Book Notes #2- God in the Gallery

by kjbake01

So this is the second of three posts about the books I’ve been reading lately, as they relate to the conversation I’ve been having with Stephen Proctor and Camron Ware about theology of the arts/theology of the visual.

The following are the notes I took/underlined/scribbled from God in the Gallery by Daniel A. Siedell. If you’re at all interested in the avant garde arts movement and how it relates to the culture’s relationship to God and the Church’s relationship to art, I recommend it.  You sort of have to begin with the understanding that modern art is valuable; I know a lot of social and religious conservatives see modern art as poorly drawn wastes of money. If that’s you, you won’t like the book.  But I’d especially encourage you to pick up start with Visual Faith, and maybe read ch. 3 and 4 of God in the Gallery.

God in the Galery 29780801031847

p. 13 “… most Christian commentators rarely address modern art on its own terms, within its own framework of critical evaluation. Rather, those commentators produce theology, apologetics, or politics that rely on –or even require– a superficial understanding of modern and contemporary art. They do not produce art criticism.”

p. 22 ” this book is about museum art. … it is art made..for contemplation.  This has made Christian commentators, particularly of the evangelical persuasion, nervous.  It appears elitist. …and part of a practice of high culture that is enjoyed by very few.  It is therefore neither populist, nor democratic, which also violates key tenets of American religious experience.”

p. 23  on evagelical criticisms of modern art : “… and an idealized and mystified lost “Golden Age”.. of the (pre-Reformation) past when high art was sponsored by the church…”

“It is perhaps worth mentioning that both Hitler and Stalin condemned modern art as “degenerate,” a fact that should provoke us to reflect on the origins of and reasons for our negative views of modern art.”

p. 24 “for better or worse, the work of art is the center of a whole host of conditions, which make possible its existence as art; outside of its constitutive conditions it simply does not exist as art.”

p. 25  “The viewer, in short, responds to it as a work of art by contemplating its union of form and content, … in a particular way and by reflecting on this experience as a distinctively aesthetic experience.”

“…the importance of a robust living tradition of high art within which both artists worked, even while they critiqued and undermined certain of its aspects.”

p.26 “since theories of art most often have emerged as means to accommodate the most recent of artistic developments that challenge establieshed philosophical frameworks for understanding art.”

p. 27 “A work of art enables the self to move beyond and outside itself toward another object, and this process has a significant impact on the self’s development otaward a reconciled relationship with the world.”

p. 28 “…it is the space between the Self and Other, what he (philosopher william desmond) calls the “metaxu,” the rich “between” in which art, religion, and philosophy dwell.”

“Unfortunately, the assumption that art is  supposed to be representational, that its images are representations of what is seen and experienced empirically in the world, is often given moral, ethical, and spiritual justification so that representational art is life or creation-affirming while abstract art is nihilistic and creation-denying.”

p. 29 : “If the world was perfect, there’d be no need for art. Art is a witness to both our fallen world and hope for its redemption..”

p 30:  “Art is a form of resistance to the imperfection of reality as well as an attempt to create an alternative reality, an alternative that one hopes will possess the hallmarks of a conceivable, if not an achievable, perfection.”

p. 39 “All modernist art is essentially abstract, even though only some of it looks it”

p. 43 ” Does avant-garde communicate with the larger culture or does it communicate with its own fellow participants?”

“He or she (avant-gardist) must continually create and maintain interpretive contexts for the reception of his or her work”

p. 46 “No doubt the entrepreneur Thomas Kinkade needs such (an atheistic, anti-religion) modern art world.  …. For those like Kinkade, the theory of secularization is good business.”

“…the secularization theory of modernity served the needs of both secularist modernists and conservative fundamentalists. Both want Christianity out of the secular realm.”

p. 47: “neither secular scholars nor conservative Christian critics want Christianity in the history of modern art.”

p.50: “the aesthetic product of an anti-Christian or non-Christian artist is not necessarily anti-Christian or non-Chrisitian.”

p.64: “…an increased intrerest in spirituality, manifest in art, music, new-age forms of prayer, contemplation, etc., has not driven people from traditional religions but toward them.”

p.68: “high art is incarnational at its core.”

p.72: ” (John Caputo says) what no one saw coming was the way the Nietzschean critique undoes the modernist critique of religion and opens the doors to another way of thinking about faith and reason.”

