Academic journal article Bucknell Review

Religion and the Arts

Academic journal article Bucknell Review

Religion and the Arts

Article excerpt

CHAIM Potok's novel My Name Is Asher Lev describes the life of a young Jewish painter living in New York City. (1) At a critical moment in the story Lev decides to paint a work that conveys the suffering his mother experienced during long separations from her husband when he traveled to Israel. The artist chooses to portray his mother's anguish as a kind of crucifixion:

   With charcoal, I drew the frame of the living-room window of our Brooklyn
   apartment. I drew the strip of the Venetian blind a few inches from the top
   of the window. On top--not behind this time, but on top--of the window I
   drew my mother in her housecoat, with her arms extended along the
   horizontal of the blind, her wrists tied to it with the cords of the blind,
   her legs tied at the ankles to the vertical of the inner frame with another
   section of the cord of the blind. I arched her body and twisted her head.
   (2)

The young Jewish artist struggles with the decision to incorporate a crucifixion in his painting, anticipating a strong negative reaction from his parents and from his community as a whole. Yet he ultimately concludes that a crucifixion is the only image with the cultural and artistic resonance to generate the visual impact he desires: "I created this painting--an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment." (3) As Lev fears, his parents and community are shocked by his work.

The problems Lev experiences by using the image of the crucifix reflect millennia of intimacy and conflict between religious communities and the arts. The arts--literature, drama, painting, sculpture, dance, music, and architecture--have had a tangled love-hate relationship with religion over the centuries. Particularly in the West, religious communities nurtured the arts because they served several functions within the tradition, educating devotees and facilitating worship. Yet over time, as the arts developed independently from institutional religious control and influence, art also became a vehicle for challenging religious assumptions and authority.

Within the West (4) there is a tradition of viewing the artist as a creator, much like God himself. The late jazz trombonist J. J. Johnson once remarked: "There is nothing more rewarding than making something out of nothing," alluding to a similarity between artistic and divine creativity. (5) In Western thought the artist's activity imitates God's activity at the moment of creation. The notion that artists are creators similar to God has influenced different streams of artistic interpretation. Some streams characterize the artwork as an extension of the artist, reflecting her personality and concerns. Other streams emphasize the integrity of the artwork apart from its creator, arguing that we can interpret a piece without any reference to the artist at all. Other streams focus on the social context in which a piece was created, arguing that the piece reflects its cultural setting. What is significant for our purposes is that we have a tradition of distinguishing the artwork from the artist, at least to some extent. In the same way that God is distinct from his creation, the artist stands in distinct separation from her work. The distinction between the artist and the art is significant because an artist's religious views and practices do not automatically determine the religious nature of her work. A non-Christian artist can create a piece that reflects Christian concerns. (6)

We can characterize the relationship between religion and the arts in two ways: 1) as part of the practice of religion, and 2) as they facilitate the study of religion. Many of us are aware that the study of religious traditions differs markedly from participation within religious communities. The significance of the arts depends upon the relationship one has with particular religious communities (and religion in general). …

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