An Interview with Dan Siedell on Faith and Art

Last fall I had the chance to meet Dan Siedell, a fellow Lincoln native, when he made a trip back to Nebraska. (Dan teaches classes at both Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale and at The King’s College in Manhattan.) We were able to have lunch as well as organize a brief discussion night at my church on issues related to Christianity and art. After our time together, I had several questions I wanted to ask Dan based on his comments at the event. So Dan and I stayed in touch and over the next few months did a long interview about the relationship between art, worldviews, and the life of local communities.

JM: In an interview in Curator, you said that if your first introduction to modern art had been with Hans Rookmaker, the Dutch critic who influenced Francis Schaeffer so deeply, you would have been forced to either give up your art or your faith. Why is that?

DS: I came to Rookmaaker, like I came to Schaeffer, after I’d already completed my course work for a Ph.D. in the history of modern art, after I’d moved to New York to study with a critic, moved again to pursue doctoral studies. When I was writing my dissertation, I’d already been married for three years, had our first child, and so I already had considerable skin—and bone—in the game. I’d sacrificed so much and knew that I would be called on to sacrifice a lot more to pursue my passion for modern art. [Rookmaker's work] just rang hollow to me.

And I think it rang hollow for me because Rookmaaker’s and Schaeffer’s worldview focus was intellectual—it was about ideas and thoughts—and art was always just an expression of such things. For both [of them] there was a certain distance—art was kept at arm’s length, as it were. And that was not my experience. Now, I’ve had many people who studied with those two men tell me that they were passionate about it and encouraged their students to engage it. But their writing didn’t communicate that to me. I was converted to modern art through writing, through words, and so I’m very sensitive to my own voice and communicating a passion for my subject, a passion that encourages participation, not dismissal. Their work was also about a particular moment in which the “Christian artist” was a viable way to be faithfully present in culture. I don’t think that’s the case now.

JM: So you felt like they reduced art to a device for transmitting information about worldviews, as if art were some sort of mechanical thing–insert worldview x, produce aesthetic product y?

DS: Exactly. The “worldview” was more important than actually listening to the work of art itself. And the work of art was viewed as only visual decoration of what the artist believes. But my work as a critic and art historian is predicated on the belief that there is a substantial difference between what an artist says he or she thinks about the world and what the work of art says about that world. A work of art is not the sum total of the worldview of the artist. Moreover, worldview thinking presumes that one’s thoughts and beliefs are completely consistent and can be articulated. And that’s just not true. The very existence of poetry, painting, film, and music is evidence of that. Worldview thinking can tend (not always, but it can) to reduce all art to ideas in paint, or ideas in verse, or ideas in lyrics, which ignores the material specificity of paint, words, sound—in other words, the form.

JM: Can you expand on what you mean by saying that being a “Christian artist” is no longer a viable way of being faithfully present in broader culture?

DS: I think there was a time in the 1970s, when Rookmaker and Schaeffer published their popular tracts on art, that there was a belief, derived, interestingly, from the avant-garde notion of “movement” art, that art could be transformed by proliferating Christian artists and banding together to affect social change. (One of the key characteristics of modern art is the belief on the part of artists and critics that art could transform society—kind of ironic, given Rookmaker and Schaeffer’s criticism of modern art!). The issue about the Christian Artist comes out of the view that one’s “beliefs” or “worldview” is produced seamlessly in the artistic artifacts.

I think Schaeffer and Rookmaaker believed that if the world were full of Christian artists, then the art would reflect a Christian worldview. But what exactly a “Christian worldview” looks like in art is the problem. Unfortunately, what a “Christian worldview” often coincides with art that is content to avoid offensive imagery and tells familiar stories in familiar ways to produce familiar results. What also can happen is that self-described “Christian artists” work to articulate their Christian message and don’t spend enough time learning their craft, learning the history and tradition of their craft, which includes the two centuries of modernism, through which every artist must work. The history and tradition of modern art is the context within which contemporary artistic practice takes place.

