Tag Archives: art and literature

Ganesha at the art museum

This is an entirely random post. I discovered in my files a couple weeks ago this photo I’d taken during a visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art sometime last year. This piece was in their Gallery One, an exhibition designed to serve as a basic intro to art.

My photo of the museum's Ganesha.

My photo of the museum’s Ganesha. (Well, okay, actually my husband’s photo, since I haven’t yet broken down and purchased a smart phone with a decent camera.)

What struck me about this piece was the way that a religious artifact was being “repackaged” for purposes of purely aesthetic admiration–even as traces of its devotional use remained. Note the incense bowl at the foot of the statue. Also, if I recall correctly–this would have been why I was so keen to photograph the statue–the plaque identifying the object noted that the local Hindu temple had dressed the statue for the museum.

The museum's online photo of the same statue.

The museum’s online photo of the same statue.

Upstairs, where the museum’s collection of medieval and Renaissance Christian icons was, the museum had not preserved analogous traces of those religious artifacts’ devotional function–no unlit candles before the icons, no plaques explaining that the icons had been blessed by a local Catholic bishop. I don’t intend that observation to serve as an expression of “reverse discrimination”-style Christian aggrievement. But the question is worth posing in a neutral tone: Why the difference?

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China’s “Divine Culture” performs in America


A couple months ago, the Shen Yun troupe advertised on my campus for upcoming performances in Cincinnati and Dayton–the latter just passed a couple days ago. Shen Yun describes itself as performing classical Chinese dance (albeit blended with Western orchestration). I was intrigued by the way religion was invoked in their promotional literature. Here are some quotations from a brochure that was mailed to me. The bolding is mine.



For thousands of years, China was known as the Divine Land. Its rich culture, said to be from the heavens, valued virtues like integrity, compassion, and tolerance.

Then, under 60 years of communist rule, this glorious culture has been almost destroyed. That is why you cannot see a performance like this in China today.

In 2006, leading Chinese artists from around the world came together in New York with a mission to revive authentic Chinese culture. They formed Shen Yun, and now invite you to witness the divine culture’s return.

The brochure goes on to explain that “Shen Yun” means “the beauty of heavenly beings dancing.” The troupe aims to provide “an experience so beautiful and joyous that it evokes a sense of the heavens.”

I’m intrigued by this linkage, or overlap, or equation, with artistic and religious experience. I blogged a couple years ago about a South Asian dance troupe that similarly characterized their on-campus performance as a “sacred” experience. I wonder: How seriously do the performers take these religious/spiritual claims about their art? How seriously do audiences take it? Is there a cynical Orientalism at work behind the scenes? “Oh yeah, Americans are ga-ga for Eastern mysticism, so be sure to throw the words sacred or divine into your advertising copy.”

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Hopi mural

I’m finalizing syllabi for the coming semester. Lately, I’ve been trying to make my syllabi more visually attractive. For the introductory course I’m teaching on the functions of myth in premodern and modern societies, I decided to use as decoration some details from a mural at the Museum of Northern Arizona that incorporates imagery from Hopi myths my students will be reading. These images were particularly attractive to me because of how they link elements of the myths to challenges of contemporary Hopi life. That’s something I’ll be asking students to think about during the course: how do people in modern societies continue to adapt and reinterpret older myths?

Here are the details I’m using. You can see the entire mural at the museum’s website. The muralists are Michael Kabotie and Delbridge Honanie. I regret that I don’t find a title for the mural on the museum’s website.



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Ex votos

Today’s random observation of religion in America is a picture I took several months ago of some Spanish-language ex votos that I saw in the window of an antiques store. They’re metal painted crosses a couple feet tall. I thought they were cool enough that I fetishistically craved owning one; but I decided they weren’t quite $30 apiece worth of cool.


