Today's engagement of Daniel A. Siedell's God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art comes from Bruce Ellis Benson. He is engaging chapter 3 entitled "Enrique Martinez Celaya's Thing and Deception: The Artistic Practice of Belief." Bruce Ellis Benson is Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College (IL). He is the author of Graven Ideologies: Nietzsche, Derrida and Marion on Modern Idolatry (IVP, 2002), The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music (Cambridge, 2003), and Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith (Indiana, 2008). He is co-editor of The Phenomenology of Prayer (Fordham, 2004), Hermeneutics at the Crossroads (Indiana, 2006), Transforming Philosophy and Religion: Love’s Wisdom (Indiana, 2008), Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo (Brazos, 2008), and Words of Life: New Theological Turns in French Phenomenology (Fordham, forthcoming 2009), in which his essay “Chrétien on the Call That Wounds” will appear. He is an editor of the new Eerdmans book series titled “Envision: New Trends in Christian Theology” and Executive Director of the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology (SCPT). He will be a visiting professor at the University of Leuven in the 2009-2010 academic year.
Recently, a colleague from the English department at Wheaton made the point in conversation that a novel has a way of getting at the reality of ethical life in a way that philosophy generally cannot. In watching a character forced to make difficult ethical decisions—with all their varied gradations of “good” and “bad,” not to mention conflicting demands—one gets a much more profound sense of the complexity of trying to live virtuously than a philosophical theory can provide. One can, to be sure, cite a text like Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death as providing a particularly nuanced moral account. But, as if to prove my colleague’s point, Derrida needs the story of Abraham and Isaac precisely in order to tease out those complications.
In effect, Dan Siedell employs Enrique Martínez Celaya’s painting Thing and Deception to complexify such assumed binaries of belief and unbelief (as well as such opposites as banal and profound, truth and superstition—though here I will focus on belief and its supposed antonyms of unbelief or doubt). By observing what Martínez Celaya both does and says, Siedell shows us that defining “belief” and “unbelief” is, to say the least, complicated. One can hardly do Thing and Deception justice by way of description, so I urge readers to study the image for themselves. What is one to make of this veiled chocolate Easter bunny that has clearly been broken yet reassembled? That the words “Needed Proof” are inscribed below the bunny makes this even more complicated. Now, it’s important to know at the outset that Martínez Celaya is not just trying to be “clever.” As he says elsewhere: “So many contemporary paintings have this wink to say we’re both in on the joke. Any time I find myself being witty or clever, I paint over it” (see “Layers of Devotion (and the Scars to Prove It)"). So one needs to take Martínez-Celaya very seriously.
One of the complications here is that Easter bunnies are, in one sense, like Santa Claus: they are the secular counterpart to Jesus’s resurrection as Santa is the counterpart to his birth. But, since one can talk about “believing” in either Santa or the Easter bunny themselves, there are at least two levels of belief at stake in this painting. Siedell says that the words “needed proof” are “ironic, for who ‘needs proof’ when trading in the currency of chocolate Easter bunnies?” True, no “proof” is needed for the existence of a particularly chocolate bunny, but there is something like “proof” involved for the existence of the Easter Bunny. As it turns out, children do come to doubt both Santa and the Easter Bunny, so the secular symbol (if that is the right way to put it) can itself be doubted and thus be the subject of unbelief. Given this, it is interesting that the painting is titled Thing and Deception—not Bunny and Deception or Christ and Deception. We are not really sure what this “thing” is, and that makes the counterpart “deception” all the more enigmatic.
Yet now we face a further ambiguity, for Thing and Deception was first exhibited in an installation titled “Saint Catherine Watches Over Me.” That Saint Catherine is remembered for converting fifty pagan philosophers who were commissioned by a Roman emperor to convert her puts yet another spin on this piece. How exactly is Saint Catherine “watching over” Martínez Celaya? Is she trying to convert him? One might be tempted to ask who is trying to convert whom. It is significant that Martínez Celaya chooses a piece of kitsch related to his childhood “framed by kitsch” (as he puts it), though he later comes to see the painting as more about his future than his past. Siedell interprets this as moving from more explicitly religious subject matter to a more explicitly religious overall structure of his work and thought.
Martínez Celaya definitely sees Thing and Deception as part of a religious context, but then he wonders if it can find a place (to quote him) “in the new sanctitas of the Modern art gallery.” This raises the problem of the competing “religious beliefs” of the gallery and the church. In Martínez Celaya’s Guide (his own fictitious dialogue between an artist and an friend), it is telling that the friend (who is also a voice of Martínez Celaya) says the following to the artist: “For someone who claims not to be religious, you speak in a way that sounds very religious to me.” What are we to make of this “religiosity”? Siedell interprets Martínez Celaya as attempting to avoid being either a “believer” or an “unbeliever,” and Siedell characterizes Martínez Celaya’s work and thought in terms of both negative theology and spiritualistic (rather than “religious”) piety. Siedell draws a comparison to he takes to be high art’s way of belief by way of incarnation to the incarnation in Christianity. Instead of “believing” in terms of doctrines and propositions, Martínez Celaya believes by incarnational practice, what Siedell means by the “artistic practice of belief.” Analogously, Siedell claims that Christian icons and the Eucharist “not only require faith, they also generate and sustain it.” But, again, it is unclear to what extent “religious” or “artistic” belief is involved here.
One has to wonder how strongly Siedell intends to assert his closing observation that “Thing and Deception narrows the gap between belief and unbelief, banal and profound, art and religion, sacred and secular, truth and superstition, revealing each to be two sides of the same precious coin.” No doubt, these gaps are questioned and even narrowed by Martínez Celaya. Yet it all depends on what kind of “belief” and what kind of “unbelief” constitute each side of the coin. Clearly, there must be some genuine content to the belief in order for it to be the flipside of unbelief or doubt. Thus, when Siedell says that the painting and the Eucharist “require the eyes of faith to see what is truly present,” I am inclined to agree and yet also point out that what is present in the Eucharist is more defined than what is present in the painting. So the analogy only goes so far. Of course, given widely differing beliefs within the Christian community of what is “present” in the Eucharst, perhaps the analogy goes further than we might think.
In any case, once again, it is something other than a philosophical theory—here, a painting and the reflections on it by both its thoughtful painter and an astute art historian—that helps us get at the complexities of the daily reality of epistemological life, complexities that are no less real or problematic than those of the ethical life.