What can happen with self-conscious “Christian artists” is that they believe they can go back to some golden age of Christianity and Art, usually the Renaissance or the Baroque periods, and operate under a different set of rules. But that approach isn’t incarnational, it doesn’t take seriously enough the embodied reality of art as it exists today, as it’s taught in art schools, as it’s presented in museums, galleries, etc and it can tend to deny the possibility that God is actively at work in this history and tradition. God is as actively at work in “modern art” as he is in the work of the Renaissance and the Baroque. I’m much more interested in listening to works of art out there in the world with Christian ears, than thinking about an artist’s worldview or whether the artist comes from some Christian, spiritual, or religious perspective. I think we need more Christian critics who can creatively love their neighbor by listening to the works of art they make and communicate that experience.

JM: I want to talk more about that issue of art and world-view. In thinking about art and worldview, what is the difference between a Christian creating art explicitly to serve the church’s public worship, like one of Isaac Watts’ hymns or the architects who built Chartres Cathedral, and a Christian creating art NOT intended for use in public worship, such as O’Connor’s short stories or Rembrandt’s paintings? It seems like Christian art used in the liturgy ought to function more in the way Schaeffer and Rookmaker are describing.

DS: First, an important distinction has to be made between art made in the context of worship, in a liturgical context, and art made outside the church. The problem is that art is a cultural and institutional practice that has evolved outside the church since the Reformation and so what it means to be an artist is to be initiated into those cultural practices and institutions that are outside the church. The church should embrace art as a secular vocation and encourage their artists to be faithfully present in all the nooks and crannies of the art world as a means by which God is active in the world as we love our neighbor.

If the church wants an artist to design a pulpit or make a chalice or some other piece of liturgical furniture, I think that is terrific. But it causes confusion when that kind of work is regarded as somehow more spiritual, more worshipful, or a more valid embodiment of what “Art” should be. Secular work can have religious content, like Rembrandt’s work or Gauguin’s, for that matter. But it’s not intended to serve liturgical purposes—and that’s important. Many artists in the church today want the church to be a patron (pay for my work, show my work) but don’t want the church to censor their work—but back when the church was the patron (the only patron), ALL the church did was censor. As someone who lives and breathes and has his being in the history of modern art, I am so thankful for the Reformation and the development of artistic practices that exists outside the purview of the church. In fact, I thank God each and every day that art operates in the secular realm and that the church is not the primary patron of art!

JM: Let’s talk more about the liturgical point. Liturgies do several things. They engage individuals on a very basic, emotive, almost visceral level, but they do more than just that. They also shape the community toward certain things. Worshiping in a cathedral shapes the community in one way, worshiping in a warehouse shapes the community in another way. The Latin mass shapes the community in different ways than the typical folksy hymn singing that characterizes many young reformed churches. So while I agree with you that a work of art is way more than an aesthetically pleasing world-view container, it seems like art still does push communities toward certain ends and being aware of those ends is important. Is that perhaps a more acceptable way of stating some of Rookmaker and Schaeffer’s ideas?

DS: I think that is a great distillation of Jamie Smith’s project and its relevance for thinking about art. The way you’ve put it, with two opposing liturgies, however, can feel Manichean to me, which implies that looking at art in a warehouse, for example, or participating in the secular art world by definition is a competing liturgy, a competing worldview, a competing faith. I don’t think that’s the case. I would put it rather, the church’s liturgy, or the proclamation of the Word (in Word and Sacrament) in the Divine Service allows us to go out into the warehouse and into the world and experience art without turning it into an idol—without believing that it gets us closer to God. The Divine Service allows us to love our spouses and children without turning them into our gods, etc. In faith, we are freed to embrace the world as the world, creation as creation, creatures as creatures, not gods. So, I’d say, the aesthetics of the Divine Service gives us the world as a gift through the crucified and risen Savior, which frees us to look at art in the warehouse, frees us also to listen to it in a way that is sensitive to God’s presence in and through all things (Col 1), frees us to receive them as good gifts, not as threats to our worldviews. So, in the end, I’d say that the aesthetic practice of the liturgy in and through faith opens up the aesthetic practice of art in and through love of our neighbor.

