Monday, November 12, 2012

Religion and Art Question Each Other

On Sunday November 11, our temple hosted the “Treasures of Uptown” interfaith coalition’s gathering called “Ripples of Respect: Appreciation or Appropriation?” The impetus for the gathering was to have a public forum about the Ten Thousand Ripples project, but we wanted to cover the general issue about artists using religious images. We were fortunate to have a panel of three representatives – of the Buddhist, Native American and Muslim communities and a group of 40 or so attendees from various faith backgrounds.


Tom Lane (ordained as a teacher by the Ch’an Institute) gave a comprehensive presentation about images in Buddhism, particularly the Zen iconoclastic attitude. He mentioned some of my comments on the half-heads and he expressed some concern that the sculptures would be abused. To Tom’s concern a man in the audience from Rogers Park testified that the sculptures already installed around his area seemed to be unmolested and he and others approached them with respect.

I had thought Native American Sharon Okee-Chee Skolnick would speak out against cultural appropriation, but she spoke as an artist saying that religion must be questioned. Artists must be completely free to express themselves without any religion dictating what they can and cannot depict. In talking about herself she mentioned that she had had Christianity drummed into her as a child, so I can understand her view of religion as some anti-creative, oppressive force. She seemed to support the Ten Thousand Ripples project in that an artist should be able to use any image from any religion to express what she feels (and on her website Indira Johnson seems to riff on Hindu and Buddhist motifs).

K. Rizwan Kadir from the Muslim Community Center in Morton Grove made his case that for those in the media (artists, writers, film makers et al), even though they have the freedom to express what they want no matter how offensive or hurtful it may be to others, they also are free to not go down that road of setting destructive forces into motion. It may be that part of making art is to draw attention to oneself by deliberately slandering what is sacred to devout people, but couldn’t artists create great works that don’t go out of their way to demean the faith of their neighbors? When someone in the audience asked about some groups considering laws to outlaw sacrilegious depictions, he said there’s no way to draw a firm line to define what is sacred and what is not. He said you could make it illegal to slander Mohammed, but then those who are out to offend Muslims will make slanderous depictions of his family members.

Artists see themselves as challengers to the status quo, so they will be provocative by poking fun at and denigrating what some people consider “holy.” But religious teachers remind all of us, including the artists, that we can’t be going around offending others. Art without any respect for other beings is just another form of “hate speech,” spewing out irrational prejudice against those who are different from you.

We all applaud the goals of the Ten Thousand Ripples project and the sponsoring agency, Changing Worlds, to foster peace in our neighborhoods through art appreciation. Artists are free to present what they say depicts “peace,” but each of us is free to interpret the works from our own backgrounds, including our deeply felt religious commitments.

The second half of our gathering was a chance for each of us to make art with clay and a variety of decorations, a session led by art therapist Sharon Hyson. At the end the pieces were arranged in a “mandala” on one table – we’re hoping photos will be up soon on the temple Facebook page.

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