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Book Review

On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art by James Elkins
God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art by Daniel Siedell


FOR MANY OF US, the world of contemporary visual fine art is a strange place—not only in the sense that it can seem odd, but also in that it is not a world we are likely to inhabit for long. But for James Elkins and Daniel Siedell, this is the world in which they spend much of their daily lives. In these two books they invite us to enter it, and, in their company, to ask pointed and awkward questions.

When I teach courses on theology and the arts, I am often asked: “What kind of music do you like?” I always refuse to answer because I want to shift the whole tenor of questioning from “Do I like it?” (the consumerist question) to “What’s going on here?” These authors are pressing us toward that second question, and they do so in order that we face up to what Elkins calls “the strange place of religion in contemporary art.” What is going on religiously in contemporary art?

I found Elkins’s book, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (Routledge, 2004), both courageous and poignant: courageous—because he ventures into territory that he is not used to writing about, invites us into a highly demanding conversation, and is candid about the driving forces behind the current art world; poignant—because his quest relates to the biggest issues of life and death, yet ends in frustration and perplexity.

He writes as a professional art historian and critic (one of his jobs is at the Art Institute of Chicago) and as a prolific author. His subject is art and religion. Art is defined institutionally, as “whatever is exhibited in galleries in major cities, bought by museums of contemporary art, shown in biennales and the Documenta, and written about in periodicals such as Artforum, October, Flash Art, Parkett, or Tema Celeste.” And religion is defined as a “named, noncultic, major system of belief,” surrounded by the “trappings” of the system (rituals, ceremonies, sacred officials, texts, and so forth). (“Spirituality” is narrower; it concerns systems of belief that are “private, subjective, largely or wholly incommunicable, often wordless, and sometimes even uncognized.”)

Elkins’s stated purpose is to “see if it is possible to adjust the existing discourses enough to make it possible to address both secular theorists and religionists who would normally consider themselves outside the art world” and, with young artists and their teachers in mind, to “consider how best to talk about contemporary art that is reluctantly or even inadvertently religious.” These are lofty aspirations. And the hospitality seems virtually limitless: not only are all who are religious in any sense welcome at this table, but also those of no faith, and, what is more, both the artistic and non-artistic. Not a religious believer himself, Elkins’s tone throughout is gentle, irenic, and engaging.

But he is much baffled. Simply put: there is next to no “religious art” (art with religious subject matter) in the contemporary fine art world, nor talk about art and religion. Sketching the gradual but steady decline of religious art in the West, especially since the Renaissance, he concludes that the religion/art split is now deeply entrenched. There is a vast amount of religious art outside his fine art world, in churches and homes, for example; that is not at issue. It is the absence of religious art, and conversation about religion and art, in the museums, art schools, and journals that demands Elkins’s attention.

Drawing on his teaching experience, Elkins sketches five types of art that in some way do seem to integrate art and religion. First, there is overtly religious art (more about this later). Second, there is art linked to the “new faiths”—religious movements sometimes lumped together under the tag “New Age.” Here Elkins is generous but in the end unimpressed, not least because so much of this art is indistinguishable from what is already alive and kicking in the fine art world. Third, there is art that is critical of religion, a critique ranging all the way from direct attack to gently asking the viewer to reconsider religious ideas. In the main he finds this “dissatisfying as art” since it smacks of instrumentalism: “It feels like [the art] is being used for an inappropriate purpose.” Fourth, there is art that attempts to purify religion, retaining what is thought to be valuable; he mentions the Indian artist Ajit Mookerjee in this connection, and Frans Francken II. But he is unconvinced that it is always the religious allusions of this art that make it valuable or distinguished. Fifth, there is art that creates or promotes faith unconsciously. Here the notion of the sublime is discussed, especially its postmodern form. No extensive critique is offered, but Elkins seems concerned that there appears to be no way of talking effectively about what is particularly religious or spiritual about this artistic brand.

