Is Matthew Barney the Most Religious Artist Working Today? — Mark C. Taylor Explains

Mark C. Taylor, Matthew Barney

As he explains in Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy, Mark C. Taylor was initially skeptical of Matthew Barney. However, as he became more familiar with Barney’s work, his opinion changed. In the following excerpt he explains the religious nature of Barney’s work, particularly The Cremaster Cycle, and its similarities with Joseph Beuys.

Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Matthew Barney is the most spiritual and perhaps even most religious artist working today. The roots of his artistic vision can be traced to ancient Greek philosophy—especially the pre-Socratics and Neoplatonists—as well as ancient pagan and Christian myths and rituals. This philosophia perennis rests on five fundamental principles:

1. Divine reality is not merely transcendent but is also immanent in the world.
2. The self is inseparably related to or even identical with divine reality.
3. This primal unity is lost when human beings fall into a condition of division and conflict.
4. The goal of human life, as well as the cosmos as a whole, is to return to this original unity.
5. The only way to achieve this goal is through the enlightenment brought by spiritual practice.

Without in any way denying its layers of complexity, The Cremaster Cycle can be interpreted as an updated version of this tradition staged in terms of modern theories of biology and sexuality dressed up in postmodern gender-bending fashion. Like the Masonic Entered Apprentice, who moves through the lodge from west to east in search of enlightenment and the release it brings, Cremaster begins in the West—Boise, Idaho, where Barney grew up—and ends in the East—Budapest, where Harry Houdini was born. The first part of the cycle has a tripartite narrative that marks the stages of spiritual development. This quest can be expressed in different terms:

Philosophical: Unity–Duality/division–(Re)union
Religious: Creation (Garden)– Fall (World)– Redemption (Kingdom)
Psychosexual: Undifferentiation– Differentiation– (Re)integration

Most of the action in Cremaster occurs in the liminal space between stages 1 and 2, along the borders of unity and duality, Creation and Fall, undifferentiation and differentiation. The question that obsesses Barney is whether duality, fall, and differentiation are avoidable or inevitable.

While this question is as old as philosophy itself, in the twentieth century art largely displaced religion as the source and expression of spiritual striving. Instead of studying philosophy and theology seriously, many artists tended to draw their insights from religious movements like theosophy and anthroposophy, which present popularized versions of sophisticated philosophical and theological ideas. Firmly rooted in this tradition, Barney’s precursors are Kandinsky and Mondrian, who were theosophists, and, most important, Beuys, who, as we have seen, was an anthroposophist. While most critics—and even Barney himself—identify Serra as their most influential precursor, Barney’s art cannot be understood apart from Beuys’s work. Beuys has influenced both the shape of Barney’s artistic vision and the means by which he attempts to realize it. For Beuys and Barney, art is a religio-mythical quest to overcome social, political, and psychological division and conflict and to recover the unity once enjoyed but now lost. In pursuit of this dream they both return to Celtic mythology and occult spiritualism, which, though rarely acknowledged, remain important for modern philosophy and religion. Beuys’s fat and Barney’s petroleum jelly meet in honey, which has symbolized spiritual unity since the time of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews. In a similar manner Beuys’s rabbit and stag become Barney’s rabbit and ram, which are representations of renewal and rebirth. Beuys and Barney develop their own mythologies via multiple media, ranging from video, sculpture, drawings, artist books, installations, and performances. When approached from this perspective, it is obvious that Cremaster is simply inconceivable without Beuys.

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