A Response to Siedell’s “Art and Culture, or Politics by Other Means–Evangelical Style”

In Engaging Art Prize: A Storied Theology of the Arts [Part Two], I suggested that a rightly Storied theology of the arts, one that acknowledges art as created good and redemptive word, maintains the tension between the uselessness and usefulness of art. Besides plugging that series – we are, after all, in the midst of Art Prize 2012 – I would like to return to my previous theme; namely, a rightly Storied theology of the arts. I will begin by responding to a couple of recent blog posts from Daniel A. Siedell, Director of Theological and Cultural Practices at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA. This will be followed by a response to Siedell’s God in the Gallery,[1] further reflections upon a Storied theology of the arts, and then a final response from Siedell. The five-part series, published between now and the end of the year, will be as follows:

Part 1 – A Response to Siedell’s “Art and Culture, or Politics by Other Means–Evangelical Style”
Part 2 – A Response to Siedell’s “Art and Explanation”
Part 3 – A Response to Siedell’s God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art
Part 4 – Of What Use Is Story? Further Reflections Upon a Storied Theology of the Arts
Part 5 – A Response from Siedell

In “Art and Culture, or Politics by Other Means–Evangelical Style,” Siedell affirms Kant’s intuition (i.e., that art is useless) as well as Crouch’s argument along these lines found in For the Beauty of the Church[2] over against evangelical cultural critics who demand “that everything that is produced, including art, justify itself by its utility.” Siedell states: “Taking seriously art’s uselessness is a way to preserve an aesthetic moment that defies the forensic structure of reality, a moment that testifies to an alien presence, grace.”

I find Siedell’s argument here troubling for several reasons:

  1. It presents a false dichotomy: art is either useless or useful; that is, it is either grace or law. I reject the false dichotomy, and ironically, intend to argue that Siedell does as well (i.e., pragmatically if not confessionally). I will return to this criticism, fleshing it out by way of a response to Siedell’s God in the Gallery, in Part 3 of my series.
  2. While referencing Crouch, Siedell fails to answer Crouch’s call for a more serious engagement (i.e., see the comments to W. David O. Taylor’s review) in this post.
  3. Siedell’s generalization of evangelical cultural critics and Christians is a false one (i.e., every evangelical cultural critic and Christian does not demand “that everything that is produced, including art, justify itself by its utility,” Crouch, whom he cites, as well as Hans Rookmaaker[3] whom he cites in another post, being examples to the contrary). Giving Siedell the benefit of the doubt, he would likely be able to provide more specific examples in support of his argument, but it would be helpful if he had done so in this post as specifics are always more helpful than generalizations, especially false ones. In the absence of such specifics, Siedell’s critics and Christians are nothing more than straw men.
  4. Throughout Siedell’s work, and this post is no exception, the art critic and/or curator are explicitly, as well as implicitly, privileged above all others. This is especially ironic given Siedell’s conclusion; namely, that “Evangelical participation in the arts and culture is graceless….simply another form of politics.” Tu quoque. I will return to this criticism in Part 2.
  5. Siedell’s tone in the final paragraph is unhelpful as it insinuates that only one party is to blame (i.e., the Church as opposed to artists, etc.). Clearly, the relationship is broken, but both sides are at fault and would do well to heed Karl Barth’s advice to a divided Church. In his Church Dogmatics IV:1 Barth argues: “And in the face of this scandal the whole of Christendom should be united in being able to think of it only with penitence, not with the penitence which each expects of the other, but with the penitence in which––whatever may be the cost––each is willing to precede the other.” [4]

What do you make of the useless/useful debate?  And what might it look like to take Barth’s advice, especially with regard to 4 and 5 above?

[1] Daniel A. Siedell, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008).  I count Dan as a friend and am thankful for his work.  I devoured his God in the Gallery within weeks of its release, toured the Phillips Collection with him at Q earlier this year, read his posts with regularity and exchange the occasional email.  This series, then, is intended to be a conversation.

