God in the Gallery: Thinking about Contemporary Art

In my ongoing effort to understand what contemporary art is all about I’m reading through an excellent little book called God in the Gallery by Daniel Siedell.  It is a discussion of contemporary art from a Christian perspective.  It’s unusual in that the author is a professor of Art History at the University of Nebraska.  He has a deep commitment both to Christ and also to art in general and contemporary art in particular.  This is both a strength of the book, but perhaps a weakness as well.  If one has dedicated one’s life to the study of contemporary art and then one writes a book about its relevance to culture, isn’t one bound to “discover” that it is very relevant and valuable, especially to Christians?  In some sense if Mr. Siedell had any other conclusion, it would sort of negate his whole life’s work.  This is not a criticism per se, it is merely an observation.

Mr. Siedell begins his book with a chapter introducing the whole topic and with a short investigation of what art is, and then how theology might relate to that.  Mr. Siedell is not a theologian and (as we shall see) is as vulnerable to proof-texting as any other Christian who wants the Bible to say what he wants it to say.

He links the production of contemporary art to the eastern church’s history of iconography.  This was unexpected.  Obviously when anyone starts talking about icons, a protestant’s neck hair is going to stand on end, but Mr. Siedell does an admirable job of laying out his case, and it is something I’m going to have to give more thought to.  I’m not sure that I agree with him, but it is an interesting argument, that I’m not simply going to throw out.  His thesis statement is this:

     This study takes seriously Marion’s observation that the theory of images articulated in the Second                           Council of Nicea––which in AD 787 reestablished the orthodoxy of icons, the holy images of Christ,      Mary the Theotokos, the angels, and the saints for use in church worship and private devotion, and reversed the iconoclastic council of 754––can make a significant contribution to the study of contemporary art. (p. 30)

Why does he think this is important to understanding contemporary art?  As he writes: Spiritual power––real presence––has been perhaps the driving force of the history and development of modern art (p. 32).  Oddly enough, I agree completely with him here.  This is a fact that has been overlooked by both Christians and secularists in their zeal to either condemn as degenerate or flaunt the excesses of modern art.

Another fascinating part of this chapter [and one which intrigues me] is that he compares modern art’s search for meaning to the Athenians altar to an unknown god.  One can excoriate contemporary artists for their opaqueness and lack of (obvious) meaning, or one can engage them and say, “What you articulate but do not understand, the Christian faith addresses with meaningful answers.”  And this, I think, is the most important point in Mr. Siedell’s first chapter.  I believe he may be correct here.

Unfortunately, Mr. Siedell nearly ruins his first chapter with an unnecessary proof-text at the end.  He writes:

Many works of modern and contemporary art manifest this reality.  They are poignant altars to the unknown god in aesthetic form.  The challenge for the Christian art critic is to name them and testify to what they point toward, however haltingly, tentatively, and incompletely. [So far, so good] As the psalmist Asaph observed: “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. (Ps. 73:16-17)

Unfortunately, that particular verse is in a passage describing the sudden destruction of the wicked, which is nothing close to the point that Mr. Siedell wants to make.  Indeed, it is almost the opposite of the point he wants to make.  An error, but not a fatal one.

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