The Sacred And The Secular In Contemporary Art

"Can we understand public artistic experience by considering it analogous to going to church: the search for the sacred; for the questioning of the meaning of existence?"

Charles Saumarez Smith

As a lapsed Anglican and descendant of several generations of Anglican priests on both sides of my family, there is an issue which I would expect to have been discussed: that is, as fast as there has been a decline in church-going and religious belief in the postwar period, so there has been a corresponding rise in the number of visits to museums and art galleries. Are the two perhaps in some way connected? Can one understand something about the nature of public artistic experience — the experience of going to a museum or an art gallery or an art exhibition — by considering it as in some ways analogous to what used to be — or, at least, what was intended to be — the experience of going to church: the search for the sacred; for the questioning of the meaning of existence; for trying to understand the nature of the unknown, as part of a public ritual; a communal and shared experience of the idea that there can, and should be, important aspects of life which are not part of the everyday and which can be interpreted by people who have special skills and insights into the subject.

Let me begin by considering some statistics of the decline of church-going as compared to the rise in visiting museums. In a recent article by Andrew Brown, the Guardian’s religious correspondent, I read that now, for the first time for at least a millennium, the majority of people under the age of 40 regard themselves as having no religion whatsoever, although, interestingly, only 40 per cent are convinced that there is no God or so-called “higher power”. Brown and Linda Woodhead, a sociologist at the University of Lancaster, have recently published a scurrilous book called That Was the Church that Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People (Bloomsbury, £16.99) which documents the phenomenon of the progressive decline in church-going. It parallels, and is itself a symptom of, a corresponding decline in religious belief. In January 2016, it was announced that, for the first time, weekly attendance at church services had dropped below a million, with regular Sunday attendances falling to 760,000, a drop of 12 per cent over the last decade to a point where less than 2 per cent of the population go to church regularly. The church loses approximately 1 per cent of its congregation every year through death and this number is not being replenished by new recruits. The habit of church-going, the presumption that there was something worthwhile in the ritual of going to church, is being lost. If people feel the need for quiet contemplation, for thinking about their place in history and the world, for enjoying the unknown, they are no longer finding it in church.

Look at the equivalent figures for museum-going. In May 2016, the latest month for which figures are available, there were 3.6 million visits in a single month to the museums funded by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport — that is, to the big national museums, including the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Tate. The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA), which publishes annual figures for the number of visits to museums, records that last year just under 7 million people visited the British Museum, just under 6 million the National Gallery (when I was there only a decade ago, the figures were somewhere between 4 and 5 million so there has been a big increase over the last decade), and just under 5 million visited the Tate overall. The National Portrait Gallery, which when I started as Director in 1994 had about 500,000 visitors, now has more than 2 million. There was publicity recently to do with the fact that there was an increasing number of tourists visiting museums and a decreasing number of domestic visitors.

But it remains obvious that museum visiting, going to art galleries, knowing about contemporary art is now a mass democratic phenomenon in a way that it used not to be. In the first weekend that the new wing of Tate Modern, the Switchhouse, opened, it is said to have had 143,000 visitors, 54,000 on the first Saturday alone. The Royal Academy is not quite in the top ten of visitor numbers. But in the last year, we had more than 400,000 visitors for Painting the Modern Garden and 372,000 for Ai Weiwei — that is, more than 4,000 a day. It is probably not necessary to labour this point too much. Roughly the same number of people that go to the country’s 16,000 churches each year come to the Royal Academy. During my lifetime, going to museums, knowing about art, and going regularly to art exhibitions has changed from being a relatively restricted, occasional, and invariably middle-class, elite experience to being a much more central part of many people’s lives.

Are these two phenomena in some way related? Can one help to understand and interpret the big increase in museum visiting as some form of compensation for the growth of secularisation?

It is worth examining the experience of some of the recent exhibitions at the Royal Academy, what leads so many people to come and visit them, and what sort of experience people get out of them. Let me begin with the Anish Kapoor exhibition which was held in autumn 2009. I’m slightly unusual in that I saw a version of the same exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich the previous year, which included a version of his big work, Svayambh, which consists of a large red wax railway train which glides imperceptibly slowly through a set of grand gallery spaces. What does it mean? Kapoor himself is reticent about attaching a particular meaning to the work and it is not a question that one is necessarily expected to ask. But it is obvious that it is, in some way, ill-defined, about the nature of the relationship between the material and the immaterial, about something larger than what it is physically. Is it a train? Does it contain memories of the trains which went to Auschwitz? Is the red of the wax symbolic of blood? We don’t know. The point is that it is about something large and outside our normal everyday experience.  The work takes us out of ourselves into the experience of scale and — I think it is legitimate to use the word — transcendence.  As Kapoor himself wrote of his work early in his career, when he had an exhibition at the ICA, ‘‘I don’t wish to make sculpture about form . . . I wish to make sculpture about belief, or about passion, about experience that is outside of material concern.”  Or elsewhere, “Material somehow always leads on to something immaterial.”

