What if we understood how religion and culture affect artists?
What if cognitive science can help us understand artistic traditions in new ways?
What if we knew more about how and why to preserve cultural traditions?
Why does an ancient art form become an inheritance for contemporary reimagining instead of just a relic? And how might this matter for a richer understanding of cultures today?
Museums have all sorts of ancient art objects that can be appreciated for their historical significance. However, many represent art forms no longer practiced.
An exception is Asian miniature painting. Its roots as a manuscript art form are premodern, extending back more than a thousand years from the courts of the Mughals, Rajputs, and other dynasties. Still, miniature paintings are being created today. Often known for their intricate details and vibrant colors, and deeply interwoven with religious themes, they’re being used for spiritual purposes as well as special occasions such as housewarmings and weddings.
For Cristine Legare, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and director of its Center for Applied Cognitive Science, the contemporary practice of miniature painting offers a unique opportunity to further her research in cognitive and cultural evolution.
With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, she and her team of Indian and American scientists have launched an interdisciplinary project involving hundreds of specialized artisans in India. They range from novices to experts who have been practicing miniature painting for as many as 60 years.
“Our overarching objective is to examine how the experience of acquiring mastery of miniature painting impacts cognitive psychological processes, spiritual understanding, and religious meaning and practice,” Legare states. “Through a mixed-methods and comparative approach, we’re documenting variation and continuity in the complex interplay of psychology, spirituality, and religiosity in artistic processes across communities of miniature painters.”
Applying psychological perspectives and methods to this ancient art form opens opportunities for new insights, she says.
“Most of what we know about miniature painting comes from art historians. Art history is fascinating, but it’s limited just like any discipline. Cognitive science can be leveraged to provide fresh perspectives and unique insights that can’t be studied purely through historical texts. You need living, breathing humans to understand how art is currently being practiced.”
She continues: “This project explores from the perspective of the artists — how they create this art form, how they see religious or beliefs in spirituality through it, how they integrate between these. Our unique contribution is leveraging insights about how the human mind works to better understand artistic practice in unique cultural contexts.”
For instance, the aesthetic style associated with miniature paintings maintains a high level of procedural detail and rigid adherence to procedural steps. Both are core characteristics of ritualization.
“Ritualization serves multiple critical social and psychological functions,” Legare says. “Ritualization of the process of artistic production ensures the high-fidelity transmission of socially shared knowledge, skills, and practices. In the context of art, ritualization may also preserve the aesthetics of particular artistic traditions through careful adherence to process and form. Ritualization is also associated with achieving mastery, a process that takes many decades of practice for miniature artists to achieve.”
With a focus on artists and their art, Legare’s study is a deep dive into how art may enhance spiritual understanding in individuals and whole cultures. Data collected from participants in Rajasthan, a state in northwest India, show that the majority cited religious motivation as a pivotal factor in mastering and making this art form.
“The use of meticulous artistic techniques and traditional materials to illustrate spiritual content allows the artists to contemplate their own spirituality,” Legare reports. “The motivations and purposes behind the creation of miniature paintings are not merely aesthetic. They’re integral to religious practices and beliefs in Rajasthan and India as a whole.”
Of course, our 21st-century world is changing rapidly. Few art forms in few cultures are exempt from this dynamic. Miniature painting in India now faces multiple challenges: globalization, competing art styles, and the tension between preservation and progress. It takes years to achieve mastery. And fewer people than ever are pursuing the training needed. At the same time, declining cultural knowledge adds to the threat of extinction.
At its heart, Legare’s project advocates for cultural preservation and community empowerment in a widening world.
“The tension between new kinds of globalization and all of the opportunities associated with that while also maintaining cultural, religious, spiritual significance is a microcosm of a much, much larger trend,” she observes. “Many of our cultural heritages are being lost, including art forms that used to be much more widespread. Art holds culture. It has powerful emotional and spiritual significance. It’s a critical part of identity for a population. It can be a powerful vessel for human experience and reverence. What happens when that changes over time?
“Personally, that resonates with me. This project isn’t just about a historical art form with ancient Hindu goddesses and gods. It’s relevant to the modern day and to what will be missed when traditions are gone.”