There is No Beauty Without the Sacred: Parisian Sculptor/Philosopher Marc Vinciguerra On Returning Meaning to Art

“One must give value to their existence by behaving as if one’s very existence were a work of art.”
~ Friedrich Nietzsche

“The great end of art is to strike the imagination with the power of a soul that refuses to admit defeat even in the midst of a collapsing world.”
~ Friedrich Nietzsche

“Still at the end of every hard day, people find some reason to believe.’
~ Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska album

Living the intentional life. We give much lip-service to creating a life that feeds rather than drains us but in a culture based on consumerism it can be easy to get off-track, as the very act of acquiring can become an end in itself.  We often equate living “the good life” with rewarding our hard work or sacrifices with possessions or experiences that represent our society’s image of success. But when these recognitions or decorations fail to speak to the needs of the soul, we may actually end up feeling emptier at the end of the day.

American psychologist Abraham Maslow, in his famous “hierarchy of needs” pyramid, posited that what he coined “self-actualization” ~ expressing one’s highest self creatively and uniquely ~ can only happen after first meeting all of our more basic needs: food, shelter, security, affinity with others… While Maslow’s argument has merit, that greatness is much more difficult when borne from a well of poverty, his theory may underestimate the very primal and universal need to create and express one’s humanity. Countless accounts of prisoners of war who scratch out art wherever and however they can certainly attest to that. “The world always seems brighter,” writes English author Neil Gaiman, “when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.”  

But even if art is deemed necessary for our individual and cultural survival, and crucial for the advancement of humanity, should everyone be allowed a platform for artistic expression? Or has society now gone too far, and for humanity to progress spiritually, art-making must now adhere to a much stricter standard of thought and time invested? If, as Serbian performance artist, Marina Abramović proclaims, “art must be life — it must belong to everybody,” where does the value for individual effort and merit enter in? Is all art equally meaningful simply for having been an act of creation?

Enjoy now my interview with Paris-born Marc Vinciguerra, a philosopher-sculptor who believes we need both disciplines to make truly meaningful art.


Miami Beach, Florida ~

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Marc, in your triptych, ‘’The Religion of Atheism,’’ which has just been acquired for the permanent collection of The Museum of Contemporary Art in Sicily, you explore humanity’s ‘’post-nihilistic’’ quest for meaning in a rapidly changing world. You write, ‘’I see the new millennium as a trial for man to find new reasons to believe.”

How important is the quest for meaning? For purpose?

The Triptych of Athiesm: The The Sublimation of Atheism; the Religion of Atheism; and the Sacred Nihilism
The Triptych of Atheism: The Sublimation of Atheism; The Religion of Atheism; and The Sacred Nihilism

Marc Vinciguerra: I think that the quest for meaning and purpose is crucial to Western civilization. I am French, and the civilization in which I grew up was profoundly affected by the Nietzschean idea that God is dead,” and that in 1881, when this assertion was made, nihilism lay poised at the gates of Europe. Nietzsche defined nihilism as a “lack of purpose.’’ I was born about a hundred years later in a culture that was a desacralized society.

This lack of purpose defines the age in which we live today. We still live in the age of nihilism. Humanity has not replaced its Gods.

Friedrich Nietzsche
German philosopher, cultural critic, Friedrich Nietzsche

Deanna Phoenix Selene: How has this quest for meaning expressed itself in your own life?

Marc Vinciguerra: As a boy I was reading Sartre, Malraux, Camus, who were constantly writing that if God does not exist then the human condition is absurd. I grew in a civilization that felt profoundly estranged and alienated by the absence of God. So at a very young age, the quest for meaning became a priority in my life.  I met a lot of people ~ poor, rich, unknown, famous ~ who were massively struggling to find meaning.

Albert Camus
French philosopher and novelist, Albert Camus

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do you believe that this is or should be the ultimate role of art: to challenge, even influence society’s values?

The Marriage of Atheism and the Sacred | Marc Vinciquerra
The Marriage of Atheism and the Sacred | Marc Vinciguerra
The Marriage of Atheism and the Sacred | Marc Vinciquerra
The Marriage of Atheism and the Sacred | Marc Vinciguerra

Marc Vinciguerra: Yes. My favorite definition of art is Yeats‘ ‘’Art is Revelation.’’ Great artwork reveals something important to the human race, something that might help humanity to understand itself better.

For me, the two most important questions we should hope to see in an artwork are: What is man? and, What is God?

