Power broker, or salt and light?
Daniel Siedell's God in the Gallery may be the best book about art written by a Christian in the last two decades. As with many recent "art and faith" tomes, this one, released about a year ago, gets very positive reviews on Amazon.com—just shy of five stars. Reading God in the Gallery, I felt the same exuberance I had felt when I first read Hans Rookmaaker's classic Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. I thought, "Finally, a Christian who takes the world, as it is, seriously."
That is because Siedell, like Rookmaaker, writes credibly as a working art historian. It is disappointing that there are only three customer (three!) reviews for the book on Amazon as I write this article. It suggests less notice than is given to other new books by Philip Graham Ryken (9 reviews), Andy Crouch (12 reviews) or Makoto Fujimura (14 reviews). Could it be that Christians do not really care very much about finding "God in the gallery"? Maybe the book's subtitle, "A Christian Embrace of Modern Art," sounds too much like an oxymoron?
Siedell's book caused me to ask an important question: If given a choice, do Christians prefer to be cultural powerbrokers, or culture's light and salt?
At this cultural moment, followers of Christ are exhibiting a remarkable interest in all things art-related. There are more books about Christian faith and the visual arts published every year than any one person can get around to reading, written by a bevy of respected theologians, pastors, artists and journalists.
This resurging interest on the part of the Church to "recover" the arts is probably a good thing—for the most part. But fads can be dangerous. Remember when American evangelicals rediscovered the power of their vote in politics, a few decades ago? In all the excitement of million-person solidarity, all those precious votes became monopolized by the dubiously successful "Christian Right." The Christian Right within America's Republican Party imagined itself to have decisive political leverage. But the results of this rediscovery are of debatable merit.
Siedell's sociological-art historical perspective helps him recognize that today's modern (or contemporary) art expects a contemplative posture from the viewer—in striking contrast to the communicative mode of art to which evangelicals are accustomed. His perspective also helps him recognize that the art world is a social institution, as the church is an institution, with its own integrity of norms, standards and traditions.
These two realizations hint at significant implications, not all of which are adequately explored in God in the Gallery. Siedell contends that Christian theology, when rooted in its ancient orthodox traditions, could have a real two-way conversation with the contemporary art world. He writes of privileging contemplation over communication in art, which, importantly, implies that individual conscience is given more weight than common dogma.
Detractors and skeptics of modern art tend to implicitly subject every facet of cultural production into categories of "right" or "wrong," "Christian" or "un-Christian." In mainstream Christianity, nuanced voices are often viewed as threats to orthodoxy or unity. The zeal to preach original sin and sanctification inadvertently overshadows an individual's God-given right and responsibility to think, choose and act "in good faith" (or not). Ironically, the inherent tension of personal freedom operating within conscience and love—as laid out by Apostle Paul—is not always exemplified in the church.
There are many great things to be said of God in the Gallery; however, throughout the book (including the chapter on "Art, Liturgy, and the Church"), Siedell uses language that may fuel the Church's proudly hegemonic mindset; whether or not this hegemony legitimately exists, it borders on domineering to think of church theology as "underwriting" modern art, or of "bending" art towards Christ.
Addtionally, after Siedell expounds on how the church can bring theological insights to the institution of contemporary art, he sounds curiously tentative how artists can return the favor. He says that "the economy of icon is to exert pressure on the worshiper, to shape, develop, and discipline the imagination." But the next sentence states that "it is not clear that this kind of molding and shaping can simply or always be identified with the challenge modern art offers the viewer." In the context, Siedell is right to caution the popular trend of bringing contemporary art inside church walls. But he also stops short of endorsing gifted artists to prick sensibilities and spur contemplation during Sunday worship.
Siedell limits, even disables, the position of many contemporary artists when he winsomely summarises in an earlier chapter: "Artistic practice, then, is utopian." Artists cannot be all saints, but then again, God has used devils before to bring his people close to him. If the historical avant-garde desired to "overcome . . . limitations that constrain freedom and prevent justice," this challenge—which underpins contemporary art—should not be estranged from Christian life, whether in liturgical gatherings or in everyday life.
Even with these few shortcomings, God in the Gallery is a truly groundbreaking book to reconcile the radical call of Jesus Christ with the radical offerings of modern and contemporary art. The book, like its subject, might receive marginal attention despite, or perhaps due to, its provocative strengths. In this way, God in the Gallery mimics the refusal of Christ to broker earthbound power, and instead, to surreptitiously serve as light and salt.