetic that can function as a theology makes for an art that is expressive only of goodness. Yet, in the youthful union of these things there is prefigured a momentous historical development, which—rather than being the reunion of these things in their primitive state—is the perfection of both via dialectical development to serve a common end. As Hegel writes, “In actual existence Progress appears as an advancing from the imperfect to the more perfect; but the former must not be understood abstractly as only the imperfect, but as something which involves the very opposite of itself, the so-called perfect as a germ or impulse.”

The germ containing an inverted reflection of contemporary art and Christianity is discernible in the historical conflation of the good and the beautiful. Though it is nowadays evident that what is good is not always beautiful and vice versa—a distinction perhaps best illustrated in Christian art by the contrast between depictions of Christ, scourged and gruesome, with depictions of Lucifer, radiant and alluring—the notion still lingers. Even nowadays, it is tempting when faced with such contrasting images to revert: to instinctually reimagine Christ in shining brilliance and Lucifer in gory horror. But this stems from a fundamentally pagan impulse: to search for Christ in the guise of a hastily baptized Apollo is to bend to the charm of the very contradiction which Christianity itself reconciles.

It is the sort of potent contradiction, which, in Hegel’s words,

Points to something destined to become actual; the Aristotelian dúnamis is also potentia, power and might. Thus the Imperfect, as involving the opposite, is continually annulled and solved; the instinctive movement—the inherent impulse in the life of the soul—to break through the rind of mere nature, sensuousness, and that which is alien to it, and to attain to the light of consciousness.

Accordingly, as the contradiction at hand points and thereby yields insight into Christianity, it also does so for contemporary art. Thus do we turn toward the age in which the last links that bound priest and artist were severed—when the marriage of the good and the beautiful broke up.

The term kalón, exemplamatic of this conflation, connotes both beauty as well as moral excellence. In the ecstatic age of Homer, its meanings were thoroughly bound up, but by the age of Socrates, the notion of kalón as a quite distinct entity from the good (agáthōn) was beginning to appear and with that appearance—nostalgic students of Socrates using him as a mouthpiece to contend that the two were still very much wedded. Xenophon’s Socrates, for instance, ever less subtle than Plato’s, describes beauty as coincident with the good, both being collapsible into the useful (meaning, for instance, that a beautiful spoon was so in relation to its efficacy). Plato’s Socrates, however, acknowledges the difference between the two with great tact while being sure every now and then to indicate (often inconsistently) that they’re not as separate as they seem. In The Symposium, for instance (in an astonishingly heavy-handed bit of platonic wordplay) Socrates asks Agathon, “Is not the good also the beautiful?” And in a rare instance in First Alcibiades, Socrates makes the reverse contention. Yet, in Philebus, Socrates says, “But now we notice that the force of the good [he tou agathou dunamis] has taken refuge in an alliance with the nature of the beautiful,” eventually describing truth, proportion, and beauty as a sort of triad of relata which function jointly as a slapdash proxy for the good. But Plato understood that beauty, in the sense that his students were colloquially using the term, was quite disparate from the beauty that was so closely yoked with the good in his philosophical model, which is why a sort of spectacular leap was necessary. 

In Socrates’ speech recounting Diotima’s lesson to him near the end of The Symposium, he says that the lover in his journey of improvement by the way of love “begins to perceive that beauty, is not far from the end. And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty.” To wit, one must wrest oneself out of the sensuous arms of baser beauties and leap into the embrace of “that other beauty.” But this leap—even though Plato assures us that, once we have made it, all earthly beauty beckoning back at us will seem quite ho-hum—is not an easy one. So, with deft dialectical (and literary) skill Plato, whenever necessary, abstracts and rarifies mortal beauty into a matter of proportion, suitability, and truth until it becomes “that other beauty,” which conveniently resembles the nature of the good, which is also these things. But in the process of abstraction—in trying to find the face of beauty beyond the world of experience—what is lost is exactly that which makes the beautiful so. Indeed, whenever we chance to glimpse at beauty in the course of life, it never appears with a plaintiff or veil, but always in an easy grandeur.  

