Bret E. Carroll
American religious pluralism is not simply diversity but a dynamic process of interaction and exchange. Its core is a spatial politics in which religious groups create meaningful spaces and interact with other groups similarly engaged, sometimes cooperatively and sometimes apprehensively and even violently. This dynamic is configured by a longstanding pattern of Anglo-Protestant dominance coupled with a widespread though tension-filled acceptance of religious pluralism. This dynamic has been particularly dramatic and intense since the 1960s because of an increase in the numbers of adherents of non-Protestant and non-Western religions in the United States and an increase in the degree to which religious groups have sought a more active and visible involvement in American life. One can observe the American pluralist dynamic functioning spatially at three interlocking levels—regional, local, and national—with spatial politics playing out differently in different locations depending on a variety of factors. As the new century opens, new factors such as globalization, virtual communication, and heterolocalism come increasingly into play.
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.