JM: OK, so if we agree about the Divine Service shaping us, how do works of art outside the divine liturgy shape us? Is it possible to talk about the formative impact of a show like Breaking Bad, for example? What about the formative impact of a song like Katie Perry’s Roar–which is basically a poppy, radio-friendly statement of individual capability and self-actualization. Both these questions end up getting at the same basic issue. Or what about the formative difference in watching a marriage like Eric and Tami Taylor versus a marriage like Frank and Marie Barone’s?

We are in complete agreement that any analysis that reduces art to worldview analysis is wrong-headed. But I want to hear you say more about the relationship between art and personal and social formation. Essentially I’m trying to figure out how to hold onto your concerns while still retaining some shred of what Schaeffer and Rookmaker seemed to be saying.

DS: What you’ve observed is, I think, is perhaps the challenge facing Christian reflection on art and culture. And I’m in deep sympathy with how you’ve framed the challenge. Yet, I’m nervous, first and foremost, about ascribing to art a kind of virtue formation responsibility. In some ways, I tend to agree with the spirit of Oscar Wilde’s quip, “all art is immoral.” I think it’s important to remember that we actually have to be told who we are (I’m quoting Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer here). We refuse to believe 1) we’re going to die 2) we will die alone 3) we are self-actualizing, works-righteousness mongers who are not making “progress” toward deification. Bayer somewhere says that we don’t even fulfill the law when we’ve fulfilled it.

So, I think there’s an important role for art—whether it’s Katie Perry or, my favorite, Miley Cyrus, to remind us that we’re actually JUST LIKE Katie Perry and Miley Cyrus. They are just like us, only more so. I also think your interpretation of Perry’s song is a bit unfair, if only because there isn’t a single work that I’ve produced that is free of the accusation and dismissal that it’s self-actualizing and a celebration of individual capability! I tend to believe that our virtue is inextricably bound up with our vice, our “good works” intertwined with our sin. God works with broken vessels.

My worry in a lot of virtue-laden discourse is that “we” (for all have sinned…) gets turned into “us” (righteous or righteous strivers) vs. “them” (unrighteous). You raise a great point about what shapes us, but you also have made value judgments about what are good marriage relationships and what are bad relationships that I think presuppose certain ends that I don’t think are necessarily true.

First, I think we have to remember that Jesus says that what goes in doesn’t defile us; it’s what comes out. Your example presupposes the validity of a classical anthropology, one that presumes that our behavior is shaped through imitation. And I think there’s truth in it as far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes all the way down, or, put better, all the way up (to God).

I don’t think watching a good marriage on TV makes me a better husband. My view of art, even popular art (music, film, tv) is such that I can’t dismiss out of hand that a portrayal of bad marriages, for example, aren’t unhelpful. That is, I feel myself touched and described by bad marriage relationships as much as good ones. And often it’s in those bad ones that the beauty and tragedy of love and sacrifice is so painfully made clear to me. I fear that some of our talk about virtue formation doesn’t actually connect with where we are as husbands, wives, etc. In fact, it can teach us dishonesty because we can’t really be honest with ourselves about our failures as fathers, husbands, etc. You might become a better citizen, a better participant in the public square, by watching good marriages on TV, but you might not become a better Christian, or a better husband. I want to maintain a space that a lesbian relationship on Glee can speak to me as a human being that at once discloses God’s grace and reveals the beauty and brokenness of the world.

JM: OK, that’s helpful. Changing topics a bit, let’s talk about the sacred/secular issue. I think we’re in total agreement that the sacred/secular distinction that privileges the sacred and denigrates the secular is false and dangerous. But isn’t there another way of being dualistic in which we say “the sacred and secular carry equal weight but are governed by utterly different, distinct criteria that cannot be compared?” I’m trying to understand how the lordship of Christ manifests itself in both the church AND the art world. Can you help me understand that?