Hence, Plato’s heirs—armed with his methods, but unchained from his wistful predilections—abstracted away the faces of the pagan gods: the marbles that in Homer’s day were warm Olympian flesh were philosophized into dust and that dust into theology. Consequently, the labor of keeping beauty and goodness yoked became moot as their separation in the realm of experience, in art and religion—their correspondent spheres of human activity—became so obviously distinct. Christianity supplanted paganism and the art of yore, which had formerly been principally confined to civil and religious expression, was gradually supplanted by an art that was its own unique means by which humanity understood itself. In due course, following the birth of Romanticism, art stood on the field of history its own inexorable self—and then there occurred a momentous development.


The sway of Christianity—due to sectarian division, doubt, apathy, and the abatement, especially within Protestant churches, of many of its traditional, beautiful (or according to puritanical critics “pagan”) elements—began to wane. Art was heralded as its replacement and foremost among the heralds were the aesthetes, who championed “art for art’s sake”—and foremost among them was the young Oscar Wilde. In The Decay of Lying, a sort of Socratic dialogue between two characters named after his own sons, Wilde argues that it is art, more than anything else, which facilitates those things that hitherto mankind had sought in religion. For instance, he writes, “It is through art, and through art only, that we can realize our perfection; through art and art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.” The aesthetes regarded such notions as far more than mere splashy theorizing—for all their faults, they were an industrious bunch. They preached, they painted, and just as the pious laborers of the Middle Ages erected cathedrals, they erected mansions with rooms wherein all the love and labor once given over to the private chapels of royalty were lavished upon the dining rooms of plutocrats.

One such dining room, known as “The Peacock Room” originally within the London home of shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland and now carefully reassembled in the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC is of particular note. But long before it acquired its renown, it was but a drab, if not démodé space, which Leyland reckoned was due for an update. To that end, he hired Thomas Jekyll, an interior designer, architect, and aesthete to redecorate the room in Anglo-Japanese style. Duly, Jekyll fleshed its walls with Cuir de Cordoue, which had once been a part of the dowry of Catherine of Aragon and emblazoned with her heraldic device: open pomegranates and Tudor roses. About the walls, he mounted an exquisite lattice of spindled walnut shelves designed to hold Leyland’s collection of Chinese blue and white Kangxi era porcelain. And on the floor, he laid a sumptuous red-bordered rug to accent the room’s focal point above the fireplace: a painting of a young European woman in a pastiche of traditional Hanfu attire holding a fan, Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, by James McNeill Whistler. But just before Jekyll could finish the room, he fell ill. So, Leyland, because all that was still required was a bit of decorative gilding, hired Whistler to complete the room before he returned from a stay in Liverpool.

While Leyland was away, Whistler recounts that he painted “without design or sketch . . . putting in every touch with such freedom,” and—because of “the harmony in blue and gold developing”— “forgot everything” in his “joy in it.” But when Leyland returned, he found Whistler’s work overwhelming and fired him. Famously, Whistler retaliated by sneaking back into the house to paint two giant golden peacocks fighting. Thus the room, which had already been quite extravagant before Whistler’s alterations, became an unprecedented scene of an enthralling profusion of deep colors, warring peacocks, and frenzied designs all inching across the walls, window shutters, and ceiling in a shimmering plexus of knotted swirls, feathers, and fantastical verdure. Hearing what had happened, Jekyll returned to the room to see what had become of his handiwork. Afterwards, he went home and was that evening discovered writhing in abject madness on the floor of his studio covered in gold leaf. The madness never abated and he died three years later.     

In such a fashion, aestheticism died: it was a movement that moved beside, but not inside the heart of man. Indeed, although contemporary art was born, as Agamben argues, of the conundrum of constituting one’s life in relation to an exterior work, it was not this conundrum’s firstborn. Aestheticism, likewise inspirited, attempted to overcome the problem of its parentage, in broad terms, by subsuming artists within their work in the hope of yielding—more than mere objects—lives which could be living artworks. Hence, beautiful things became the sensuous set pieces of a drama in which artists were not like their forebears a sort of crew of anonymous stagehands, but stars. Consequently, aesthetes made idols of portraits, prayers of poems, altars of writing desks, chapels of dining rooms, and fallen angels of their fellow men—but the transmutation failed; no amount of gilding can render a man into gold. Thus, as the aesthetes took their final bow while a century’s worth of perfumed tinsel crumbled, the curtains fell on nearly every artistic movement similarly stricken by this congenital conundrum. But atop the debris heaped upon the world stage one movement survived to the applause of a generation to come: the avant-garde.


