As a lover of art in general and abstraction in particular, I have wrestled with a number of questions. What is art? What constitutes good art? What responsibilities does the artist bear in transmitting one's work to one's audience? What responsibilities (if any) does the audience have in receiving such work? And what happens when faith is added to the equation? Should Christians even bother with so-called "secular" art?
Daniel Siedell's book, God in the Gallery, answers many of these questions. The book is divided into seven essays that, in the words of the author, form a critical engagement with a Christian critical reception of modern and contemporary art. Each chapter is engaging and incisive. The author's discussions of the contemplative element in the paintings of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, the nature of art criticism, and the didactic element in Lutheran altarpieces are thorough and insightful. The author especially shines in defending the legitimacy of modern and contemporary art. He persuasively argues that art is constituted by its environment, such as physical exhibition and visual/conceptual history and its ecology; i.e., its subjective qualities that move both artist and audience. In doing so, he also exposes the fallacies of the narrower, populist approach that views modern art through a lens of suspicion. He writes,
The notion of modern and contemporary art's elitism is based on the assumption that art used to be accessible to the 'average person' when the church was the patron for the visual arts at some point before the Reformation. But this is a red herring….The average person in fifteenth century Florence may or may not have been literate and may or may not have understood all the iconography and symbolism of an altarpiece, for example, but that person would have recognized the main contours of the imagery because it was part of the liturgical life of the church that worshippers absorbed. It was what defined their experience from birth….Moreover, the 'average person' in contemporary American society is literate, educated, and devotes a tremendous amount of time to learning new skills, whether on the Internet or the bike path, in the boardroom or the kitchen. But art is rarely a part of this continuing education because people believe that art needs no preparation. It should simply 'speak' to them, clearly and right away, or else it is 'elitist.' (163)
Such a statement exposes the laziness of our culture. Even Christians, who believe that all things beautiful have their source in God, define their aesthetic too narrowly.
While God in the Gallery educates, it also confuses. The first weakness concerns the matter of exegesis. Throughout his book, Siedell makes repeated references to the altar to the unknown god (Acts 17). In the introduction, he seems to have an overly optimistic view, claiming that "what [Paul] knew and worshiped, they were already worshiping, although as 'something unknown.'" (11). The context, however, suggests that we should be less optimistic. Verse 16 describes Paul's spirit as provoked-a verb used in the Septuagint to describe the Lord's anger concerning Israel's idolatry (see Ned B. Stonehouse, Paul Before the Areopagus and Other New Testament Studies [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957], 6). Rather than finding truth amid falsehood, Paul uses this discovery as a point of contact with his audience. This altar probably quelled the polytheistic fear that some unknown god was being deprived of his rightful worship. (Indeed he was!) And similar to their Athenian forbears, twentieth-century abstractionists like Pollock and Rothko were also searching for transcendence and immanence, producing "altarpieces to an unknown God." It is one thing to say that their paintings are a point of contact with image-bearers who are suppressing the truth, but it is quite another thing to say that their paintings are windows into the one true object of worship.
This brings us to the second major problem that involves the author's liturgical assertions. When Siedell mentions "Nicene Christianity," he really means Nicaea II, locale of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which legitimized the use of icons in the church. While it is true that many branches of Christianity allow for pictures of Christ, Mary, and the saints, Eastern Orthodoxy goes a step further. Siedell, a Lutheran, seems to approve. "Nicene Christianity does not merely tolerate images in the church. It requires them" (31). He asserts that "since God deified matter through the incarnation of the Son, not only has all humanity subsequently been changed, so too has all visual imagery and aesthetic form. Herein lies the important difference between veneration in the new covenant and idolatry in the old covenant, which had not enjoyed the blessings of the incarnation" (83); although later, the author tempers his argument, "Given the high value placed on icons in this study, it might be assumed that I advocate using only icons and the 'hard things of the Orthodox and Catholic tradition.' But this is not the case. For good or ill, we must make our own way, step by step" (145). Unlike Paul who used the altar to point his audience to the Word of God, Siedell seems to point his audience to visual icons as "a means of communion, a way to partake of the divine nature" (83). Now it is true that Byzantine icons have a powerful presence; but while I admit their power, I question their propriety. Scripture nowhere requires their making. In fact, the lesson of the snake on the pole, a christological image required by God but perverted by man, should temper our confidence in such things (Num. 21:8-9; John 3:14-15; 2 Kings 18:4). For example, as a Christian then who has taken vows to uphold the teachings of Scripture as summarized in the Westminster Standards, I appeal to Scripture over tradition, Word over image. As Jesus told his doubting disciple, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29).
God in the Gallery is stimulating, challenging, and, at times, infuriating (from a Reformed perspective). I cautiously recommend this book to mature Christians who desire to broaden their understanding of modern and contemporary art, and who can tolerate a very different hermeneutic.