[I'm very happy to open our engagement with Dan Siedell's book, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art. Over the next several weeks, we'll have different folks engaging the book, chapter-by-chapter. Consider joining us by reading along!]
Overture: In Praise of Elitism
My city of residence, Grand Rapids, is currently abuzz about ArtPrize, a public art competition open to artists from around the world. Artists team up with local venues downtown who will host installations this fall. Viewers then vote for the "best" work of art, and the winner takes home $250,000.
Dan Siedell's "overture" to God in the Gallery helps to explain why this is a horrible idea.
But I should back up a bit first. Siedell frames his task as Pauline, in terms of Paul's engagement with the philosophers at the Areopagus (Acts 17): Just as Paul was willing and able to "see through" the altar to an unknown God, so Siedell is pressing Christians to "read" contemporary art with new eyes. This is an uphill battle, for at least a couple of reasons: First, given that Siedell is especially trying to reach evangelicals, he has to counter both its iconoclasm and the popular evangelical preference for kitsch (and Thomas Kinkade). But second, for those evangelicals who appreciate art, he has to counter a certain romanticism that regards 1900 as the beginning of the end in the arts. Thus he's particularly out to engage and appreciate contemporary art.
But unlike kitsch and Thomas Kinkade, contemporary art is not (to adopt Heideggerian categories) just "present-at-hand;" it's not sitting there "available" for easy appropriation. In short, contemporary art is not trying to be "popular;" rather, there are historical and philosophical conditions which are necessary for its appreciation. Contemporary visual art is part of a century-long conversation within the "tradition" of art, but also with philosophical (and, at times, theological) concepts. What Siedell describes as "museum art" is inherently "insider." It is "a profoundly historical practice with a developed tradition" (p. 23). Thus he cautions that "[v]iewing and understanding art, as much as practicing it, requires hard work and discipline" (p. 22).
One of the upshots of Siedell's account, I think, is to affirm this "elitism." He explains how and why contemporary art assumes a familiarity with an ongoing philosophical conversation, and then grants absolution for that. What contemporary art is doing, he emphasizes, requires and is enriched by this "background" conversation. And that's OK! Indeed, far from just being acceptable, it is something to be affirmed and celebrated. If one is not willing to put in the work of becoming part of this conversation, then one forfeits the right to complain "I don't get it!" when making a touristic pilgrimmage to MoMA. (The same principle should hold for the naive rantings of congressmen who love to grandstand about NEA project funding.)
I appreciate this framing of the issue precisely because Siedell is willing to take "the risk of being considered an elitist." Indeed, his argument runs counter to the democratic populism of both pragmatic evangelicalism and American civil religion. (It also runs counter to trends in my own Reformed tradition, where aestheticians like Wolterstorff and Seerveld often spend a lot of time making a case for valuing craft and are generally uncomfortable with an emphasis on "high" art--in fact, they're uncomfortable with the low/high distinction. I've expressed some discomfort with this trend elsewhere.)
You can see how this also helps us to appreciate just what's wrong with ArtPrize. The (perhaps brutal) fact is that most of the people who will be "judging" these works of art through their votes lack an understanding of the tradition and background conversation of contemporary art. As a result, the works of art that are most likely to win a majority vote will be, not surprisingly, "popular"--that is, easily accesible, "available," present-at-hand.
But at the end of the day, Siedell's argument is not elitist. Or we might see it as a kind of "democratization" of elitism. While he risks "appearing" elitist by requiring that we pay the price for being rightly attuned to contemporary art, at the same time he's written a clear, accessible, inviting book trying to help non-specialists appreciate this state of affairs. God in the Gallery is a kind of invitation to join the "elite"--which is not something that an exclusive elitist would ever do. Siedell is inviting us to join the conversation. And in doing so, I think he illustrates a vocation of the church to be an "enculturating" institution--making 'democratically' available, irrespective of class or wealth, the riches of the conversation that is contemporary art, to find there "anonymous icons" amidst the idols.