03/17/2021

Book Review – God in the Gallery

This article is one in a series exploring some of the titles in the KRUX library.  All listed page numbers are from Siedell, D. (2008) “God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art”. Baker Academic (Michigan). The featured image is from the 40 Stones exhibition ‘Unleavened’, hosted in 2020.

Siedell believes that “art works are not merely objects but products of institutional intention and belief, made under certain conditions and intended to be viewed in specific contexts.” If we as artists are to imagine a better synergy artistic practice and religious practice, we need to do the hard work of understanding these beliefs and intentions.

One cannot read Siedell without feeling there is much more to conceptual art than we give think. He lyrically describes the contemplative and transcendent character of contemporary art, but also reveals the poverty of our interpretational frameworks. “Artists make art not because they have knowledge they want to ‘express’ but because they want to discover or learn something through the practice of art. Communion and contemplation, then, are disciplines not merely for viewers but also for artists as they make their work” (162 own emphasis). Our lack of understanding of most gallery art, he believes, is not caused by contemporary art being elitist or ‘removed from everyday life’ (Christians would typical say that art was more accessible when the pre-reformation church still commissioned the arts). Instead we are simply unused to sacramental practices, that is, communing with something rather than understanding it. By trying to force a communicative, rather than a contemplative framework on contemporary art, we bump up against art that is cryptic, unclear and multifaceted. I am oversimplifying the matter. But the implied warning is clear: dismissing modern art for not being ‘accessible’ reveals how deeply we view the Image as being supplemental (and secondary) to the ‘word’.

 “The twentieth century shows that the American public likes its modernity everywhere but in its museum art” (Siedell 36)

One thing Siedell is emphatic about, is understanding how the avant-garde has changed the context in which art is consumed and interpreted. He traces this development from the church, to the art museum, to the gallery, and explores in each case how these institutional contexts enable us to interpret the art. For the avant-garde the move away from peer-reviewed salons and academies to the freedom of directly appealing to the public (as in a gallery) became a crucial part of how contemporary art functions. Siedell writes, “Avant-gardists may indeed do anything they want, but in order to call it art, […] they must create and maintain the interpretative context that makes it meaningful as a particular cultural practice. Avant-gardists must not only make art; they must also make the context within which their art must be interpreted” (43). Understanding and interrogating these contextual spaces explain why just ‘relocating’ contemporary art into a liturgical setting is not that simple. What is fitting for the museum context is not always fitting for the church..

“Art is not only a cultural practice, it is also an institutional practice. Therefore, any discussion of art must take into account its institutional framework. Modern art’s primary institutional framework is the art museum” (Siedell 24)

His chapter on art criticism was invaluable to me. Art writing is a imaginative, creative literary genre in itself, and artists statements, curatorial statements, journal and magazine articles essential to the interpretive framework that the avant-garde needs for its existence. For the formalists there was Clive Bell, for the action painters Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, names I was vaguely familiar with but never afforded the importance they merited in the modernist movement. Artists and critics need each other. Art ariticism as a term can be misleading too. Contemporary art critics do not ‘critique’ art (a thumbs-up or down evaluation, as Siedell explains). Rather, art criticism is a literary genre, an imaginative practice of cultural interrogation, of moulding and shaping society and its aesthetic taste. Art criticism, he maintains, “is a creative practice, parallel to, not derivative of, the art it addresses.” (Siedell 111)

“Art critics write about art because they love art, desire it, need it, and it is through writing that they can articulate this love, desire, and need.” (Siedell 110)

Daniell Siedell’s critique of the current way in which Christians (in the evangelical West) are engaging the arts is harsh but valid. Art, he maintains, cannot be re-purposed in faith settings without the hard work of comprehending artistic practices and faith practices well. Siedell is provocative when, throughout the book, he somewhat caricatures Christian art heroes Shaeffer and Rookmaker and their ideal of the ‘Christian Artist’. He contends that good art and art criticism does not dream to “change the world, transform the arts, or participate in any other utopian or ideological movement. Criticism serve[s] much more modest, and personal, needs.” Rather than transforming culture, he suggests, we can merely work and hope for a “few small islands” where art is mature, serious and committed. His chapter on The problematics of church art raises not only the typical points of concern among critical believers, the hollowness of figurative, thematic bible art, but also suggests that our fervor for the reverse (edgy, ‘seeker-savvy’ art in our liturgical spaces), is also not the answer. He offers a “warning to those in the Christian community whose zeal is for bringing to fruition Rookmaaker’s and Schaeffer’s dream of an army of “Christian artists” who would transform the contemporary art world and abandon the ideals of artistic and critical practice for the sake of “success”.

This is then what Siedell proposes, I think: Firstly, to have a proper grasp on contemporary art practice, to think clearly and deeply about the ways Protestantism have shaped our incarnational imagination, and to employ richer vocabulary in exploring the already present “sacramental and liturgical identity of human practice” revealed in the arts. Secondly, to question our assumptions about the meaning of accessibilility, specialisation and elitism, and to disrupt the conservative evangelical bias for popular communication at the cost of rich, more rigorous forms of expression. Thirdly, to expose ourselves to (and thus re-train ourselves in) the art of sacramental and incarnational practices. This includes contemplation, communion and other pre-modern, or what he calls ‘analogical’ faith expressions.

What this means for the South African and African church context I have no idea. My initial sense is that the church in Africa never fully de-incarnated itself (Descartian rationalism at the cost of embodied experience). Therefore the arts blend more seamlessly with church life, and church life with the full experience of being human. In the missionary setting where I grew up, there was a continuity between word, image and sound in teaching the truths of the gospel, an artistic holistic that traditionally ‘white’ churches struggle with. Yet this is just a hunch. I am, however, not convinced that what we need is a return to a Radical Orthodoxy (the re-appropriation of mystical, priestly practices – bells, chants and thus forth that some followers of James KA Smith and others seem to propose). But I am sure scholarship in this regards will prove some interesting pointers in the next few years.

I conclude with Siedell’s that “art works are not merely objects but products of institutional intention and belief, made under certain conditions and intended to be viewed in specific contexts.” (143) If we as artists are to imagine a better synergy between our vocation and faith and dream of better ways in which artistic practice can take hands with religious practice, we need to be willing to do the hard work of doing it wisely.

 

The work Endless Seeker by South African artist Chris Soal can be a metaphor for the practice of art appreciation. Just as the single toothpick changes character from something hard and spiky to a something soft and fur-like when multiplied and rearranged, so the artwork becomes ‘more’ than the sum of its parts when compounded by the right interpretative framework. Instead of reading the object only (i.e. toothpicks on a wall), the contemporary framework, the title, its institutional context, the broader body of work, the curatorial statements and the South African context all augment the meaning of the work for us.