I am not expecting an answer from the writer or the artist to these very difficult questions, but I love when I read a book or look at an artwork and see that the work is haunted by these two questions. For me, it immediately gives the artwork a higher, more human dimension as it strives to help us live our lives. You can say it resacrates life. Resacration is a neologism that I invented that means to bring the sacred back to life and art, as opposed to desacrating.

Marc Vinciquerra
Marc Vinciguerra
Dante Porttrait in Marble | Marc Vinciquerra
Dante Porttrait in Marble | Marc Vinciguerra

Deanna Phoenix Selene: How are these latest sculptures of yours, The Triptych of the Religion of Atheism, advancing this goal?

Marc Vinciguerra: Well before I became a sculptor, I started as a philosopher. I graduated from the Sorbonne in philosophy and I was the student of the philosopher Andre’ Comte-Sponville who is now a French national treasure.

The Triptych, which debuted during the 16th Biennale of Architecture in Venice last year, describes the passage from an age of nihilism towards the age of sacred nihilism.  We are about to exit the age of nihilism through the awakening that there is a new form of sacred that lays in the absence of God. If, as I believe, the absence of God is the supreme religious experience, then we no longer need religions to approach the sacred.

There are two kinds of nihilism today, the first one is static nihilism which is nihilism as we know it as lack of purpose and there is a new nihilism that I champion which is a mystical nihilism: full of purpose.

The Triptych shows the dialog of all these philosophical essences in the contemporary world. Each figure represents an essence.

The body on the right is the essence of religion.

The Essence of Religion
The Essence of Religion | Marc Vinciguerra

The body on the left is the essence of atheism.

The Essence of Atheism
The Essence of Atheism | Marc Vinciguerra

The body on the floor is the old essence of nihilism.

The Old Essence of Nihilism | Marc Vinciquerra
The Old Essence of Nihilism | Marc Vinciguerra

And the body floating in the center is the new essence of nihilism.

The Sacred Nihilism | Marc Vinciquerra
The Sacred Nihilism (top sculpture)| Marc Vinciguerra

Marc Vinciguerra: As a civilization, we have yet to discover what Charles Péguy would call in French, ‘’une nouvelle mystique’’ to live by. The Triptych of the Religion of Atheism documents a movement of civilization: the path through which nihilistic civilizations find the divine by losing all of their Gods.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Please tell me a bit more about this need to build a ‘’post-God spirituality,” this new definition of The Sacred. Is there still a place for sacred elements in our modern society? Doesn’t the very idea of sacred work against egalitarian values, as it requires that society elevates some elements higher than others? And who decides what becomes sacred?

Marc Vinciquerra
Marc Vinciguerra

Marc Vinciguerra: One of the greatest medieval theologians, Meister Eckhart, used the word nihil [meaning “nothing”] in his preaching as the perfect context for the revelation of God. He even encourages us to live as if God did not exist in order to establish a contact with the divine; it is the Eckhartian notion of the ‘’vacare deo’’ that means empty your Self of God.

I truly believe that nihilism will generate its own form of sacred because nihilism has emptied civilization of God. Of course not as we understand it now in its vulgar definition of nihilism ~ decline and destruction ~ but in a renewed definition where we are immersed by a mystical nihilism that is the form of god. I believe in a religious mystery of nihilism.

You are asking if the sacred works against equalitarian values as it requires an elevation of elements higher than others. That is very interesting because I grew up Paris in the nineties where the number one ideology was the values of an equalitarian society. I believe that the equalitarian ideology has been invented for political reasons by high society so they could get the vote of the lower classes. And once in power these ‘’equalitarians’’ behaved like kings. This equalitarian ideology in Paris created massive damages on culture that are almost irreversible. You can tell this ideology comes from higher classes and not from lower classes because the statement, ‘’we don’t want you to feel inferior by giving you high culture’’ implies that the lower classes can only understand low culture. It is, of course, not the case.

We are equal in front of high culture in a sense that we are all able to enjoy beauty and this has nothing to do with class.

And we are equal when it comes to making high culture if we are ready to dedicate a lifetime to hard work and contemplation. I have received an equally sophisticated reaction to my art from highly educated art critics and from the person who came to repair the heater in my studio.

You ask, “who decides what becomes sacred?” That is a fascinating question. I think it is more a “what” than a “who.” It is history that decides what is sacred and the artist who reveals history’s secrets. The sacred is an encounter with the divine essence and you know that you have made this encounter because it will transfigure you and it will transfigure your work ~ people will feel this encounter in your works.

Aquinas says that God is equal to the highest thoughts we can think. That it is the quality of our thoughts that are sacred and not just the mere belief in a supreme being.

