God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art, by Daniel A. Siedell, 2008.
The best and only way to start this review and to be honest about my own limits in understanding the concepts presented in this book is with a quote from the book by the art critic, Donald B. Kuspit, in response to criticism from art critic, Hilton Kramer:
“Clarity in fact is relative, as much the burden of the reader as the writer, for it has as much to do with the reader’s understanding of the concepts the writer uses as with the style the writer uses to articulate them. Clear thinking is the issue, not clear writing.” (121-2)
So from the outset, I must admit that my understanding of the concepts brought forth in this book are minimal, at best. Which means this review probably shouldn’t even be written if it was not for the fact that I wrote reviews for the other 53 books I read this year. Please read this review with two things in mind: 1) I have little to no background or conceptual knowledge in the field of modern or contemporary art and 2) I, as much as I would like to reject the title, would fit within the evangelical title that Siedell challenges in this book. I am more comfortable with firm propositions and imposing them on the world, though a severe part of me wants to love, know and experience art, in all of its forms. And the idea of allowing modern and contemporary art room to formulate its own theology is both exciting and nerve-racking to me. Parts of me want to resort to the comforts of my known theological kingdom and the other parts of me want to embrace art for what it reveals even if it contradicts my dearly held theological dogmas. So with that, I really just want to put out there some discomforts I have with some of Siedell’s challenges and then how, at the end of the day, Siedell is on the right path.
I found it interesting that Siedell brings in the use of icons (and their veneration) and the Nicene Creed as significant for approaching contemporary and modern art. I am largely Calvinist with Lutheran sympathies (of late!) and the word “icons” brings up a lot of baggage. Now I have friends who take Calvin’s view of images made of Christ and God quite literally. I never have been to that level, but the alarm is still alerted in the back of my head even so. At what point do icons become idols? At the core, I think that was the question behind the iconoclasm battles. Iconoclasts saw icons as a golden calf just waiting to redirect our attention from God/Christ/Spirit to the image itself. And this view is formed from a low view of human anthropology, what man could lower himself to, most likely will be what he lowers himself to. So if there is a possibility of turning an image into an idol, then man would probably be willing to do that to deny God (which is what we do!). I get the argument, but I have never been strict on the matter of icons. And I rebel against those who hold to it because Calvin did, instead of finding their support from Scripture itself (which a lot of Calvinists do, sometimes unknowingly). However, the Nicene creed is an exceptional and very biblical formulation of the faith and if that council was good with the use of icons in the realm of the church then I find no fault in it, regardless of what the Calvinist alarm in my head goes off for. However, I would have been interested to see Siedell maybe handle those parts of Scripture that could be interpreted to be anti-icon or image, if only briefly. Because even Calvin did not come up with his “word only” approach on his own whim, he derived it from his reading of Scripture.
I think the use of icons is an interesting one and there is no doubt that premodern Christianity did rely more on visuals incorporated into worship and into the lives of believers. To lessen the images’ role during that time is to accept the ‘truth’ that modernism or postmodernism are superior or more ‘enlightened’ than pre-modernity, which is historical garbage. It just seems to me that in order for the use of icons to become a guide and aid in approaching contemporary and modern art, some work may have to be done in revisiting Scripture and those who put together the Nicene Creed in order to revise a Reformation reading of icons and images in the life of the church. I, also, understand that that would be a whole other book, too, and that there may be a book that does that exact thing already. So once again, this critique (which really isn’t my critique so much as something I think would come up from those in my theological circle) shows my lack of knowledge more than anything.
Part of the challenge of this book, for me, is that it does not find its basis as firmly in Scripture as I would have liked. Once again, another Reformational aspect of my perspective. I am very much Word-based. However, my devotion to Scripture is found less in adherence to the theology of Calvin or Luther or reformed thinking, but more out of my own personal experience of other types of authority in my life failing me time and again. Scripture, though I have struggled with parts of it from time to time, has always been the one thing that I could go back to and difficulties that have arisen eventually fell away (and new ones entered). I find Scripture to be the basis for thought because, though I have failed in my interpretation of it often, it has never failed me as a means for revelation to challenge and enlighten me. So part of me, at the end of this book, says “so what in the Bible could be brought out to inform this?” I found Siedell’s use of Paul’s naming the unknown god in the Areopagus to be a very useful illustration for approaching art, but it seems like there could be more taken from the Bible to approach this matter as well. I found the writings of the artists and critics that Siedell brought into the book to be enriching and helpful in understanding the world of modern and contemporary art, but part of me was wanting more interaction with the Word in the essays. I think there are tons of resources there to be used in favor of Siedell’s challenges and approach to art. But once again, that probably wasn’t the direction that Siedell was aiming for necessarily, but instead to inform and give fullness to the history, spaces and workings of the art world so that Christians may be more informed when they interact with it. And, at that, he succeeds completely!
I absolutely loved his conclusion and his interaction with Rookmaaker’s and Schaeffer’s understandings of the “Christian artist.” And a lot of the critiques that he made against the way Christians approach and do art now are correct. Especially this little gem of a paragraph:
“The ultimate distinction, then, is not between Christian art and autonomous modern art but between art that in its union of form and content can bring forth or testify to an embodied transcendence, revealing our ‘amphibious existence,’ and art that denies such transcendence. It is thus quite possible and indeed quite probable that some of what is understood as Christian art is in fact a profoundly anti-transcendent art, presupposing a world hermetically sealed off from the contemplation of the Son, a purely immanent world in which communication consists solely of messages, sent and received, not of contemplation of and communion with the Divine. In the Christian artist’s zeal to express a Christian message, Christian art—in the bitterest of ironies—can further contribute to denying Christ’s presence in the world.” (164)
And I totally agree with that understanding of the modern state of Christians and art. However, I am not entirely sure I would arrive there in the same way that Siedell does. However, the journey that he takes the reader on is extremely informative and helpful in having a more full and comprehensive understanding of the question itself. And, in my life, discomfort has bred fruit more than comfort ever has, so, once again, I intend to let the discomfort of Siedell’s arguments to work on me; to get under my skin. He writes on the subject with passion and with a fervor for Christians to be more real, honest, thoughtful and informed about that which they cast their theological assumptions onto. And, for that, I can be nothing was grateful to him for.