My review of Dan Siedell‘s book God in the Gallery just came out in the latest issue of Cultural Encounters. The same issue also has a short essay by Siedell, extending and updating some of his ideas about art and religion since the 2008 publication of his book. In fact, the whole issue of Cultural Encounters is full of interesting stuff. If you haven’t checked out this lively journal, do it now.)
Here is most of my review:
Imagine that when the apostle Paul arrived at the Acropolis (Acts 17), he found there an ample art gallery, displaying not the Greco-Roman sculptures of his own time, but the modern art of ours: Kandinsky, Klee, Kline, Mondrian, Rothko, Duchamp, Pollock, and company. He would walk around Mars Hill and study the kind of things currently on display in our galleries and museums of contemporary art; things like a seven-foot tall painting of a chocolate bunny wrapped in cellophane, a polished marble slab covered daily with fresh milk, a garden hose snaking its way through otherwise empty gallery rooms, highly realistic sculptures of human legs sticking out of walls, or two large cubes of chocolate and lard shaped only by the bite marks of the gnawing artist.
Would the apostle’s spirit be “provoked within him” (vs. 16)? Would he warn the artists to repent before the coming judgment day (vs. 30)? Would he remind them that “we live and move and have our being” in God (vs. 28), and encourage them to seek him “in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him” (vs. 27)? Or would he say to the denizens of the galleries, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious,” and begin telling them about the unknown God, naming for them what they worship in ignorance?
In his book God in the Gallery, Daniel A. Siedell envisions just such an encounter, and considers, among others, each of these possible responses. But as indicated by the sub-title of the book, A Christian Embrace of Modern Art, his main response is acceptance. He embraces contemporary art, hugs it, takes it to his heart as a Christian believer. For readers of Cultural Encounters, interested in “pursuing a biblically informed, Christ-centered trinitarian engagement of contemporary culture,” Siedell’s book is a model.
Siedell is eminently qualified for this engagement. He was curator of a university art gallery for several years, has earned a doctorate in art history, and now serves as asssistant professor of modern and contemporary art history, theory, and criticism at the University of Nebraska. He is thus no dilettante in the art world, poking his head into the gallery just long enough to formulate a Christian interpretation of it. He is an insider. He lives in the world of contemporary art, cares passionately about it, and is on a personal quest to make sense of it as a believer.
Siedell approaches contemporary art reverently, thinking of these artists as icon-painters of the unknown god. He demands that we should take enough time with contemporary art works that we “experience them on their terms” rather than our own. “And this is possible,” he warns, “only if we believe … that the world is profoundly and mysteriously meaningful, one that can be mediated in and through objects, practices, and contexts. It is our responsibility to follow the lead of the apostle and walk around and look carefully these objects of worship.” (p. 107)
In this book, Siedell models that careful looking. A great way to see if you are the kind of person who will profit from this book is to dip into the third chapter, which is an extended meditation on that giant painting of a chocolate bunny wrapped in cellophane. The painting is Enrique Martinez Celaya’s 1997 Thing and Deception, and Siedell devotes the entire chapter to a nuanced, multi-layered exploration of the work and its relevant contexts. He has lived with the painting for an extended time, and manages to communicate in these pages some of the meditative depth that comes from that experience: “For well over one year I viewed this painting in these galleries, while I walked in the galleries alone, talked to tour groups of all kinds, and lectured to my students. The gallery spaces reverberate with the profundity and banality, seriousness and silliness of the painting. Looking at this work almost daily for sixteen months reminded me of the belief required of all artists, the risk and wager that out of banal materials, something of meaning and significance will emerge.” (p. 67) For the reader, it matters a lot that Siedell acknowledges the “banality” and “silliness” of a giant bunny painting. Describing another work of art, he calls it “a nightmare for critics and commentators who worry that modern art is a joke played on the innocent, unsuspecting ‘average person’ by ultra-elites. She can’t really be serious about this, can she?” (p. 93) Siedell helps the reader see how Celaya’s painting is an “icon of doubt,” a gamble on the possibility of ultimate meaning under the least promising of circumstances.
That chapter-long meditation on Thing and Deception is the center of the book, but chapter three extends the same technique, more briefly, to a half dozen other art works, and there are smaller engagements with art works sprinkled throughout. God in the Gallery is episodic rather than monolithic; it is really a series of “seven essays that address separate subjects from quite different vantage points.” (p. 15) The somewhat elusive unity of the book comes from the distinctive mentality about the world of modern art that Siedell is in the process of working out. And that mentality, or ethos, or critical stance, is what makes God in the Gallery a genuinely important contribution to the discussion of Christianity and the arts. Siedell has managed to carve out a new conceptual space for Christian engagement with modern art.
To do this, he has had to move beyond previous attempts. He intends to leap-frog over the Reformed evangelical conversation about the arts (inspired by Francis Schaeffer and most ably presented by Hans Rookmaaker), because although he appreciates that tradition, especially its influence on art departments at Christian colleges and in the organization Christians in the Visual Arts, he finds the paradigm of “Christian artist” too limiting. Its greatest successes have been in creating alternative institutional frameworks rather than engaging mainstream gallery culture. Siedell also moves beyond the liberal Protestant paradigm of Christianity-and-the-arts discussion, partly by arguing that it is too vague to be of assistance, and partly by ignoring it. For that tradition, theologian of culture Paul Tillich was the guiding light of Christian engagement with the arts. I don’t think his name appears even once in God in the Gallery. Siedell’s own theological integration seems to be done mostly by instinct, but his instincts are for a theology of a thicker, more dogmatic type than Tillich would permit. He wants to root his work in a “maximal Christology” from the conciliar tradition, and to interpret Scripture and modern art with an “applied or participatory exegesis.” Siedell’s program is not Rookmaaker’s nor Tillich’s. Previous laborers may have done worthwhile things, but Siedell has seen, rightly, that there is a tremendous amount of work to be done in this field that nobody has even attempted yet.
Siedell’s insider status as a curator and professor, and the novelty of his critical stance, make God in the Gallery a book with an uncertain audience. Siedell acknowledges this, saying “I seek the impossible goal of addressing theologians and philosophers, average Christians interested in the arts and culture, art students studying at Christian colleges, art students of Christian faith studying in non-Christian educational contexts,” and many more public and audiences besides. (13) He recommends reading the book along with a well-illustrated history of modern and contemporary art. God in the Gallery is not designed to be very helpful as an introduction to modern and contemporary art, though readers who want to overhear the advanced critical conversation about giant chocolate bunnies will certainly get an earful, and may be drawn in for further investigation. The book will be most helpful for readers who already know where the museum of contemporary art is, and who are already consuming a lot of contemporary art and art criticism. For those readers, the book has already proven itself to be the stimulus that was needed to bump the conversation about Christianity and art out of the ruts it had settled into.