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Does “fine art” matter? – God in the Gallery (pt 2)

The world of Fine Gallery Art is a small, exclusive enclave. Most people don’t understand it and — frankly — don’t really care. When it comes to art, people tend to enjoy what they like, despise what offends them, and ignore the rest. Art can be beautiful, it can be provacative, it can be disgusting… but outside of artistic elite and the occasional media coverage of an especially controversial exibit, it’s little more than a footnote in everyday life.

So it should be no surprise that there’s a difference in perspective between professional artists and those outside of that circle. When you’ve dedicated your life to something, you want to believe that it matters. You want others to acknowledge it… but the truth is, those who aren’t in the “inner circle” aren’t going to appreciate things the same way that insiders do. That lack of acceptance isn’t necessarily hostility (though it is likely to be interpreted as such), it might just reflect a different set of priorities.

Fine art clearly occupies center stage in the life of Daniel Siedell. He argues for the importance and prominence of gallery art. He’s passionate about the need for Christians to be active in the arts (tho his definition of ‘Christian’ is so broad and inclusive as to be almost meaningless). He quotes from the Bible to provide a foundation for his work and legitimize his perspective as a Christian author… but then turns around and dismisses the need for theology in an artistic context. Art, for Siedell, appears to trump everything.

He believes that art (especially modern and postmodern art) is a superior form of communication… and when you read his essays, you can almost imagine him annoyed that anyone could even think about questioning that premise. To him, it’s a no-brainer… the way we might look at someone who challenges that notion that the sky is blue. Of course the sky is blue. Of course art is a better form of expression than mere words. Of course it ought to be embraced and promoted by the Church. Anyone who disagrees… well, they must be counted among the dreaded iconoclasts – those who seek to destroy art.

The “Recovering Pentecostal” Connection

I can’t help but see similarities between some artists (like Siedell) and self-proclaimed prophets in the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement. Both claim an authority that is loosely based on Scripture, yet not submitted to it. Both claim special knowledge which makes them superior to the rank and file: an elitist mentality. That “special knowledge” also gives them power over those who believe. Both claim to be the objects of attack while unapologetically attacking others. And both would rather label and dismiss those who disagree.

And, in my opinion, both seem to be taking a peripheral issue and trying to assign it a prominence that cannot be defended biblically.

Does the Church need art?

The short answer is, “No.”

The Church does not need art. In fact, the Church does not need most of what has become an indispensable part of our modern worship practices. If you look at what the New Testament says about churches, you’ll find guidelines for church government, outlines of how services might be conducted, warnings about things that should NOT take place in a church service, and a strong focus on the (verbal) teaching. There are no guidelines for church buildings, since these really did not exist early on. There is no discussion of the intricate religious icons that would come to characterize liturgical denominations. There’s no requirement for pews, platforms, altars, stained glass, crosses, flannel boards, multi-page full-color printed bulletins, or multi-media presentations.

There’s no prohibition against these things, but they’re certainly not essentials. And all over the world, wherever there is true persecution, there are groups of believers who are gathering — often in secret — without the benefit of such luxuries. I would suggest that these groups of believers are closer to being “the Church” as envisioned in the New Testament than any loosely knit group of pampered saints here in the states.

Just to be clear: Siedell isn’t arguing that art is essential for the church, tho he believes it deserves far more prominence than it currently receives. However, whenever we’re discussing where to focus more time and energy, it’s helpful to remember what really is essential.

Can the church benefit from art?

Of course! As Siedell rightly observes, it is impossible to completely remove art from the equation. Even austere traditions develop a recognizable “style” which is itself an artistic statement. Mainline denominational churches may use stained glass, statues, and ornate buildings in their worship. Modern congregations that might meet in less ornate “multi-use” buildings still incorporate the artistic through their printed material (bulletins, etc) and use of media in worship and sermon illustrations. Whether these uses of art are successful or not, the intent behind using them is to enhance the worship experience… and they most often do.

Can the church misuse art?

Again… I think the answer must be “of course.”

Siedell focuses much of his praise on the older forms of church art — namely, the veneration of icons associated with Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.  However, other denominations reject the use of icons as idolatry. Their problem with icons has nothing to do with the artistic merits of the icons themselves… it’s a theological issue, and not without biblical precedent: Moses made a bronze serpent, and all who looked at it were healed (Numbers 21). It was created at God’s command, and used for His purpose as a positive thing… but then somewhere along the line, it became an idol and had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18). If we’re going to condemn the all iconoclasts, we had better remember that God Himself is an iconoclast…

If an object that God clearly authorized and endorsed can be misused… why should we believe that human creations are morally neutral and ought to be preserved at all costs?

How important is art for the church?

While it is clear that art has always had a place in worship, it also seems clear to me that its place has always been decidedly subservient to the spoken and written word. Siedell argues that art is a superior form of communication, a better means to communicate truth than mere words, at least partly because it transcends words and can mean multiple things to multiple people. But this subjective approach to truth (where one interpretation is just as valid as another) is not compatible with conservative Christianity.

I also find it interesting that even though the Bible does refer to many things that clearly had artistic components — everything from the bronze serpent to the ark of t he covenant to the objects in the Temple — none of these original artifacts are preserved. The Bible itself was preserved… but not the “art” that it describes. That tells me something about where God’s priorities are :) I wonder if rise of literacy has diminished the need for things like stained glass windows and statues to illustrate biblical stories… and consequently, diminished the importance of art overall in achieving the goals of the Church.

Can a Christian be an artist?

Of course!

But just as a true Christian will look at life and make life choices differently from a nonbeliever, so also a Christian artist should look at art and choose the things they create differently than the nonbeliever. Honestly, I’m not sure what this looks like in practice yet. But I look forward to digging deeper into this area.

I have heard it said that since God Himself creates, we honor Him most (and worship Him best) when we also create. But I think we need to be careful that we don’t wind up worshipping ourselves and elevating our work to a place where it doesn’t belong. We need to remember the warning of Isaiah 14 :)

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