This sense of something larger happening beyond the character of the individual works was more evident at the Royal Academy, where I think everyone who visited the exhibition was aware that there was something unorthodox about it, something about the experience of the exhibition which went beyond the experience of the individual works. The biggest of the individual works, other than Svayambh, and the one which people are probably most likely to remember, was the big cannon which fired red wax at a wall and the wax gradually accumulated in a big pile on the floor, causing, incidentally, big problems in the management of the exhibition. Again, one is not expected to ask, or to know, what the meaning of the work is.  The point is that it is both meaningless and meaningful: a grand ritual, pregnant with undisclosed and immanent meaning in which the people who were involved in the firing of the cannon did it with unplanned ritual pomp. It is surely not an accident that one is inclined to use the language of religion and spirituality to try to interpret it.

Another exhibition at the Royal Academy during the time that I have been there where I think it is legitimate to think in terms of a sacred, or at least a non-secular, dimension was in Anselm Kiefer’s exhibition held in autumn 2014. Kiefer is self-consciously engaged with issues of history and of myth: thinking about the past through images of sunflowers, ash, baked earth and books, with inscriptions which are drawn from old texts, written out in his deliberate, slightly archaic handwriting. The courtyard was filled with lead ships in big glass vitrines under the title Fates of Nations. At the top of the staircase were lead wings emerging behind a pile of books. The big gallery was filled with an image of the ruins of Albert Speer’s Chancellery. The last rooms were full of work which was done especially for the exhibition on the theme of the Morgenthau Plan, drawn up in the last days of the war by Henry Morgenthau Jr., to turn the Ruhr valley, the centre of Germany’s armaments industry, into farmland. These, once again, were big themes of history, myth, the idea of creation, death and destruction. Kiefer comes across as, in some ways, a shaman, with an interest in the power and beauty, the potency, of myth and alchemy.

The catalogue which was produced at the time of the exhibition helps to give reference to the largeness of Kiefer’s themes and his preoccupation with a mystic and spiritual dimension to life. Indeed, it reveals that he started his journey as an artist by travelling to La Tourette, Le Corbusier’s monastery in France, where he claims to have “discovered the spirituality of concrete”. The way he describes the alchemy of his work is not dissimilar from the way that Anish Kapoor describes his: “When I use objects and substances such as straw and lead I distil from their spirit . . . I discover the spirit that is within these substances. I upheave it and display it.” The catalogue, and particularly the essay by Richard Davey, helps one to understand and interpret the range and depth and recurrence of Kiefer’s use of biblical language and biblical images. After all, the title of one of his early works was Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In his preoccupation with the image of the tree, he repeatedly uses biblical metaphor, as in his opera, In the Beginning, performed in the Opéra Bastille in 2009 and which was self-consciously biblical, or Roots of the Jesse Tree (private collection) and Palm Sunday, a work owned jointly by the Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland. It is obvious, and not just from the exhibition, that Kiefer is deeply preoccupied with the language and ideas of revelation.

The last of the exhibitions that had a quasi-sacramental aspect was the Ai Weiwei exhibition we held last autumn. I would love to pretend that visitors to the exhibition were deeply interested in contemporary Chinese art. They probably did want to see and understand why it is that Ai Weiwei has such a strong international following. But the reason why people came, and encouraged others to come, was, as with the other exhibitions, not really or purely art historical. The biggest, and the most powerful, of the rooms was the big Gallery Three, the largest of our exhibition galleries, which was filled with the metal bars which Ai Weiwei and a team of helpers had recovered from the schools which were destroyed in an earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 that led to the deaths of 5,000 schoolchildren. It was an act of remembrance and of commemoration. It was a work which acted powerfully on the consciousness of the spectator in making them think about death, life and loss, particularly the loss of children, through the actions of the Chinese government. This was certainly intended as a political statement. But I think it is also legitimate to say that it was, in some ways, a quasi-sacred experience: taking visitors out of their normal secular life and making them think about the politics of the world, about the consequences of political negligence through the act of commemoration.

I would not dream of pretending that the phenomenon I have been describing is specific to works shown at the Royal Academy, merely that I am particularly conscious of the way that artworks can have a sacramental dimension in some of the recent exhibitions which have been held there. So, I want now to consider three other occasions where I have been conscious of what I am calling the extra-artistic — the idea that there might be an evocation or an experience of transcendence in the experience of contemporary art.

