Art, Faith and Culture

P. Solomon Raj

In the course of this discourse our objectives is to consider the relation between art, faith and culture in general and to examine the implications of such a relationship to the Christian faith in our respective cultures.  The examples I shall be offering in this paper for obvious reasons will be from the Indian culture but most of the things we are going to say will apply equally well to other Asian cultures.  Without attempting any structured definitions of art or culture let us first come to a working understanding of these terms so that it may help us as we go along.

What is Art ?

Ananda Kent Coomarasamy the well known art historian once said that art is simply a human's handiwork.  His argument really was that art to start with was not something produced by persons possessing peculiar sensibilities called artists.  In his own words, 'art is man's way or woman's way of accomplishing his or her ends, it is not a product of individual genius but something integrally interwoven with life'.

If we accept this view as our working understanding of art, we will recognize that art is much more inclusive than what it is some times thought of.  All the folk songs or the work songs for example, in our villages and the dance and drama which spontaneously appear in our respective cultures will be rightly included in what we call art.  The simple rangavalli patterns or alpana designs as they are also called drawn on floor with white lime powder in India are pieces of art in their own right according to this definition as much as the great oil paintings made by masters and hung up in big galleries.  Similarly you can cite the beautiful basket weaving designs and the textile patterns in this country as art forms although the artisans who make them do not always call them by that name.

Secondly, if we accept this understanding it also follows that no one need to make an apology for not being an artist.  That is because every one is an artist of some kind when he does his/her work creatively.  It is through this creative hand work that guilds or communities of artisans have developed in our cultures.  A goldsmith or an idol carver was what he was not so much by individual choice or not even particularly because of his original skill but because he had learnt to confine himself to the canons of his trade and because he belongs to that particular group of artisans and workers.  As long as he followed the canons of the trade individual skill did not play a great role.  That is why in the old days in the orient art products including paintings did not carry the signature of the artist.  They went by the name of the "school" or particular tradition etc.  The Pahadi miniature paintings in India or the Bosohli art or the Jain Manuscripts, etc.  are good examples.  Only in the later period music composers in my country in the interests of copyrights and for the sake of authenticity, included their names in the last stanza of the composition along with the names of their gods.

Dorothea Bloom, a Quaker artist from USA and a mystic by practice has drawn our attention to the mistaken notion the moderns sometimes have about art.  She said:

We mistook art for diversion, luxury, and refined interest on which we spend our surplus time and money.  We lost a sense of working of art in community.  Instead of asking for bread we asked for stone. ( Dorothea Bloom, Art and Mythic Experience).

So, in any community specially in the oriental culture art is not something extra, it is part of human beings' daily life.  For our ancestors, art is a form of yoga, a communion with the eternal spirit and a concentration carried on so far that the distinction between the subject and the object of contemplation becomes nil (Coomarasamy).  This is how our ancestors used art whether it is song, dance, drama, poetry, painting or sculpture.

Fine Arts and Decorative Arts

Some times people make a distinction between fine arts and decorative arts.  We have already mentioned that music, dance and drama and song and poetry are art forms as much as the plastic arts like painting and sculpture.  Indians sasthras tell us that there are 64 kalas or art forms including such crazy things like gambling and hunting.  But among these 64, there are some lalith kalas - fine arts.  Some Western thinkers considered that all Indian art was decorative but not fine art because it was not always true to reality, like the Greek sculpture for example, which copies nature in its reality like a photographic camera.  So Asian art and specially the religious art was anathema for some Western thinkers because it showed strange creatures like man with a monkey's face or an elephant trunk or a god with many hands.  But Coomarasamy reminds us that the ancient Babylonians and the Egyptians also had lions with human faces and beautiful mermaids half woman and half fish.  These are not true to nature as we see it.  The Bible also speaks of strange creatures and winged beings.  The four creatures of Revelation (4:7-8) one with the head of an ox, and another with the head of a human and of a lion and an eagle are very strange too.  So it is not fair to call Indian art not fine art because of some strange manifestations.  It is a misunderstanding of fine-ness in the fine arts.  This much discussion will be necessary I think to help us avoid any unnecessary distinction between fine arts and decorative arts and to enable us to look at arts in their wholeness.

What is Culture ?

We know that the concept of culture is very complex indeed and it includes many things such as the community's language, its religion and ritual, its arts and crafts etc.  Culture is a  community's world view, of its hopes and fears, its expectations and shared values.  Culture is like a mass of computer data into which every individual of that community can draw from.  It is a community's collective memory and its stored heritage which every generation passes on to the next.

