Randall J. Stephens
Throughout American history, religion and entertainment have influenced each other and have intersected in fascinating ways. Native American rituals and games entertained and inspired. Early white settlers like the Puritans, though defining their faith over and against profane pastimes, engaged in sport, play, and elaborate storytelling. Still, stark contrasts appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries when it came to how Catholics and Protestants in the New World thought of the theater, music, and performance. The evangelical surge in the 18th century brought with it a lively and riveting preaching style—represented by celebrity ministers like George Whitfield and Gilbert Tennent—that faced the ire of their more traditional foes for using “vulgar” methods to reach the masses. In the 19th century, African Americans, in slavery and freedom, expressed their faith in ways that combined religious systems, dancing, and music traditions from Africa and the Americas. Evangelical churches and prominent figures used entertainment to proselytize, illustrate the drama of salvation and damnation, and to enliven services. Temperance, anti-slavery, and other reformist groups employed music, novels, and theater to spread their earnest message. Pentecostals and other evangelicals took up new forms in the 20th century. They eagerly made use of radio, film, and later, television. The well-known evangelist Billy Graham was a skillful pioneer of new media. In the 20th century, Hollywood films drew on Jewish and Catholic themes, as Jewish and Catholic writers, directors, and actors put their stamp on the silver screen. Late 20th and early 21st century combinations of religion and entertainment included Muslim rap music, Christian rock, Jewish folk music, and much more. A great deal of this innovation coincided with the rise of the performance-driven megachurch and the proliferation of religious organizations that catered to athletes and drew on sports imagery and symbols for the cause. In the long sweep of American history, the devout have found new, elaborate ways to draw on popular culture and to entertain as well as enlighten the faithful.
William D. Romanowski
Since the dawn of the cinema at the turn of the 20th century, the church and its vicissitudes have been an essential part of the Hollywood story. There is a basic affinity between film and religion; both propagate values and offer visions of life that can—and often do—rival one another. For that reason, religious leaders have always been wary of Hollywood’s effect on the moral and religious character of the nation and its influence around the world. The film industry evolved in tandem with the church and other social institutions as it became integrated into society as a legitimate art. Negotiations with Hollywood were complex as church leaders sought to resolve enduring tensions between profits and the public welfare, freedom and control, art and entertainment, morality and marketing.
Approaches to the cinema embody deeply held religious principles held in some tension. The one stresses freedom of expression and individual conscience; the other a concern with protecting the church and the moral and religious character of American society. Various perspectives that are rooted in different theological-cultural traditions exist along a spectrum. At one end is an emphasis on the individual as the genesis of social change; at the other is a concern with transforming institutions that influence and govern people’s lives. These two tendencies, which are not mutually exclusive, find expression both within religious groups and between them.
In the history of Hollywood-church relations, Protestants favored industry reforms to protect individual liberty and the common good based on a shared recognition of the need for self-restraint and public responsibility. While Protestants stressed the individual conscience in movie matters, Catholics emphasized ecclesiastical authority. Proscribed film viewing and production oversight were deemed necessary to develop the individual conscience and protect parishioners from false ideas and immorality. Evangelicals, in turn, utilized film to evangelize and expected to restrain film production with highly publicized protests and a demonstrable consumer demand for family-friendly movies. Though motivated by different goals and perspectives, these strategies are all in some measure attempts to fuse moral and religious principles with democratic values and market realities: persistent dynamics traceable from the origins of the cinema to contemporary debates.
Until the late 20th century, it was widely assumed that visual art could be of only negligible significance to a Jewish tradition that had been principally mediated through written texts. However, by the closing decades of the 20th century, Jewish cultural historians had demonstrated that, while Jewish worship and study is indubitably logocentric, the Second Commandment’s prohibition of the making and worshipping of graven images has not entailed a blanket ban on visual art. Jews have not been uniformly indifferent or hostile to visual art, a category that includes the architectural design and decoration of synagogues; funerary monuments; illuminated manuscripts; embroidery; liturgical seats, pulpits, and the other fittings and ornaments of religious Jewish life at home and at worship; as well as, since the 19th century, drawing, painting and sculpture. Most interpreters now read the biblical texts as prohibiting only the making and worshipping of images of the divine. The Bible forbids idolatry, but is aware that not all images are idolatrous. By around the 3rd century of the Common Era, rabbinical rulings recognized that the danger of Jews becoming idolaters, as they might have done under formerly pagan dispensations, had passed. In short, although in a number of Jewish historical periods and geographical regions there have been good reasons to be reluctant to accommodate visual art within the tradition, there is also ample evidence of visual art in settings that span the entire geography and history of Judaism. Jewish avoidance or neglect of visual art has usually been more historically contingent than theologically necessary. The religious culture of Jews resident in Islamic lands, for example, tended to conform to their hosts’ prevailing, though not historically or geographically comprehensive, tendency to aniconism.