The biggest mistake that you often see is to think that this supreme essence is eternal. It is not so, the essence of the sacred is historical. The medieval sacred is completely different from the 21st century sacred. The sacred is an essence that travels in time and the most gratifying work for an artist or an intellectual is to unveil the new nature of the sacred.

Marc Vinciquerra
Marc Vinciguerra

Deanna Phoenix Selene: In my two-part interview for Combustus with Oxford University philosopher, Roger Scruton, and theologian and painter, Michael Pearce, ‘’Why We Need to Reclaim Art for the Soul,’’ Scruton offered that we cannot reach a consensus on the definition of beauty, but we can reach a consensus on the importance of beauty in our lives. That “art and beauty allow us to be in awe of things, to approach the world with humility and gratitude.’’ When you are forming your sculptures is it beauty you are seeking to create? Or something else?

Philosopher, Oxford University professor, Roger Scruton

Marc Vinciguerra: Actually, the most profound definition of beauty I have heard is from Roger Scruton when he quotes Pindare:Beauty is what makes the incredible look credible.”

Myself, I have a clear definition of Beauty: Following Yeats, I believe that ‘’art is revelation.’’ If an artwork or a book does not reveal something almost supernaturally, it is not beautiful for me. For example, when, as a young man, I read The Wasteland, by T.S. Eliot, the text transported me to a state of revelation. I was not the same person after I read this book, so to me, this book is beautiful. It is this sense of revelation that I am seeking when I form my sculptures. There is no beauty without the sacred.

[Richard] Wagner writes that it is only when we rebuild a new religion that art will appear again.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What is it about the human figure that lends itself to exploring the themes of the sacred and beauty? Might not these elements be better expressed in less conflicted elements of the natural world?

Marc Vinciquerra
Marc Vinciguerra

Marc Vinciguerra: Instead of my own answer, I will give you the mystical definition of the body by Thomas H Burgoyne, the founder of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor because he said it better that anybody else: “The body is the instrument of manifestation of higher states.”

When I sculpt the body it is not the body that I sculpt but the higher states. The sacredness of beauty is more powerfully depicted through the human body than depicted through nature, because nature is blind. Nature does not need to believe and does not need to find ways to believe. When I sculpt someone, it is not his body that I sculpt but his soul, which, as an atheist who believes in the sacred, I do not make a separation between soul and body. One’s body is his soul.

Marc Vinciquerra
Marc Vinciguerra

Deanna Phoenix Selene: You are Paris born. What led you to move to the United States?

Marc Vinciguerra: I had to move out of France because of the Duchamptism of my country. There is a pathological mimetism in France about Marcel Duchamp: if you are not a follower of Marcel Duchamp you are not part of the art world. Duchamp is the first nihilist artist – the vulgar nihilism that has no contact with the sacred – not the new nihilism that I speak of. Overall, Duchamptism is a lack of artistic courage. What modernists or Duchamptists do not understand is that they have created their own academism, yet they are the very same ones who define Duchamptism as a reaction to academism! It is very arriere garde to be a follower of Duchamp in 2018 because it was the avant garde of 1917! Goethe used to say that it is always interesting to see the private life of an artist to understand his philosophy.

Few people know that Duchamp tried to be a figurative sculptor all his life, spending years trying to make a portrait of his muse, but sadly he always failed. It is human nature to destroy that at which you fail. I think that is valid for a lot of contemporary art ideology; contemporary art liberated people from the incredible adventure and difficulty of creating a sublime object, so they called the degradation of art, art itself. They called the destruction of art an art so they could be considered an artist without having to be a real one. But now it is time to move on.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do you feel optimistic about the direction you see art going?

Marc Vinciguerra: I see the art market as a force organized towards chaos. I am lucky in a sense that I am a museum-collected artist and therefore the destiny of my art will not fluctuate with the moods and caprice of the moment. The Duchamp/Warholian direction mostly puts art at the level of a reality show. I am pessimistic about this not just for the art world but also, in general, for the future of humanity because it is incredibly empty and yet alive and well. The legacy of Warhol is the invention of the reality show and they have their own dynasty of reality-art. You think that Jeff Koons was the last reality artist, but no, he is now replaced by Kaws, who puts a 50-foot inflatable depressed Mickey Mouse into the harbor of Hong-Kong.

