A Review of
God in the Gallery:
A Christian Embrace of Modern Art.
by Daniel Siedell.
By Brent Aldrich.
First of all, to title a book of this complexity God in the Gallery is much too narrow; the encompassing image of a “transformed vision” that Daniel Siedell describes in this book points to an ecumenical engagement of the church, that is rooted in the liturgy, to form an “expansive aesthetics” (138) as a basis of living in “a world saturated with sacramental…significance” (91). What he narrates throughout is a fundamental way of living that is incarnational, that sees the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven; art may perhaps be described as an embodiment of this reality, creating a focused artifact of contemplation and communion. For the church, the vocation is to daily embody this reality of incarnation and resurrection, of the hope of reconciliation in the world. Siedell argues that much or modern and postmodern art has likewise been “a witness to both our fallen world and hope for its redemption” (29). The dialogue that opens up from this correlation is expansive in both directions, urging the church to draw from an “economy of the icon” in which “the primary goal is to seek communion with God” (29) as a model to look to contemporary art practices, as well as suggesting how the “church’s spiritual practices and disciplines…can underwrite and sustain aesthetic practice” (148). In both directions, though, it is the “church’s aesthetics that underwrite aesthetics in the larger culture” in a way that “expands the aesthetic potential” (138).
To support these claims, Siedell draws heavily from the Second Council of Niceae, the aesthetics and “economy” of the icon and the liturgy, and contemporary writers of theology and art, and the histories of each. To begin to navigate the discourse, definitions of the church and of art are useful, although both tend to be used elusively in popular discourse, which is part of the problem. Here, Siedell uses the liturgical practices of the church as formative for the rest of its life: “the church is not a religious sphere separated from the realities of the world but reveals the world’s true meaning and significance,” emphasizing the priesthood of all believers, which is “characterized by reconciliation and healing, which testifies to the presence of the kingdom of God even in the midst of a broken world, a world governed by powers and principalities that deny the world its eucharistic identity” (138 – 141). Art is viewed equally alongside the contexts that have supported it (museums, etc), as well as an “ecological theory,” suggesting that within the “making and viewing” of art, it “projects an imaginative world of thought in aesthetic form that is necessary for human development” (29). Furthermore, “art is not merely a form of communication but requires contemplation and communion – an active experiential relationship with the artifact” (50). Both the practices of the church and of art are practices of formation, then, of working out the hope of restoration of the world.
The photographer Robert Adams has suggested a similar vision for art in a 1994 collection of essays: “art is a discovery of harmony, a vision of disparities reconciled, of shape beneath confusion. Art does not deny that evil is real, but it places evil in a context that implies an affirmation; the structure of the picture, which is a metaphor for the structure of the Creation, suggests that evil is not final” (Adams, Why People Photograph, Aperture, 1994 — ERB Review Here). Acknowledging this coherence and locating specifically the reason for our hope of reconciliation in Christ, the church seems to me to be uniquely positioned to engage contemporary art practices that often are after a similar vision, although it may not be named. This idea of locating the “unknown God” is central to Siedell’s model for his own engagement with art. As Paul confronted the altar to an unknown God in the book of Acts, and then turns its worship to Christ, so Siedell argues, are we “called to penetrate the surface of things, revealing how all things hold together in Christ, even if this is not immediately apparent” (165).
In God in the Gallery, a history is traced of Modern art that casts it as striving for transcendence, but falling short because it reduced the transcendence only to aesthetics. This separation of myriad facets of life is a mark of Enlightenment-inspired Modernism. Siedell asks that we, bearing those faults in mind, also look deeper to name the desire for communion within these works of art. Extending that history to the present postmodern discourse, in which the isolation and “disinterestedness” of Modernism are being critiqued, the desire for transcendence, communion with God, is recognized as “material as well as spiritual; engaged and not escapist; collaborative and communal, and not individualistic and private; ethical and not merely aesthetic” (82). He continues, “It is precisely at this place that a critical perspective nourished and funded by a Nicene Christian faith can offer a full-bodied critical approach to contemporary art that acknowledges the depth and breadth of the aesthetic and its experience that extends and clarifies work that is already being done by critics and curator who are sensitive to the relationship of the spiritual to the material, the aesthetic to the ethical and religious” (82).
Engaging specifically with works of art must take on a role of contemplation and communion, as distinct from only communication, “a visual illustration of a thought, message, or doctrine” (83). The impulse to use visual images strictly as illustrative, or to be supplemental to a linguistic communication (such as preaching) has been developed since the Reformation’s distrust of images to function by their own assets. Icons, used in the liturgy of the church, “shape, develop, and discipline the imagination” (147) to “look at the world through the eyes of faith” (83). As Christ’s incarnation joined heaven and earth, spiritual and material, so do icons represent a heavenly communion in their contemplation, and in the process of their making, and also as a material presence, paint on wood. In the icon, heaven and earth are joined. A quote from Christoph Cardinal Schonborn in the text is instructive: “what is need is a new way of seeing and hearing, a new sensitivity to the mystery. It is not by way of integrating herself or by trying to be ‘modern’ at any cost that the Church can once again become a space for the arts, but rather by cultivating an awareness to the mystery of the One who is both God and man” (85).
In my own experience of the community that is the church, alongside my education and practice in the arts, this “expansive aesthetic” has indeed proved true. The most lucid distinction Siedell states near the end of the book is particularly helpful in considering art: “the ultimate distinction, then, is not between Christian art and autonomous modern art but between art that in its union of form and content can bring forth or testify to an embodied transcendence, revealing our ‘amphibious existence’ [C.S. Lewis], and art that denies such transcendence” (164). This statement helps to clarify the commodity production of “Christian” art objects alongside current art practices to discern what is true – incarnationally – about either. It is a matter of seeing and being incarnationally in the world. To begin this manner of living must begin in the life together of the church, that is, in the “divine liturgy…the church’s aesthetics and poetics” (83). To begin to see the divine in the embodied materiality of a community, of a particular place, in the creation, is to begin to live incarnationally. This view “mediates the immanent and the transcendent because God is viewed as the cause of all things; all things are signs and symbols of other things, all of which have their being in and through God, which connects them” (91).
The engagement of the church with contemporary art practices, then, is to expand the vision of the incarnational reign of Christ; it is to deepen the ability for contemplation, for communion with God; it is to live in such a way that embodies the kingdom “not of this world;” it is to affirm that another world is, in fact, possible, and to participate in that reconciliation. As art is able to participate within this affirmation of an order contrary to the dominant powers of this age, the church ought to embrace it as a practice, which is the end of Siedell’s book. It is a call for a deeper experience of the life of the church, the shared liturgy, that can inform the daily practice of faithfulness, and attune people to the divine. I am reminded also of Thomas Merton, a monastic and a poet, who was well aware of the ability of the aesthetic to be formative in contemplation and in communion with God: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time…It introduces the soul into a higher spiritual order, which it expresses and in some sense explains. Music and art and poetry attune the soul to God because they induce a kind of contact with the Creator and Ruler of the Universe. The genius of the artist finds its way by the affinity of creative sympathy, or conaturality, into the living law that rules the universe. This law is nothing but the secret gravitation that draws all things to God as to their center” (Merton, “Conscience, Freedom, and Prayer” in No Man is an Island, Shambhala, 2005).
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com