And this is the heart of Elkins’s frustration. He is convinced of the importance of his topic (“there is something religious or spiritual in much modern art”) but cannot find a way of having a satisfying conversation about it. He wants to find a public language, a vocabulary that will enable the religious and non-religious, the artistically literate and the artistic novice, to connect effectively. But no such language seems to exist.

I have spent much of my life in the art music world, and have often felt much the same way. The desired vocabulary so often seems just beyond our reach. But sympathetic as I am, I cannot help wondering if Elkins here creates unnecessary obstacles for himself. Two in particular stand out: his belief in the notion of a religious language that can set aside the specificities of religious faith and practice, and his belief in the supreme status of “high art.” Let us take each in turn.

All religions employ language that is shaped by the practices and commitments of a community (Wittgenstein’s “forms of life”), practices and commitments that undergird its truth-claims. So although two different communities might deploy identical words, the truth-claims bound up with those words can vary greatly, sometimes quite dramatically. Elkins wants a language that can speak to all such communities, and simultaneously to non-religious communities. To this end, he warms especially to apophatic or negative theology, a very ancient stream of thought and one much celebrated by some recent poststructuralist writers. It is “a magnificent way of thinking,” Elkins tells us, in which talk about God takes place not through particular affirmations but through negation, by thinking away the limitations of created things (God is not material, not tangible, not temporal, not visible, and so forth). Thus “the sense of not knowing, and not knowing what is not known, has to be continually renewed by fresh doubt.”

Indeed, this can be a magnificent way of thinking. But the negations of apophatic language in a religious community are always dependent on affirmations, and, moreover, affirmations that can only be understood by reference to the practices and commitments of that community. It was only because of the church’s commitment to the truth of God’s self-revelation climaxing in Jesus Christ that the great Christian apophatic theologians could insist on being alert to that about which we do not know and cannot speak.

There is no neutral language, no way of speaking that is independent of the commitments and practices of particular communities, and the truth-claims that issue from them. Does this then mean that the believer can never talk to the nonbeliever about religion and art? Not at all. But it does mean we need to distinguish quite carefully between two stages of a conversation (even if in practice they often merge). The first we might call the bridge-building stage, when we use language to find common ground, to establish a discussion. The second stage comes when we realize we are not always using this language in the same way, and that each of us is assuming truth-claims shaped by a particular community. Elkins is acutely sensitive to the first stage, but not the second. Hence his frustration. To treat bridge-building language about the “spiritual” (for example) as if we could assume, simply by using it, a common or core meaning among all who use it is clearly naïve; in the art-religion conversation, it invariably means we end up with a lowest-common-denominator “spiritual talk” that veers towards emptiness and sterility, a discourse easily written off by the likes of Richard Dawkins.

The other main cause of Elkins’s frustration, I would suggest, is his extraordinarily high view of fine art in the scheme of things. He insists that fine art is not simply one among many forms of art; it sets the scene as far as “quality, priority, significance, invention, art history” are concerned. The influence runs in one direction only: from fine art to all other forms. In the end, even art in hotel lobbies or elevators owes its composition, style, and subject matter to fine-art ideas. So we find Elkins denigrating religious art outside the art-museum culture: “Most religious art. just bad art. Virtually all religious art made for homes and churches is poor and out of touch.”

But things are worse than this for the supporters of religious art. In a revealing passage, Elkins writes:

the art world can accept a wide range of “religious” art by people who hate religion, by people who are deeply uncertain about it, by the disgruntled and the disaffected and the skeptical, but there is no place for artists who express straightforward ordinary religious faith. To fit in the art world, work with a religious theme has to fulfill several criteria. It has to demonstrate that the artist has second thoughts about religion, and the religious ideas have to be woven into the work, because otherwise it looks as if art is playing propagandist for religion. It also has to appear that the artist is meditative and uncertain about both art and religion: ambiguity and self-critique have to be integral to the work. And it follows that irony must pervade the art, must be the air it breathes.

