The artist underwent a complete revolution of role and function in the secular age, from religious painter of the medieval period and aesthetic genius of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic strands, to that of the subversive. The prime function of artist in the 20th century was to challenge received orthodoxy. This is a vast over-generalisation of course, and the trend developed over a period of time, but we can see it in Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst in the early part of the century, and in ‘Britart’ practitioners like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst at the late end. This does not even include the more extreme polemicists, such as the Situationists in the 1960s, who were aligned with revolutionary Marxist politics. The implications for the postsecular in this is that artists were both in the vanguard of Modernism – with its secular atheist assumptions – and also the first to attack its values, if not all values. Artists have formed a small sector of society always prepared to live outside normality, which might mean a vehement rejection of traditional religion and its proscriptions, but also, by virtue of their artistic sensibilities, often inclined to the spiritual. Kandinsky and Mondrian were Theosophists, Joseph Beuys an Anthroposophist and the American Abstract Expressionists were influenced by Navajo Indian shamanism and the symbolism of C. G. Jung. Constantin Brancusi, a sculptor working in Paris in the first half of the 20th C, and Bill Viola, a video artist working in the late 20th C, were both greatly influenced by Buddhism.
In the arts therefore we do not find a mass transition from the presecular to the secular and then to the postsecular, either in individuals or in art movements. The Suprematists and Constructivists in Russia for example are upheld as pioneers of modernist, and therefore secular atheistic values, particularly considering the Marxist soil from which they sprang. But at the same time many spiritual issues were implicit in their work, sometimes deriving from P. D. Ouspenksy, and, by association, with the great spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff. By the same token we find that early Modernist art critics would largely ignore the explicitly stated spiritual intentions of Kandinsky and Mondrian, as their ‘occultisms’ were incongruous to the modernist rhetoric. Nor did Christian religious art disappear, often taking new and vigorous forms, for example in the extraordinary work of Sir Stanley Spencer.
In turning to Nature as a potential source for new forms of spirituality, we find a rich source indeed. The American Transcendentalists, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman (and his relatively unknown friend John Burroughs); the Scots-born John Muir (acknowledged founding father of ecology, and instigator of the US National Parks System), and the Englishman Richard Jefferies (author of The Story of My Heart), all put forward a new Nature-based spirituality. They rejected conventional religion, seeing instead that a route to the transcendent lay in Nature – effectively a precocious postsecularism. The more recent thinkers of the ecology movement draw, interestingly, both on such writings in their approach to Nature, and also on what we might term a ‘neo-shamanism.’ It may well emerge that under the umbrella terms of ecology, Nature mysticism, and neo-shamanism we find one of the most sustained postsecular movements to come in the following years. The threat to the environment is beginning to loom so large in popular consciousness, that people from all walks of life are turning to these issues, and engaging with the ideas of holistic thinking, central to ecological theory.
The ‘New Age’ movement, amorphous and vague as this term might be, represents yet another important site for the investigation of the postsecular. It includes a spectrum from the highly superficial, symbolised in the popular imagination through crystals, tree-hugging and Taro cards for example, to the phenomenally erudite, as in its key philosopher: Ken Wilber. At the same time we can include new spiritual movements, such as neo-paganism, neo-shamanism, and the neo-Advaita. The latter group has its origins in the Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta, and includes young American teachers such as Andrew Cohen and Wayne Liquorman.
In this brief examination of seven, somewhat arbitrarily constructed, categories of postsecular emergence, we see quite different dynamics at work in each area. By the same token, it is only when we assess this picture as a whole that we can suggest that a culture-wide phenomenon is taking place. It is the tolerance of the secular world that allows these developments, but at the same time its deafness to the spiritual often allows the implications to go unnoticed.