Uniting Art and Religion - What do these elements mean to the society?
Religion means different things to different people. Some find utter faith, meaning, and validation in it (even for opinions that won’t necessarily stand up to scientific or ethical scrutiny), others discover wisdom, philosophy, and mechanisms to cope with life in it, and yet others find it to be ‘the opium of the masses’. Truth is, all of these extreme responses religion elicits, are valid. You are guaranteed to find mountains of evidence to support any stance on religion that you please.
It is not my intention to foray into the moral nitty-gritties of the doctrines of religion, for now. But I am interested in understanding, why an agnostic person like me, finds himself extremely comfortable- at peace if you will- to sing a bhajan that pledges my soul to a deity that I am not sure exists. The answer I believe, is deeply entrenched in the mechanism that religions all over the world have seemed to intuitively employ. While religions across the globe vary substantially with respect to their core principles, the fundamental medium of propagating and instilling those principles in the masses unites them all; Art.
It’s difficult to define art in a way that everybody agrees with it. But with this, I insist all should; Art appeals. Since centuries, art has found ways to extract that involuntary ‘Waah’ from us through poetry, music, dance, literature, sculptures, and paintings. It creates powerful metaphors, hence simultaneously alluding and being completely indifferent to the ideas it conveys.
Religious institutions understood this quite well. Hindu, Middle Eastern and Greek structures, Egyptian tombs, European paintings are some of the finest art humans have ever created, but they are not merely art. These paintings and sculptures are not abstract and open to interpretation like modern art. They also don’t require snobbish connoisseurs to comment on the “tormented soul” of the artist. Instead, such sculptures communicate very clear stories. Stories of Jesus, Vishnu, the Buddha, Zeus and many such deities. Even religion sometimes cannot stop the creation of such art, as artists find a loophole in its rules to let out their creativity. For instance in Islam, artists paint painstakingly decorated tapestries bearing the name of God; because drawing an image of Allah is forbidden since no one can fathom, let alone capture his perfection. Not only sculptures and paintings; music, dance, and literature too sing the praises of these deities.
Out of the many things that art does, one is to create moments so intensely emotive, that its content leaves a lasting impression on the mind. As the aesthetic of the art captivates the heart, its content reaches our mind. In a way, art simplifies complex ideas and makes them palatable for us. Religions have understood this unique feature of art quite well. One might argue that it was genuine devotion towards a particular religion that inspired the artist to create art, and that is entirely possible. But at the same time religious organizations like the Vatican church also commissioned artists like Bernini and Michelangelo to create art that affirmed the Christian faith. This clever use of art makes religious art one of the most effective ad campaigns ever. The psychological hold religion has on people all over the world is proof of the success of that campaign; although one must admit that what religion offers (salvation, heaven, fear of hell etc.) is a far greater psychological motivation to ‘buy’ into than modern advertisements.
Since art appeals, it also attracts. Tourists flock to places like Rome, Notre Dame, or Angkor Vat by the millions each year without any significant advertising from the part of these sites. Of course this doesn’t mean that all those who visit the Notre Dame become ardent believers of biblical myths; but it does mean that art can attract even those who aren’t interested in buying its message. Herein lies the second strength of art. Throughout history, art has acted as a buffer between cultures in conflict. Invading religions and empires have used it to legitimize their rule in the eyes of their subjects; often to such a degree that the art, culture, and values of such invaders remain long after their regime ends.
Music and dance are an ancient part of the human experience, older than any form of worship. It was almost inevitable for religion to imbibe them in its customs. Performing arts like music and dance ferry gods to different places. A community prayer is seldom found without melody. Art forms like Kathakali, Kathak, and Bharatnatyam evolved exclusively to enact mythological stories. Upon a closer look at devotional music, an interesting thing comes to light. Devotional music- all music for that matter, is quite repetitive. Almost all songs have verses that are repeated throughout them. A Hindustani vocalist will sing the same four lines of a bandish for more than an hour, without making the audience lose interest. Both religion and art are quite similar from this point of view. Repetition is a very powerful tool to make people believe what one says. At times, it is even more powerful than facts. Religion is highly concerned with the repeated utterance of its values; that is why there are elaborate rituals and festivals in each religion that reminds us of its values. And what better way to repeat things, but through art?
The late American philosopher Nelson Goodman says [paraphrased], “Don’t ask ‘what is art?’ ask ‘when is art?’ instead”. He saw art in the creation of profound moments. Given the benefit of doubt, religion also tries to give meaning to the human experience. For the sake of a peaceful future, let’s hope that the both these great innovations of the human mind, create a wiser us.