DS: That is a great question. Well, the classic Reformation distinction between active and passive righteousness, between faith and love, person and work, is important I think. Although it only survives (somewhat) in the Lutheran traditions and in marginalized “law and gospel” pockets in the Reformed world. The early Reformers, initiated by Luther, said that we respond to God passively in faith (vertical) and then we respond actively in love toward our neighbor (horizontal). Luther is adamant that what God requires of us is faith and that is a passive response. That passivity frees us to work in the world for our neighbor. God doesn’t need our good works. But our neighbor does.

What that does is dramatically narrow the “sacred” sphere—through the Word that is preached through word and sacrament—in which God’s promises of life are given to us to hear, taste, feel, and see. This dramatically opens up the “secular” sphere for us to use our gifts to serve our neighbor. The worship that God requires is fulfilled by faith, what Ps 51 calls a “broken and contrite heart” or what is depicted by the King of Nineveh in the book of Jonah. When the disciples ask Jesus what must they be doing to do the will of God, Jesus responds, in John 4, “to believe in the one he has sent.”

So, in many ways, the church and the artworld operate in the secular realm. If I’m cleaning toilets on Saturdays in the church, it’s not a special kind of work for God. I’m just loving my neighbor. Cleaning toilets at church is thus no different than cleaning toilets at the local charter school or at the local museum. God is as active in the world in both locations. Our old Adam, however, wants to take what happens in the secular world, on the horizontal level, and pull it upward to God, as if we’re offering to God something that he needs from us, something in addition to the passivity and ego killing response of faith. Art can then become a means of “worshiping” God, of proving our holiness, spirituality, etc.

And so I’m very interested in preserving the horizontal location of art in the worldly sphere of loving your neighbor, not in climbing the ladder of Divine Ascent. God is there all the same, but art is freed from the obligation of being “spiritual” in problematic ways. For Luther God is at work in the most mundane jobs. On one hand, everything is “sacred” and on the other everything is “secular.” I think it’s important to think both ways, just as it’s important to remember that although God sees us as righteous through Christ, the Old Adam remains on this side of the eschaton.

JM: Final question, and another slight subject change. If I’m understanding you correctly, one of your main concerns with Christians and the art world is that we need to be shaped spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and so on before we can truly appreciate and receive a work of art. You’re arguing that art is about so much more than simple ideas we hold in our heads, so comprehending and understanding that requires a certain amount of personal formation. So how do Christians and churches pursue that sort of formation as individuals and communities?

DS: I think that there is an aesthetic dimension to faith and the reception of the gospel that the arts can help us become much more sensitive to. I resist the urge to give to art prescriptive powers and responsibilities to shape minds (fundamentalists or evangelicals) or the imagination—art participates in doing both but we err greatly by prescribing it, which reduces art to what most communities want art for—as a tool.

The most important thing that the church can do is to encourage artists to participate in their art worlds—go to art school, exhibit their work in galleries, to make art that is part of the conversation out there in the world—that to me is incarnational and being faithfully present. Sometimes, the church’s talk about Beauty, or the Good and the True, can hinder that roll up your sleeves and get dirty in the realities of art making. Indeed, much conversation about “Beauty” is actually a covert means to dismiss much if not most of art out there in the world.

Art is an historical concept before it is a philosophical or theological one. To see the experience of a work of art as a spiritual encounter is first and foremost to stand before an artifact that has agency, that speaks—that addresses us. And that space is historically and institutionally constituted as art has unfolded through generations and centuries. That encounter opens up a space between the work and the viewer that is richly theological. When I look at a work of art, when it encounters me at a museum, for instance, It’s ME not the artist that is at issue at the moment. The work looks at and speaks to me. Of all the pairs of eyes over the decades or centuries that have looked at that painting before me, it is only mine at that moment that are addressed by it. All of my work is intended to preserve the miracle of that moment.