The World Council of Churches also at its Vancouver Conference in 1983 had defined culture as follows:

Culture is what holds the community together giving it a common framework of meaning.  It is preserved in its language, thought patterns, ways of life, attitudes, symbols and presuppositions and is celebrated in arts, music, drama, literature and life.  It constitutes a collective memory of the people, a collective heritage which will be handed down to generations to come.

From this definition of culture we may draw three conclusions for our discussion.

  1. Culture has a job to perform - viz.,  to hold the community together.
  2. It is preserved and expressed in certain visible things and certain activities - such as its art forms and its rituals, etc.
  3. It has a past and a future - it is passed on to posterity.

As I had already indicated, my examples in this presentation are going to be from my own culture but you may see how far the things we say here apply to other cultures.  We may also consider the significance of all this to the Christian faith in our own cultures today.

 

Art and Culture

First let us look at - in a little more detail -- the relation between art and culture.  Since art for a people is a way of experiencing and expressing their world view and their shared values and conversely, since culture itself is what gives shape to a people's artistic modes it is quite obvious that art and culture of a particular society are inter-related.  Webster's dictionary defines culture as 'acquaintance with and taste in fine arts'.  And in the area of what may be called Christian art,  I am making an assumption that when a  Christian in any cultural matrix expresses his faith in any art form, he or she does so in the idiom of his or her own native or mother culture.  As the East Asia Christian Conference in one of its meetings in 1966 declared: "The Christian community finds itself set in a particular cultural flux, shaped by and shaping the life of the larger with all its particular, historical and social complexities."

It is evident that in the 2000 years history of the Christian Church this is happening all along.  In its hymns and its liturgy, several symbols and images have been borrowed from its host culture wherever the church has been planted and the gospel had tried to find an expression.  Take for example the hymn which the church had sung in many languages -

O worship the king, all glorious above
and gratefully sing his wonderful love.

And look at the word pictures used in that hymn.

God our shield and defender
His robe is the light and his canopy space
His chariots of wrath - the deep thunder storms
His pavilion of splendour and his girdle of praise
He made the earth and established it fast
with a changeless decree
He had cast the sea around the earth
like a mantle around a man.

Where did the church get all this majestic royal and triumphal imagery?  Look at another hymn.

All hail the power of Jesus' name let angels prostrate fall
Bring forth the royal diadem and crown him Lord of all.

The people of God in the Old Testament spoke of King David as God's anointed one, the symbol of the Messiah.  Christ spoke of the Kingdom of God.  But the whole theology and the elaborate imagery of kings and crowns and the thrones and the sceptre and sword came into the imagery of the church's hymns much later.  It most probably came during the times of the Roman emperors when once Christianity became the state religion.  Yet these images from that particular culture served the church to proclaim its faith like the earlier symbols from Greek culture served St. Paul and his proclamation of the Gospel.  In the New Testament we see this happening.  The image of the winged beings, we have already mentioned the angels to a large extent is much later in the history of God's people, having come from Babylon or Egypt and refined still further with contact with Persian religion.  This shows how several cultures all along have influenced the hymn and the liturgical tradition of the church.  So Dr. D.T. Niles in the of the quoted words once said,

The Gospel is a seed that is sown in the soil of culture.
There is one Gospel and there are many Christianities.

We can also say that there is one Christ and many Chrystologies.  The mystery of incarnation continues as people from many cultures respond to God's message in their own languages in their song and art forms.  This is quite obvious when we see the many artists portraying our Lord's figure in their own cultural idiom.  A few years ago a mission board in West Germany had produced a very interesting poster with the face of Christ from the art productions of many lands.  Christus hat viele Gesichter - Christ has many faces.  At Selly Oak Colleges as part of my work in cross cultural communications I used to involve participants with Christian art from different cultural backgrounds to see how they would respond to the message of these images and how they would appreciate the art styles, the possible assumptions and the values of the cultures as far as we could gather from these pictures.  We gathered for example, several versions of the story of the Good Samaritan from different cultures.  In an African version, the Good Samaritan was driving not a donkey but a bicycle.  He is wearing not the middle eastern robes but a pair of slacks and a bush shirt with a hat to keep off the sun.  I am sure the purpose of this kind of contextualization is much deeper than what we call easy 'indigenization', a process of making the story more familiar and 'homely'.  The whole process of people's identification emotional involvement as they look at the picture and how they get the message, all these come into play.  Talking about this kind of 'indigenization' and contextualization, I think, Richard Taylor says that Asian artists have brought the image of Christ nearer to their people in one or more of the following ways:

  1. Contextually - features, dress, background etc.
  2. Stylistically - using one of the traditionally indigenous artistic style.
  3. Canonically - by strictly following the rules and   conventions, the lay out, the symbolic meaning, gestures   etc. which make sense to the people of their culture.
  4. Mythically - adapting Christ to some aspect of the Asian   setting like the Bethany home with Christ squatting on the floor.