The warm air of hospitality has turned decidedly chilly—for apparently, in order to have credibility in the only art world that is ever going to make a worthwhile difference, I need to cultivate an uncertainty, disgruntlement, disaffection, and skepticism toward my religion, in addition to beefing up my ambiguity, self-criticism, and irony. Maybe this has something going for it as a bridge-building strategy, but it is hardly a recipe for long-term fruitful conversation. If this is the shape of the future, Elkins has every right to be anxious.

What of course Elkins does not do here is apply his stringent requirements to the aesthetic (post)modernism that sustains his own case, a “major system of belief” with “trappings” if ever there was one. But he might like to try. For, of course, irony can never be “the air one breathes.” Irony can only be maintained from a perspective of a confidence about something that is not referred to ironically; ambiguity can only be kept up so long as there is something to be unambiguous about; being uncertain depends on believing something else to be more certain, and so on. Put differently, we need to ask not only: “Is this art ironic?” but “What is it being ironic about? And why?” It is then that the art-religion conversation suddenly gets seriously uncomfortable, but far more interesting.

Elkins has graciously invited his readers into the museum of contemporary art to provoke a fruitful conversation. In God in the Gallery (Baker, 2008) [excerpted in Image #59], Daniel Siedell meets him in the foyer, very apologetic about some of his Christian friends, but eager that Elkins does not give up, convinced that the conversation must press ahead. (And Elkins seems pleased; he writes on the back: “a tremendous book.”) The difference is that Siedell knows he cannot disregard religious specifics; indeed, he writes unashamedly as a Christian (a Lutheran), as well as a critic, historian, and former curator. Despite having the likes of Elkins in mind, he writes mainly for Christians, especially traditional evangelical Protestants, whose feathers will be seriously ruffled by much of what he says.

There is a kind of intensity and restlessness about Siedell that contrasts with the much cooler Elkins, and a passion too. We are given a collection of essays covering huge ground and leaving many loose ends. And a vision emerges—not a strategy, or detailed program—a vision of a discerning church, which has the patience to enter the world of modern and contemporary art, experience and understand it “on its own terms,” and find rumors there of the God Christians know as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. To cite his favorite text, he wants us to find altars “to an unknown god” (Acts 17).


Especially striking is Siedell’s persistent stress on the church as integral to the entire enterprise. Evangelicals, among others, have been slow to recognize that the church is intrinsic to God’s purposes, but Siedell never lets us forget it. Not least, this means taking tradition seriously. He is convinced that if we “probe the theological, spiritual, and philosophical depth of church tradition…there will be powerful resources to speak aptly to contemporary art.” In particular, he wants us to explore “the Nicene Christian faith,” the tradition emerging from the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea (325 CE), and articulated especially in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381 CE) (what we call the Nicene Creed) as well as by the other six ecumenical councils. This provides a network of belief intertwined with liturgical, sacramental, and ascetical practices, an “expansive” and hospitable “framework” for addressing the current art scene. This attention to Nicene faith is refreshing, especially when so much Protestant theological engagement with the arts limits itself to the direct quotation of scripture without acknowledging that we all read scripture with the eyes of tradition, and that it would therefore be wise to imbibe the biblically oriented tradition in which all modern Christianity is historically rooted. The Nicene focus is also encouraging in that much of the theology-arts debate outside the evangelical sphere has taken its cue from Paul Tillich and his heirs, and thus neglected the stabilizing profundity of this more ancient wisdom.

But Siedell asks us to focus on one particular current within the Nicene river, the Eastern Orthodox tradition. He sets his sights especially on the second council of Nicaea (787 CE), the conference which established the orthodoxy of icons. An analogy is developed between the “economy of the icon” and the way in which modern and contemporary art might be read theologically. The icon is not to be worshipped but regarded as a material means of grace through which the sacramental presence of a transcendent world is made accessible. Thus we may speak of an “embodied transcendence,” a “material spirituality,” in which the transcendent is mediated through the sensual. The reality and goodness of matter is affirmed in the process, something supremely confirmed in the incarnation of the son of God as a physical human being. The appropriate attitude towards an icon—and by extension, modern and contemporary art—is not that of the receiver of a message but one of contemplation and communion, an active relationship with the artifact through which experience of the divine is rendered possible. This intertwines with Siedell’s conception of the liturgy, and the Eucharist in particular, which he sees as paradigmatic for grasping the way the transcendent is encountered through the finite and contingent. (Supporting this, he draws on Paul Crowther’s very opaque discussion of transcendence: art projects an imaginative world of thought in aesthetic form, through a hypostatic union of sensuous material and rational ideas. This, Siedell believes, is the major source of high art’s power, but the principle applies transhistorically and transculturally also.)

