Tuesday, November 10, 2009

re: god in the gallery

just finished reading this a second time. i think daniel siedell presents an interesting approach to (and much needed corrective to the usual theological attitude towards) modern and contemporary art, especially from the position of the viewer/ reader as opposed to the maker. that being said, there's a lot to chew on in this book as one forms a theology of art.

right off the top, siedell asks why art, which is "complex and difficult and contextual", is so often communicated to people as "fun, accessible and child-friendly"? obviously, the desire to make art accessible confuses the issue -- there is a difference between the therapeutic effects of self-expression and making art. in turn, we create an expectation that makes it difficult to engage with art in a critical manner (by which i mean analysis, evaluation and judgement). it's actually quite counter-productive. as siedell notes, it is crucial to consider the work's historical and philosophical conditions. i also found the idea that "creating meaning is an institutional practice" intriguing, especially when we consider modern and contemporary art as genres.

there is a lot of discussion about the spiritual element of art. siedell does a very good job of outlining why there is that parallel between the aesthetic and the spiritual by addressing art's role in embodying ideas. art has a phenomenological depth; it (hopefully) presents, or bodies forth, human experience. museums are often described as the new "secular" temple, but rarely does anyone unpack why that might be so. if "the aesthetic" has replaced "the religious", it does so through a union between the sensuous material and ideas, bringing them together in a way that is more than the sum of its parts.

one possible approach to this spiritual/ aesthetic connection can be found in the approach to the icon. icons have a curious parallel to modern and contemporary art, especially the earlier manifestations of abstraction (malevich, kandinsky, etc.) -- they are similar in size, their spiritual power/ presence, composition, and self consciousness. these images are doorways, portals to the ineffable, a claim that is equally important for both icons and abstract art.

a very important idea that siedell emphasizes is that art is a cultural product, and that creating art is a cultural practice; and that cultural production functions best within its own [interpretive] context. this, in turn, means that it must be conscious of its audience if it is to be interpreted properly; obsessed, even. this idea is especially important in the context of modern art and the idea of the avant-garde, which, as siedell shows, was all about finding its own, different audience, whether his example of courbet, the impressionists or dada.

one question he raised, which i think is an important one, especially for the christian artist, is: how can i develop "a telos that is less explicitly religious in its subject matter but more profoundly religious in its structure"? this question relates to the experience of the work, its liturgy, the environment of our interaction with it. it involves an engagement with the work, which breaks down any traditional aesthetic distance, a deeper contemplation and communion. to return back to the icon, the 2nd council of nicea determined that images were not merely educational; the icon projects presence. that presence, however, is contextualized by its place in the liturgy and rituals of the people in a church environment. the nicean icon, therefore, provides a model for modern and contemporary art by "incorporating objects, practices, and environments into an expansive and comprehensive aesthetic network".

art is not simply about the object; "it is an institutionalized way of making, looking, experiencing and interpreting. it is a confluence of specific circumstances that include the artist, viewer, object and the way that object is presented and displayed" -- and, i would add, how it is discussed and written about.

i also appreciated siedell's forthrightness about art criticism and its alienating effect on the general public. art criticism, or "talking around the art", is a literary genre. it's really not so much about explaining the artwork as it is about the critic's experience of it. the call being sounded is one inviting christian critics and curators to speak about "the relationship between the immanent and the transcendent, the material and spiritual, the aesthetic and ethical implications of consubstantiality and the hypostatic union, and the inextricable relationship between dogma and practice as an intellectual framework" (p. 111) and "to creatively bend and shape contemporary art towards christ". which isn't as difficult as it seems, judging by the increasing interest in the art world in the True, the good, and the beautiful.

i also appreciated siedell's attention to the much different context of the church, and how art functions within its liturgy and the rituals of the people. there, art serves the larger purposes of the gathering. its purpose is to aid prayer, not "ask difficult questions" or "challenge beliefs". this contextualization also means that the meaning [of an artwork] evolves over time, both within and outside the context of the liturgy. the middle ages are often trotted out as an exemplar of art being used to communicate to an illiterate populace. but that is a misrepresentation; art was never used for "the common people" for illustrative purposes -- those images functioned in the context of an immersive environment and multi-sensory experience. the sense of transcendence was, and is, accomplished through instilling in the participant an awareness of presence where the aesthetic parallels the spiritual.

daniel siedell's god in the gallery is rich. it is a book i will return to repeatedly.