When we think of our Lord's facial features in pictures, it is good to remember that the New Testament speaks mainly of what Christ has said and what He had done but very little of what he looked like. Some scholars rightly think that it is probably good because every age and every nation can now picture him in its own way and feel identified with Him and I would think that all such images would be valid because Christ in resurrection became cosmic and does not belong to one nation or one time.  Ronald M. Bainton in his interesting book called Behold the Christ refers to a catacomb portrait of Christ that should be dated to about the middle of the 4th C.  His reason for this dating is that this picture shows Christ with a halo or nimbus around His head.  And Bainton rightly says that the nimbus was borrowed from pagan cultures and Roman Emperors.  We have some of these haloes in Buddhist Frescos of Ajanta and Ellora of earlier date.  Christian Emperors of Rome were willing to renounce these haloes and the saints of the Christian church were shown with the haloes. We do not see halo around the head of Christ before 340 ,A.D., the year in which the Roman Empire became Christian.  In this catacomb picture the Greek letter on either side of Christ's head are Alpha and Omega and the hair style and the beard of Christ show the Syrian influence.  So Bainton says, "The new religion, Hebrew in origin was in turn Hellenised,  Romanised, Germanised, Celticised besides being made conformable to the customs and costumes and languages of Asia and Africa."  He also says, "To take root in a new environment, Christianity had to associate itself to modes and mores.  Some times the pagan was made Christian, some times Christian turned pagan."

This is what we are saying - the culture of the host community influences the art forms and the images of a universal faith.

Indian Culture

Let me say a few words about the Indian culture.  In India the early Dravidian animism and primal religious views and the Aryan culture coming from several centuries before Christianity has influenced our art forms and our languages and literature.  The powers of nature like the wind, the rain and agni, the fire were all personified and were considered as manifestations of the Divine and iconographically our culture evolved both in poetry and painting and sculpture creatures like yakshas, nagas and sakthis  (flying singers, snake gods and spirits) and gave some kind of strange forms to these spirits.  The worldview of those people like anywhere else is preserved in poetry, song and sculpture and the cave drawings and rock paintings.  A folk culture which depended or oral tradition and a visual language paid a great attention to physical gestures and dance  mudras.  The many natyabhangimas  or mudras slowly became a visual vocabulary and gained specific interpretations and these were later canonized in the  Natysasthras  and the  Silpasasthras.  The Buddhist  art and architecture, for example, from those days was carried to the other lands like Sri Lanka and Indonesia.  In these lands, art is more intimately connected with  religion from the early days than in some other lands.  There was no secular art for them.  Ananda Coomarasamy says that Indian  art is essentially hieratic art.  Making images of God was believed to lead people to heaven.  The iconographic form of the deities, and their cycles of incarnation and reincarnation are not to be invented but only to be expounded from the sasthras and folklore.  The Byzantine artists also similarly fixed rules for the Christian Orthodox art.  According to them the form and the image of the icons was not a product of human fancy since the icons represent the prototypes of heavenly beings.  So you go into the eastern orthodox Church anywhere and many saints and the holy people stare at you from the walls and the ceiling and the images of theotokos - the mother of God, the pantocrator- the ruler of the universe - all these forms painted strictly according to the rules of iconography and according to the canons without any change.  I had an unforgettable experience when I first entered the Serbian Orthodox Church  one Sunday morning in Birmingham.  I am not surprised that the messengers of Prince Vladimir of Russia in the 9th Century A.D.   reported to their king that they felt like they were in heaven when they entered the great cathedrals in Byzantium with great chanting of the liturgy coming back reverberating from the domes down to the listeners and the saintly figures all around on the walls.

In India too a similar thing happened in the matter of making Hindu temple images.. The sculptor repeated faithfully the age old forms again and again and  "repetition", in the words of Richard Taylor "was not only permitted but it was a part of the exercise."  For the artist himself making an idol is a means of edification, a sadhana.  The icon is beautiful only in the sense that it correctly interprets the canonical prescriptions.  It is the idea that determines the image and not the observation of the artist that shapes the image.  That is why the Indian artists while making the image of Christ made him in their own canonical prescriptions depicting what Christ is in their traditional idea than trying to show what Christ did.  A German friend of mine, a pastor, once said to me most of my pictures of Christ show what I thought He is rather than what we know He did.  Of course many Indian artists made master paintings on the cross theme but even on the cross like the Byzantine artists they showed Christ in glory.

