Today's second engagement with Daniel A. Siedell's
God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art comes from Matt Milliner, who writes on chapter two entitled "A History of Modern Art." [Part I by James K. A. Smith may be found here.] Matthew J. Milliner is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Princeton University. His blogger profile continues: "In a previous life he graduated from the same town's Theological
Seminary. In the life before that he was a Youth Director at Media
Presbyterian Church (PA). In the life before that he went to Wheaton
College (IL). In the life before that he went to Haddonfield Memorial
High School (NJ). In the life before that he was born and raised mostly
in Jersey. In the life before that he did nothing, because the
Origenist doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul was condemned in
553AD." Matt blogs at https://millinerd.com.
The fact that I have no authority to make grand pronouncements will not keep me from doing so: God in the Gallery is the starting point for the future of the Christianity and art conversation, at least (or especially) in the North American evangelical, not to mention post-evangelical, milieu. I am consequently grateful to participate in this forum which, following James’ opening remarks on the importance of informed engagement, now proceeds to the topic of “modern” art, which I understand to be distinguishable from postmodern or contemporary art (beginning c. 1960), a topic which Siedell addresses in later chapters.
An analogy to describe Siedell’s aim in this chapter can be found in the task of historians, such as Edward Grant, who seeks to show the undeniable, but normatively ignored, Christian backdrop of modern science. But while there are many scholars at work correcting the doggedly secularized narrative of science, there are far fewer, if any, doing the same for the history of art, let alone the history of modern art. Siedell seeks to fill this lacuna, describing his agenda as follows: “A history of modern art can be written that reveals that Christianity in all its myriad cultural and material manifestations is never absent from the modern artist.”
To accomplish this, Siedell begins by relating modern art’s introduction to the American public in Manhattan’s 1913 Armory Show. He then takes two figures who bookend modernism - Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and Alfred J. Barr Jr. (1902-1981) – and highlights the overlooked Christian aspects of their given perspectives. Likewise, Siedell marshals Peter Berger’s post-secular sociology, and theologian Graham Ward’s contention that “the saeculum [has] no autonomous existence” to buttress his transcendent reading of modernism. Siedell has just scratched the surface. We can hope that he, or someone inspired by his account, will extend this traditionally religious (not merely “spiritual”) reading of modernism into the book length treatment it deserves. New Republic art critic Jed Perl seems to already be moving in that direction, as has Steven Schloesser with his book Jazz Age Catholicism (albeit in a way that encompasses literature and music as well as art). However the religious account of modern art is broached, an inevitable discovery awaits: A double-barreled attempt to reconcile Christianity (specifically Catholicism) to modern art has long been on offer in the careers of Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson.
And yet, these figures have long been outside the Protestant purview, making Siedell’s Protestant reading of modernism unusual. Perhaps overly determined by the more negative Protestant perspective (Siedell seems to have Hans Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of Culture in view), God in the Gallery aims to actively oppose it. Siedell contends that when Christians adopt a negative stance towards modernism, they play into secular hands: “Neither secular scholars nor conservative Christian critics want Christianity in the history of modern art.”
Still, as Siedell unfurls his more positive take on modernity, he does not strike a Tillichian bargain, that is, he refrains from writing a theological blank check to high culture. Instead, Siedell actively opposes the Liberal Protestant paradigm that he has criticized in this forum before. To use a familiar analogy, Siedell founds his cultural engagement upon the rock of the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s iconic Christology, in contrast to vague theologies of culture which have, in retrospect, proven to be houses built on sand. In practice, this means Siedell both permits a quintessentially modern artist such as Mark Rothko only an “undetermined iconicity,” while allowing Rothko’s participation in the economy of the icon nonetheless. While some might suggest this is not dissimilar to Maritain and Gilson’s modernist reconciliation strategy, the case could also be made that it constitutes an improvement.
Refreshing as I find Siedell’s perspective to be, I conclude with a criticism: A student who reads this chapter and plunges into (what’s left of) the world of modern art in search of - to use the book’s guiding analogy - altars to an unknown god, would be like a young evangelical who reads his way into Anglicanism through the poetry of George Herbert, only to then open last week’s newspaper. St. Paul may have found one agnostic altar amongst literally thousands of Athenian idols, but Siedell seems to take this exception to be the rule. He cites Augustine and Origen’s strategy of “despoiling of the Egyptians;” but it should also be noted that heated debate with Varro (constituting a hulking chunk of City of God) and Celcus (Origen’s longest treatise) were their more normative modes of cultural engagement. Many modern artists knew exactly what God they were seeking to offend. Accordingly, an equally appropriate exemplar to illustrate Pauline engagement of modern art would be not only the altar to an unknown God from Acts 17, but an approximately contemporary creation: The famous “ass-Christ” graffito, (beating Serrano to the punch by two millennia), instructively inscribed, “Alexamenos worships his god.”
But to press this point too hard would be unfair: Siedell, who has himself admitted “sharp sympathy pains” with those who dismiss the art world wholesale, anticipates it. He is, of course, aware of modernism’s anti-religious strain, but suggests we don’t take the bait: “Even as rejected, [Christianity] lingers to haunt the avant-gardist, for it will not be rejected completely. Ultimately, it cannot.” Still, the Christian must reserve the right to reject some strands of modern art (due, perhaps, as much to boredom as offense). This is to say, Siedell’s positive perspective should be read alongside, not in replacement of, the previous, more dismissive accounts of modernism that he seeks to correct – accounts which, I like to think, retain their value.
Please note: My more full-length review of God in the Gallery can be read at First Things.