Let’s face it. Modern art deserves its bad rap. It can be scary and intimidating—the paintings of distorted figures, violent brush strokes of garish colors, and canvases that seem to possess a secret meaning only tweedy academic types with Ph.Ds can understand or the super-rich collectors with money to burn on leisure care about.
So it’s easy to believe that modern art has nothing to say to the rest of us. To make matters worse, because it seems to violate the traditional standards of what art is or should be, modern art has been considered to be antithetical to Christianity. But I would suggest that the history and tradition of modern art comes out of a human response with which Christianity connects deeply: pain, suffering, alienation, fear, hope, and longing. And this is what I explored in God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art.
Here are seven ways that you can embrace modern art:
1. Go look at it. Don’t let “modern art” remain a vague, abstract idea. Visit your local art museum or gallery and see examples in person. Reproductions are not sufficient. Works of art are like human beings: they thrive on the attention that is paid to them. And that’s because they are made by human beings for human beings.
2. Don’t be intimidated by it. A work of art—even a work of modern art—is not made for philosophers, collectors, or art professionals. Modern art is made for human beings who suffer, love, hope, and fear and long to find the beauty that arises from it. If you lament your brokenness and hope for a future where everything sad becomes untrue (Tolkien), you’re qualified.
3. Give it time. Like any cultural practice worth doing, looking at modern art requires some effort—it requires practice, becoming more meaningful over time as you learn the history and the tradition. Be patient. I’ve spent nearly 25 years studying modern art and I still don’t consider myself to have “gotten” it yet. And that’s what makes it so interesting for me.
4. Realize it is more than meets the eye. All art, but modern art in particular, requires that we listen as well as see. We need to suspend our initial judgments and allow the work of art to speak to us. Studies have shown that at an art museum the average viewer spends only a few seconds in front of a work of art. An artist that spends weeks, months, and sometimes years to make that painting you stand in front of, wants you to spend more than a few seconds looking at it. Look closely and carefully and you just might hear something.
5. Read a biography. One of the most effective ways to embrace modern art is to read a biography on a modern artist. You are given the opportunity to walk with the artist through his or her life and learn how they understood their work. To come to understand what modern art meant to the one who devoted their life to making it, goes a long way toward helping us appreciate the endeavor. Patrick O’Brian’s biography of Picasso, Sue Prideaux’s biography of Edvard Munch, and Alex Danchev’s biography of Paul Cézanne are my favorites.
6. Know it is a gift. For you. Every work of modern art you stand in front of in a museum—whether it was made in Paris a century ago, New York City three decades ago, or Houston last year—exists at that moment, for you, and only you. Allow it to be given to you by the artist as a gift. Let it connect to you emotionally and intellectually by letting it speak to you. You just might be surprised by what you hear.
7. Love your neighbor. The God who sets us free through faith in Christ (Luke 4: 18-19) also sets us free to love our neighbor. And embracing modern art is a way to love our neighbor—to care for the works of their hands (Ps 90:17) by allowing them to speak, even if what they say makes us uncomfortable.
If we believe with Paul that in Christ “all things” hold together and that it is through him that “all things” were made (Col 1), then the work of modern art you stand before—the work that seems so strange, so violent, so incomprehensible—is part of the “all things” that are held together by and made through Christ.
And that is something to embrace.
Dr. Daniel A. Siedell is Presidential Scholar and Art Historian in Residence at The King’s College in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @DanSiedell.