To understand why the avant-garde survived to lay the foundation for contemporary art it is not enough to note, as Agamben does, that it was born kindred with Casel and the Liturgical Movement. Rather, it is necessary to understand why Casel developed his radical account of mystery theology in the first place.

Casel, a monk of the Abbey of Maria Laach in Germany, was an exceptionally obscure figure. Passersby glimpsing him though a window might well have assumed he was as apart from the artistic, literary, and political tumult outside the abbey’s gates as the medieval towers, westwork, and intricately carved capitals for which the structure is now celebrated as a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture. Nonetheless, Casel’s book The Mystery of Christian Worship, published in 1932, cannot be read as anything other than an explicit response to not just the tumult of Germany, but the world.

In the book’s introduction, Casel writes, “changes in human life are occurring as perhaps never before; certainly at no time have men stood so in need of a ‘turning,’ . . . For never have they wandered so far away from the Mystery of God, or stood so near to death.” Specifically, Casel singles out enlightenment rationalism and industrial optimism, both of which, he observes seem to have obviated the need for the “God of Mystery,” which “has become a burden to man, a burden of which he would gladly be quit.” So, Casel writes, “Nature is his to master, it is to become his empire and the subject of his scientific, merely rational, investigations.” Thus,

It has come about that nature, too, has lost her mystery. The cosmos is emptied of its spiritual content . . . Nature is no longer symbol, a transparency of higher realities . . . Man has explored the deepest reaches of Nature; every day the earth loses size and depth. Now, just as he has broken into the smallest atom, he is prepared to step off into space and win for himself the secrets of the stars. Nature, dethroned and stripped bare, has nothing left to it except the business of making man’s life easier and more pleasant . . . The strange curse which God pronounced after the Fall, that men should make their daily work a mystery of reparation and give it meaning for another life seems to have been extinguished.

And though man has reft mystery from nature, Casel contends that “the world outside Christianity and the Church” still yearns after it and thus “is building a new kind of rite in which man worships himself.”

This new rite, which budded in aestheticism and flowered in Fascism and Nazism—described in prophetic glimpses by Wilde and filmed at length by Leni Riefenstahl—was enacted amid a liturgy of roman salutes. And with regard to this furor of novel theurgies then just sprouting up around Casel’s abbey, he simply writes, “through all of this the world will never reach God.” Thereafter, he spends much of the rest of the book arguing that mystery and mysticism are not the sole prerogative of bygone saints, half-starved desert sages in ecstasy, or dubious intellectuals who spend their nights deciphering runes, but rather the central stuff of Christianity.

“God in His providence,” according to Casel, “had seen to the growth of certain religious forms, which, while not approaching closely to Christian reality, could offer words and forms to express this new, unheard-of thing in a way open to men’s understanding.” Examples of such things include familiar stuff like the language of prayer qua supplication and the construal of sacrifice as a gift to heaven, but above these things was the character of the cultic mystery. Based on his extensive study of classical sources, Casel contends that the kyrios of the cultic mystery (the master to which these mysteries were oriented) was often conceived of as a god that had descended from the heavens, manifested on our mortal plane, battled upon it, suffered, and died. To such a kyrios, cultic initiates addressed a great cry and in the enactment of their central rites this dead god returned from beyond the pale, revivifying the heavens and nature and thereby securing the survival of all the world. In mystery, they suffered and were revived with their Lord and in becoming one with the central character of the cosmos were divinized. And though these mysteries did not quite “lead to the supernatural life of the true God,” they were, in Casel’s words, “a longing, ‘a shadow of things to come,’” cast back through the centuries before Golgotha by “the body of Christ.”

