Who’s Afraid of Modern Art?

By Daniel van Voorhis –

modern art

While I spend my time here at the Jagged Word as the Man About Town, this week I am filling in for my good friend, colleague, and co-host Jeff Mallinson (the Wayfaring Stranger). In this space Jeff usually ties in the theme of our latest show and expands some of his thoughts as he ruminates on the show.

Jeff would relish the opportunity to write about our last show, “The Art of Faith” with Dr. Dan Siedell. Despite (or maybe because of) watching the World Series on mute during our chat, we had a particularly good time during the interview and found him to be candid, insightful and a little surprising in his appraisal of modern art. I highly recommend you listen to the last show to hear some of Jeff’s comments and questions with our guest.

Dr. Siedell, a professor at the King’s College in New York and Knox Seminary, has written a few books (notably, Who’s Afraid of Modern ArtGod In the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art) and taken a possibly controversial approach to modern art as an art historian, critic, and museum curator. And it is possibly most controversial as he is a Christian embracing an art form derided by many Christians. Yet, as Christians have often eschewed modern art as a means of expression, Dr. Siedell makes an earnest and compelling plea for the church to reexamine its approach to modern art and its humility and vulnerability.

Listeners of the show know that I tend to be a fan of modernism (primarily in literature and art in the early 20th century) while Jeff is sympathetic to elements of postmodernity.

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While we both found Dr. Siedell’s arguments compelling, they struck a particular nerve with me.  I have spent much of my professional career dealing with modernity from the Enlightenment to the aftermath of World War I and agree with Paul Johnson that is was “The primal tragedy of modern world civilization”. The tragedy was not only in the millions of casualties but also in the “lost generation “of young men and women who struggled to find meaning in a world where, in the words of historian Jacques Barzun, “heaven storming was cut off by the wall of the war”.

And while it fostered movements from the absurdist, Dadaism, and surrealism, these were not movements that necessarily expressed nihilism or failed to tap into deep existential, and theological truths.

This is, in part, Dr. Siedell’s appreciation of Modern Art (from the mid-19th century, with the Monet and the Impressionists to Jackson Pollock). He finds that in the depths of despair and hopelessness, modern art interprets us and causes us to look into the void. And it is here where we can cultivate our own humility and vulnerability. It is here where we can consider modern art (and art in general) as a worthy field of exploration for the Christian (even aesthetically challenged modern Lutherans). While this appeals to me historically, it resonates theologically with Jeff and his fondness for Wisdom literature and the book of Ecclesiastes in particular.

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So in light of this past show, and our recent series on the Fall (as metaphor, season, and theological dilemma) we were reminded by Dr. Siedell to not be afraid to look at those who see a darkness and express it in the visual arts. Furthermore, we shouldn’t be afraid of looking into the void we see in our own soul and culture. Is it meaningless (“sound and fury, signifying nothing”)? Or can we find in the art of Edvard Munch, Marc Chagall, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, among others, a longing for truth in the realizations of the darkness of the world and cracks of light revealing glimpses of light.

Part of this requires the lost art of looking deeply and with patience, as well as accepting the mysterious and mystical as sometimes legitimate means of inspiration.

Who’s afraid of modern art? Perhaps it is those who write it off as relativistic and meaningless.I am reminded of Ayn Rand’s comment that “I do not know which is worse: to practice modern art as a colossal fraud or to do it sincerely.” (I will keep my vitriol for Ms. Rand to myself right now.) But when we distinguish between the nihilism of some post-modern art and the deep, if flawed and sometimes hopeless, search for truth in modern art we should perhaps examine our approach to an art form that we might find troubling, for our own sake and the sake of the church.

All the Best,

The Man About Town (filling in for the Wayfaring Stranger)

Composed while listening to “The Sounds of the Fall” (a playlist composed by reader Caleb Bassett based on my article of the same name).

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One thought on “Who’s Afraid of Modern Art?

  1. If you ever get up to Sleepy Hollow or Tarrytown, NY, you have to visit the Union Church of Pocantico Hills. It is a chapel built by the Rockefeller family and features a rosette by Matisse and windows by Chagall. All of the windows are Old Testament images except the full, wall-sized one in the back. That is the Good Samaritan. These are truly wonderful expressions.

    I’ll admit that I am not always wide open to modern art. I’ve enjoyed Miro, Matisse, Chagall, some Picasso. The impressionists are wonderful. I cannot fathom Pollock and I’ve seen pieces that I think are joke aimed at watching an audience try to find meaning. I’ve also found some interesting postmodern pieces.

    Something I always find troubling are pastors and parents avoiding taking children to museums because of nudes. This is not something we ever considered an issue with our children – it makes no sense to avoid art and sexuality discussions.

    On the WWI issue, that war has always fascinated me. From reading The Guns of August to thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 to Revolt in the Desert to our Folio edition of Anthem for Doomed Youth, a book of trench poetry, I’ve found the persistent, fatalistic march toward destruction utterly amazing and incomprehensible. It takes an allegiance to nations and worldly ideals that I just don’t have. In the trench poetry, things move from flag waving in 1914 to a “just shoot me, I’m already dead” attitude in 1918.

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