Wednesday, August 5, 2009

God in the Gallery

I've been reading Daniel Siedell's provocative and thoughtful new book, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art. An art historian and long-time curator of a major university collection, Siedell has been thinking deeply about the relationship between modern art and Christian faith for a long time. At the end of his brief, insightful chapter on the history of modern art, he argues that it is not possible to say whether a work of art is "anti-Christian" or "Christian,"

even if the work was produced by a vehement athiest or a confessing Christian. Furthermore, the aesthetic product of an anti-Christian or non-Christian artist is not necessarily anti-Christian or non-Christian. Nor does it follow that a Christian artist produces works of art that are Christian or embody a Christian worldview.

Siedell points out that, contrary to much discussion in the Protestant world, an art work is not an illustration (or even the embodiment) of a single, predetermined idea, but rather an invitation into contemplation and communion. And while my education and inclination as an artist invites me to agree with him, my faith experience leads me to ask what, exactly, I am being invited to contemplate, and with what am I being invited to commune.

It is one thing to enter deeply into the apophatic mystery of a painting by Marc Rothko, but quite another to commune with some of the more disturbing productions of Damien Hirst. Do I really want to get sucked into the beauty of something that looks like a stained glass window, but is made of the wings of real butterflies? Do I need to endorse the inclusion of actual dead animals -- rather than their representation -- in order to contemplate my own mortality, or to consider the ethics of eating meat? Are we, as a society, so inured to representations of death that only the real thing will get us to react?

In asking these questions, I have inadvertantly proved Siedell's point, which (as I understand it) is that when we are willing to let go of our preconcieved ideas and simply experience the art before us, good, contemporary art opens us to perceptions, thoughts, and feelings that have the potential to lead us into the deepest places of our hearts. Or, at least, to the questions of ethics, morality, and justice that rightfully concern us as Christians. And that is reason enough to go looking for God in the gallery.
Deborah Sokolove

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