Casel’s account of the Christian Mystery does not end with this discussion of cultic origins, but that is where it begins—and for good reason. Whereas the pagans of yore groped after mystery in all the strange beauty of the world, the pagans of the 20th century, having supplanted nature with factories, saw the glimmer of the transcendental only in themselves. Hence, their longing for mystery—union in one sacred body, absolute order, and submission to an omnipotent lord—was manifested in an obscene eidolon palpable, for instance, in the in the Nazi motto, “ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer.” They longed in spite of Christianity—for Christianity had become for many little more than a collection of institutions, clerics, and sensible dogma: a sort of ornate apparatus for facilitating the wellbeing of polite societies. Thus, they devised new pseudo-mysteries wherein pseudo-monarchs demanded blood sacrifices of millions, but Casel recognizing all this and more tried to show these wayward souls that what they sought was not to be had in such newfangled rites, but only in that ancient mystery wherein the King of Kings himself offers up his own blood for all.

Alas, The Mystery of Christian Worship garnered little attention at the time of its publication—and what attention it did receive was largely critical. Hence, for the rest of his life, his theology was generally considered controversial by the dozens of marginal scholars familiar with it. Fortunately, however, it managed to attract a few loyal defenders associated with the Liturgical Movement and over the years these defenders multiplied and the movement grew in its popularity—eventually proving deeply influential on the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. But Casel did not live to see this triumph. A mere 3 years after the end of World War II—when it must have seemed that the world had wearied itself out and exhausted its interest in mystery—Casel died while celebrating the Easter Vigil at the abbey: Just after intoning the Lumen Christi, he fell in the golden light of the Paschal candle as he bore it into the great gloom of the church; indeed, he made his way through life amidst preternatural gloom, but he bore forth the light of mystery—an unsung hierophant of a darkling age.   

Christianity and art in Casel and Duchamp’s day were fettered by a sense of detachment: liturgy was oft regarded as little more than a theatrical invocation of salvation, rather than the event itself, and art was an increasingly commercialized work of technical skill and symbolic allusion, rather than a thing residing within the artist. Casel’s theology demonstrates a liturgy that itself enacts the event of salvation, which allows worshippers to partake in the divine life of their Lord, and the avant-garde sought to demonstrate that the work of art, in order to function, must be at-work above all in man. That Casel looked to Greco-Roman mystery cults as a sort of foreshadowing of the Christian Mystery is no coincidence. Man had lost his wonderment in nature; the gleam of goodness and beauty intermingled in the glory of sunlight had faded and man walked the earth blind to what his pagan forefathers took for granted. Thus, Casel—seeking to un-blind man—turned his eyes back to the very last pre-Christian manifestation of those ancient, shadowy rites wherein art and religion were indistinguishable.

All this should make plain the profound kinship of contemporary art and Christianity. Both are grown from an intertwined stalk and their growth, though now separate, tends along a parallel vertical; Christianity in its maturity looked to art in its ritualized infancy and art in its maturity looked to what Christianity had drawn from its own self. What both had gained, both had given, but what was got was more than what was had. In such a dialectic—as in a longstanding civil war—art, religion, and all the other foot soldiers of history march with feet rising in contradiction and falling to the drumbeat of reconciliation toward a shared fate: a final battle and a final peace. But as soldiers sometimes go on in spite of their own understanding, so do we and as we do, like soldiers, we look upon the dead and wonder at the meaning of it all.


Jekyll died in madness. Casel died in mystery. An uncharitable critic might say that they died in the same fashion—that Casel’s mystery was little more than a theologically gilded madness. But it is only by practicing art as Casel practiced religion that Jekyll’s heirs keep their sanity. That is, owing to parallel positions of dialectical necessity, contemporary art and Christianity address by kindred means a kindred obstacle. But to become what it is now art required a great sacrifice: the aesthetic paradigm that had given man all his most beautiful things. Yet, some intellectuals, like Agamben, deem this sacrifice a murder, condemning contemporary art as an absurdity born of a problem not meant to be solved. However—rather than being merely the tragic product of bohemian fancy and a chance encounter with medieval theology—contemporary art, as is evident from the history of man’s relation with the good and the beautiful, was always art’s fate and is its redemption. Generation of artists tried and failed to address the foundational conundrum of art and each failure was a step closing the gap between art and artist. At last, the artist took his final step and irrevocably restructured the artistic machine. Indeed, the Greeks produced lively portraits and the aesthetes living ones, but perhaps we will be the first generation to wholly abandon the portrait in favor of life itself. 

