Teaching modern art first: a Q&A with Dr. Dan Siedell
Students fascinated with cultural and art studies are rejoicing over Dr. Daniel Siedell’s recently announced involvement at The King’s College. Junior MCA major Heather Cate says that she's excited to learn from a respected "critic who sees art as a self-transformative process, when we so often see it as something that has a message or to cause a stir.” The faculty and staff’s eager anticipation of Siedell's arrival is equally hard to miss. The Media, Culture and the Arts department needs significant development, and Dr. Siedell’s expertise in modern art criticism will complement Dr. Harry Bleattler’s curatorial experience and Professor Alissa Wilkinson’s rapidly growing influence in Christian cultural criticism. A father of three, Dr. Siedell lives in Florida with his wife and is excited for his daughter to attend King’s next year.
EST: I know you’re friends with Professor Wilkinson and some of the MCA faculty, but how did you initially get involved with King’s?
SIEDELL: I worked with Alissa and Harry to find ways that, when I’m in town working with artists, etc., that we would figure out a time to come and talk to students and I would share my experience. Over the years I’ve loved speaking to Christian colleges—I’ve spoken all over the country at Biola, Azusa Pacific, Gordon, Wheaton, Calvin—all those colleges. I love King’s students. I love the fact that it’s in the middle of the city. [President] Thornbury provided an opportunity because he had been following my work for some time. Even though he and I hadn’t met, he was really interested in finding ways for me to become involved and I was at the point in my career where I wanted to be involved.
EST: In your Oct. 3 interview with President Thornbury, you mentioned that you are interested in teaching across disciplines?
SIEDELL: What interests me about this program is that there isn’t an art department. I really like the idea of teaching art history in the context of the humanities, in the context of literature, philosophy, politics, economics--not separated from that conversation and integrated into the core curriculum. In all of my work I’ve been committed to that; that art isn’t just something that sits in the margins—that thing that special people or people who don’t get along with other people. I’m hoping to be able to build some kind of art history focus that comes out of the core curriculum that’s a natural outgrowth of what King’s is already doing.
EST: So what would be a short-term goal and then a long-term goal for you in the context of King’s specifically?
SIEDELL: I love to teach, and I love to teach in different subject contexts, so one of my short-term goals is just to avail myself to other faculty who might be interested in integrating art or visual arts into the conversation in their classes. Beginning the study of art history there with the other course offerings, and doing it by privileging modern, contemporary art, rather than starting where most Christian colleges do, and that is with classical, with the renaissance. Modern art is something that’s kind of tacked on. My desire has always been to teach it the other way around, with modern art first and foremost.
[Long-term], I think King’s should be a place where other students come from around the country to experience art. I’m hoping to build a week-long or two-week-long institute that would bring out Christian college students from other colleges from around the country to New York where they’re able to get my approach to modern art. To be able to experience what’s unique about New York—the museums, the galleries--to be able to have tours of the auction houses, to be able to provide that service so that King’s could serve the study of art history and art criticism in general.
There are three groups of people that I would like to interact and serve in that way: undergraduates and graduate seminary students who are doing theology and the arts programs. Also, junior faculty who are at colleges around the country who have high teaching loads and don’t have the time to pursue their own work or do extra reading. But they can maybe take a week off in the summer for a seminar experience to help in their continuing education that their departments would be supportive of.
EST: So, I know you wrote a whole book (God in the Gallery) on this, but why modern art?
SIEDELL: I just found it so different and strange and difficult when I first encountered it. The strangeness of it, the fact that it possibly could be a joke, you know? And why an artist would devote his or her life to work that looked like anybody could make it or didn’t look like Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling was fascinating to me. And it was fascinating to me that it connected with the smartest, most creative thinkers in the 20th century. How can you say that an artist who is doing a performance in 1959 that disappears and nobody knows—there’s no evidence of it—how is that art in the same way that Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling is art? I was fascinated by what you could say about a work of art. What could you say that would be wrong? I was interested in pushing those limits.
