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God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Cultural Exegesis) [Paperback]

By Daniel A. Siedell (Author), Robert Johnston (Editor) & William Dyrness (Editor)
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Item description for God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Cultural Exegesis) by Daniel A. Siedell, Robert Johnston & William Dyrness...

Within the evangelical community and circles of Christian faith, art is often viewed with skepticism, if not disdain. Art historian and former art gallery curator David Siedell presents a different perspective in this book. The latest book in the Cultural Exegesis series, God in the Gallery is a welcome addition to the scant volumes that cover an evangelical reflection on the arts and the aesthetic life. Siedell ultimately contends that art is not antithetical or hostile to Christianity. Instead, it's in dialogue with it as well as a gift as opposed to a threat to faith. The author extracts insights about worldviews from heavyweight thinkers such as philosopher David Naugle as well as Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer. Furthermore, he constructs a framework for interpreting modern art "in Christ." Siedell also examines the role of visual art in worship and Christian experience. The book is enhanced with images from such artists as Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Enrique Martmnez Celeya, and others. God in the Gallery will serve as an essential text for Christian colleges that emphasize worldview thinking and integration of faith and learning and it will play a helpful role in curriculum development and will reshape the direction of campus art departments and galleries.

Publishers Description
Is contemporary art a friend or foe of Christianity? Art historian, critic, and curator Daniel Siedell, addresses this question and presents a framework for interpreting art from a Christian worldview in "God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art." As such, it is an excellent companion to Francis Schaeffer's classic "Art and the Bible." Divided into three parts--"Theology," "History," and "Practice"--"God in the Gallery "demonstrates that art is in conversation with and not opposed to the Christian faith. In addition, this book is beautifully enhanced with images from such artists as Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Enrique Martinez Celaya, and others. Readers of this book will include professors, students, artists, and anyone interested in Christianity and culture.

From Publishers Weekly
Siedell likens Christians' encounter with modern and contemporary fine art to St. Paul's discovery of the altar to an unknown god on Mars Hill (Acts 17:23). Responding to those who have called for a separate Christian art (particularly Francis Schaeffer and H.R. Rookmaaker), he strives to reveal what modern art is only able to point to, not to name. Siedell uses his in-depth knowledge as former art curator and current assistant professor of art history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to argue that perceptions of this legitimate cultural practice can be nourished by a robust Nicene Christianity. These disparate essays tackle subjects both ambitious (a history of modern art) and esoteric (a single work by artist Enrique Martnez Celaya; the conflict between art critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg). Siedell's love of contemporary art is obvious, but his sometimes abstruse writing doesn't always clarify his formidable subject; indeed, it may reinforce some Christians' view of modern art as unapproachable. His primary audience is clearly art specialists, whether students or professionals; Siedell's interesting thesis may not reach the larger audience it deserves. (Oct.)Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

Citations And Professional Reviews
God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Cultural Exegesis) by Daniel A. Siedell, Robert Johnston & William Dyrness has been reviewed by professional book reviewers and journalists at the following establishments -
  • Publishers Weekly - 08/11/2008 page 42
  • Christianity Today - 11/01/2008 page 74

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Item Specifications...

Studio: Baker Academic
Pages   191
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.9" Width: 6" Height: 0.6"
Weight:   0.66 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Oct 1, 2008
Publisher   Baker Academic
Series  Cultural Exegesis  
ISBN  0801031842  
ISBN13  9780801031847  

Availability  2 units.
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More About Daniel A. Siedell, Robert Johnston & William Dyrness

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Daniel A. Siedell (PhD, University of Iowa) is director of theological and cultural practices at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and chancellor at Knox Seminary. He previously served as professor of modern and contemporary art history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and was curator of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has published numerous articles in "Books & Culture," "Christian Scholar's Review," "Studies in Religious Perspectives," and various other journals.

Daniel A. Siedell was born in 1966.

Daniel A. Siedell has published or released items in the following series...
  1. Cultural Exegesis

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Product Categories

1Books > Subjects > Literature & Fiction > History & Criticism > Movements & Periods > Modernism
2Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Fiction & Poetry

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Reviews - What do customers think about God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Cultural Exegesis)?