It is from this perspective that Siedell invites us to encounter, for example, the vast canvases of Rothko in the famous chapel at Houston, and apprehend an excess of presence—something more than “mere art”—an aesthetic and spiritual immediacy. Likewise we are given intriguing readings of the work of artists such as Duchamp and Pollock that will no doubt encourage many to revisit art that we might otherwise dismiss as remote from Christian faith. A chapter on the painter Enrique Martínez Celaya, a critical figure in Siedell’s own development, addresses how a painter’s work can narrow “the gap between belief and unbelief, banal and profound, art and religion, sacred and secular, truth and superstition, revealing each to be two sides of the same precious coin.”

Siedell’s open-ended, exploratory style has a sharp edge. He is irritated by what he perceives as a lack of charity among Christian commentators in the arts, many of whom he finds excessively suspicious of high art in general and modern art in particular. He is highly critical of a tradition that has influenced him deeply, exemplified by Hans Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (1970) and Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible (1973). While registering his appreciation for the “expansive vision” found here, Siedell is biting in critique. To summarize (I hope fairly): this tradition has encouraged a ghetto mentality among Christians in the arts, and a virtually unqualified condemnation of modern and contemporary art as essentially godless, devoid of divine presence and destined for self-destruction. With this has gone an undue concentration on art’s content, an over-simple understanding of communication (“sender sends message to receiver”), and an “ideology of the concept of the Christian artist,” something furthered he believes by CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) and CCCU (the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities). This ideology colludes with the postmodern celebration of a divergent mosaic of art worlds: Christian artists can set out their own particular stall while ignoring the rest. Christian art becomes yet another niche market; the artist can no longer disturb or disrupt, or (more importantly for Siedell) listen to or learn from, the modern contemporary art world.

While sharing some of his anxieties, I found much of this overplayed. Arguably, the stream he speaks about is much more diverse than his handling suggests. But even if there is truth here, far more valuable, I think, is Siedell’s call to indwell the Nicene faith of the church and engage the art world accordingly.

Even here, however, I am not sure Siedell has pushed things nearly hard enough (something he would no doubt readily admit). Even limiting ourselves to the early stages of the Nicene tradition, as in, say, Athanasius, things are a good deal more radical than Siedell implies. The first Council’s main concern, after all, was not about integrating “spiritual” (nonmaterial) and material, or invisible and visible, transcendent and immanent. The burning concern was with God and God’s creation, and how God had, so to speak, got to grips with his world in order to set it on course for a glorious future. At the center of this was the affirmation that Christ was both fully God and fully man: the Son was “one in being” (homoousios) with the Father, against the Arians who believed he was not fully God. This is mentioned by Siedell but not given anything like the weight it deserves.

