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MATTHEW RONAY Double Cloak of Stars 2009 Courtesy the artist & Andrea Rosen Gallery, NY (c) Matthew Ronay

Where the Knowledge Is the Power

What is it about secret societies that has always intrigued and inspired writers and artists?

Text: Michaela Freeman | Images: Various

Ed. by Cristina Ricupero,  Alexis Vaillant & Max Hollein - Where the Knowledge Is the Power

Ed. by Cristina Ricupero, Alexis Vaillant & Max Hollein
Secret Societies: To Know, To Dare, To Will, To Keep Silence
Snoeck Verlagsgesellschaft
256pp, 160 Illus.
ISBN: 978-3940953827


W. B. Yeats was apparently a member of Secret Chiefs guarding the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and in the 1930’s, George Bataille’s obscure society Acéphale (Headless) met in the woods to read chapters from Nietzsche (not popular in France at the time because of his texts being appropriated by the Nazis).

A better understanding of our desire to uncover secrets, to be on the ‘in’, to be part of the selected few, but also our paranoia if we fail, is what was explored by a recent exhibition, Secret Societies.[1] The accompanying book includes works by over 50 contemporary artists; a good selection of well-known names such as Art & Language, Jenny Holzer, Lisa Yuskavage, but also some unusual choices and surprises. 

Don’t expect major revelations about secret societies here – any conspiracy seekers will be disappointed. Kept hidden so well for centuries, secrets stay elusive, even though Gary Lachman’s contribution gives a good idea of what the membership might entail. To enter a secret society, you need to know where to knock, he says, and accept a world with new rules, where an elected few guard the knowledge, with family and friends taking a secondary role.

Some interesting historical facts are offered too but what the book concentrates on, and does well, is to open the discussion about the visible and hidden, and the attraction and power of secrets and our desire to share them. We are told that ‘the paradox of a secret is that it only exists when it’s communicated’. It’s an interesting anecdotal story that the curators’ request to the Andy Warhol Foundation to lend one of his unopened Time Capsules[2] for 
the exhibition was refused. The Foundation only considers it valuable to present the contents of units already opened and documented, rather than a sealed, mysterious one.

Secret societies have existed since ancient Egypt, China and Greece, but the modern interest in them springs from a little known event in 1614 when a pamphlet was circulated, announcing a group called the Rosicrucians and demanding reform. There was no way of contacting them and nobody is reported to have ever met them (even though Descartes was rather keen to), earning them their nickname, Invisibles. Some say they had disappeared to Tibet, some reduce their story to a pure hoax, but that didn’t stop thinkers around the world pronouncing themselves as followers. 

Freemasons, formed by Baron Karl Gotthelf von Hund in the 18th century, were expected to swear an absolute loyalty to unknown leaders of the group. The concept of an ‘invisible hand’, a hidden force behind the scenes, has fuelled endless conspiracy theories ever since. It’s quite understandable that those behind a call for a New World Order, in any society and century, would prefer to stay incognito, as such tendencies could easily cost them their lives – even in the not so distant past. 

Today, the world is more than ever fascinated with the theories about the hidden connections. We don’t seem to get enough of books like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, and endless websites attempt to prove top politicians’ affiliations to secret societies. Hillary Clinton wears a bird brooch with a pearl (a phoenix bird holding the world, to the initiated) and she’s immediately exposed as a member of the Illuminati.[3] 

So what does art have in common with the secret societies? Just to see the art scene as a secret society itselfwould be maybe too simplistic, but there certainly are parallels in the way symbols are used extensively to communicate beyond language, visible and legible to those who know how to read them.


1. The exhibition was at Shirn Kunsthalle, Germany, touring to CAPC, the Bordeaux MoCA.

2. During the last 30 years of his life, Warhol filled and sealed 600 boxes(Time Capsules) with various items

3. A society based on Freemasonic principles.

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