Embodying Transcendence  Nov 19, 2008
[ This review originally appeared on ]

First of all, to title a book of this complexity God in the Gallery is much too narrow; the encompassing image of a "transformed vision" that Daniel Siedell describes in this book points to an ecumenical engagement of the church, that is rooted in the liturgy, to form an "expansive aesthetics" (138) as a basis of living in "a world saturated with sacramental...significance" (91). What he narrates throughout is a fundamental way of living that is incarnational, that sees the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven; art may perhaps be described as an embodiment of this reality, creating a focused artifact of contemplation and communion. For the church, the vocation is to daily embody this reality of incarnation and resurrection, of the hope of reconciliation in the world. Siedell argues that much or modern and postmodern art has likewise been "a witness to both our fallen world and hope for its redemption" (29). The dialogue that opens up from this correlation is expansive in both directions, urging the church to draw from an "economy of the icon" in which "the primary goal is to seek communion with God" (29) as a model to look to contemporary art practices, as well as suggesting how the "church's spiritual practices and disciplines...can underwrite and sustain aesthetic practice" (148). In both directions, though, it is the "church's aesthetics that underwrite aesthetics in the larger culture" in a way that "expands the aesthetic potential" (138).

To support these claims, Siedell draws heavily from the Second Council of Niceae, the aesthetics and "economy" of the icon and the liturgy, and contemporary writers of theology and art, and the histories of each. To begin to navigate the discourse, definitions of the church and of art are useful, although both tend to be used elusively in popular discourse, which is part of the problem. Here, Siedell uses the liturgical practices of the church as formative for the rest of its life: "the church is not a religious sphere separated from the realities of the world but reveals the world's true meaning and significance," emphasizing the priesthood of all believers, which is "characterized by reconciliation and healing, which testifies to the presence of the kingdom of God even in the midst of a broken world, a world governed by powers and principalities that deny the world its eucharistic identity" (138 - 141). Art is viewed equally alongside the contexts that have supported it (museums, etc), as well as an "ecological theory," suggesting that within the "making and viewing" of art, it "projects an imaginative world of thought in aesthetic form that is necessary for human development" (29). Furthermore, "art is not merely a form of communication but requires contemplation and communion - an active experiential relationship with the artifact" (50). Both the practices of the church and of art are practices of formation, then, of working out the hope of restoration of the world.

The photographer Robert Adams has suggested a similar vision for art in a 1994 collection of essays: "art is a discovery of harmony, a vision of disparities reconciled, of shape beneath confusion. Art does not deny that evil is real, but it places evil in a context that implies an affirmation; the structure of the picture, which is a metaphor for the structure of the Creation, suggests that evil is not final" (Adams, Why People Photograph, Aperture, 1994 -- ERB Review Here). Acknowledging this coherence and locating specifically the reason for our hope of reconciliation in Christ, the church seems to me to be uniquely positioned to engage contemporary art practices that often are after a similar vision, although it may not be named. This idea of locating the "unknown God" is central to Siedell's model for his own engagement with art. As Paul confronted the altar to an unknown God in the book of Acts, and then turns its worship to Christ, so Siedell argues, are we "called to penetrate the surface of things, revealing how all things hold together in Christ, even if this is not immediately apparent" (165).

In God in the Gallery, a history is traced of Modern art that casts it as striving for transcendence, but falling short because it reduced the transcendence only to aesthetics. This separation of myriad facets of life is a mark of Enlightenment-inspired Modernism. Siedell asks that we, bearing those faults in mind, also look deeper to name the desire for communion within these works of art. Extending that history to the present postmodern discourse, in which the isolation and "disinterestedness" of Modernism are being critiqued, the desire for transcendence, communion with God, is recognized as "material as well as spiritual; engaged and not escapist; collaborative and communal, and not individualistic and private; ethical and not merely aesthetic" (82). He continues, "It is precisely at this place that a critical perspective nourished and funded by a Nicene Christian faith can offer a full-bodied critical approach to contemporary art that acknowledges the depth and breadth of the aesthetic and its experience that extends and clarifies work that is already being done by critics and curator who are sensitive to the relationship of the spiritual to the material, the aesthetic to the ethical and religious" (82).

