A Response to Siedell’s “Art and Explanation”

Editor’s Note: Transpositions is currently featuring a 5–part series on Daniel A. Siedell by Christopher R. Brewer. Part 1 – A Response to Siedell’s “Art and Culture, or Politics by Other Mean–Evangelical Style” was published 24 September. Here, in Part 2, Brewer responds to Siedell’s “Art and Explanation.”  Brewer will continue his response with Part 3 – A Response to Siedell’s God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Art (19 November) and Part 4 – Of What Use Is Story? Further Reflections Upon a Storied Theology of the Arts (30 November) before Siedell’s final response (10 December).

In his “Art and Explanation,” Daniel A. Siedell begins with Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation,[1] noting: “In the hands of interpretation, art becomes, at best, merely the visual illustration of an idea best expressed through other means.” He goes on to suggest that the “implications are considerable for writing about art from a self-consciously Christian perspective.”

The issue, for Siedell, is that, when taken up into an all encompassing meta-narrative, works of art, which “exist in [their] own glorious singularity,” are deprived of their integrity. This is, according to Siedell, a “manifestation of the old Adam” (i.e., law).  Instead of making “a work of art work for me” (i.e., “as a tool for my own justifying work”), I ought to recognize “the mysterious unity of God’s story” (i.e., grace). The failure to do so results in idolatry. He explains:

To enlist art into my own justifying efforts risks depriving the work of art of what it can be, that is, a harbinger of a ‘deeper magic’ at work in the world, the magic of grace. Unfortunately, what passes for Christian art education or theology and the arts is in fact an idolatrous worship of a particular ideology or meta-narrative which art is enlisted to support (i.e., The Christian Worldview) and grace is forgotten.

Here, in his suspicion of “what passes for … theology and the arts,” Siedell echoes Nicholas Wolterstorff,[2]  but Wolterstorff, of course, argues over and against the idea of art’s most evident characteristic being its uselessness, “that works of art are objects and instruments of action.”[3] And I think Wolterstorff  is right when he says that “art plays … a diversity of roles,” including, but not limited to, “contemplation for the sake of delight,”[4] and this, contra Siedell, without any deprivation of goodness. Here, we would do well to consider Roger Scruton’s analogy of friendship in The Face of God. He notes:

Although, by definition, intrinsic values cannot be translated into utilitarian values, this does not mean that they have no utility. Consider friendship. Your friend is valuable to you as the thing that he is. To treat him as a means – to use him for your purposes – is to undo the friendship. And yet friends are useful: they provide help in times of need, and they amplify the joys of daily living. Friendship is supremely useful, so long as we do not think of it as useful.[5]

While I would want to say derived instead of intrinsic values, I think that Scruton is right when he says that friendship, or in our case art, is supremely useful so long as we do not think of it as useful.

Returning to Siedell’s suspicion of “what passes for … theology and the arts,” I wonder if, here again, he might be more specific.  My fear is that theologians might get short shrift here, especially when compared to Siedell’s “Christian critic” who gets the final word.  Siedell notes: “The responsibility of the Christian critic is to preserve that distinctive space that art can create, a space that allows us to feel his grace, which only exists and comes to us in the present moment, a glorious moment that needs no interpretation, explanation, or justification.” Here, it seems as though Siedell’s reading of “theology and the arts” is limited to those in the “what passes for” category.  But what of Anthony Monti or David Brown?  Brown is an explicit advocate of “listening” (i.e., to culture) as opposed to just trying to “contribute.”[6]

I am a bit unclear as to what Siedell means by and thinks of meta-narratives as he seems to equivocate. Are they idolatrous or are they grace (i.e., “the mysterious unity of God’s story”)? Or is the issue really one of interpretation? And if so, I wonder what Siedell makes of James K.A. Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation (watch Smith’s summary of the book here). I also wonder if Siedell might reconsider the language of use as it seems unhelpful here, particularly in relation to his discussion of meta-narratives.

[1] Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Penguin, 1961).
[2] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), x.
[3] Wolterstorff, Art in Action, 3.
[4] Wolterstorff, Art in Action, 4.
[5] Roger Scruton, The Face of God (London: Continuum, 2012), 132.
[6] David Brown, God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Human Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 2-3.

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