Great Critics and Their Ideas: St Augustine

on Texte zur Kunst, interview by Matthew Collings

By Matthew Collings

Vittore Carpaccio, Saint Augustine in His Study, 1507. Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. © 2013. Photo: Scala, Florence

St Augustine was one of the Christian Fathers. His particular synthesis of Greek philosophy and many strands of early Christian theology resulted in the concept of grace and faith as the only possibilities for human freedom. He died in Hippo Regius (present-day Annaba, in Algeria) in 430 AD.


You are famous for your doctrine of original sin. Do you think sin still exists? We never hear about it in the artworld.


I think it exists in magazines like October and Texte zur Kunst. They describe a fallen world, fallen human beings, who can only be redeemed through faith and good deeds, through seeking out critical art and genuflecting before it, and shunning bourgeois art, or if they are confronted by it, cursing it and casting it out.

Did you see Michael Krebber’s exhibition at Maureen Paley in February this year?

A Yes. He is a saint. His critical saintliness in that show was particularly good, I thought, because there was so little of it. It was a show that did what it did with a light touch. You didn’t go in there and feel told off. You saw somebody trying to explore how something can exist: he disassembled and reassembled the institution of painting. All the individual paintings, with their weightless squiggles of easy colour, worked as a single coherent entity. He forced you to think about – because he made you see them – the features of the gallery: its pillars, the floor and so on. He’s an artist who knows he can’t convey anything that’s meaningful by painting a single statement on a canvas. But if he gives you fragmentation, maybe he can do it: if you can be bothered to look. You can see how that collection of paintings and their arrangement in the gallery space, especially with one of them lying face-up on a tablelike plinth, might have something meaningful to convey that is like what would have happened in the past in a single work. He transformed the gallery into a painting, not by literally painting it, but by visually activating it. I think owning one of those works would be to own only a sign of what happened. So as well as everything else he’s doing, he’s making owning art absurd. The whole thing is an effective statement, done with panache, about painting’s impossibility. It’s part of October’s and Texte zur Kunst’s sense of sin that painting is dead and over.

So you’re not saying that it’s blissful colour and line?

A It’s more that they are obvious rather than blissful, but they are carefully deployed so the space they’re in becomes important. The space is a gallery of a certain kind in the system we all know and are aware of, but usually don’t know how to see as a system while we’re seeing things like colour and line – so a political/social dimension is opened up, which would be edited out otherwise.

Is there sin in Tate Modern?

A It’s trying to combat it. They have their big themes that tell the visitor what kind of experience he or she is having when looking at the permanent collection of objects, whether it’s the theme of the dream or construction, and so on. And the objects might be modern art or contemporary art. But always the particular choice of the contemporary artworks – these objects that appear to come from some vast hangar filled with ephemera and to be on a constant turnaround, coming and going; perhaps even getting regularly reconstituted in a workshop somewhere, so they are entirely remade according to changing winds of fashion – tells you about evil. For example the evil of Euro-American domination: if you go round Tate Modern at the moment, you’re highly aware that you’re seeing things from all over the world, a sort of social geography, the concerns of some people in Warsaw, say, or Soweto, or Lima, illustrated by cumbersome but worthy installations, maybe featuring photos, or the staged leftovers of some event that have been carefully packaged and shipped.

But Merlin Carpenter made a show at Reena Spaulings recently that reconstructed the Tate café as a literal three-dimensional object, and another one at Simon Lee that pictured the café in a hurriedly scrawled style in paint on canvas, on an enormous scale but deliberately emphasising lightness and emptiness, and he explains these shows by saying he hates Tate Modern.

A He detests its evil, yes. 

But you said it fights evil.

A Not enough, it seems. 

What’s so bad about it?

A It makes everything the same, and takes away its message of resistance, replacing it with a neoliberal business message. An artist who is a saint cannot take a corporate structure seriously as the institution that confers meaning and legitimacy.

Is Benjamin Buchloh evil or good?

A Good. He writes in a style that you can’t understand if you’re only used to bourgeois meaning.

And Isabelle Graw: the editor of Texte zur Kunst?

A Very good, but confused, she cannot control all the saints she looks after, so they don’t slip into merely obeying the outward forms of piety while actually behaving more or less the same as the sinful artists worshipping consumerism whose depravity the saintly ones are supposed to be criticising. She is a bit depraved herself with her eternal grinning for the camera and turning up at art fashion events.