Engaging specifically with works of art must take on a role of contemplation and communion, as distinct from only communication, "a visual illustration of a thought, message, or doctrine" (83). The impulse to use visual images strictly as illustrative, or to be supplemental to a linguistic communication (such as preaching) has been developed since the Reformation's distrust of images to function by their own assets. Icons, used in the liturgy of the church, "shape, develop, and discipline the imagination" (147) to "look at the world through the eyes of faith" (83). As Christ's incarnation joined heaven and earth, spiritual and material, so do icons represent a heavenly communion in their contemplation, and in the process of their making, and also as a material presence, paint on wood. In the icon, heaven and earth are joined. A quote from Christoph Cardinal Schonborn in the text is instructive: "what is need is a new way of seeing and hearing, a new sensitivity to the mystery. It is not by way of integrating herself or by trying to be `modern' at any cost that the Church can once again become a space for the arts, but rather by cultivating an awareness to the mystery of the One who is both God and man" (85).

In my own experience of the community that is the church, alongside my education and practice in the arts, this "expansive aesthetic" has indeed proved true. The most lucid distinction Siedell states near the end of the book is particularly helpful in considering art: "the ultimate distinction, then, is not between Christian art and autonomous modern art but between art that in its union of form and content can bring forth or testify to an embodied transcendence, revealing our `amphibious existence' [C.S. Lewis], and art that denies such transcendence" (164). This statement helps to clarify the commodity production of "Christian" art objects alongside current art practices to discern what is true - incarnationally - about either. It is a matter of seeing and being incarnationally in the world. To begin this manner of living must begin in the life together of the church, that is, in the "divine liturgy...the church's aesthetics and poetics" (83). To begin to see the divine in the embodied materiality of a community, of a particular place, in the creation, is to begin to live incarnationally. This view "mediates the immanent and the transcendent because God is viewed as the cause of all things; all things are signs and symbols of other things, all of which have their being in and through God, which connects them" (91).

The engagement of the church with contemporary art practices, then, is to expand the vision of the incarnational reign of Christ; it is to deepen the ability for contemplation, for communion with God; it is to live in such a way that embodies the kingdom "not of this world;" it is to affirm that another world is, in fact, possible, and to participate in that reconciliation. As art is able to participate within this affirmation of an order contrary to the dominant powers of this age, the church ought to embrace it as a practice, which is the end of Siedell's book. It is a call for a deeper experience of the life of the church, the shared liturgy, that can inform the daily practice of faithfulness, and attune people to the divine. I am reminded also of Thomas Merton, a monastic and a poet, who was well aware of the ability of the aesthetic to be formative in contemplation and in communion with God: "Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time...It introduces the soul into a higher spiritual order, which it expresses and in some sense explains. Music and art and poetry attune the soul to God because they induce a kind of contact with the Creator and Ruler of the Universe. The genius of the artist finds its way by the affinity of creative sympathy, or conaturality, into the living law that rules the universe. This law is nothing but the secret gravitation that draws all things to God as to their center" (Merton, "Conscience, Freedom, and Prayer" in No Man is an Island, Shambhala, 2005).

Painting and Saint Paul  Oct 15, 2008
(This review first appeared at

In a recent book assessing the state of evangelical scholarship, Mark Noll refers to "a boomlet in evangelical art history [that] rests squarely on the work of the Dutch Reformed scholar Hans Rookmaaker." Had Noll seen Daniel Siedell's book God in the Gallery, he might have thought differently. Siedell is a long way from Rookmaaker, and his book--whether or not it can be called evangelical--is no boomlet. God in the Gallery is an impressive detonation in and of itself.

The Christianity-and-art conversation is gridlocked. The stalled traffic includes those who are profoundly suspicious of the art world, and those who are infuriated enough by this unforgivably "conservative" suspicion that they, in turn, write contemporary artists a theological blank check. A book capable of broaching this impasse has long needed to be written--but who would have suspected it would be this good? What makes God in the Gallery noteworthy is that it addresses another gridlock as well, that of contemporary art. The traffic in this case involves those liberated by the end of modernity to explore spiritual directions, and those committed to keeping art a staunchly secular enterprise. "The art world," insists Siedell, "is growing increasingly uncomfortable with its collective unbelief."

