Christian complaints of being willfully misunderstood by secularists will win far more sympathy when those same Christians stop willfully misunderstanding contemporary art. P.D. Young has some advice in that regard : “If you cannot name five contemporary artists, you need put all your plans [to “redeem art”] on hold and get educated. If you intend to help artists think through how their faith relates to their work, you will need to have more examples in mind than Fujimura, O’Connor, Tolkien, Rouault, Bach, and Rembrandt.”
Pushing beyond the “Christian imagination” genre, Mr. Young recommends Dan Siedell’s God in the Gallery , a book richly informed by Catholic and Orthodox theology. As I reread Siedell’s book, I’m dismayed that its lessons - which I attempted to elucidate here - continue to be ignored. It’s not, of course, that understanding the world of contemporary art means endorsing it. But even the most basic effort at understanding will quickly discern that complaints about contemporary art being absurd have long been sounded, quite convincingly, from within the world of contemporary art itself - making Christian “pronouncements” on that score redundant. Did I mention this makes Christian pronouncements redundant? At the very least we should follow the rule that every paragraph of complaint about contemporary art should be backed up with an hour of walking the galleries. But you knew that .
Consider this example of intelligent engagement from the students in my Contemporary Art class at Wheaton College. After a lecture on Conceptual Art, the next day half of my class had disappeared. Replacing them on their desks were written descriptions of each individual student (e.g. “brown hair, 5’5”, inquisitive eyes”). As I read these descriptions and tried to fathom what was happening, the students waited outside, and then dutifully filed back into class. Their point? Words and concepts are insufficient. Physical presence matters - both in class and art. After making the effort to grasp Conceptual Art on its own terms, these students playfully responded with a performance piece of Conceptual Art themselves, one that upended James Franco and reasserted George Steiner’s post-postmodern observation that in the realm of culture, real presence counts.