The first is the work of Alison Watt, the Scottish painter. In fact, the first time that I was alerted to the significance of the sacred dimension in contemporary art was when, some time ago, the late Tom Devonshire Jones asked me to be a judge on the annual awards for the organisation he established called Arts and Christian Enquiry (ACE). I saw an awful lot of bad art, quite frankly, ham-fisted attempts to brighten up churches with what someone thought might be a good idea and too often wasn’t. But we saw one work which remains in the mind. This was a piece which Alison Watt had done called Still in Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh. I hadn’t been to the church before, even though it is quite close to the Fruitmarket Gallery in the centre of Edinburgh and near the National Gallery. One reaches it by what feels like an old medieval corridor and then it is quite dark. To my surprise, I’ve discovered that the church is Victorian, not late medieval. To the left of the high altar is a memorial chapel dedicated to those who lost their lives in the First World War. But what sticks in the mind is not the architecture of the church, but a work done by Watt, of cloth, nothing more than a large image of white cloth hanging in folds. I want to read what she wrote about the experience of doing the painting because I think it conveys very clearly the sense of the sacerdotal. You don’t have to be religious to understand the meaning of the draped cloth:

I worked on Still in my studio for about a year; visiting Old St Paul’s almost every day. I needed to go back again and again to the Memorial Chapel to remind myself of the space. It’s the largest work I have ever painted and the most physical thing I have ever done. It was also the most mentally draining. Making Still became an obsession. The scale and design of the piece was a carefully considered response to the physical structure of the space, yet ultimately I wanted to convey how I feel when I was in the chapel. It was an overwhelming feeling of sadness. It was extraordinary. I thought I knew every inch of the painting but as it started to be installed, I was astonished how little I recognised it.

It’s a nice piece of writing because it conveys very clearly how a work of art can become something that its artist did not necessarily expect or intend it to be, the takeover of emotions which enables artists to produce something beyond intention.

The second person whose work is worth thinking about in the context of the sacramental is Edmund de Waal, and not just because he was brought up in the Deanery at Canterbury Cathedral. When I first knew his work, he regarded himself as working as a craftsman potter, trained partly by Geoffrey Whiting, a student of Bernard Leach, and partly in Japan, where he went on a scholarship in 1990. There is a long and honourable tradition in the work of the craftsman potter, as de Waal, with his strong sense of the tradition of the craft, knows better than most: the production of the simple vessel, the repetitive routine which leads to very minor modifications in individual works which are intended as much for use as for visual enjoyment and contemplation. But de Waal was ambitious for his practice beyond the dimensions and restrictions which are attendant on the practice of craft. He began to display his work in sequences and series, not as utilitarian objects, but as works of art. What is it that gives the work legitimacy and currency as works of contemporary art? It is not the works themselves, which are essentially the same in kind and character as they were when he was working as a potter. It is the space between them, the sense that one is being encouraged to look at the work not as something utilitarian, but as something transcendental: the preoccupation with the space between the work which gives it its ordering; the preoccupation with the idea of the vessel and the symbolic connotations of the cup, as well as the symbolic connotations of whiteness which he has explored in his recent book; the sense that the meaning of the work is not finite and described, but has symbolic and emblematic and historical overtones, which — again, I cannot help but use religious language — are devotional and sacramental: the communion cup, the fragility of porcelain, the search for history in the use of the material; these all give his work a resonance which is beyond craft.

The last of the artists whose work I want to consider is Antony Gormley. I remember him complaining very bitterly when Bradford City Council turned down a large work which he had planned there and how not long afterwards I read that he was working on a major work for Gateshead which became The Angel of the North. This is what Antony Gormley himself says about the origin and meaning of the work:

People are always asking, why an angel? The only response I can give is that no one has ever seen one and we need to keep imagining them. The angel has three functions — firstly a historic one to remind us that below this site coal miners worked in the dark for two hundred years, secondly to grasp hold of the future, expressing our transition from the industrial to the information age, and lastly to be a focus for our hopes and fears.

I note that he is extremely careful to describe the work in deliberately secular terms: as a symbol of history, as a work of art, as a sculpture, but not really as an angel, absorbing and engaging with the iconography of the angel, going back to early Christian mosaics; the idea that the wings, excessively elongated in the work, might be a source of spiritual comfort and protection; the possibility that the reason why The Angel of the North has had such a symbolic resonance and significance to people in the north is precisely that it is an angel, an emblem of rebirth.

Near us at home in the East End is a solitary figure on a post in the Thames outside The Grapes pub in Limehouse. We know that every work by Antony Gormley is based on himself. But the image of the man on his own surrounded by water; the sense of spiritual isolation and the opportunity for redemption; the idea of man born into the world in order to make sense of it — it is not a purely secular work of art, but has something of the sacred about it, which we respond to, even if we do not necessarily pay attention to it, and possibly even resist it, as an idea.

It is probably not for me to comment on the possible reasons for the decline in church-going, except that I am myself a symptom of it, having been brought up to take it for granted that I would attend church and now being an almost entirely lapsed Christian. 

What should be obvious is that, as a culture, we have not lost a need for an understanding of, and interest in, the unknowable: the origins of man; our purpose in the world; the ethical requirements of our behaviour towards one another; the belief that there is more to life than the satisfaction of material wants; the importance of understanding other people’s culture as well as our own. These human needs used to be satisfied to some extent at least by church attendance. But no longer. We no longer, or at least the great majority of us, no longer look to the church for the understanding and satisfaction of these needs. But these needs for the immaterial, for the experience of transcendence, for the mysteries of life as well as its material wants, have not just gone away. They have to be satisfied in some way. That is why contemporary art has moved into the space of the unknown, the exploration of the ineffable, through the experience of transcendence. Contemporary art is not just secular, but sacred as well.

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