On grounds such as these, it has been argued that the notion of Judaism as an aniconic tradition is a modern one. Kant’s appreciation of the Second Commandment as one of Judaism’s few redeeming features, proscribing any crude urge to see that which exceeds the bounds of sensibility, encouraged western European Jews to advert to Judaism’s lack of art a sign of its pre-eminence as the first enlightened religion. The 19th and early 20th-century claim that Jewish tradition is aural and literary, but not visual, seems to have owed more to the modern German scientific study of Judaism’s use of the Second Commandment to highlight affinities between Jewish and Christian monotheism and to Jews’ desire to integrate into Protestant culture, than to restrictions within their own legal and cultural inheritance.
Perceived violations of the Second Commandment no longer provoke much of a reaction in any but the most conservative Jewish communities. And even among the Haredim, artists have begun to paint semi-abstract pictures that are not considered a deviation from halakhic norms. Yet, while many Jews still regard abstraction as a more permissible form of Jewish visual art than others, it is evident that the art tradition that developed after Jewish civil emancipation in Western Europe has actually been predominantly figurative. A number of scholars have therefore proposed that the Second Commandment has not so much prevented figurative visual art as promoted a distinctive set of styles and techniques, especially those that allow Jewish artists to make images that fulfill their quintessentially Jewish obligation to criticize idolatrous images. Jewish art, it has been argued, exists because of the Second Commandment, not in spite of it.
This essay does not cover Jewish approaches and contributions to film and architecture. It examines both the history and theorization of Jewish visual art and Jewish religious approaches to visual art. The essay uses the findings of this two-pronged enquiry to suggest that Jewish visual art, which is more than art by artists who happen to be Jews, is properly counter-idolatrous art, art that is far from hindered by the Second Commandment but is actively produced by it. Jewish art does more than build cultural, political, and national Jewish identities; it does more than the commemorative work of visually constructing Jewish memory. Visual art made by Jews becomes Jewish when it serves a constructive theological, prophetic purpose and when it uses idoloclastic techniques to produce images that both cancel and restore the glory of the human. This claim counters the prevailing view that there can be no unified or normative theory of Jewish art.
In the history and prehistory of human societies, poets, prophets, and seers (the word vates can cover all three) have often been virtually indistinguishable from one another. From time immemorial, their respective activities overlap and interpenetrate to such an extent that prophets (or mantics or seers) and poets have been closely associated and tend to completely coalesce in many of their functions and modalities. The Sanskrit word kavi (like its Latin cognate vates) embraces both. A certain strand of ideology running through the Bible (at least as interpreted by classical rabbinic texts) aims to drive a wedge between God-inspired prophecy and humanly created poems. Nevertheless, the Hebrew word nabi for “prophet” means “bubbling forth, as from a fountain,” so the vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible, too, is naturally apt to suggest the creative fecundity of verbal imagination. In fact, Amos, Isaiah, Elisha, and Ezekiel frequently produce parables, proverbs, and even love songs.
In primordial cultures, with only minimal social stratification and differentiation of roles, long before any specific mantles as either prophet or poet can be identified and donned, a figure like that of the shaman or even the wizard (Merlin, for example) is often emblematic of a certain undecidability between religious revelation or spiritual experience and creative imagination and invention. Of course, in modern cultures, with their highly differentiated social roles, theological revelation and poetry are typically seen as distinct and often even as opposed to each other in crucial respects. Yet the two still need to be understood together as reciprocal and symbiotic in their origins, aims, and purposes. Throughout subsequent history, the deepest intents of literary and religious practices remain inseparable from each other in their myriad manifestations within our cultural traditions and institutions; they thus stand to be illuminated by such a juxtaposition. Poetry and prophecy together comprise the common matrix of some of the oldest and most fundamental modes of expression of humanity across cultures.
The artworks under discussion detail the scope and breadth of art that can be described as spiritual by virtue of its revelatory, revitalizing and contemplative capacities. Rather than interrogating the relationship between art and religion, more pertinent questions in the contemporary age are: What is the nature of the dialogue between art and spirituality, how do the two come together, and what form does the meeting take? The range of multimedia brings novel forms of encounter that occur outside the gallery and other spaces and involve audio-visual and other means of articulating the spiritual. These new forms make different demands on viewers; they create greater intimacy (often through immersion), both physically and psychologically, and one of the consequences of having greater intimacy can be a heightened awareness that increases presentness and a sense of embodiment. What we learn is that there are potentially as many interpretations of spirituality as there are viewers.