It’s how we understand art today. Every artist that makes work makes work in the context of the history and tradition of modernism. [We should] start with that period as a way of understanding art of the past, but not make certain judgments that classical and renaissance art is more “Christian” just because it’s dealing with these certain kinds of values. There are aspects of modernism and modern art that privilege certain aspects of the Christian faith that I think are often ignored.
EST: You clearly don’t want to limit yourself to the “Arts” of MCA at King’s. What do you think you can bring to Finance and Business and PPE?
SIEDELL: The art world itself is an institutional structure that runs on economics. There’s a particular kind of art world economics. Artists whose work has survived over the years have understood that economic structure—how works of art have currency and value economically and tried to ensure their survival. That gives another dimension to understanding economics—the economics of a painting that goes up for auction in Sotheby’s and achieves $120 million is a very strange thing, but that’s an economic reality.
Artists have to understand how to keep the lights on in their studio which means they have to understand their work as a business. They have to understand that transaction of maintaining a space where they are creative, but also being creative entrepreneurially in a way that fits within the rather strange structures of the art world.
A lot of artists I work with have been deeply influenced by literature and do a lot of thinking about how literature opens up space for them to paint.
EST: How do you see your role as a Christian philosopher and critic?
SIEDELL: It’s very personal. I’m not saying so much, “this is a work you need to see” as much as saying, “this is how a work of art operated on me.” In certain ways my writing is a form of fiction that is a device that opens up an imaginative space for people who are experiencing works of art.
EST: Why do you critique Thomas Kinkade?
SIEDELL: I wrote a series of three articles on Kinkade, and this book that I’m writing right now [tentatively titled, Who’s Afraid of Modern Art?] that will come out next year will include two of them. I was interested in Kinkade because both Christians and non-Christians are critical of Kinkade and I’ve felt dissatisfied by why they’re critical of him. I wanted to create a scenario in which the work that he produced was actually responsible for killing him. The work manifests a theological perspective that just created more pressure for him. This idea of creating more artwork that looks like Eden before the fall was an impossible, and I would suggest, diabolical attempt to go back into the garden. One of the things that I’ll explain in more depth is that Adam and Eve in their expulsion are barred from the garden. There are angels guarding it, and you don’t go back in. I would suggest you don’t go back in imaginatively. You don’t reflect on that space that is there. You reflect on and hope for the reconciliation to come, but we live east of Eden.
EST: So then the artist should grapple with the brokenness of the world?
SIEDELL: I think all work comes from pain. The history of modern art is a particular cultural practice that invites and starts with both the presence of pain and brokenness as a given—and also the fact that God seems to be hidden. I think that that is important to stress that that is not a non-Christian perspective—that is represented throughout the Scriptures. God’s hiddenness is something that Luther focuses on and God’s hiddenness is really God’s presence in a particularly powerful way being present in a way that we don’t recognize.
EST: Where do you find that space for you? Where do you find a place of rest?
SIEDELL: When I came to graduate school I came from Nebraska. My experience of the world expanded here [in New York]. My wife [and I] honeymooned here. New York isn’t just the center of the art world, it’s actually the center of my world, my imaginative world. It’s how I understand the world that I grew up on, that reminds me that God is at work and in control in my life. The Museum of Modern Art is a place that I go find encouragement, to reconnect with my passion and remind myself why I’m doing what I’m doing—to marvel at God’s grace over these two decades of leading me in and through New York. I still can’t believe that I’m going to be working here.
EST: Do you have a specific work of art that you prefer?
SIEDELL: I’ll talk about that in a talk that I give November 19 – "Who’s Afraid of Modern Art?" But I’ll say that it’s in New York.
EST: If you could make every student at King’s read one book, what would it be?
SIEDELL: Chaim Potok’s novel, My Name is Asher Lev, because it offers a deeply sensitive inside perspective on the imaginative life of an artist. It cuts through his work as an artist and his life as a human being. It also takes place in Brooklyn so it’s very embodied in the local geography.
Dr. Siedell will be lecturing on “Who’s Afraid of Modern Art?” on November 19 at 6pm in the City Room. Register for free here.