This last weekend I took my wife to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as part of a date. We went in part because my wife is a fan of modern art, the main focus of LACMA, and because I myself have finally taken an interest in it. Up until a month or so ago, while I understood that there was something going on in modern works, having a modest background in sketching, I’ve been likely to favor Medieval, Reformational (especially the Dutch Masters), or Neo-Classical periods. I’ll be honest, Campbell’s soup just wasn’t doing it for me.
After reading Daniel Siedell’s theological exploration of contemporary art, God in the Gallery, a couple weeks ago I’ve been motivated to try to engage it once more—or really, for the first time. Given that I could not help but experience LACMA as anybody other than myself, I wanted to write down a few notes, a couple of them, unsurprisingly theological in nature.
1. Hey, Some of this Stuff is Good – To begin with the most basic point: it turns out modern and contemporary art is fascinating. Once you get over the fact that some of it does not look like anything you can recognize, or that the artist is not trying and failing to color inside the lines, you can begin to appreciate it for it is actually doing. Of course, not all of modern art is abstract expressionism.
For instance, there was a fabulous exhibit on productions connected to The Golem that McKenna and I loved. Also, I found myself drawn into the section on German Expressionism and the Bauhaus movement. Ludwig Meidner’s “Apocalyptic Landscape” could have easily held my attention for hours. The atrocity of anybody calling this “degenerate” art finally began to sink in.
Beyond that, easily the most “fun” piece in the whole exhibit, along with the dozens of other viewers, especially children, McKenna and I were drawn into Chris Burden’s Metropolis II:
All in all, I’m excited to continue exploring modern and contemporary art.
2. How Did He Create So Many Unique Pieces? – LACMA houses what seems to be to be a good number of Picasso’s. Probably ten or twelve. While Picasso has never been my favorite, even of the moderns, I found myself marveling at the variety and number of them, knowing that these were probably only a fraction of his total work. While distinctively Picasso’s, bearing his unique mark and style, all of them were unique, keenly differentiated by color, subject matter, and even materials used.
Of course, in the middle of all of this, I realized that while I was looking at the art, I was disturbingly distracted by all the museum visitors. In room after room, I found myself unable to fully devote my attention to the pieces on display because of all the other people walking around. There they were: the defiant tourist with the camera, determined to snap shots no matter what the security said; mothers hustling little ones about wanting them to gain culture without getting their fingerprints on it; older art connoisseurs, ex-hippies who’d since become wealthy in the market, but still cherished their avante-garde youth; young couples like McKenna and I, out for a nice day at the museum. Hair, clothes, eyes, words uttered, and accompanying gestures that spoke other, sometimes contradictory words.
It’s at that moment I realized I was distracted from the Picassos by the work of another artist: the one who made Picasso himself. And I was struck then at the thought, what is greater? A Picasso, or the Picasso? This isn’t meant as a sort of anti-Picasso Jesus-juke. I just couldn’t help but wonder at the stunning vision and power of a God who could fashion such creative creatures. God is the artist behind the artists.
3. We Are Bits of Performance Art – A final thought struck me in the same vein later on. Given the dazzling assortment of people at the gallery, inevitably I was drawn to a few in particular. There was one couple that looked the quintessential LA art couple. I don’t remember exactly what the girl was wearing bit it was hip. She had multi-colored hair, thrown up seemingly carelessly in a pony-tail. The guy had greasy, disheveled student hair and was rockin’ an older black sports-coat over a jean button-up shirt, darker pants, and to top it off, some boots. These weren’t just regular boots, though. Actually, they weren’t even boots—they were work-shoes—and you could tell. They were dirty and hacked up, with paint stains, and God only knows what else. The whole effect said, “I don’t care what you think. I’m here for the art. Not to preen or impress the rest of you.”
Of course, that took effort to say.
It’s at this point that I was reminded of one of the more illuminating sections in Siedell’s account: the care taken by contemporary artists to cultivate the proper environment for viewing their works. In a manner that can only be described as ‘religious’, installations are arranged so that the aesthetic effect is all-encompassing down to the last detail of the way the light fails on the viewer when they encounter the work. Even in those pieces that seem most inaccessible, the encounter with the piece and the viewer is carefully cultivated.
Much in the same way, this couple had carefully cultivated the experience of viewing them. Despite the initial impression of haphazardness, upon inspection, it begin to seem all-too-carefully selected for use. And this is where I began to realize that in many ways we’re walking pieces of performance art. We think and we craft ourselves, our movements, and words in relation to our respective audiences and the spaces and times we inhabit; there are layers and resonances to our movements. Some elements are carefully scripted, while others are more akin to spontaneous improvisations.
All of this raises the question: what are we performing? What image are we cultivating? Or, rather, whose image? Are we set on mirroring the idols (money, sex, power, freedom, & so forth) on offer in the culture around us? Or we take into account that we are God’s workmanship (poema; cf. Eph. 2:10), intended to be eikons of the Son in our mortal flesh (2 Cor 4:11)?
Soli Deo Gloria
Okay, I’ve got 3 reasons why this was good to wake up to this morning:
1) I spent my undergrad years in Art School. Contemporary Art is in my veins and it’s often hard to find people of faith who want to reflect on it.
2) Chris Burden was always one of my favourite artists. Perhaps his early (and radical) performance art about pain and endurance perhaps help prime my secular mind for thoughts of crucifixion. Not only that but he once built a robotic ship to sail the world by itself.
3) My wife has been creating a little cottage industry for herself by giving home lectures and public art talks about how to engage with the art world. She’s passionate about helping ‘regular folk’ not feel alienated by it. She considers that, along with writing art reviews and a monthly column in the local paper, to be somewhat of a missionary endeavour. “Every artist I speak with I end up talking about the Lord”. Your recommendation of Siedell’s book is helpful for us. Thanks alot!
All of this is great to hear! Ya, Siedell’s book was good. Still not too sure about his embrace of iconography, but overall very helpful meditations.
I just started reading Wolterstorffs ‘Art in Action’, so this was good to read.
Let me know what you think. Siedell was critical of the approach.
Reblogged this on Sunday School on Steroids-The Seminary Experience.