Religion Against Art

While American Christianity seems to be flooding the market with bad art that will turn a quick buck, this seems to be the exception to the rule in terms of global fundamentalism, where the trend is towards violent iconoclasm.

As with most things these days, the most extreme example of this tendency can with ISIS. This week, some ISIS fighters broke into a museum in Mosul, Iraq and destroyed priceless antiquities because their god supposedly gave them the go ahead:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/26/isis-fighters-destroy-ancient-artefacts-mosul-museum-iraq

From the article:

The man describes the prophet Muhammad’s destruction of idols in Mecca as an example.

“These statues and idols, these artifacts, if God has ordered its removal, they became worthless to us even if they are worth billions of dollars,” the man said.

The rationale for this wanton destruction can be found in the Islamic belief in strict monotheism, which has traditionally manifested itself in a refusal to allow the production of images, especially of living things, for fear that they could become idols. The Taliban did something similar right before 9/11 when they dynamited 1,700 year old statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/1326063/After-1700-years-Buddhas-fall-to-Taliban-dynamite.html

It is not uncommon for places that have fallen under Islamic extremism to ban music, as was the case when Islamic militants captured northern Mali several years ago:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/20/opinion/the-day-the-music-died-in-mali.html

In Libya, Islamists have been burning drums and other musical instruments as “unislamic”:

http://www.epictimes.com/2015/02/isis-burns-musical-instruments-call-drums-un-islamic/

This extreme iconoclasm and anti-art sentiment is not limited to just Islam. Judaism also has an ambivalent relationship towards the fine arts, not just because of the prohibition on images found in the Tanakh and in the Talmud, but also as a reaction against the lavishly decorated Catholic churches in medieval Europe. However, there was never a consensus in Judaism that there should be a blanket condemnation of all fine art, and you can see fine examples of lavishly decorated manuscripts from the medieval and Renaissance periods. A favorite of my is the so-called “Bird’s Head Haggadah,” the earliest known manuscript from an Ashkenazi Jewish community. It is noteworthy for giving all of the people depicted in the manuscript bird heads, presumably to get around the prohibition of making graven images:

http://jhom.com/topics/birds/haggadah.htm

Fast-forward to the present time, however, and you see a complete rejection of the representational art on the part of ultra-Orthodox Jews. I remember reading that some ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t approve of their children having stuffed animals of non-kosher animals, presumably because it might encourage sympathy towards “unclean” animals:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/nyregion/at-orthodox-toy-store-in-brooklyn-batman-is-not-kosher.html

Photography seems to be a particular problem with ultra-Orthodox Jews. The consensus today is that it is immodest for a ultra-Orthodox Jewish man to see a picture of a female, even a pre-pubesent girl or an infant. Consequently, newspapers and other media that cater to this demographic have to photoshop women out of pictures, even if the woman in question happens to be Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/14/israeli-newspaper-hamevaser-merkel-women-charlie-hebdo-rally

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/09/hillary-clinton-der-tzitung-removed-situation-room_n_859254.html

While there is certainly a place for Judaica (e.g., Jewish ceremonial art), there’s in ultra Orthodox Judaism, the same can’t be true of what one could call “art for art’s sake,” especially when secular art is increasingly viewed as “immodest” by nature. The conflict between trying to conform to the dictates of a restrictive religious group and being an artist is well captured in Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Name_Is_Asher_Lev

My Name is Asher Lev takes place in the 1950s, when the American Orthodox Jewish community was fairly liberal, at least compared to today: there was mixed-sex seating at weddings, women seldom covered their hair, secular education wasn’t totally forbidden for males, expose to certain aspects of secular culture was allowed, etc. I don’t think that the book could even take place today, given how insular the Hasidic community has become (the Ladover sect that the title character and his family belong to is a thinly disguised reference to the Lubavitch sect).

This brings us to Christianity. In the American context, the anti-art sentiment found among many fundamentalists tends to be motivated by a belief that the art in question is luring the innocent into a life of sin and Satan worship via hidden or explicit messages. Unlike their Muslim or Jewish counterparts, Christian fundamentalists don’t have a problem with representational art per se, but they seem to think that all secular art is trying to lure the innocent away from god. This is why there are attempts to make “wholesome” alternative to offerings provided by the mainstream media, but the end results tend to be underwhelming (https://extraecclesiamestlibertas.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/bad-christian-art/). Ever so often, you hear about churches sponsoring book burnings (and in the past burnings of records, tapes, and DVDs), but such events tend to be for show. Fundamentalists know they can’t realistically take on Hollywood, so they instead retreat into their own artistic ghettos of banality and ugliness.

The question then becomes, why do so many believers think that their god wants humanity to live in a world devoid of music and art? Or that their god is delighted by Amish romance novels and pulpy books about the end of the world? If this is true, it would be simply another reason why one should rebel against a god who has decreed that our lives must be as dull and colorless as possible. In many fundamentalist subcultures, Christian or not, the goal is prime the minds of believers in such a way that they wouldn’t know what to do with a real piece of art if they ran across it, other than smash a sledgehammer over it.

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