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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 :)

God in the Gallery (pt 1)

God in the Gallery by Daniel A. Siedell is another one of my required reading books this semester. The cover of the book states that this is “cultural exegesis” – a phrase that obviously piqued my interest –  but within the first five sentences of the introduction, I am already questioning the author’s Biblical exegesis.

Siedell uses Acts 17:23 to argue that Paul embraced the “altar to the unknown god” rather than condemning the Athenians for their paganism. He also states that elsewhere, Paul quotes pagan poets, “thereby baptizing pagan poetry in the Scriptures.” And this is the foundation of his argument that Christians should, like Paul, embrace present-day “altars to the unknown” in the form of modern art.

But that’s not what Paul is teaching. Paul isn’t giving his stamp of approval to their worship; he’s pointing out their ignorance. Siedell completely ignores the context of Acts 17:23. Paul isn’t commending the faith of the Athenians. Verse 16 tells us that when Paul saw the idolatry of the city, his “spirit was provoked within him” (NASB). The Amplified says he was “grieved and roused to anger.” Paul had already been preaching, and his message was not familiar and soothing to the Athenians; that’s why he was asked to speak on Mars Hill in the first place. Paul was clearly not admiring nor endorsing the altar to the unknown god, but he used it to point out that the Athenians were admitting (in stone, no less) that they did not know everything. Siedell interprets Paul as saying basically “Hey, look here, you’re already worshiping the one true God by building this idol altar, so let me tell you more about this unknown God.” What Paul is really saying is “You’re obviously very religious, but you’re ignorant. Look, you’ve even built a monument to your ignorance. Let me clarify some things for you.”

The verses that follow make Paul’s intentions obvious:

“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things;” (Acts 17:24-25 NASB)

Paul is clearly not endorsing the Athenian altars – their temples made with hands. He is also coming against their elaborate temple rituals — something that was quite beneficial to their economy. If we need further evidence that Paul is not patting the Athenians on the back for a job well done, just look at the people’s response in verse 32. They certainly didn’t feel all warm and fuzzy and embraced by Paul.

Siedell’s second point — that Paul somehow “baptized pagan poetry” — also seems far from the truth. To use the example within this same passage:

“for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.” (Acts 17:28-29 NASB)

Paul isn’t “baptizing” this quote; again, he is using it to make a point. If they really WERE children of God, they wouldn’t be worshiping images formed by the art and thought of man. Hrmm… ART and thought of man? Nah, that’s too easy. I’ll leave that one alone for now :P

This shaky ground is the Scriptural foundation on which Siedell wants the church to embrace modern art.

I’m not arguing that modern art is inherently evil and idolatrous; ironically, it is Siedell himself who eagerly places modern art on par with idols. But I will argue that using proofs that don’t prove your point doesn’t advance your position. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard a Christian leader make exaggerated statements and quote statistics *from the pulpit* that were obviously incorrect. I’ve seen more than my share of silly youtube videos and viral facebook posts that misrepresented truth in a supposed effort to promote truth. But any time we use false or misleading information, we’re only proving our own ignorance and doing a disservice to the God we claim to serve.

Art for God’s Sake?

Hard to believe, but I’m starting my second calendar year as a full-time student. And as a non-artist with an art major, it’s been an interesting ride that only promises to become even MORE interesting as time goes on :)

Registration was this week, and even tho classes do not begin until Tuesday, I’ve already picked up some of my required reading for the semester. One of the books, a short one called Art for God’s Sake, caught my attention and I started reading it. The author wants to make a case for the church to embrace the arts… but even in the first few pages, I’ve seen a few things that have raised some red flags for me.

Red Flag #1: Truth or Emotion? The book opens with the author’s account of a visiting an exhibit in NY many years ago, something which obviously impressed and had a great positive impact on him. He goes on to say that art has a place in expressing both beauty and truths about God. The cover art for the book shows a piece by that same artist, called “Trinity.” But that work, which consists of three vertical bands of color in an elongated flag-like configuration, doesn’t seem to communicate anything of significance about doctrine of the Trinity. It’s a simple piece that is distinguished more by how it was made than its actual content. The colors are created from different mineral pigments — natural substances (like gold). But no matter what side of the Trinity/Oneness debate you fall on, the artist’s use of distinct substances in the color bands would seem to contradict even the most basic understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. So while the work is undoubtedly the artist’s sincere expression, it doesn’t really communicate truth, let alone any facts in the strictest sense. Art, in my experience, is generally less about communicating truth and more about communicating emotion.

Red Flag #2: Self-proclaimed Calling? The author cites an article in a student newspaper. The student asserts that her artistic talent is a calling from God… but she became “sick of her peers’ indifference to her calling.” The author clearly sees this as a case of a poor, persecuted, and unrecognized artist. Unfortunately, there’s a fine line between “reveling in your calling” and just plain being full of yourself… and artistic personalities often come off as the latter to those who do not share their enthusiasm. My primary issue here is that “calling” is a subjective thing. Just because you *feel* called to something, that doesn’t *make* you called! And by extension, just because you *feel* called, that doesn’t obligate others to recognize and/or support you. What would churches be like if everyone who felt called to preach was given free access to the pulpit? Asserting that you are called to something, and then bellyaching because no one else recognizes it… that’s not a hallmark of maturity. Even those who are truly called often experience long waiting periods and seasons of discouragement. IMHO, that’s what weeds out the truly called from the “so-called.”

Red Flags #3 & 4: Subjective standards? Superior Attitude? The author talks about how Christians seems willing to settle for second-class artistic expression… specifically, “Sometimes what we produce can be described only as kitsch — tacky artwork of poor quality that appeals to low tastes. The average Christian bookstore is full of the stuff, as the real artists will tell us, if only we will listen.” I don’t like a lot of the stuff that I see in Christian bookstores, but let’s face it: much of this is a case of supply and demand. For reasons that I don’t understand, certain things that have no appeal to me have great appeal to other people. And this is true not just for the Christian market: a quick survey of TV commercials or the aisles of your local WalMart should be more than enough to confirm that. Tastes are subjective. Labeling one group’s tastes as “low” is subjective at best and offensive or prideful at worst.

And that’s just from the first couple of mini-chapters.

Art is not theology. It isn’t doctrine. It isn’t immutable. Art can be a very valuable tool, and that’s how I choose to see it. I want to use art — specifically, the digital arts — to advance the vision and ministry of the church. It seems like others might prefer to use the church to advance the arts in general… or their art in particular.

Yeah, It’s going to be an interesting semester for sure :)