What if the effects of Islamic art in America were better understood?
What if the Western world gained deeper appreciation for Islamic culture and art?
What if art could be a medium for greater understanding among all religions and cultures?
“How can we know the dancer from the dance?” That often-quoted line from a William Butler Yeats poem speaks to the intrinsic inseparability of art and artist.
Artists’ intentions and identities shape their art. At the same time, identity affects audiences’ perceptions as surely as it affected the artist’s creation. Yet, identity is a complex mix of culture and individuality, difficult to unknot and untangle.
Throughout history, religions have played a critical role in this interplay, relying on art to reflect and shape belief and understanding at both individual and collective levels. Notably, the interdependence of art and Christianity has long been recognized as a significant factor in molding Europe’s cultural identity — and later, by extension, America’s.
However, there’s been far less scholarship on the impacts of non-Western religions — particularly on the art being created today.
Jamal J. Elias, Ph.D., is a humanities and religious studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania. With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, he’s leading a first-of-its-kind study of the cognitive value of art for understanding religion and identity among American Muslims.
What constitutes Islamic art in the contemporary world? And what impact does it have on people’s perceptions and beliefs?
“The role of the arts in religious and social understanding among Muslims is woefully understudied,” Elias says. “Although there is considerable historical scholarship on masterpieces of Islamic art and architecture, it has emphasized either technical aspects of art production or aesthetic concerns centered around beauty. Very little of it addresses human responses to art. And even less concerns cognitive, religious, or other forms of understanding. What I’m hoping to accomplish through this project is to come up with a more complicated, nuanced understanding of what religious identity actually ends up being,” Elias states.
His project joins scholars of art and religion with three practicing American Muslim artists. They’re engaging in one-on-one conversations about how religious and cultural identity informs their art. Each participating artist works in a different medium. One is a calligrapher, another is a dancer, and the third is a multimedia artist.
In addition, the researchers are conducting interviews with American Muslim community groups in several U.S. cities. These participants are non-artists who actively engage with Islamic art as audiences and patrons.
An important aspect of this preliminary study is its methodology. Instead of surveys, the data-gathering consists entirely of qualitative interviews, done individually and repeatedly. So, although the number of participants is small, the interviews allow researchers to go deep, refining questions and building on insights from previous discussions. It’s also significant that the study is investigating the impacts of art on those who create it as well as those who experience it.
“I’m not just seeing the artists as producers. I engage with them as understanders, as well,” Elias explains. “Artists not only create art objects. They engage with their art, as well. It contributes to their understanding. So, when we talk about cognition, there’s the cognition of the person who, in some sense, is most intimately engaged with the art. I consider this extremely important for understanding what art does. Because an artist should understand their art in some ways better than anyone else in terms of where it came from, what it was supposed to be. But there’s also the issue of what others understand, and that’s where the community groups come in.”
In addition to better understanding how the insights of artists differ from those of non-artists, Elias hopes to learn whether there is a difference between artists who view themselves as formally producing religious art and those who see Islam as contributing to their vision rather than forming it. Among other important issues he’s probing is whether different art mediums produce different understandings.
“Artistic expression has been instrumental in shaping the religious and cultural identities of communities throughout history,” Elias notes. “My project is looking at a specific religious community, which is internally extremely varied, and seeing how members of that religious community feel that art informs their understandings of their place in the world and the world more broadly.”
For example, Shahzia Sikander, the multimedia artist who’s participating, has transformed the status of traditional Islamic miniature painting into a contemporary idiom. She’s also created new narratives of feminist representation in her art, including an imposing eight-foot sculpture of a powerful female installed atop a New York courthouse. It joins statues of history’s great lawmakers — all men.
At the end of his study, Elias plans to produce a detailed paper as well as a short educational video. “We expect the results to answer questions that have never previously been posed about the role of the arts in religious understanding among Muslims, and to do so in a manner that allows this narrowly focused study to serve as a launch point for a more ambitious research project,” he says.
The result could well be a greater and more widespread understanding of and appreciation for art — not only Islamic art but also what’s being created today by a broad range of artists who represent a wealth of identities, intentions, and impacts.