Siedell's qualifications enable him to address both these dilemmas. He is a firmly ecclesial Lutheran with deep--one might say overriding--sympathies for the Orthodox Church. In addition, Siedell holds a Ph.D. in contemporary art (he studied with noted critic Donald Kuspit), and he is a seasoned curator with a decade of gallery experience.

Simply put, God in the Gallery succeeds by dividing, that is, by clearly distinguishing the sanctuary from the salon. The author has no interest in churches aping galleries or galleries playing church. But what keeps Siedell from merely erecting a Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and gallery is his unflinching insistence that the church's aesthetic framework, grounded in the ecumenical warrant for icons, is strong enough to inform, shape, and underwrite the practice of contemporary art. "The church's aesthetics and poetics . . . is the ground of all aesthetics and poetics." And the direction of influence "goes from the church outward toward culture, not from culture to a passive, inert, irrelevant church."

To buttress his argument, Siedell quotes Christoph Cardinal Schönborn: "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." In order for this vision to be realized, however, "Protestant approaches are simply not expansive enough" for Siedell. Only "the `economy' of the icon can provide an important foundation on which to rethink modern and contemporary art." Byzantine insights from the eighth century are marshaled to fortify the twenty-first.

All these are serious claims, and Siedell has done the work necessary to back up them up. The book offers a brief survey of modern art, an introduction to the condition of and key players in contemporary art, a summary of the academic-populist divide in art criticism, a diagnosis of the Christianity-and-art conversation, and a primer on recent theological trends. Though of course one book can't do all these completely, this one does them all surprisingly well.

Most interesting in my view is Siedell's ambitious attempt to solve a major crisis in the discipline of art history--the status of the term art. For Siedell, the development of art as a Western concept is something we should accept. "Not all products of modernity are theologically and spiritually suspect." But, while Siedell accepts art's institutional reality, he does not accept the narrow range of activities the term art currently represents.

Instead, Siedell borrows from the philosopher Paul Crowther and suggests defining art as "common (universal) human practice of making and experiencing" whose primary goal, Siedell adds, is to "seek communion with God." The most effective example of this has been the Byzantine icon. "Nicene Christianity does not merely tolerate images in the church. It requires them." While it certainly needs to be developed further, Siedell has suggested a Copernican revolution in the artistic solar system that makes the Christian icon the governing sun. Christianity, therefore, "in all its myriad cultural and material manifestations is never absent from the modern artist."

Siedell even manages to pull recent, stranger trends of contemporary art into this iconic orbit. In the shift from modern to postmodern art, Siedell sees a "transcendence in transition" from "modernity's disembodied purity to one that is sought in and through embodiment, tradition, cultural practice, and the material world." This resonates with, without being equivalent to, the Christian sacramental tradition. High is the pile of sophisticated recent books on theological aesthetics. God in the Gallery might enable such labor to actually reach where it is needed most--plunging from the ethereal heights of the seminaries deep into the streets (even the gutters) of contemporary art.

The modern artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970) provides an example of how Siedell's vision plays out. Initially, the mystical ambition of Rothko's large, figureless fields of paint might be considered direct competition to Christian faith--vying for the very transcendence that religion has already achieved. Siedell neither gives in to this suspicion, nor does he offer unqualified endorsement. Instead, he secures a complex middle ground: Mark Rothko's brooding paintings "function ambivalently as icons; or rather, the content of their iconicity is underdetermined. But this does not mean that they do not participate in some way in the reality of the icon."

Not all of Siedell's interpretations, however, are as successful as his take on Rothko. Siedell is uncritical of Janine Antoni's Gnaw, where the sculptor chews on massive cubes of chocolate and lard. This is similar, Antonini says, to "receiving the host from the priest in the old-fashioned way." In defense of the sculptor, Siedell claims that the complex relationship between tasting and seeing "can be expressed outside the divine liturgy only through the aesthetic complexities of art." (What about restaurants?) Siedell is celebratory of German artist Wolfgang Laib, who considers the attempt to create beauty a futile pursuit. He sees Robert Gober's headless Christ installation as an attempt for an alienated Catholic to create an alternative "sacred space." Another artist writes directly on his work that his piece is in fact a meaningless failure. While Siedell suggest we look deeper, some might wish to take the artist at his word. At some points Siedell's interpretations were convincing, at others, readers might share my sentiment: "I believe, help my unbelief." Nevertheless, Siedell "does not claim to offer the Christian explanation of these works of art," and he does not suggest--as have some--that they infiltrate the liturgy. Siedell errs on the side of charity because he aims to prompt the skeptic to take another look, and to critique the way Siedell carries out his vision is not to dismiss the vision itself.

