Reviewed by Daniel A. Siedell
The art world is an easy target for Christians. As a museum curator and contemporary art specialist, I spend a great deal of energy vigorously defending this art world against "Christian perspectives" which I regard as unhelpful and inaccurate, perspectives shaped more by the cultural politics of the Christian Right than by the Cross. But as I negotiated my way through the throngs at Art Basel in Miami Beach not long ago, I felt sharp sympathy pains for those Christians who see nothing good coming from the art world—at least, the art world of impenetrable critical theory, chic parties, corporate sponsorships, and overly ironic and cynical "edgy" art that is the stock in trade of curators, museum directors, collectors, and commercial gallery directors located in such cosmopolitan centers in New York and Los Angeles, with outposts in Miami, Dallas, Aspen et al.
As I fought my way through the hipsters to catch glimpses of massive amounts of uninteresting art crammed into booths like any other product in a trade convention, I thought about the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and I thought about how the aesthetic and the visual arts in particular embody them. I also thought about how unnecessary and irrelevant all those thoughts were to those in attendance at what is now considered the most important international art fair in the world. Perhaps this particular art world is indeed not worth defending.
So it was with relief and joy when I was back at home that I turned my attention to two art books published by Eerdmans, documenting exhibitions that foreground the important role that the visual arts play in the Good, the True, and the Beautiful; affirming the importance of the aesthetic life; and celebrating the role of art in the life of faith. The disparity between my experience at Art Basel and that of reading these books could not have been greater and more disturbing, particularly for one who is often more critical of the Christian critique of the art world than of the art world itself.
A Broken Beauty: Figuration, Narrative and the Transcendent in North American Art, edited by Theodore Prescott, is the brainchild of painter Bruce Herman, who is chair of the Art Department at Gordon College. A Broken Beauty (hereafter ABB) is a beautiful book with wonderful illustrations of compelling artwork. It also serves as the catalogue for an ambitious traveling exhibition of the paintings of fifteen artists, currently on view at the Laguna Art Museum (through February 26). Herman invited sculptor Ted Prescott to edit the book. Distinguished Professor of Art at Messiah College, Prescott has worked tirelessly to affirm the importance of art for a Christian worldview. Gordon Fuglie, director of the Laband Gallery at Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles, curated the exhibition and authored two essays. In addition to Prescott's insightful introduction and Fuglie's informative essays, Italian Renaissance scholar Timothy Verdon as well as Northern Renaissance scholar Lisa DeBoer of Westmont College were invited to write essays. DeBoer's essay on the "comic vision" in Northern Renaissance art is itself worth the price of the book and offers much potential for crafting new Christian perspectives for writing about contemporary art.
ABB arises from Herman's commitment to the Classical-Renaissance figurative tradition and his belief in its continued viability and indeed necessity for the contemporary art world. It is through these forms that the visual arts can, once again, address the Good, the True, and the Beautiful from a framework that is unapologetically nourished by Christ, a framework destroyed when modernity severed the bond between art and the Church.
The Next Generation: Contemporary Expressions of Faith (hereafter NG) is a slightly different but closely related project. The book serves as the catalogue to an exhibition that opened at the Museum of Biblical Art (MoBiA) in New York City this fall, organized and curated by Bethel University art historian Wayne Roosa and MoBiA's chief curator Patricia C. Pongracz. NG highlights 44 artists whose work deals explicitly with biblical themes. This project is a collaboration between MoBiA and CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts), an organization over 25 years old and now based on the campus of Gordon College, which is almost singularly committed to expand the presence of confessing Christians in the art world.
NG features an excellent curatorial essay by Pongracz and a major chapter by Roosa, an in-depth historical and critical assessment of the role that the Scriptures have played in the history of Western art. (Roosa's chapter is itself a major contribution to the growing presence of confessing Christians in the contemporary art world.) Unlike AAB, NG also includes artists' statements, allowing the artists themselves to define the meaning and significance of their work. Moreover, NG is organized, and curated, in terms of separate themes: "God in the Details," "God in the Mystery," "The Book," "Faith and Healing by Grace," "The Altarpiece and Book as Idea," and "Last Things."
The two projects share a common belief in the importance of aesthetics, beauty, and the practice of art in culture. So rarely do such presses such as Eerdmans, Baker, Intervarsity, and the like produce books on the visual artists, it is indeed cause for celebration any time they appear. (Eerdmans should especially be commended for their efforts. I am well aware that producing art books is no easy and cost-efficient endeavor and requires a serious commitment on the part of publisher.) These books are required additions to the library of any culturally engaged Christian who cares about the visual arts. They are a Who's Who for the largely North American, largely evangelical, art world they represent. ABB and NG are, without question, serious and significant contributions to Christian cultural engagement. They are even more important since they were produced by artists, art historians, and curators, not philosophers and theologians; it is the art itself, not philosophy or theology, that is their subject.
And yet, I have some concerns. There is a general tendency in these books to locate a Christian essence in style (e.g., figuration, as manifest in ABB) or subject matter (e.g., biblical themes, as in NG) that puts considerable limits on how and in what ways one understands contemporary art and the Christian faith. Valorizing a distinctive style or subject matter makes critical interpretation much easier in the short run, but risks giving short shrift to art that is not so easily defined. Closely related to this is the propensity for the artist's faith to overtake aesthetic and critical criteria by which her art is evaluated. Consequently, art is often understood as a visual illustration of a personal faith shaped and formed outside the studio.
There is also a tendency to demonize unnecessarily the history of modern art and the contemporary art world against which the writer then posits an idealized Christian artistic past and present. In troubling ways, this Christian perspective requires a certain kind of art world against which to react. In addition to giving it more power than it actually possesses, this approach tends to flatten out the contemporary art world, turning it into a single, monolithic "thing" that is "out there" while at the same time discouraging artists and critics from self-critically assessing how and in what ways "Christian art" is itself a part of this art world.
I did not attend Art Basel alone. I went with Enrique Martinez Celaya, a Cuban-born artist who recently moved his studio to Delray Beach, Florida after working over a decade in Los Angeles. Major art museums and collectors throughout the United States and Europe (particularly Germany) exhibit and acquire his work. (In fact, one of his dealers sold the only painting he released to the art fair during the first five minutes the fair was open.) From the perspective of ABB and NG, Martinez Celaya would be one of "those" artists from "that" art world. But he had the same sick feeling about the art world on display as I. We talked about this art world and our ambivalent relationship to it, how we must work out our vocations as artist and curator often against the major tendencies in the contemporary art world. In short, we talked about being in this art world but not of it.
To do this in practice and for the long haul is not easy, and it is no sweeping dismissal of these two fine books to say that we can learn as much from their failures as from their successes. Although in both ABB and NG the so-called "secular" art world is eschewed in theory, in practice, there is a strong desire to drop trendy names and hot institutions when some of the artists receive some attention from this corner of the art world. Both books reveal an ambivalent relationship to cultural relevance: on one hand they use their self-proclaimed marginal status as evidence of faithfulness and integrity, while on the other they promote and even exaggerate their "impact" on the larger culture when one of their own gets "noticed." The best art and writing in ABB and NG transcends these limitations and points toward another way of practicing art and criticism that offers a new way of being in the contemporary art world and not of it.
Daniel A. Siedell is curator of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska. He is working with artist Enrique Martinez Celaya on a collaborative monographic project entitled Enrique Martinez Celaya: The Early Work, to be published by Whale and Star in 2006.
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