I sort of believe in religious art’s ability to save the world. I believe sentences that use the phrase “save the world,” which receives 6.17 million Google hits, are particularly dangerous, insofar as they aim to not only build castles in the clouds, but also to imprison others in said celestial abodes. I am discouraged that centuries upon centuries of art and religion have failed to usher in an aesthetic messianic age, but I am hopeful that a careful, strategic combination of the two domains might yield an elixir more potent than its individual parts.
I have seen religious art change individual lives, as indeed it has changed mine. In high school, I fell in love with “the Buddha room” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, perhaps because it was so different from the sorts of things I was learning about in my modern Orthodox, Jewish day school. The Buddhas, which sat silently in a semi-circle in a dimly lit room at the MFA, were idols that violated the Second Commandment in my day school classes. But at the museum, they conveyed brilliance through their silence.
Sketching Buddha sculptures was hardly the same as Chaim Potok’s Asher Lev painting Hassidic crucifixions, but it certainly broadened my experiential horizons, and was partially responsible for my obsession with religious art and iconography. In my recent writing for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim publications on art, I have interviewed dozens upon dozens of artists who have told me that they feel they communicate with God through their art. I’ve heard from rabbis, imams, pastors about the ways art can collaborate with religious experience.
But I believe that the stories about faith and art that have made national and international headlines give both religion and art a bad name. The media tells us about the Piss Christ, the chocolate Jesus, and the Muhammad cartoons, and about the Taliban toppling ancient Buddha sculptures. Religious art can certainly breed conflict, but I also believe in the countless artists who bring their faith into their studies. These artists, whose every work is effectively self-portraiture since it is infused with its creator’s beliefs, remain anonymous, because they struggle with their own conflicts and doubts on an individual level, without antagonizing entire people’s with blasphemy masqueraded as art.
I believe the art establishment has grown weary of the clergy’s censorship, just as religious leaders have become allergic to provocative art. They’d deny it, but both cast out the baby with the bathwater. I believe that the true victims are the artists. Archie Rand’s series of 613 canvases – one per Old Testament commandment – deserved a better venue than a Brooklyn warehouse, and efforts to use art to encourage peace in the Middle East by Israeli artist Mel Alexenberg and Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum should be dominating arts and religion headlines.
I’ve seen art’s and religion’s capacities to change individuals’ lives. I would love to believe that mathematical induction can help extend these local cases to global and even galactic proportions.
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