[2] Andy Crouch, “How Art is a Gift, a Calling, and an Obedience,” in For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts, W. David O. Taylor, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010).  See Jim Watkins’ review here.

[3] Hans Rookmaaker, Art Needs No Justification (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1978).

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV:1, G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, eds., G.W. Bromily, trans. (London: T&T Clark, 1956), 675-676.



  • Christopher R. Brewer (PhD, St Andrews) is a Program Officer of the Templeton Religion Trust, Nassau, The Bahamas. He has edited or co-edited six volumes, including Art that Tells the Story which was named one of Hearts & Minds Best Books of 2011. He is now working on a book for Zondervan Academic provisionally titled Understanding Natural Theology, and an additional edited volume (for Routledge). His current research has mostly to do with questions at the intersection of theology, philosophy, and contemporary visual art, but also includes Anglican ecumenism.

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  1. says: Steve Scott

    There’s a conversation somewhere about how contemplating art `for its own sake’ in an institutional setting has a potentially humanizing (and therefore socializing)effect……Perhaps the contemplator moves from consumer/recipient to engaged critical participant in society and its changes. John Ruskin has been described as one who understood the organic relationship between these two spheres. I’m not sure `useless v useful’ covers it. Its a given (isn’t it?) that all art, even the most self reflective (formal/essentialist) serves as part of a larger metanarrative. Enthusiasts see `art’ as a reminder or key to something about our collective `humanity’ beyond (or above) labels and interests. Critics see institutionally framed `art’ in terms of ritual i:e one more way of using the institutions to reinscribe/reinforce a particular social construct of `the way things are’

  2. says: Bruce Herman

    I recommend this article by John Skillen (http://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/3518/from-in-situ-artwork-to-education-in-situ/) — which gets at some of the underlying problems that have led to this impasse between art, artists, and society (the church being understood as part of society).
    Interesting conversation…don’t know if Dan is reading these, but I think this is a great starting point for ongoing conversation about “use” and “uselessness” (which seems largely an invented dichotomy, following on the heels of Romanticism.

    1. says: Christopher R. Brewer

      Bruce, thanks for the recommendation. It was a lovely contrast to the situation you described in “Art and Market: Mystique or Mystery,” but clearly we’ve moved beyond a time and place where in situ artworks are the norm (and I’m sure you would acknowledge that). That said, we have much to learn from in situ artworks (and Orvieto as well), but I wonder what those lessons might look like transferred into our culture(s), broadly speaking? Perhaps Sara could provide additional insight from her research on contemporary church patronage of the arts. Regarding the conversation of use/uselessness, and more specifically Dan’s argument for its uselessness, I want to say, and I’m getting ahead of myself here as I intend to address this more fully in my second post, that we need not choose (i.e., use and grace aren’t antithetical or incompatible). And while I wouldn’t want to argue that works need be in situ (nor do I mean to say that Skillen does so), I do want say, with Skillen, that art takes part in the liturgy, but I’d want to press the meaning of liturgy like James K.A. Smith, and, with David Brown, consider the possibility of art as sacrament. Here again, I’m getting ahead of myself as I intend to address this in my third post, but it would seem as though, despite Dan’s espousal of Luther (which he recently nuanced here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cultivare/2012/09/luther-evangelicals-and-modern-art/) and occasional appropriation of Barth, he wants to embrace something more than the law/grace or use/useless dichotomies will allow. And that’s where I think Brown (http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199646821.do#.UG320GgTtaU) would be especially helpful to his project. Are you familiar with Brown’s project, and if so, are you sympathetic? Do you think that Dan’s God in the Gallery (or his forthcoming Modern Art and the Life of a Culture) might benefit from Brown (i.e., correcting and extending)? In response to your note about Dan reading and responding to these posts, I emailed him before I posted the above and invited him to respond on the tail end (Part 5), but he’s also welcome to comment along the way. Thanks again for joining the conversation!

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