What are the implications of this for engaging modern and contemporary art? Well, for one thing, it means that the concept of “transcendence,” God’s transcendence in particular, needs to be rethought. Drawing on the critic and curator Klaus Ottmann, Siedell argues that transcendence should not be thought of in the sterile modernist sense as some kind of fixity beyond history, culture, tradition, and embodiment, but in a more postmodern sense, as accessible through and in these down-to-earth contingencies. He believes this can be “nourished and funded” by a Nicene Christian faith. But this suggests that Nicene-style transcendence can be grafted relatively easily onto Ottmann-style transcendence. I am not convinced. Unless I have misunderstood it, even Ottmann’s notion of transcendence is essentially driven by negatives—what the Other is not. For the Nicenes, with respect to divine transcendence, it was driven primarily by positives: who God has shown himself to be. They found they had to rethink transcendence out of a center in God’s direct engagement with the world in Christ (against the prevailing philosophical tide at the time, which tended to speak of God’s otherness only negatively). God’s transcendence is not simply about God being free from the world, but free for the world. This is a full, dynamic transcendence, a transcendence that happens. God is not just “present” but present for the world, for us. God is no inert and unknowable Other, but the irrepressible covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ, ever active for the world’s salvation. None of this is to deny a proper sense of the unknowability and ineffability of the Christian God—in the sense that God is ungraspable, uncontainable in thought or speech. But once again, this can only be affirmed in the light of what has been disclosed, not as a prior principle (and not, we might add, by using the somewhat dubious—some would say disastrous—distinction, cited by Siedell in a footnote and made famous by Gregory Palamas, between the “essence” and “energies” of God). Engaging contemporary art with this full and dynamic transcendence in mind means being alert not merely to signs of otherness, but of a living, active otherness, an infinite agency of change and fruitfulness. There are hints of these possibilities in Siedell, but they are few and far between.

Let us journey a little further into the Nicene world. The conviction about dynamic transcendence stemmed from a belief that God is at work purposively in the world, with an end in view—the defeat of the powers of sin and death, something previewed in Jesus, and tasted now through the Spirit. In Siedell’s book I found no sustained or developed talk of future hope, of the transformation of this world (and our bodies), grounded in the cross and resurrection. But this was fundamental to the Nicene church. Through participation in God’s life there was a sense of being grasped for a future by the Holy Spirit, in the midst of a good creation that has been distorted by sin and death. Matter is affirmed, yes, but dynamically, not statically—it has a future promised for it. The possibilities for conversation here with modern and contemporary art are endless, since, as Siedell knows much better than me, transience, suffering, and death have been huge and pervasive concerns in the arts of modernity. Is it not possible to be over-enamored with the model of contemplation, insofar as it becomes the stilled gaze, abstracted from time? Could it be that one of art’s major callings today is to embody—albeit in a provisional, fragile way—the future that will be?

Let us take one further step. The Nicene avant-gardes went on to ask: if Jesus Christ is indeed one in being with the Father and is yet not identical to the Father, must there not be something like distinction within God? And is this not even more so if the Spirit is also to be honored as divine? Stammeringly, but under the pressure of the New Testament texts, they began to speak of God’s dynamic transcendent life as three-fold, as a relational life of love. Time and time again, I have found in conversations with musicians, as well as painters, dancers, and other artists of little or no faith, that far from needing to hide the Trinity in some dusty corner of the intellect, it is just when I begin to explore God’s triunity (not least through music) that the resonances with their work as artists multiply abundantly. Oddly, there is very little treatment of the Trinity in God in the Gallery.

As well as enriching the conversation Siedell rightly wants us to have, a deeper engagement with the Nicene tradition would also enable a far more penetrating critique of art than is evident here. Siedell’s chapter on art criticism is fascinating, yet he does little to tell us how the resources of Nicene Christianity might help us perceive (and transform?) what is damaging, dangerous, or destructive. The overriding model he uses for the art-faith relation is fulfillment. Nicene Christianity “fulfills and completes rather than replaces or denies secular understanding and practice of art.” This model has a venerable history (grace fulfills nature) but used on its own it can blind us to the reality of God’s disruption, correction, radical transformation. Siedell admits that some contemporary art deserves a rough ride, but he is so keen to avoid simple-minded Christian dismissal that he drastically underplays this dimension. Do we not need to recover a conception of judgment (rooted in the New Testament) as not fundamentally about condemning and wiping out (replacing and denying) but about discerning and setting things right, and about both of these being pursued through a patient, determined love?

Elkins believes a conversation is needed. Siedell is eager to be part of it, wants us there too, and calls us to Nicene Christianity as providing the way ahead. But has he seen quite how disturbing and far-reaching his call actually is? Yes, the world of contemporary art is a strange place, but the world of Nicene faith is even stranger, and therein lies its glory.

—Reviewed by Jeremy Begbie

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