KAWS' sculpture 'Companion' floats in Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong on March 22, 2019. KAWS' sculpture 'Companion' floats in Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong on March 22, 2019. Photo: Harimao Lee
KAWS’ sculpture Companion floats in Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong, March 22, 2019. Harimao Lee

Marc Vinciguerra: I call it the disneyfication of static nihilism. The art world systematically eviscerates art from meaning, beauty, art and culture. This is in an endless loop – after Kaws it will be another and so on and so on. I like to think about the archeologists of the future who might unearth these pieces (if the materials last that long) in the year 5000. Imagine they have no information on Koons or Kaws but only the work itself. With no cultural context, they might equate it to a yellow McDonalds sign. On the contrary, if they unearth a statue of Rodin they would probably be in awe and put it immediately in a museum.

The Cathedral | Auguste Rodin 1840 -1917) | 1908 | Stone H. 64 cm ; W. 29.5 cm ; D. 31.8 cm
The Cathedral | Auguste Rodin 1840 -1917) | 1908 | Stone H. 64 cm ; W. 29.5 cm ; D. 31.8 cm

Marc Vinciguerra: Beyond all this well-organized nonsense there is an organic value of the artwork that is beyond the art market. A masterpiece will defend itself through time.

I never worry about the art market, I concern myself in creating the aesthetic I believe in and whether my art participates in the history of ideas: Where are we with the idea of God? What is the destiny of nihilism? These are all the questions I ask myself when I form my sculptures. I think that the future of figuration is held in the fusion between philosophy and art. I am also optimistic for spiritual reasons for I know that the spirit cannot be broken and it will carry on manifesting itself in art in the most extraordinary ways.

Marc Vinciquerra
Marc Vinciguerra

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What sort of questions would you like to explore next?

Marc Vinciguerra: For the last few years, I have been sculpting a model whom I am basing an entire new body of work on: about 20 new life-size sculptures. Giacometti used to say that if he found the ideal model, he would sculpt him for the next 20 years. I like to sculpt bodies that incarnate something, and in this model, his body incarnates the sublime tribulations of the age of nihilism. It is amazing for a sculptor to meet a model that incarnates his century in his flesh. You can see my new model in my latest piece, “The Transfiguration,” debuting in Venice this week during the 58th Biennale of Art. In this installation piece, The Transfiguration is floating above the viewer weightless yet weighty. I have been very lucky to have been asked to present back to back in 2018 and 2019 both in the Architecture and Art Biennales.

The Transfiguration | Marc Vinciquerra
The Transfiguration | Marc Vinciguerra

Marc Vinciguerra:  When it comes to questions I want to explore, it is definitely related to the notion of The Last God, a Heideggerian concept that appears in his notebooks and posits that the West will one day experience its last or second awakening. I think that today the age of transitional nihilism is over and humanity is about to experience its Last God, and I want to illustrate that extraordinary philosophical event in my sculptures and poems.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Are there some questions for which art will never able to help us answer?

Marc Vinciguerra: No, I think art can address every question, because it is Art that defines reality not reality that defines Art. And most of the time it is more important to find the right question than to look for an answer. It is only by sitting in the right question that we will be lucky with the answer.

Marc Vinciquerra
Marc Vinciguerra

Further Notes

Marc Vinciguerra is a Parisian artist living in America. His latest monumental sculpture is currently on exhibit in Venice, Italy during the Biennale of Architecture alongside notable artists and architects such as Prizker Prize winner, Richard Meier who also designed the Getty Museum. Vinciguerra’s installation in Venice has been described as ”extraordinary” by Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine, May/June issue. Winning the Alpine Fellowship Visual Prize in 2014, Vinciguerra has been invited each year to present on the subject of sculpture to fellow philosophers, writers and artists. Hosted by philosopher and BBC host, Sir Roger Scruton, the fellowship was created to reconnect the link between art and philosophy.

Vinciguerra has been invited to give lectures at several universities, the Foundation Cini in Venice and most recently invited to show his work by the European Cultural Center who has worked with several notable artists including Yoko Ono. Having written several articles on the future of art, his work solidly breaks the wall that separates traditional art and contemporary art. Vinciguerra then reunites them combining the skill of a renaissance artist and a 21st Century philosopher. With an exciting freshness, he transforms figurative art into conceptual installations. These contemporary figurative installations are perfectly placed alongside the Grand Canal in a Venetian Palazzo, fusing the past and the future. Through this fusion, Vinciguerra creates what he believes is the definition of art: form created by content.

There will be a lecture by a theologian on Vinciquerra’s ideas as shared here at the next annual reunion of the American Academy of Religion this autumn.

Marc Vinciguerra’s work can be seen in many private collections in France, Morocco, Italy and across the United States.

Please visit his website here.

Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.

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