Is Wright’s Work Secular?

Jason Whittaker writes of Richard Wright’s Turner Prize winning work, that it “brings with it none of the overt Christian morality attached to Blake’s subject; rather, formal motifs repeat and circulate, creating a vision of the secular sublime”.  However, Wright’s work has been likened to that of Blake, whose work is often steeped in religious reference, so could his work be considered truly secular?

There are difficulties in establishing the meaning of “secular” especially in terms of visual image, and there are monumental challenges around identifying “the sublime” – a notion that has been a preoccupation of many nineteenth century philosophers. As Carroll writes in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, “The sublime has had almost as many interpretations as it has appearances in philosophical literature” and argues that the concept of the sublime is resistant to a singular definition.  Perhaps the absence of religion makes the notion of sublime more problematic? For many, “sublime” has other worldly, pseudo-religious connotations.  Ultimately, despite Whittaker’s claim that Wright has created a vision, there may be other, more relevant artists, who could have been better regarded for creations of sublime secularity.

The Oxford Dictionary describes secular simply as “not connected with religious or spiritual matters”.  But describing something by what it is not can be problematic. An attempt to identify a visual representation of an absence of something is challenging, but an attempt to find its epitome or a sublime, awe-inspiring representation of a missing notion is near impossible.  The dictionary also says that “secular” is contrasted with “sacred” – again this is only a contrast, and is defining only as a negative.  Secularity is not unlike peacefulness – a state which is simply defined as being the absence of violence – what peace looks like has been reduced to signifiers (doves, candles and rainbows).  Secularity doesn’t appear to even have universally recognised symbols –everything that is without overt religious connotation could be judged as being secular.

Secular is also derivative of saeculum in Christian Latin meaning ‘the world” – as opposed to the Church.  If secular is taken as the absence of religion, it is hard to argue that a European artist influenced by Blake, living in a Scottish pseudo-Christian environment, could produce something truly secular in spirit. Wright’s work does not only echo Blake’s, but the pure gold shimmer and scale the piece put me in mind of great Islamic works of the art of the ornament found in mosques and even Catholic churches.

According to some philosophers (notably Nietzsche), other measures of secularity include worldliness, classical tragedy and meaninglessness. The worldliness of this piece is undeniable, not perhaps in its form, but in what happens to it afterwards – it is painted over. Art critic Charlotte Higgins writes, “Wright’s point is that all art is mortal” and quotes Wright as saying, “the fragility of the experience is the hinge for me.”  And although the content may lack a narrative of tragedy and may even be considered overtly biased towards the Apollonian aesthetic of beauty, there is tragedy is in its ultimate destruction – and therefore presents us with a Dionysian balance. In an interview after wining the Turner Prize Wright says, “I like the idea of there being nothing left when I am gone”.

Wright himself has not offered any deep meaning to the marks he makes – but could they be read as meaningless?  It would be strong to insist that Wright’s work is nihilistic – unless the artist stated so himself.  It might be dangerous to simply take Wright’s work as being secular ornament, when the associations with religious and cultural tradition remain strong, in particular the careful attention to pattern in Wright’s work, which echoes an Islamic trend. It is near impossible to read ornament and pattern as neutral – references to the multitude of traditions of pattern – both religious and secular –found in ‘The Grammar of the Ornament’ can be found in Wright’s work.

In a world acknowledged by a number of philosophers as being fraught with nihilism, we are forced to return to the option of filling this void with art and music, as Young indicates “[Art] enables us to enjoy a religious sentiment without the need to subscribe to any conceptual content”, providing a “catacomb where religious habit of mind can continue to exist”. Here perhaps lies the strongest argument for Richard Wright’s work being viewed a vision of secular sublime.

Many visual and non-visual creations by a wealth of artists across the ages are able to respond to the charge of being secular, but as a portrait artist I could not but wonder whether such a vision would contain some representation of the human being, or face.  The human form could be said to be a poignant illustration of the “artistic taming of the horrible” a human portrait may have evoked a true, worldly vision. When promoting earth, individuality and the absence of reason and morale, how can any vision of secular sublime fail to contain a human?

I have recently visited Auguste Rodin’s Monument to Balzac at Musée Rodin and also seen Gustav Klimt’s Three Ages of Woman which was inspired by a Rodin piece – Gates of Hell.  Two works of art containing the human, that could equally be explored as secular visions. Although Rodin may have tried to capture Balzac’s genius in this monument to him, is it a stretch to suggest it held qualities of the secular sublime?  Is the artists religious stance relevant? As a sculpture of a human it is of this world, (although the plinth may betray this) and perhaps speaks of the tragedy in genius – although it does not horrify or compel.  It is perhaps, knowing Rodin’s love of classics that permits him access to this discourse – although also a lover of reason (The Thinker) Rodin was far from nihilistic. There is some argument that science and reason, over religion could be taken as secular.

Klimt’s paintings and drawings were packed full of eroticism, humour and dominant female figures.  Drawing inspiration from Greek classics, Klimt was said to employ a sublime sensitivity and a “decadent aesthetism”.  At the time of his painting he was breaking all religious taboos and his portrayal of the mortal human was both tragic and beautiful.  His work is both compelling and horrifying.

Although my conclusions may feel as ambiguous as the many attempts to define the secular (and the sublime), on balance the assessment is that yes, Wright’s work at least references such a vision.  It has a worldliness to it and a tragedy in it’s unmaking – one could even suggest that it was the painting over of the work, its destruction, which ultimately defined it as sublime.  However, as Wright is able to tell us what his art is about – I conclude that it is far from nihilistic.  I have juxtaposed Wright’s work with that of Rodin and Klimt, which may be unfair and even irrelevant, but demonstrates that Wright’s work may not be the best example of the secular sublime. However Wright’s work and Whittaker’s views certainly offer a useful starting point that allows us to ask – what does a vision of the secular sublime look like?