In the current issue of Image, #59, in an excerpt from a new book titled God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art, Dan Siedell wrote about the importance of an “educated appetite” to understanding contemporary art. We sat down to ask him about how we go about developing such an appetite.
Image: I want to engage with contemporary art but I often find it aloof and inhospitable. How do I start to make myself a more sympathetic viewer?
Looking at art, including contemporary art, takes some work. A critic I admire, Thomas Hess, who wrote in the 1950s and was editor of Art News, once said that it takes years to look at a picture. Developing taste takes time. I’ve always found that artwork that takes some work to understand and appreciate has a more lasting value for me. The tendency is to assume that looking at contemporary art is something that one does in a second or two, that if the work of art doesn’t “communicate” with you immediately, then it’s the fault of the work, that somehow it hasn’t done its job, or the artist is being coy or opaque. But I don’t think it works that way. Art creeps up on you, unfolding itself to you over time. There have been times when I have seen a work of art in a gallery or museum and it did not make a huge impression on me. But days after my visit, I kept thinking about it. That would be the beginning of my working toward appreciating it or developing a deeper understanding of it.
We Christians who want to take art and culture seriously do have to let go of some preconceptions that art needs to look and behave a certain way. We often think about art through the lens of the Old Masters, such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Velázquez, and the like. We suspect that modern and contemporary work that doesn’t look like that isn’t art. But that’s simply not true. Art may be deeply influenced by the Old Masters, yet look nothing like them. We often regard art as merely the execution of a skill that we ourselves can’t perform. But art is much more (or less) than having an extraordinary skill at representing objects realistically. It’s about a certain kind of feeling that finds embodiment in a certain kind of form. And, in fact, an important stream in contemporary art is the production of art that, in some ways, yes, my kid could do.
Image: What is going on in your head and senses when you look at a piece of art you haven’t seen before? What are the things you’re paying attention to? What are the questions you’re asking or processes that are happening in you?
DS: George Steiner has written somewhere in his book Real Presences that art is supposed to have the run of my house, that is, it is supposed to work on me in unexpected and even scary ways. When I look at unfamiliar art, I am running it through a pre-existent framework that’s been nourished by looking at and thinking about art for years. I’ve built up a repository of images and perspectives. So at first I’m experiencing the new art through what I’m familiar with. I try not to merely appropriate the work into that framework, but allow that work to mold and shape that framework. I listen to my first impressions but I try not to be defined or limited by them.
I pay close attention to imagery or lack thereof. It’s a balancing act between the strange and the familiar. I also pay close attention to how the work is built. Art is not just the sum total of its subject. I often tell my students that art is a tense union between form and content, between what I call the “howness” of a work (how it’s made) and its “whatness” (its subject matter or content). I think we too often believe that art, including contemporary art, should function like contemporary advertising, pop music, sit-coms, and the like, which are meant to be understood right away and without much thought. The importance of paying close attention to contemporary art, and all serious art, is that it helps us see with greater discernment. I work with an artist, Enrique Martinez Celaya, who says that art is the practice of making finer and finer distinctions. I think that holds for looking at art, too. We need to develop the capacity to discern those distinctions.
Image: Are there any particular concepts that you find especially useful in looking at new art?
DS: What I often keep in mind, and what I also tell my students, is that looking at art is not like other forms of communication. It is not about receiving a meaning that the artist intended. The artist isn’t intent on “communicating” with me some idea that he or she is wrapping up in paint that I then need to unwrap. Too often art is assumed to be an essay, but in reality it’s much more akin to a poem. In God in the Gallery, I have gone so far as to suggest that art is not communication but communion, that it invites contemplation. I view the work of art as the end product of an artist’s experience and the beginning point of my experience. I meet the artist only through what is distilled aesthetically in the work. I’m less interested in what the artist intended than in the effect that the work is having on me as a viewer.
Image: What would you say to us to help us become better lookers at art? Can you give us advice on how to go to a museum or gallery walk?
DS: It is a cliché, but I would suggest that one must approach contemporary art with an open mind. There is an ethical component here. Attending to those details, looking closely, is a useful discipline for us as Christians, who are supposed to see Christ everywhere, especially in the faces of all people. If we dismiss artwork that is strange, unfamiliar, unconventional, if we are inattentive to visual details, how can we be attentive to those around us?