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  • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com/ Matthew Loftus

    The opening of this was interesting to me because when I was a teenager, reading Francis Schaeffer was a breath of fresh air bending away from the stream of thought that constrained art to either a strictly liturgical purpose or a delivery vehicle for the “Christian worldview.” I felt like I had some permission to listen to Bright Eyes or watch Se7en, enjoy them on their own merits, and analyze what the artist was saying and then see where the truth came out or didn’t. In some ways. But is good to see that there is more beyond that to challenge ourselves as consumers. Thanks for the work you put into this interview!

  • davestrunk

    I may be misunderstanding Siedell’s larger point here, but I do have a comment on his explanation of virtue and “pop art.”

    Essentially, I don’t find Siedell’s comments here rooted on the ground. The stories we repeat to ourselves absolutely have a virtue shaping effect. The “bad marriages” he witnesses on television can have a positive shaping effect only to the extent that he’s already bringing the Christian story consciously to bear on his reception of the “pop” narratives. If I think “Modern Family” interesting and funny and nothing else, then chances are I’ll eventually find the relationships presented in the sitcom untroubling. If I bring a Christian understanding (yes, even of the Law) to bear on my viewing, I’ll see it with different eyes.

    My wife works with high schoolers. They are absolutely shaped, and shaped negatively, by their obsession with pop culture. We see this consistently in her work. Jamie Smith’s whole point with lodging change in the “imagination” is that much human behavior functions pre-cognitively. Liturgies shape us, unawares. Bad liturgies can shape us positively, only if we are aware of how to process the message.

    In other words, I think we do need to heed the virtue conversation, even lest we forget the first use of the Law: to restrain evil. Quite frankly, a lot of pop art puts forward evil, and its not a bad thing not to take it in. It’s a good thing to avoid it. The Law/Gospel paradigm doesn’t apply to the second use of the Law only.

    • Thursday1

      I totally agree with this.

  • Thursday1

    I think one can certainly go to far in rejecting all art in the contemporary world, but I’d like to push back a bit. Form is not neutral and some forms are simply incompatible with the gospel. Much contemporary art is how it is because it reflects a highly rationalist and materialist view of the world, one incompatible with Christianity.

    I’ve been reading a lot of the contemporary aesthetician Sianne Ngai and what has struck me is how much contemporary art channels people’s aesthetic impulse into dealing with trivial affects, which are much more containable within our rationalized, bureaucratized modernity. I would even go further and say that something like pop art trains us to focus on the trivial. In fact, it trains us to be trivial.

    • Thursday1

      There seems to be the implicit idea behind all this that art just couldn’t have an extremely negative impact on us and our spiritual lives.

    • Thursday1

      Indeed, much conversation about “Beauty” is actually a covert means to dismiss much if not most of art out there in the world.

      As Ngai has noted, much contemporary art is a flight away from beauty towards trivial affects.

      Now there are also major problems on the other side with religious kitsch, basically fake beauty, but that doesn’t mean rather uncritically embracing modernism and post-modernism or whatever else is out there right now is the answer either.

  • Thursday1

    The way you’ve put it, with two opposing liturgies, however, can feel Manichean to me, which implies that looking at art in a warehouse, for example, or participating in the secular art world by definition is a competing liturgy, a competing worldview, a competing faith. I don’t think that’s the case.

    I take the point that not all contemporary art is bad, either in a religious, moral, or aesthetic sense. And even some of the bad stuff may have some redeeming features.

    I also don’t think this means totally eschewing participation in the secular art world.

    And, yet, it seems foolish to me not to acknowledge that the entire modern world is giant secularist liturgy. And contemporary art has to step up and take a bow as part of that.

    It also seems to be extremely foolish for Christians not to be very cautious when engaging with the secular art world.

  • stan schmunk

    Unfortunately, Dan’s philosophy is based on a very serious misinterpretation of Acts 17. Paul was NOT admiring the statues of the gods. Rather he was repelled by it. The verb in v16 denotes being provoked to anger. And why? Because the city was full of idols, which in Scripture are often associated with demons. Paul used the unknown god as an entry point into the discussion. He was NOT admiring the pecs, abs or buttocks of Zeus, etc. As I learned as a boy, if you don’t buy the premise, don’t buy the bit.

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