Still, at times Siedell is burdened by unhelpful terminology pulled straight from the paradigms he has done so much to overcome. He refers to the "neoconservative captivity" of art criticism, and is sharply critical of New Criterion editor Hilton Kramer's conservative political agenda. Indeed, politics can affect art and art criticism for the worse. But Siedell breathes not a word of criticism for the leftist agenda that--it takes willful effort not to see--has overtaken so much contemporary art and art criticism. Because it is this agenda that Kramer is attempting to counter, one would have at least hoped for "a pox on both your houses" from Siedell. (His reference, albeit in a footnote, to "Christian anarchism" without critical distance is unsettling). Like it or not, a healthy art world may depend on a stable free world. There is a reason that Enrique Martínez Celaya, the Cuban-born artist whom Siedell lionizes, is flourishing here and not in, say, Cuba.

It is tempting to suggest that Siedell expends so much charity to the art world that he has little left for his Christian colleagues. Though he is never belittling or rude, Siedell hits his co-religionists hard. Gregory Wolfe, editor of the religion and art journal Image, is criticized for not differentiating clearly enough between the institutional framework of the church and the world of art. Cutting edge innovation does not belong in the liturgy, where recognition by the faithful is essential. On the other hand, Siedell is frustrated with those who have tried to establish an alternative, Christian art world through a network of Christian college art departments and organizations. Siedell berates what we might call this Hauerwasian model of Christian art enclaves. He prefers instead what could fairly be called a more Neuhausian engagement of Christians in art's public square.

The model for Siedell's art criticism is no one less than the apostle Paul at Athens (Acts 17). Art can function as an "altar to an unknown God," and the Christian art critic can say, with Paul, "that which you worship as unknown, I proclaim to you" (Acts 17:23). There is indeed a remarkable parallel between first-century Athenian pagans and the twenty-first-century art world, and Siedell could have perhaps taken it further. Both Athenians and art enthusiasts, for example, "spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new" (Acts 17:21). But there is also, of course, a great divide between then and now. The Athenians knew nothing of Christianity. Contemporary artists do, and remind us of that fact by intentionally mixing Christian imagery, often with deliberate offense, into their work. The point is important because Paul makes much of it. "While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30). Siedell might avoid this criticism by suggesting that the contemporary artists' alienation from traditional Christianity by either injury or ignorance functions as a second naiveté.

But Paul's vision goes further. The altar to an unknown God was not the only altar in Athens. In fact, we read that this was only one in a city packed with idols which "greatly distressed" the apostle (Acts 17:16). Engagement with contemporary art sometimes leads to this conclusion, which is equally Pauline. Noting that art has failed as a rival religion does not necessarily indicate "neoconservative captivity" (and if it does, then count Nietzsche a neocon). Is it necessarily philistine to point out the unfortunate condition of contemporary art? Take for example, the abortion art catastrophe at Yale, or Banks Violette's recent show at the Whitney that meditates on Satanic ritual murders, or Damian Hirst's sadistic stations of the cross. Sadly, there is only more evidence today to support the reformed art historian Hans Rookmaaker's 1970 thesis, "Modern Art and the Death of a Culture." (A thesis, it is important to note, that Rookmaker complemented with daringly positive reviews of countless avant-garde exhibitions as well.)

Still, as Siedell explains, the art world is extremely complex, and wholesale dismissals are entirely unwarranted. Many of the artists Siedell has worked with are also frustrated with the art world, and Siedell's iconic vision is a needed strategy for that world's renewal. Christians who consider contemporary art an unpleasant mystery will find this book an effective primer to genuine engagement. God in the Gallery infuses the Protestant art historical tradition with the broader insights of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and it appropriately segregates liturgical and contemporary art, with the former underwriting the latter. "The church is not a religious sphere separated from the realities of the world but reveals the world's true meaning and significance." Siedell's vision of contemporary art inspired by the Christian icon is a compelling one. At least for now, it is a reality in Orthodox cultures much more than our own.

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