p. 73 “The so-called culture wars, with the conservative insistence that “family values” be the lens through which art and culture are viewed, distort the contemporary art world and ingnore those quiet and tentative spiritual murmurings by redirecting attention to form and content that might “offend” (I’d add, or confuse) the average sixth-grader or soccermom.”

p.78 ” What remains to be done is reflection on the very nature of what constitutes the religious or spiritual identity of contemporary art in light of the idea of transcendence in transition, a transition from modernity’s disembodied purity to one that is sought in and through embodiment, tradition, cultural practice, and the material world itself, in which art and religion are of a piece, not mutually exclusive. The spiritual is thus revealed to cut through both artistic and religious practice, demonstrating that these pratices are not merely reflective of but constitutive of personal identity and experience.”  (read that twice, its a doozy)

p. 82 “Transcendence is material as well as spiritual; engaged and not escapist; collaborative and communal, and not individualistic and private; ethical and not merely aesthetic.”

p. 83 “since God deified matter through the incarnation of the Son, not only has all humanity subsequently been changed, so too has all viual imagery and aesthetic form.  Herein lies the important difference between veneration in the new covenant and idolatry in the old covenant, which had not enjoyed the blessings of the incarnation.  An icon is not simply a tool of communication, .. an apparatus.. in which a preformed thought, message.. is sent out to the viewer.  An icon is thus not a visual illustration of a thought, message or doctrine…One does not passively receive the communication, but enters into it contemplatively. It is a mean of communion…”

p. 84 on recent interest in ancient practices and iconography …” but these attempts often follow the Western view that the visual arts are illustrations or some kind of value added to worship service, not a means of communion and contemplation, not reflective of an expansive aesthetic that is a window into the spiritual, but decoration or , in thecase of more savvy and progressive communities, a brand.”

p. 85 (Christoph Cardinal Schonborn:) “A Church that in her liturgy, in her very life, draws vitality from the sense of awe in facing the mystery, will provide breathing space for any art whose primary purpose is not a breathless pursuit of  outward success.

P 135

Luther did not allow religious images to stand alone, as visual, aesthetic artifacts for contemplation and veneration.

What makes Luthern art of this period so fascinating is that it carries with it its interpretation, just to ensure that it is not misinterpreted.

“images were built to signal the fact of  their impotence”


The role of art in the Lutheran church was changed, from …contemplation and communion to education and communication.

[for EM post]: or in the emergent conversationk art finds its way into the church in several ways: first through a renewed but selective interest in ritual objects, gestures, and practices that harkens back to a pre-Reformational Christianity; second, through the use of a design aethetic to brand fellowships as hip, arty, and engaged in culture, which appeals to the “creative class”; and third, through artist residencies, providing opportunities for artists to work within the context of the church.


The result is that Protestant (and Catholic) churches simply import secular artistic practices uncritically (whether “fine art” for more liberal churches or “popular and commercial art” for conservative ones) with very little reflection on just what practices and patterns of belief are being brought in, since art works are not merely objects but products of institutional intention and belief, made under certain conditions and intended to be viewed within specific contexts.


Gregory Wolfe- IN … Believers who fear the imagination prefer art that doesn’t stray too far from the Church porch; the want to see things they already know gussied up with ornaments and flourishes.  But art at its highest pitch tries to tell us things which we don’t know, or have forgotten, and that can be unsettling.

The church, with it’s liturgical practice, is most definitely not the place to incorporate art that forces the worshiper to “ask tough questions, challenge previously held beliefs” and so on. Those are absolutely important practices, but not in the liturgy. “


“Because evangelicalism is a reform and revival movement within Protestantism, it is predicated on a populism that is pathologically leery of elitism, whether it is embodied in the form of the clericalism and sacramentalism of high church traditions or takes the form of a cultural elitism manifest in rarified aesthetic taste…therefore, artistic practice that is unable to conform to these forms of communication and is addessible to the “ordinary person” is greeted with skepticism.


“Art is not a visual illustration of a truth, idea, thought, or worldview already formulated, cloaked in aesthetic form, and then “sent” to the receiver…Artists make art not because they have knowledge they want to “express” but because they want to discover or learn something through the practice of art.”

“Considering art as simply another form of communication risks making artistic practice conform to standards tan dexpectations that it not only cannot achieve but also does not intend to achieve.”

“Moreover the “average person” in America is literate, educated and devotes atremendous amount of time to learning new skills…but art is rarely part of this continuing education because people believe that art requires no preparation.