You don’t have to look very far into evangelical history to discover the movement’s tense relationship with the arts. And though in recent years there has been something of a resurgence in advocacy for the Christian’s call to both truth and beauty, there often remains a disparity between belief and practice. By and large, today’s evangelicals continue to wrestle with an old but necessary question: How does one approach art—particularly when the work in question has no obvious spiritual message—and stay faithful to Christ?
Daniel A. Siedell, an art critic, historian, and museum curator, has devoted his life’s work to art and the people who make it. His new book, Who’s Afraid of Modern Art?, is part memoir and part essay collection. And each page presents the wise and empathetic vision of a man who has thought long and hard—and theologically—about why art is essential to human experience.
You grew up in a Christian community that, at its best, was suspicious of art. What fueled that suspicion? And what effect did it have on you?
There were a lot of factors, some theological, others sociological and cultural. To pursue a life devoted to studying the visual arts was neither practical nor useful, especially as it related to evangelism and remaining “unstained by the world.” My Christian community regarded my passion for art to be excessive, dangerous, and frankly, idolatrous. The theological tradition that sustained my faith community had a difficult time coming to grips with the “world” (both creation and culture) as something to be appreciated for its own sake—that is, appreciated for its beauty as a gift from God. If it couldn’t be transformed into tools or instruments for economic or moral life or be useful for evangelism, it just sat there, like art did, as an anomaly.
The faith community had a lot of effects on me. I felt deeply isolated and alone. I was frustrated, but I wasn’t angry or resentful. The views of my faith community on art weren’t “evangelical,” per se, they were “American,” and I faced similar kinds of confusion and suspicion when I interacted with members of the larger community as a museum curator. And so what it produced was a willingness to chart my course alone, without role models, as well as a deep empathy—and respect—for their confusion, fear, and even disinterest.
But perhaps the most important effect it had on me was that it externalized the doubts and insecurities I was having internally, daily forcing me to work through for myself what it meant to be a Christian who followed Jesus and an art historian who loved Jackson Pollock’s paintings.
It has also made me deeply aware and sensitive to the challenges that artists face in the church and has given me a desire to encourage them.
Houses in the Provence, The Riaux Valley near L’Estaque, 1833, by Paul Cezanne
Do you still encounter that suspicion today?
It is still there, without question, but in the professional and ecclesial communities in which I now find myself, the suspicion is covert. There is broad-based affirmation of beauty and the arts, declarations of how “important” they are and a lot expressed regret with their “fundamentalist” anti-cultural predecessors. However, it is still difficult for even the most culturally progressive evangelicals to believe that what takes place in museums, galleries, and studios actually matters—unless what takes place there becomes part of popular culture. Why pay attention to an artist working in Brooklyn, New York, whose work is only seen by several hundred people while there are YouTube videos, films, and television shows that have millions as their audience? These cultural artifacts are much more relevant and useful as sermon illustrations, theological points, and evangelism.
The work I do, the work I’ve committed my life to, is to explore what happens when a person stands before a work of art and allows it to address him or her, whether it’s in a museum, art gallery, or an artist’s studio. I’m interested in the relationships a person has with works of art (paintings, poems, songs, films) and how they shape and impact both their emotional and intellectual life.
Over the years, I’ve met believers who wish the arts would disappear from the cultural landscape. Their reasoning goes something like this: If we have Scripture, theologically sound worship, and good preaching, why do we need art, let alone modern art? How would you respond to that view?
There are a couple ways I’ve responded. The first is simply not to respond. I long ago became very comfortable with not having to justify my particular calling to those who aren’t interested in understanding art and culture—whether they’re believers or not, whether they share my basic theological convictions or not. The work I do is for another person in the church—a person whose life has been shaped by creative cultural artifacts and desires to know why they can experience God’s grace and goodness in a painting, film, or song that wasn’t made by a Christian and didn’t have any “Christian message.”
The second way I respond is to emphasize that Scripture itself testifies to the reality that “the heavens declare the glory of God” and “day after day they pour forth speech” (Ps. 19:1-2 NIV). Nature (and I would say also “culture,” what human beings are called to make of nature,) speaks. I also often point people to Colossians 1: Christ is in and through “all things,” sustains “all things” (Col. 1:15-17). And I take [that] literally. I take God “at His word.” So “all things” means all things—including poems, paintings, and songs.
What does a faithful Christian engagement with art look like?
It can look like a lot of things. But at its core, I believe it is deeply personal and a manifestation of a person’s belief that living with this or that work of art deepens their humanity and faith in Christ through whom all things are made. It’s also “receptive” and “humble.” Too much “engagement” with art is aggressively self-assertive, interpreting, commenting, judging. Art works when the person who reads, listens, or stands before it allows [that work] to make the first move, to address them first.
What’s surprised you about your relationship with modern art and the effect it’s had on your relationship with Christ?
Perhaps what has surprised me about my relationship with modern art is how much it has shaped me theologically, emotionally, intellectually. Art is not merely the object of my professional attention; it has been my companion for 25 years. My experience with it—in all its manifestations—has formed my humanity and taught me how to live with doubt and fear, and yet do so in faith. It has shaped who I have become as a Christian, a husband, and a father.