RE enact/DIS enchant

Opus #1, Wangatta Exhibitions Gallery, Victoria
Opus #2, Benalla Art Gallery, Victoria
Opus #3, Storey Hall, RMIT, Melbourne, Victoria

Religio Artis
by Robert Nelson

Charismatic ideas can't abide far apart
nor are any as close as religion and art.
You would think that they're opposite: art is material,
founded in substance and never ethereal.
Spiritual truth has been vaguely alluded to;
spirit, however, has always eluded you.
Art was at best an impressive illusion
conducting a deeper religious effusion.
Religion is prior and art is dependent.
Material things cannot be independent
of what they conform to in spirit and action.
The spookiest art is the spirit's reaction.
But this is an ancient hierarchical thought
which for almost a century hasn't been taught.
The existence of art is no longer dictated
by prior convictions canonically stated.
Art claims for itself a design of its own
for the life that it leads for its purpose alone.
Art no longer subscribes to anterior magic.
That order of symbols is rueful and tragic.
We now relish art which replaces the role
that religion performed as humanity's goal.
The religious ideas are converted apace
yet the central assumptions are all still in place.
In our artworks, the spiritual life is procured
inasmuch as material life is abjured.
We are chary of science and clear explanation.
We fear reason's power of deconsecration
and witness how less credibility's gained
the more easily concepts are shown and explained.
We seek art for new spiritual municipalities
vehemently positing higher realities.
Passions are seldom aesthetic elation.
Rather, they stem from intrigue in creation,
extending a moment whose magic is brief
by a god-like adroitness in making belief.

But aside from these potent original acts
the religion of art seems supported by facts.
The most striking of these is the claim to eternity.
Hope for one's fame hasn't passed with modernity.
People live on in post-mortems of art.
Their ideas are still pumped by a spiritual heart.
In the chambers of memory, art frames the door
for all wits who were ever remembered before;
the admissions are billeted not by their brains
but a realm of prestige where nomenclature reigns.
You can call it art history rather than art
but who cares who curates immortality's chart?
Do we ask if religion is made by a priest
or the scriptures or church or an altar or feast?
For the structure of both is a huge institution
transcending our every correct attribution
of logical causes and reasons for being.
In both, contradictions swear oaths to agreeing.
Religion and art are concerned with devotion,
which means an agreement to feel an emotion.
The contract is prior to what you can feel
but because you've agreed, the emotion is real.
It can never be traced and seems deeply internal:
your intimate self is sublimely supernal;
and once having plumbed such an interiority,
who would contest that most inner authority?

Souls are traditional. Nobody's functions
unless it were larded with cognitive unctions
supplied by a priesthood of trust which existed
before one arrived to become thus assisted.
The framework is there where the codes are inscribed,
where the values and methods of taste are imbibed.
The interpreting doesn't proceed from a law
but the values are built from all judgements before.
The artistic observer absorbs the tradition
— no matter how riddled with redefinition —
and cultivates taste and identity,
whose links and dependence none needs to acknowledge.
0 art's individual! your soul were prodigious
if only it weren't so obscurely religious!
The cult of the gods and artistic production
are blessed if they now undergo deconstruction;
for now is the time to reveal what they share
in the powers of faith that the two of them bear.

Dr Robert Nelson © 1994
Art Critic and writer
He lectures in art theory and history at
Monash University, Caulfeild Melbourne.
He is also a practising artist