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Re-enchanting the Land

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Neo-Romanticism and beyond


The Cerne Abbas GiantDoes the spirit of place still exist in our culture or have we lost our spiritual heritage to the conglomeration of market forces and corporate art?

"For nearly all of human history, the world was enchanted. As material and rationalist values have gained in pre-eminence, however, spiritual values have declined in direct proportion. Once uprooted from the world of symbols, art lost its links with myth and sacramental vision. The kind of sacramental vision to which I am referring is not that of routine church-going or religious dogma as such, but a mode of perception which converges on the power of the divine. It is what Theodore Roszak has called 'The Old Gnosis' a visionary style of knowledge as distinct from the theological or a factual one, that is able to see the divine in the human, the infinite in the finite, the spiritual in the material. This sacramental vision, which underlies our perception of the Absolute, can never be completely uprooted, according to Mircea Eliade, it can only be debased. However much we ignore, camouflage, or degrade art's sacred elements they still survive in the unconscious. Indeed, the recalling and setting up of sacred signs is the even more urgent task of an artist in times estranged from symbol and sacrament."
(Has Modernism Failed? Suzy Gablik 1988)

Indeed elements survive which view the world as a sacred space. Released from its historical location like a ghost in the machine, the genius loci has spawned a hybrid of forms. No longer contained within two dimensions, the celluloid fusions of a mystical Renaissance England to be found in the films of Derek Jarman have resurfaced with the emergence of a baroque splendour in fashion, Hammer Horror furniture welded in radioactive bronze and torture chamber metal, a gothic sensibility against the conformity of our Puritanical age.

During the Seventies and Eighties we had the rise of Minimalism and Conceptualism in art. In American universities we saw the rise of Deconstructivism which, although in a diluted form, influenced British academia. Moving into the Eighties, it seemed that art was no longer deemed 'political' or 'spiritual'. It certainly was no longer necessary to describe the world. Instead it became its own term of reference, with the questionable result of achieving the status of a 'monetary commodity'. However, there were always voices which did not heed this call, who still reverberated with Blakean ideas, echoing the philosophy and visual sensibilities of artists such as Paul Nash. Quietly, out of the mainstream hype, artists are still exploring the landscape, revealing its secret language. The Romantic vision, whether it be geographical or of an inner nature, emerges into the twenty first century. The dark side of the previous century is observed but not dwelt on. A new alchemy is being formed which encompasses traditional methods of art, the new technology, and the revolutionary new scientific discoveries.

The Dongas TribeSince the demise of the Neo-Romantics in the mid-Fifties, much has changed not only in the world of art but socially and politically. At the time of Paul Nash, Freudian psychoanalysis had an impact on the language, dreams and concepts of artists, writers, poets. Since then, particularly in the Sixties, Jung usurped the mantle of decoder of dreams and the unconscious. New psychological thought swept Europe and in particular America. The Deconstructivist Derrida, the philosophers Foucault and Baudrillard have had substantial impact particularly in the world of media studies and art exhibition organisation. Increasingly our sense of ourselves became fragmented. Art became a mirror of that fragmentation. As Suzy Gablik points out, the spiritual domain of the world shrunk. Increasingly alienation, violence and despair became the lingua franca, expounded by the movies, television and indeed the explosion of violence on the world stage. It now seems to have turned full circle. The time has arrived when we need to reconnect with higher ideals than the aims of self destruction and nihilism.

Reclaiming the LandAmid the confusion which reigns at least in the public's mind concerning the 'New Art', there are artists who break through the hype of sensationalism and go beyond the boundaries of the self reverential cul-de-sac. The spirit of place is still being painted, filmed, assembled, though it is no longer enslaved in galleries and is no longer the prerogative of the art world either. William Blake said that the streets are the theatre of our imagination. The natural consequence of an art which transcends the artist's self, burning away neurotic preoccupations, expands into the world in many forms. One does not have to imitate art of the past, although one benefits from the knowledge of our historical heritage. Visionary art may or may not be a painted canvas; equally, the new technology is creating new forms of expression. Within the context of cyberspace, the interests and ideas expressed in this book can evolve in new forms.

The spirit of place is still deeply embedded in our national consciousness. Every new motorway is questioned, every ancient wood fought for. The old Neo-Romantic world has long gone, but the dream persists.