Christians and Art: Passionately Ambivalent?

Thought provoking article in Books & Culture on Christians and art. Ostensibly a review of two recently published books on the subject, the author – Daniel A. Siedell, curator of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska – ends up exploring his relationship to the “art world” at large.

First the reviews:

A Broken Beauty: Figuration, Narrative and the Transcendent in North American Art, edited by Theodore Prescott, is the brainchild of painter Bruce Herman, who is chair of the Art Department at Gordon College. A Broken Beauty (hereafter ABB) is a beautiful book with wonderful illustrations of compelling artwork . . . ABB arises from Herman’s commitment to the Classical-Renaissance figurative tradition and his belief in its continued viability and indeed necessity for the contemporary art world. It is through these forms that the visual arts can, once again, address the Good, the True, and the Beautiful from a framework that is unapologetically nourished by Christ, a framework destroyed when modernity severed the bond between art and the Church.

Sounds fascinating. Might have to pick this up for my artist wife.

The Next Generation: Contemporary Expressions of Faith (hereafter NG) is a slightly different but closely related project. The book serves as the catalogue to an exhibition that opened at the Museum of Biblical Art (MoBiA) in New York City this fall, organized and curated by Bethel University art historian Wayne Roosa and MoBiA’s chief curator Patricia C. Pongracz. NG highlights 44 artists whose work deals explicitly with biblical themes. This project is a collaboration between MoBiA and CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts), an organization over 25 years old and now based on the campus of Gordon College, which is almost singularly committed to expand the presence of confessing Christians in the art world.

Siedell praises these works as “required additions to the library of any culturally engaged Christian who cares about the visual arts” and “serious and significant contributions to Christian cultural engagement.” But he also worries about the thinking that they may reflect:

And yet, I have some concerns. There is a general tendency in these books to locate a Christian essence in style (e.g., figuration, as manifest in ABB) or subject matter (e.g., biblical themes, as in NG) that puts considerable limits on how and in what ways one understands contemporary art and the Christian faith. Valorizing a distinctive style or subject matter makes critical interpretation much easier in the short run, but risks giving short shrift to art that is not so easily defined. Closely related to this is the propensity for the artist’s faith to overtake aesthetic and critical criteria by which her art is evaluated. Consequently, art is often understood as a visual illustration of a personal faith shaped and formed outside the studio.

There is also a [tendency] to demonize unnecessarily the history of modern art and the contemporary art world against which the writer then posits an idealized Christian artistic past and present. In troubling ways, this Christian perspective requires a certain kind of art world against which to react. In addition to giving it more power than it actually possesses, this approach tends to flatten out the contemporary art world, turning it into a single, monolithic “thing” that is “out there” while at the same time discouraging artists and critics from self-critically assessing how and in what ways “Christian art” is itself a part of this art world.
[. . .]
Both books reveal an ambivalent relationship to cultural relevance: on one hand they use their self-proclaimed marginal status as evidence of faithfulness and integrity, while on the other they promote and even exaggerate their “impact” on the larger culture when one of their own gets “noticed.” The best art and writing in ABB and NG transcends these limitations and points toward another way of practicing art and criticism that offers a new way of being in the contemporary art world and not of it.

Siedell has intelligently highlighted a dilemma I have come across regularly myself. For Christians engaged in the visual arts there is a difficult balance to be struck. Sometimes one finds cheesy overly spiritualized art – spirituality forced on art – as put forth as “Christian art.” Others will look to the past for representation and reject “modern art.” But this can all to easily slip into mere nostalgia and irrelevance; as if only medieval art can be explicitly Christian. Even those who try to be “relevant” can all to easily slip into an awkward mode where the art is secondary to the message.

Siedell warns us against these simple answers. Instead he seeks to locate art in the “Good, the True, and the Beautiful” and “affirming the importance of the aesthetic life; and celebrating the role of art in the life of faith.” This echoes Phillipians 4:8

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Beauty and truth should form the basis of judging art. If Christian lose sight of this they can easily become simply the flip side of the political and cultural propaganda that passes for modern art these days.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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