William Blake (1757–1827) was a British artist, engraver, poet, and writer on theological themes. His illuminated books were the product of his technological inventiveness, and are characterized by the juxtaposition of texts and images in which a dialectic between two different media is a means of stimulating the imagination of the viewer and reader. Influences on Blake are often hard to trace, though he explicitly cites and criticizes Milton and Swedenborg, as well as the contemporary artist Joshua Reynolds. Such influences, which might help explain Blake’s ideas, seem less important than the extraordinary inventiveness which one finds in his words and images and their production, which have analogies to earlier themes, but without offering the evidence that demonstrates direct dependence. Blake’s emphasis is on the importance of “inspiration” rather than “memory,” and as such he set great store on the creativity of the poetic genius and its reception by the engaged reader or viewer. The visual was primary for Blake. It was a major part of his attempt to produce that which is “not too explicit as the fittest for Instruction,” to allow the reader/viewer to work out what the meaning of words and images was and how one might inform the other. Much of his work is inspired by the Bible, though the heterodox approach he takes to biblical interpretation is frequently at odds with mainstream Christian opinion. Blake’s lifelong fascination with the work of John Milton led him both to challenge and refine his great predecessor’s views and, in Milton a Poem, to enable the departed spirit of Milton to discern the worst of his intellectually self-centered excesses. Blake’s interpretative method, his hermeneutic, is encapsulated in some words he wrote to a client who was perplexed by his work. In it he gave priority to imaginative engagement with the Bible which was only then complemented by rational reflection: “Why is the Bible more Entertaining & Instructive than any other book. Is it not because they are addressed to the Imagination which is Spiritual Sensation & but mediately to the Understanding or Reason?” (Letter to Trusler 1799, E702-3). His ongoing work and the complex idiosyncratic mythology that he invented reflect the changed circumstances of the reaction to the events in revolutionary France. Themes of the Blake corpus, such as prophecy, challenge the hegemony of authoritative texts like the Bible. His critique of dualism and monarchical view of God pervade his work.
Born in 1757, Blake lived most of his life in London with the exception of four, often difficult, years in Felpham, Sussex (1800–1804). He was married to Catherine Boucher (1762–1831), who in his later years was a collaborator in his engraving and printing. Arguably, the companionship of Job’s wife in the Illustrations of the Book of Job, so different from the impression one gets from the brief reference to Job’s wife in the biblical book, may reflect their marriage. The Felpham years were difficult because they marked a time of great personal upheaval, when the ideas which formed his long illuminated poems, Milton a Poem and Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, took shape. As a consequence of an incident with a soldier in Felpham, he was put on trial at this time for sedition, for comments he was alleged to have made to this English soldier. This experience seared his visionary imagination and left its trace in the repeated references to the soldier who brought the charge against him, Schofield, which are dotted throughout Blake’s Jerusalem. Blake was trained as an engraver and pioneered his own technique. This remained the basis of his art, and arguably offered a means that complemented his visionary imagination (Joseph Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book, 1993). After his move back to London, he lived in obscurity and on the fringes of poverty, indebted to the support of patrons like Thomas Butts, for whom he painted many biblical scenes, and later John Linnell. Only in the last years of his life was he discovered by a group of artists. Toward the end of his life he was adopted as an artistic father figure by a group called “The Ancients,” which included George Richmond, Samuel Palmer, and Edward Calvert.
Like religion, art has been a fundamental component of human experience since the beginning of time. Often working in partnership, occasionally at odds, art and religion form a combination that has been a source of inspiration, pedagogy, contemplation, and celebration of the relationship between the human and the divine. However, each individual religion and its culture have encountered the arts differently; these encounters are reflected in distinctive attitudes toward the human, sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and class, as well as configuration of the holy.
The human figure has been a common denominator in the arts envisioning transformations in cultural and societal attitudes, economic and political perceptions, and religious doctrines. Traditional wisdom suggests that the majority of world cultures and religions are established upon a patriarchal structure so that representations of the male body project attitudes of power while the female body projects negative attributes. More recent scholarship by feminist art historians, critics, cultural historians, and religious historians provides new ways of looking at the female figure and the role of women in religious art including the history of women artists, patrons, collectors, and, most recently, as critics and curators.
Further surveying the iconography of specific women, whether deities, historical personages, or legendary beings, in the history of a religion affords the opportunity not simply to analyze variations in artistic styles but also to witness how religion shapes and informs cultural, societal, and even legal definitions of women. While the majority of scholarly investigations have focused on Western religions, the possibilities of both comparative analyses and innovative studies of non-Western iconographies of women in religious art can both inform and expand global recognition of the categories of gender, race, and ethnicity as well as research methodologies. The Western model of iconography may be found wanting and open to enrichment through engagement with new categories and models of analysis.