None of this means, however, that contemporary art will soon forgo things altogether—that paintings and statues will go the way of the Wurlitzer. Objects will continue to be produced and the technical skills that millennia of artists cultivated will not be forgotten. But the energīa of the art that will yield such objects will not reside within them—in much the same way that liturgical artworks (stained glass windows, statues of saints, icons, et cetera) though supportive of the mystery of the liturgy, do not themselves possess it. A relevant (and aptly transitional) case in point is Filthy Lucre, by Darren Waterston: a technically excellent rendering of The Peacock Room in a state of sickly ruin. Whereas the original was born of a doomed lust for beauty that could only bear inanimate offspring, which persisted at the cost of its artist, this new iteration of the room came into being via the reengineered artistic machine. Consequently, in mind of a healthy disgust for the condition of the original, Waterston brought the room into being once again, but with shelves disarrayed, vases broken, and that swirling plexus of gold melted as if by fever into cloying puddles below a blackened copy of Whistler’s painting of exoticized beauty. Yet, in this bringing-to-being, what was vital was exhausted wholly within Waterston himself. Accordingly, after the installation was exhibited from 2015 to 2017 down the hall from the original, it was appropriately dismantled. 

Nevertheless, in the juxtaposition of these two rooms—kindred in materials, technique, and hallway—some sagacious gallery-goer might be tempted to suppose that perhaps too much of a fuss has been made. That is, after having taken a few thoughtful steps through each room while searching for the cafe, he might presume that contemporary art is no more different from premodern art than the arts of any two suitably protracted periods. Alas, such cultivated presumptions wither away in the light of Scruton’s insights. By means of condemnations (which work equally well as commendations), he not only shows contemporary and premodern art to be fundamentally different—but in explicating the substance of that difference makes clear that the prevailing convention by which the two share a hallway, thereby instigating such presumptions, cannot long endure.

In his endearingly straightforward-titled book, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, Scruton writes of contemporary artists, “Their purpose is not to capture and make permanent the hidden structure of appearances, but to glorify the sovereign role of the artist.” And regarding the quality of contemporary art to be a matter of men rather than works: “This tendency leads inevitably to the ‘installation,’ in which art extinguishes competition, and takes up residence at the very point where reality should be. In the installation, art becomes sovereign.” In relation to this, Scruton notes deferentially of traditional art, “It is cut off by the frame, creating the illusion of a world glimpsed as from a window,” and in that vein notes wistfully, “there was a tact, a modesty, and a good nature about this.” Contrastingly, again regarding installation pieces (which he particularly loathed), he writes, “they do not occur in the background of human life; rather, human life creeps around them, distracted by their presence, and unsure of the nature and extent of the reverence which is due to them.”

Better than any conservative critic (and most others), Scruton understands the essentially radical character of contemporary art. But, perhaps due to an admirable, albeit beclouding loyalty to all the artists who labored to provide civilization with instances of beauty wrought in immortal materials, he does not seem to consider the potency of all those distinguishing traits of contemporary art that he so skillfully identifies and zestfully condemns. But this is unsurprising; to acknowledge or even entertain the notion that contemporary art is worthwhile precisely because of its antithetical traits would be tantamount to an implicit rejection of virtually all premodern art as inherently faulty, if not inadequate. To wit, conservative critics, even the best of them, since they aim to conserve the patrimony of civilization, must reject contemporary art. Thus, culture is in a bind: contemporary art is baffling to much of the public and intellectuals are divided on its worth for perfectly admirable reasons.

So, as if by a lackadaisical compromise, contemporary art is crammed into the slot of its antecedent: objects that possess no true being-at-work hang on gallery walls and throne on museum pedestals—as if such a farce would give the impression of normalcy instead of inspiring yet more bafflement. But this is a compromise that can sustain itself only amid confusion. In the fullness of time, the public at large will acquaint themselves properly with this new sort of art, which scholars have so blandly termed “contemporary.” The compromise will falter and these lifeless institutions will crumble off the face of humanity like a great scab. And when at last the new flesh is revealed, what new face man will have and know himself by will doubtless look back upon us as we look back upon our younger selves—with an audible sigh.

Featured Image: Michael Sweerts Self Portrait 1660; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Michael Shindler

Michael Shindler is a writer living in Washington, DC. His work has been published in outlets including University Bookman, National Review Online, The American Conservative, and New English Review.

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