Who’s Afraid of Modern Art?

Last Wednesday, Mbird friend and conference speaker Dan Siedell visited Charlottesville and gave a wonderful talk on […]

Will McDavid / 5.6.13

Last Wednesday, Mbird friend and conference speaker Dan Siedell visited Charlottesville and gave a wonderful talk on modern art and Christianity. What made the talk compelling – among other things – was its confessional bent, an admittedly unshakable love of modern art despite questions as to its usefulness and a constant difficulty to justify that love along religious grounds. Rather than a forced dialogue between Christianity and modern art, we see two genuine, agenda-less loves of both, striving to come to terms with each other in an honest, profound, and emotionally charged way. But enough by way of intro: some of the passages I found most compelling are posted below, with the full recording available at the website of Christ Episcopal, the church hosting the talk:

schmidt-rotluff-road-to-emmausWe’re confused that some small pastel and oil drawing painted by a neurotic Norwegian made during the first decade of the twentieth century sold for $120 million dollars at Sotheby’s last year. How can that be? What are we missing? How can anyone pay that kind of money for pigments smeared along a piece of paper or a scrap of canvas. In fact, we’re hard pressed to account for how anyone would pay even a few hundred dollars for a painting. And so someone must be pulling our leg.

And yet there is also something else that haunts us. Perhaps it’s not just a sham, a joke, or a creation of theorists—perhaps modern art is dangerous. Perhaps it actually teaches us to see the world in ways that produce vice and not virtue, hatred and isolation, not love and community.

Perhaps modern art is something to fear.

I do not intend for my remarks tonight to help you make sense of modern art.

No, tonight I will do something different.

Tonight I will bear witness to my twenty five-year relationship with modern art. I will testify to what modern art has done to me as a human being, and as a Christian.

…I am thankful that I had the space to pursue my vocation as an art historian, wonderfully unencumbered by those questions. I used to consider the particular brand of prairie anti-intellectualism and dispensational Christian community in which I was raised to be a curse—something I was glad to be rid of after discovering Calvin and Abraham Kuyper. But now, tonight, I can consider it a providential gift. Burdened with the obligation to integrate my faith with my vocation as well as carrying the weight of “redeeming” culture, of staking out every square inch and declaring it, “Mine”—for Christ, of course. I don’t think I would have heard modern art’s call amidst all that noise. This sounds sacrilegious and incredibly impious, but Luther somewhere said that we are free to pursue our vocations as if God didn’t exist! What an incredibly scandalous thing to say. But I feel what he meant. And it’s liberating.

The burden to justify myself theologically, though, was inevitable…


But I stand before you tonight unable to justify my relationship with modern art theologically or otherwise. All I can do is confess that I cannot imagine my life as a human or as a Christian without it; that it has made a claim on me, and that God has graciously worked through that claim…

Modern art contradicts our desires. And I think that is a very good thing, given our fallen human tendency to make ourselves and our beliefs about ourselves and the world the center of the cosmos, to make ourselves the subjects of our existential sentences, to be, as David Foster Wallace said, “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms.” And we want our visual imagery to feed our Old Adam’s desire to shape the world around our own beliefs and our own desires. To make art fit into our worldview.

But modern art lives in discontinuities. It contradicts our belief that artistic value is found in technical virtuosity, that its “meaning” should declare itself immediately, that looking is easy, and art is about making us feel good. It’s a stick shoved into the relentlessly spinning spokes of our incessantly spinning desire for emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic efficiency. In other words, modern art undermines our desire to make art serve our theologies of glory.


And it has taught me some things about my faith. Christianity is not a life system, helping me make sense of the world, making it transparent and explainable. In fact, it makes the world impenetrable, mysterious, and frustrating to me, creating discontinuities and sharp edges that confuse and anger me…

Although it is full of pain, suffering and doubt, if we allow ourselves to sit still, perhaps lizard-like, and look closely enough, we can hear something else from the world—a song.

In an essay on the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky wrote, “Love is essentially an attitude maintained by the infinite toward the finite. The reversal constitutes either faith or poetry.”

I’m not exactly sure what I was doing at MoMA looking at those odd paintings by Cézanne a few months ago, but I think I was, like Matisse, looking for faith. …

Wow! Some other highlights include a Christian Wiman passage, a small auto-biopic about Dan’s crisscrossing professional/religious lives, and yet more on God’s gracious ability to deconstruct us through “negative” experience, to kill and bring to life, and to use passion for his glory, regardless of whether or not easy theological sense can be made of it. Again, well-worth a listen in full!