In this sense particularly the Indian cultural influence become evident in Christian paintings.  Christ wears a Saffron robe and the woman of Samaria in one of my pictures has an Indian veil.  The following may be mentioned as some of the iconographic peculiarities or cliches in Indian art.

  1. Mental visualization is more clear in Indian painting.
  2. The picture fills the whole field of view and so there isvery little sky line.
  3. All parts of the picture many times equally and simultaneously presented, e.g.  Jain figures in profile show both the eyes.
  4. The relationship  of the parts of the picture are not organic - narrow waists, broad chests, etc.  It is not accidental either but is ideally determined.
  5. The images thus produced are not memory images - memory also is one kind of observation. -Coomarasamy.

Art and the viewer or the listener

A word must be said here about the viewer or the listener in the case of music or song or poetry.  A viewer is also a product of the culture which he belongs to and so the process of his art experience is affected by his cultural back-ground.   First of all it must be said that the viewer of a piece of art or a listener should not expect to be told too much about what he sees or what he hears.  His experience also should and would come into play in the process of seeing or listening.  Anatomy in human figures, for example, as we know from Western art, or the usual perspective are absent most of the time in Asian art.  Some conventions or cliches as we called them like the narrow middle part of feminine figures, the wide open eyes almost exaggerated, the broad forehead, the elongated arms and the narrow long fingers are suggestions of a symbolic language.  When a viewer looks at such figures his own cultural heritage comes into play.  Coomarasamy quotes Leonardo da Vinci as saying that  -  that figure is most worthy of praise which by its  action best expresses the passion that animates it.  This applies also very clearly to the natyaphangimas  or dance postures of artists, in a performance.  Therefore there is no use counting the limbs of figures in paintings and in sculpture. (Consider the beautiful Nataraja Statues of Tanjore).

Fortunately there is much narrative art and story telling song in Asian art music.  The many dance dramas and song narratives of the orient depict the well-known epic stories of the lands.  So the listener or the viewer comes with a knowledge of the background story and he is able to interpret the symbols both visual and verbal much more easily than a stranger can do.  To read a picture from right to left is not difficult to cultures which are not too much inhibited by the habit of reading from left to right.  To see the various sequences of the story in several panels on the same page even with the same character appearing more than once is not strange for some oral cultures where people are not so much used to books.

In the matter of meaning of a piece of art, a German theologian Hans Kung raised this issue in a monograph entitled - The Meaning of Art.   He says that if you ask whether there is a meaning to a piece of art the answer is - no.  A picture he says generally has more than one meaning or more than one message depending who is looking at it.  This is true with the piece of music also.  The same melody or a piece of composition may evoke different kinds of feeling in different people.  This is by and large the strong point with symbolic language both visual and oral.  Symbols by their own nature are suggestive, evocative, open and most satisfying because the viewer or listener can identify himself in the song or the picture, very freely.

All symbols of the local culture used by Christian artists for Christ figures are adapted and some times reinterpreted by the artist.  The Lotus is purely a Hindu symbol to start with but is very well used to portray the idea of new birth.  So also the symbol of the flowing water, the raised hand, the saffron cloth, the sun and the moon, the open book etc.  provide much powerful visual language to the  Christian artist today in the orient.  And you may similarly think of some really oriental word symbols.

Sometimes the question of syncretism is rightly raised in the context of predominantly non-Christian countries like India.  I cannot answer that question at any length now but I only take my stand with the former moderator of the World Council of Churches Central Committee,  Dr. M.M. Thomas, who believes that Christ centered syncretism is not dangerous.  The test of a good picture or a piece of music for that matter is its unity, vitality, integrity and repose.  Christian art will immensely gain by borrowing symbols from other cultures and giving them a new meaning if necessary.  Finally I like to mention what Masao Takenaka has said about the place of culture.  After reminding us that every culture has something to offer, Takenaka said:

What is needed is not cultural isolation (the existence of many cultures without mutual contact) nor cultural univer-salism (i.e. the domination of one particular culture without freedom for others) nor uniformity but rather unity through the acknowledgement and interaction of diversified cultural identities and gifts.

Thus I think everyone, through this sharing of cultural idiom, one will experience the gospel in his own brush like everyone heard the gospel in his own tongue on the Pentecost day.

And now only one question remains - What are the practical implications of all this to our work as artists, poets and singers and composers?  This question I shall leave with you to answer.