The enlightenment project and the scientific revolution were great achievements of human culture and the products of enlightenment thinking have been far reaching. But it is clear that individuals are not all rational and do not use reason alone to make the majority of their decisions. In Giles Alexander's painting "Annunciation" the iconic advertising image of a woman using a portable mp3 player and dancing in a manner that seems ecstatic is juxtaposed against images of a cathedral and angel Gabriel bearing the word of god (apparently we've missed it). The ipod is like a high tide mark of consumable technology facilitated by the freedom of market forces in the system of capitalist liberal western democracy honed over three centuries of rational thinking. And it is sold by promising moments of orgasmic self-actualisation once offered only by religious experience.
In paintings such as Crusader I and Crusader II, cathedral interiors are limned with distortions that appear to be the result of technological processes. Computers - logic machines - the ultimate expression of the enlightenment project, seem to be facilitating a destruction of the imagery of the enlightenment's old enemy - the Catholic church.
However it is because these paintings are executed with such a high level of technical skill that the process appears to involve technology at some point. In fact Alexander's distortions are actually a result of the physical and material act of moving paint on canvas. The distortions emerge from the process in a non-deterministic manner. So it is rationality (as signified by mechanical reproductive technology) itself that becomes the illusion. At first you might think that his paintings are showing religious edifices distorted by the technological prism of the enlightenment – perhaps a metaphor for how religious thinking distorts truth. But actually his process is much more intuitive and organic so it is actually the enlightenment itself that is the illusion – as though technology itself is just a dream. The only fact that remains is the materiality of the present - underscored by his use of glossy resin finishes.
Central to Alexander's work is the layering and superimposition of images drawn from tabloid media and pop culture with religious motifs - visually comparing consumerism with religion. Weber identified a link between Protestantism and capitalism, suggesting that the development of the former led to the rise of the latter. The rational basis for assessing the worth of a life was seen by Weber as providing the rationalisation for early capitalism. Weber believed that a spiritual justification was not necessary once capitalism was established. The market has identified that people, especially middle class people in Western capitalist societies, still have needs in relation to their identity and sense of meaning, which were once the exclusive domain of religion. As Alan Hirsh puts it, ‘Brands offer meaning, identity, purpose, and belonging.’
It is tempting to imagine that a decline in the role of religion in modern life is directly tied to an increase in materialistic consumerism, as though gadgets have replaced God. But it is also the case that the most emblematic consumerist society - the US - is also among the most religious. The urges to consume or have faith are certainly not mutually exclusive and are perhaps even complementary. The atheist doctrine of early 20th century socialism rejected the church and the market. It could easily be argued, though, that spiritual religion in that case was replaced with a different kind of faith, and materialism, in the form of State Capitalism, was actually embraced.
Of course, the Church was really the first entity to operate as a corporation, followed by universities then commercial concerns. This organisational arrangement creates an entity which can amass wealth and power over time frames far longer than any individual human life. For those at the top of such organisations - Popes, cardinals and CEOs - decisions can be made in the name of the organisation, limiting both personal liability and personal responsibility while maximising personal gain. Alexander draws out this parallel in 'The Blind leading the Blind" where contemporary troops follow Marcus Aurelius. Contemporary commercial corporations contemplate and endorse all sorts of actions up to and including military action in the abstracted name of shareholders. And similarly the church has 20 centuries of bloody brutality authorised in the name of an abstracted all-powerful overseer.
Alexander's connection between consumer excess and religious zeal draws out a deeper truth. Bataille in “the accursed share” describes the central problem of the economy of any civilisation as being not the fulfilment of needs, but the distribution of the surplus. With the rise of agriculture, human societies and civilisations generally faced no difficulty with providing the basics of survival. Instead humans faced challenges in allocating the excess.
A recurring motif for Alexander is the red splatter as in “With God on Our Side” - strikingly reminiscent of a blood spatter effect from a Hollywood thriller - in this context though, more like the arterial spurts caused by an Aztec priest tearing a living heart from a sacrificed warrior’s breast. Bataille characterises the surplus as a sort of pressure-head of energy which needs to be released.- by war, the construction of great temples (and cathedrals) and, of course, human sacrifice. The release of energy in Alexander's paintings seems literally to be an explosion – appropriately drenched in blood.
Sam Leach 2008