Saturday, December 20, 2008

Art as Religion

It's a pleasure when a book one has enjoyed, thanks to the much-maligned blog medium, does not end. In his book God in the Gallery, Daniel Siedell - I have tried to argue previously - has effectively reframed the Christianity and art conversation. I've found the last several posts at Siedell's blog a helpful development of his argument. There may be many paths the religion and art conversation are treading, but I find this one the most interesting, and I intend to follow it.

Art and religion, Siedell suggests, are kin (though he downplays the consequent sibling rivalry). In her recent book, Seven Days in the Art World, sociologist Sarah Thornton agrees. She asserts that art today is based on a common belief that has "transformed contemporary art into a kind of alternative religion for atheists." One could summon a host of other book-length witnesses. There's Ziolkowski, Chai, and perhaps most famously Bell, to name just a few. The point of art-as-religion is not an accusation made by Christians. It is a fact asserted by the secular world. Nietzsche, as is so often the case, puts it best:
The feelings expelled from the sphere of religion by the Enlightenment throw themselves into art.
Strangely, but not unconvincingly, Siedell posits this as a basis for Christian engagement of the art world, not its critique. I imagine (read: hope) this will initially make some people nervous. Siedell wants Christians to understand the art world on its own terms - to immerse themselves in it, even should it be a parallel faith. Would he advise the same strategy to Christians dealing with more established religion such as Voodoo (the analogy is the art world's, not mine)? Would he advise Christians to have more faith in foreign deities to help them be effective believers in Christ? What about conversion from one religion to another? What about not serving two masters? These are the kind of questions that would be especially raised not just by conservative Christian colleges Siedell engages, but especially by the Russian Orthodox theologians whom he repeatedly invokes.

But to ask these questions, I think, is to misunderstand Siedell. He has already effectively fielded these objections in God in the Gallery. "The church's aesthetics and poetics," he suggest, "is the ground of all aesthetics and poetics." It seems to me that he has the kind of confidence in Christian faith that sees this other religion called "art" as a stimulant, but not very much of a threat. Therefore, one can participate in its rituals without risking some kind of spiritual promiscuity. This confidence, I think, is what makes his kind of engagement fruitful, and what keeps it from devolving into some kind of pluralistic compromise. Siedell's firm theological conviction, not wobbly doctrine, is what enables him to build a sturdy analogical bridge between the Christianity and the "religion" of art. What's more, this analogy makes practicing Christians naturally disposed toward intelligent participation in the art world - if only they would make the effort.

In his recent posts, Siedell worries that Christians will continue to refuse engagement of contemporary art. My fear, however, is different. I fear they will do so without a confidence similar to Siedell's. When Christianity lacks - as it generally does in this country - a coherent visual tradition, the ability to engage visual art with self-assurance is decreased. Therefore, the Christian art colleges described (decried?) by Siedell have a twofold task: They need both teach students to engage the contemporary art world on its own terms, and to restore a coherent Christian visual tradition, one that Siedell acknowledges the need for in his book by pointing to the importance of liturgical art. This is, of course, a lot to ask.

Crisis of Faith
While I hope it's clear I find Siedell convincing, I'd like to point out a potential pitfall on this path. If we take Siedell's art-as-religion analogy at face value, what happens when the new religion is on the rocks? Oddly enough, the lion's share of irreverence within the religion of art is not coming from present day Savonarolas, but from artists themselves. Martí nez Celaya, a contemporary artist focused upon Siedell's book, may be one of them. In a review I'm indebted to Siedell for sending along, Celaya explains
I'm not interested in luscious, sexy, virtuosic painting, but the destruction of the image, undermining the certainty of the image.
Elsewhere Celaya describes his aspiration to make paintings that fail.
You may read other things about [my] "October Cycle" but you shouldn't trust them including whatever I've said. The "October Cycle" is a failure, those of you who dislike this work already know that and those of you who like the work should see to quickly understand its futility (62).
That may be just theory speak, but I like to think it betrays something deeper: Celaya's lack of confidence in art as faith. Now of course there are those who wish to import that exact deconstructive tendency into Christianity, but that won't work. It has, after all, always been there, but in a much more interesting way.

So, what does the adherent of a more tested religion [Christianity] do when adherents of a parallel religion [art] have a crisis of faith? Is it too much for a Christian, working in Siedell's paradigm, to suggest a faith (their own) that affords something - someone - more worthy of confidence? Surely not. The art world is packed with those who lost their faith in Christianity, which is why Christian images haunt the art world. Conversion, however, is a two way street.

Siedell paints a sorry picture of Christian college art departments today, and perhaps he's right. We could all perhaps stand to give contemporary art more of a chance. But the sorriest picture of all would be this: Those same Christian art departments keeping a rival religion on life support despite continuing signals that, parts of it at least, may just want to die.

UPDATE: Dan Siedell has been kind enough to respond to this post at his blog.