Saturday, October 23, 2010

Can art redeem the Abrahamic blight?

I begin with a brief review of my religious experience. It starts with a blank, for my parents were atheists and sought diligently to shield me from any religious contamination. It is axiomatic that prohibition fosters curiosity, so that in my late teen years I began to explore religions. Having decided not to join any of them, I nonetheless elected to study medieval art, which is massively inspired by the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. For thirty-five years I made my living teaching this variety of art (and a few others), emphasizing the positive effects of the Abrahamic religions in the cultural sphere. I did not teach Islamic art, but several trips to the Middle East familiarized me with Islamicate achievements, especially in the realms of architecture and the minor arts. (I say "Islamicate" because a significant portion of the art was produced by Christian and Jewish craftspeople.)

In my most recent years I have been exploring, at some length, the other side of the coin--the deleterious strains in the Abrahamic heritage as we have come to know it.

Now comes an exhibition at the New York Public Library--"Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam"--echoing a previous show at the British Museum in London. This includes many beautiful illuminated manuscripts and other objects produced under Abrahamic auspices. The organizers cherish an eirenic aim: to bring us all together by emphasizing the elements that all three faiths share. But what about showing the differences?: say, some Crusader scenes and some contemporary Islamic anti-Semitic images. In short there is a Pollyannaish subtext to the exhibition. It is what may be termed in the vernacular the Rodney King syndrome: can't we all just get along?

Parenthetically, I note that the influence of the Big Three religions has not always been favorable even to art--witnessed the Second Commandment of the Hebrew Bible which, in its continuing irradiation, has not only authorized image-avoidance, but sometimes actual iconoclasm.

In his New York Times account (, the astute Edward Rothstein points out that there is also an element of protectiveness towards Islam in this artistic roundup. That suggests a larger issue. We still do not altogether understand why the European left, increasingly imitated by liberals in this country, has adopted Muslims as its poster children. This "see no evil approach" has been at the expense of women and gay people, whom the left and the liberals claim to support. This switcheroo, lending them no support among Islamists and dismaying their dwindling body of followers, will surely accelerate the decline of these groups. I take no pleasure in this development, but it needs to be acknowledged.



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