Was there a lot of art in your time?

A In the fifth century? Yes. It was a time of transition from pagan to Christian art. There was immense wealth. Formerly it supported mosaic decorations, frescos and sculptures, all with narrative content to do with a multitude of nature gods, which told you about the power of earthly rulers. So a Roman landowner, for example, in what is now Algeria, where I was born, would commission a giant floor mosaic picturing a god of the sea, with lobster claw horns and a seaweed beard, showing the bounty of the ocean, which by extension showed the goodness and bounty of the landowner. And then in the Pantheon, in Rome, you’d find pillared alcoves set at regular intervals, housing statues of the gods. After the Roman emperors turned Christian, this kind of thing was joined by art featuring exactly the same imagery found in the pagan era, but now with a new narrative meaning, a Christian one, with its important interlinking of the Old and New Testaments. So Abraham sacrificing Isaac, or Moses striking a rock to cause water to gush out features in the same frame as Jesus up in heaven surrounded by angels. Jesus and the angels towering above the worshipper on a ceiling mosaic in a newly built Christian basilica would be faced by an image placed at an equally elevated position, depicting the emperor and his retainers. And all around both scenarios would be scenes from Genesis. And then twirling around every single object and figure would be decorative patterns, usually carrying some kind of signlike meaning, telling you about the names of saints, or coded references to the of course was decoration. It enhanced the building in such a way that as soon as you entered, you knew you were in the presence of power.

What about statues?

A Statues had been voluptuous. Whatever other meanings they might have had, they exalted the sensual dimension. Their very form, which imitated and elevated the human body’s rounded physicality, was a sensual blast. For Christianity this was a sinful imbalance, body over spirit, so statues didn’t exist in these basilica environments. Gradually they stopped existing at all, because Christianity, which under the emperor Constantine became the new leading religion, was within a century the only one – its precepts the hegemonic worldview – and so statues were violently attacked as demons. They were destroyed.

But museums are full of them.

A Those ones had the good luck to be buried, because of earthquakes or other disasters. They are only a tiny fraction of what used to exist. For a long time representational art in the Christian parts of the world was flat and signlike. But it had a sensual dimension in any case, because of its colour and patterns. Mosaic was the most expensive form and therefore the one the powerful preferred: it was knockout visual stuff. But it is complicated to explain how this sensuality played and was rationalised. Think of it as worldly but put to the service of the unworldly. But obedience happens in a peculiarly Christian way. Art spells out hierarchical meaning, God at the top. Previously, the pagan gods were depicted in sculpted form, and these forms were actually gifts to the gods, their loveliness was intended to delight them, so divinity, which was polymorphous, might bother to pay attention to mere humans. The forms of Christian art come out of this tradition but it has a whole other set of meanings, it uses whatever serves them and discards what doesn’t, so although ‘delight’ is happening, it is not the old human/divine transaction but a new kind to do with sin and redemption, and the afterlife: that’s what it means for art to evolve. It doesn’t get better, but it alters according to changing social priorities.

I saw a lot of plants and trees in a mosaic on a Mediterranean holiday once.

A Yes, in Christian art nature has the same complication as human physical sensuality; after all, they are the same thing. But in any case, nature is everywhere in these mosaics, going crazy: tendrils, branches, flowers, animals, rocks, mountains and sea – this overwhelming abundance. But it’s represented schematically, as so many signs, like an early kind of Minimalism, a very linear visual language. The imagery is stripped down because it’s telling you about heavenly essence. Of course, the art doesn’t really originate in heaven. It’s an adaptation from non-Christian visual traditions, which involve wordly imitation. These mosaic trees and flowers and sheep are the sights we all know, they are part of our everyday life if we were alive 2,000 years ago. It’s a question of how the sights are read, how the meanings are understood. The same thing goes for contemporary art in Maureen Paley or Tate Modern: it only has meaning because it can be read in a certain way, and the way of reading comes from the way society is set up. It’s interesting that Krebber is involved in a practice, blessed by Texte zur Kunst, that asks you to consider hegemony, which we usually expect to be hidden, whereas Christian art pours down hegemonic meaning in an inescapable radiant golden visual explosion.