Review: God in the Gallery
Today I discuss Daniel A. Siedell’s God in the Gallery, subtitled A Christian Embrace of Modern Art. I realize I may have missed the boat on producing a timely review of this book, as it was published in 2008. However, there are two factors I believe make the book worth revisiting today. The first is Christianity Today critic Alissa Wilkinson’s recent (and highly worthwhile) essay “The Critic’s Job and Why it Matters”, where she reminds us of Siedell’s wisdom. The second factor is that I received the book for Christmas and I just felt like talking about it.
Siedell is an art historian, critic, and curator whose area of expertise lies in the strange and somewhat arcane field of contemporary art. He writes then not as a philosopher or a theologian, but as a specialist in his chosen vocation, and in doing so, reverses the usual Christian approach: instead of a pastor or theologian inexpertly attempting to shepherd their flock through the esoteric world of modern art, which seemingly brims with anti-Christian sentiment, a professional who can communicate with the layman serves as our guide to hidden beauty and wonder. It is a welcome change from pulpit blusterings over the depraved state of modern culture that are far too common.
Siedell’s approach is thankfully a highly optimistic and charitable one. He adopts Paul’s visit to the Areopagus in Acts 17 as a model for the Christian approach to art.1 Rather than denigrate the Athenians as idolaters for their altar to an unknown god, Paul argues this altar in reality points to the true God:
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22-23)2
For Siedell, all art becomes precisely that: an altar to the unknown god. From Marcel Duchamp’s urinal “ready-made” to Jackson Pollock’s abstract drip paintings, including, yes,even Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, the art world is a landscape of altars that ultimately point the way to Christ—whether the artist is conscious of their bending towards truth or not.
God in the Gallery is divided into seven essays that cover the philosophy and history of modern art, how Christians can appreciate art and its unique, sacramental nature, and responses to Francis Schaeffer’s and Hans Rookmaaker’s visions of the way Christians interact with the world of art. Each is interesting in its own right, and Siedell is a knowledgeable and affable Virgil for our descent into this frightening modernist realm. The book was written as an academic work, however, intended for undergraduate and graduate students, and its occasional lapses into nigh esoteric jargon may put off the casual reader. Still, for Christians who love art and are seeking an interpretive framework from a field expert based on a sure confidence in Christ, God in the Gallery is well worth reading.
There are three ideas from the book I’d like to touch on here. The first is the one I’ve already mentioned above: Siedell’s vision of a redeemed universe, where all things are under the authority of God, including gross art that makes your pastor have an aneurysm. He writes not as a fearful culture warrior who hurls polemics at the world as he retreats into his cave, but as a lover and citizen of the universe over which God rules. He writes with an all-encompassing hope and sureness—this is a refreshing contrast from the predominant way Christians in America interact with art, which is too often with revulsion and rejection. Charity and confidence spur his approach to Christian engagement with culture, which is a delight to the spirit.3
The second idea is Siedell’s unique hermeneutic of modern art, which is to understand art through the sacramental and incarnational lens of the icon as affirmed by the Second Council of Nicea. Modern art is like the icon in that it is not simply an object that communicates information. Rather, it is an object of contemplation, and in this contemplation one is connected to the divine. The communion between the supplicant and the divine through an incarnational image, of course, comes from Christ himself. “This aesthetic economy [of the icon] rests first and foremost on the cosmic implications of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, which did not merely or only effect our salvation, it renewed all of creation, bringing the creation itself, to quote St. Athanasius, into the eternal triune relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,”4 he writes. By the incarnation of God in Christ, the material realm we inhabit was sanctified and baptized, a direct challenge to the philosophy of the Greeks who saw the material world as base.5 In turn, icons, which are images of the transcendent, are likewise baptized. For Siedell, art is like the icon. One does not simply read a sculpture or painting like a theology book and walk away with new data. Rather, one communes with the work in an act of contemplation, and, as all works are altars to the unknown god, one may look upon God through that work.
This is not to say a urinal in a museum gallery is the same as an icon in a church! They are not identical. The urinal is, however, in its own way, an immanent reality. This immanent reality of art is what enables Christians to embrace, dialogue with, and even create art of all kinds, even in such a strange, abstruse realm such as contemporary art.
The final aspect of God in the Gallery that I wanted to mention is its notion of art criticism. Criticism is a funny thing, and its function and purpose vary from person to person. It can be be pretentious, alienating, unhelpful, and—from the layperson’s perspective—elitist nonsense. Rather than elevate the critic to some lofty position of cultural scorekeeper or arbiter of good taste, though, Seidell makes the critic a fellow artist. Criticism is a genre unto itself, like travelogues and mystery novels, and the critic, by writing on art, is also making art.6 This genre is about articulating your experience with an aesthetic work, even if that work, being non-literary, defies rendering into mere words. This is why so much of criticism seems pretentious or aloof; it is the feeble attempt of an author to translate an obdurate idiom. Art is itself an expression, and that expression often cannot be made into language. If it could, then that art wouldn’t have been made in the first place. So, critics engage in art parallel to their subject, and both artist and critic attempt to render on their own canvas—whether it is an actual canvas or a Word document—their experience.
This perspective is freeing. The critic’s job is not to be the final authority on a work, but a fellow lover of art whose job it is to articulate their emotional response as honestly and plainly as they can. For the Christian critic, this in part becomes about how this stirs our spirits, about how we see reflections of God in the work, shattered as the mirror may be. We are free to dispense with counting swear words and nude scenes.
All in all, God in the Gallery is an inspiring and thought-provoking read, particularly for anyone searching for a hopeful and confident way to engage with art as a Christian. It is also very short, at 200 pages, including its voluminous notes. I recommend reserving your copy today. It goes on sale eight years ago.
2.All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3. For an explanation of the universe as God’s temple, see above, 139-140.
4. Ibid. 31.
5. Ibid. 32.
6. Ibid. 110-11.
Photo by stu mayhew at Flickr.