Zac Hicks reviews Dan Siedell’s “Who’s Afraid of Modern Art?”
There are times in life (much too rare for me, because rose-smelling isn’t in the workaholic’s DNA) when reading a book is experienced with the accompaniment of a hopeful aching of the heart. It’s hard to put the book down, not because you need to know what’s next, but because it takes you to deep places you know you need to be more often than you are. I have experienced this with some novels and theological and philosophical works. Having this rich experience with Daniel Siedell’s Who’s Afraid of Modern Art? was a first, and I didn’t expect it.
In a Nutshell
The best way I can describe this book in a nutshell is that it offers reflections on art, vocation, and the human condition in an integrated way and through a Reformational lens. For this reason, it really is a book for everyone, whether or not you’re an “art person.” It tackles the big human questions (identity, worth, value, vocation, despair, anxiety) particularly as they present themselves in the world of artists, artifacts, and the relational webs that comprise the art-industrial complex. I certainly recommend reading this book with Google images nearby, so that you can ponder the paintings and works that Siedell references as he talks about them.
The Introduction is a must-read because of the way its autobiographical, confessional nature moves to becoming all our own biography. It drives to this fundamental thesis: “The tradition of modern art reminds us that all human creative work comes from the desire to be loved for who we are and the pain of not receiving that” (p. 9). Not your typical thought. But that’s where this book goes.
Art as Speech, Life as Reception
What Martin Luther calls the vita passiva (probably best translated the “receptive life,” rather than the “passive life”) serves as the structure on which Siedell hangs his thoughts, laying the foundation for reflection in Chapters 1 (“The Ear”) and 2 (“The Audience”). There he argues for an approach to art—and an approach to life—which hears, receives, indeed suffers. Siedell pokes at our penchant to control and to instrumentalize art, which tends to co-mingle idolatry with interpretation. He says, “We look at art in order to talk about something else, something more important, more relevant, more useful to us” (p. 36). But what if art, rather than being a springboard to the other, more important thoughts, is actually speaking to us? And what if our reflections and interpretations actually silence that voice we were meant to hear? What if art wasn’t first to be interpreted, but suffered?
The “Art World”
Siedell’s treatment of “the art world” isn’t dreamy. It’s honest and eye-opening. The art world, like any other world, is a fragile system where the ruthless world of business, which tends to dehumanize and instrumentalize everyone from the artist to the patron, meets the tender world of human identity and vocation. It exposes the heart of the matter for artists, audiences, and patrons in the art-industrial complex. Siedell says that things come to a head at “the auction, the nerve center of the contemporary art world,” which is “the primary site in the art world in which men and women participate in what Hegel called a life-or-death battle for mutual recognition. As such, it is one of the most profoundly theological locations in contemporary culture, where the ultimate value of life, a person’s justification, is at stake with each lot and with each bid” (p. 50). And another zinger: “A reason why prices for many works of art are so exorbitant is because a price tag cannot be placed on one’s justification” (p. 53), whether it is the justification of the artist, the audience, the buyer, or the patron. Siedell’s very original insight (I haven’t heard anyone else put it this way) is in exposing how the deepest, most fundamental human longing for self-justification plays out in the nitty gritty of the art world. In this respect, do not miss the powerful vignette beginning on p. 54, culminating with Cézanne’s poignant confession, “with every stroke, I risk my life.”
Eye-Opening Depictions of Modern Art and Artists
But all the above was just the reflection that laid the ground for the emotional journey that I took as Siedell curated an art tour for me through the life and work of Warhol, Velasquez, Munch, Hirst, O’Neil, Monet, Picasso, Serrano, and, yes, Thomas Kinkade. I hope that every reader receives Siedell’s treatment of Serrano’s oft-maligned Piss Christ (pp. 68-69, 96-101), which is powerful, but I will focus on what spoke to my heart in the life and work of Diego Velásquez (pp. 78ff). This Spanish Baroque painter is hailed as a proto-modern artist because of both his refusal to play by the rules and his “aesthetic detachment.” Velásquez seemed free from the pressures of reputation-building and aesthetic conformity that plague artists in every generation, powerfully symbolized in his odd habit of cleaning his brush on the corner of the very canvas on which he would paint. Siedell reflects, “How could a human being so gifted care so little about his gift? Certainly, a human being whose identity is received as grace, whose relationship to God, the world, and himself was not defined by his work as an artist and the paintings he painted” (85). As the book’s themes of reception, identity, and grace converged in Velásquez, I found myself wanting that very freedom, aching for it, crying out to God for it.
One Thing I Absolutely Love About the Book
Siedell has a way, at various points, of turning on their heads the criticisms and presumptions that we tend to inject into our reflections on modern art. His treatment of Serrano, crescendoing into p. 101, does this. But another table-turning moment was perhaps my favorite. In his treatment of abstract art, Siedell powerfully argued that it just might be the case that this art form, which is so often criticized for arrogantly dismissing art’s rich tradition, may be perhaps more in step with tradition than the defenders of tradition themselves (140-149). These mind-flipping “aha” moments are littered throughout the book.
My Concern and Hope for Some Readers
Some readers will be tempted to dismiss this book because of how “postmodern” it sounds. I put quotes around the word because, for instance, the book’s questioning of the presumptive arrogance of metanarratives (e.g., pp. 25-26) and “world view thinking”sounds like the kind of thing that “wishy-washy, unanchored, relativist po-mo thinkers” say. To those who might have this reaction, I encourage you to press into the book. Its undergirding theology—in the Reformation traditions of Luther, Melanchthon, and J. G. Hamann (a contemporary of Kant)—has something to say to us, and it is a very different word than what postmodernism says.
Upon finishing Who’s Afraid of Modern Art? and soaking in it for a few days, I came away with this thought, which I think serves as a summary of what this book “does,” and which I think will only make sense to those who read it:
I’m finding, time and again, “love hopes all things” to be a powerful manifesto for ministry and life. Grace frees us to such childishness.
I hope and pray people will pick up this book, receive what it has to give, and maybe be moved toward a similar manifesto. The world would be better for it.
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