Here’s a translation of each ex voto’s text, starting with the white cross, on the left, and ending with the orange cross, on the right:

Mr. Raul Sanchez Cruz thanks St. Jude Thaddeus for reaching home alive because he crashed and his car rolled over with his wife and son inside and thanks to St. Jude they all came out well from the accident. 15 Sept. 1979. Cetaya Gto.

I give thanks to the Lord of mercy for the miracle of caring for my son and me as we crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S. when we went wet in search of a good job. Mr. Camilo Ramirez Delgado. 6 April 1974. Leon Gto.

4 March 1974. Mrs. Martina Rodriguez Zanchez gives thanks to St. Martin de Porres for safely arriving in the U.S. because we crossed the desert and did not bring water. Cetaya Gto.

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Presidents Day, 2013


The painting is called Praying for Peace, by Ron DiCianni. You can order copies from the artist’s website, beginning at $175 and running up to $7500. “This painting is in the private collection of President George W. Bush,” the website informs me.

I first encountered this painting–or one very much like it–about 10 years, when I was TA’ing for a “religions in America” course at the University of Utah. We took students to various religious sites around the greater Salt Lake City area; one of those sites was a private evangelical school. Hanging in one of the hallways was a flyer with this image on it.

If I were to revisit that school today, would I find a similar image of Barack Obama? The question’s only partly snarky: I might be pleasantly surprised.

What if Mitt Romney had won the presidency? No snarkiness there–I’d be keenly interested in the answer to that question, and I do consider it an open one.

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Glenn Beck: Obama as Antichrist?

So, for those who missed it: Glenn Beck has won some time back in the mainstream media spotlight for auctioning a parody art piece, “Obama in Pee Pee.” The parody is an immediate reaction to The Truth, by Michael D’Antuono, which is supposed to be a rebuke to conservative media critics of Obama (like Beck); Beck’s parody also references Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. The logic of Beck’s parody, as he himself articulated it, is: “Everybody on the left, they are so open and tolerant, and they just don’t like it when people complain about taking the image of the savior and putting him in pee pee. But the savior Obama in pee pee? Oh no, that’s just too much.”


Glenn Beck’s “Obama in Pee Pee”

Michael D'Antuono's The Truth

Michael D’Antuono’s The Truth

Andres Serrano's Piss Christ

Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ

Clearly Beck is resentful of Serrano’s treatment of an image of Christ, and resentful of liberals who defend Serrano’s art. I’m less clear what to conclude about what Beck is saying by plugging Obama in for Christ. Obviously he takes a dim view of liberals who, as he sees it, revere Obama as a “savior.” But… why is that, exactly?

See, “Obama in Pee Pee” reminds me of another piece of art by a Tea Party Mormon: Jon McNaughton’s painting One Nation under Socialism, which a few weeks ago I argued casts Obama as a kind of anti-Christ figure:

Jon McNaughton's One Nation under God and One Nation under Socialism

Jon McNaughton’s One Nation under God (left) and One Nation under Socialism¬†(right)

In light of McNaughton’s painting, and other examples of far-right voices literally equating Obama with the Antichrist, I’m left wondering: When Glenn Beck plugs Obama into a parody of Piss Christ and says, in effect, “All right, liberals, let’s see how you like it when someone disrespects your savior”–what is he implying, exactly? Is he saying that it’s absurd for liberals to elevate the president–any president–to the level of some kind of messiah? Or is he saying it’s absurd to elevate Obama specifically to that level because Obama is, in fact, metaphorically if not quite literally, an anti-Christ? As a corollary to that second possibility: Would Beck invest a (sufficiently) conservative¬†president with the messianic aura that he perceives liberals to be assigning to Obama?

I don’t pose this as a rhetorical question: I’m genuinely uncertain. Both options seem plausible. I don’t know which one is actually running through Beck’s mind.

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No angels in America

Today I participated in a panel discussion about Angels in America, which my university’s theater department is staging. A great work of drama–and a vivid example of a postmodern take on religion (which, by coincidence, we’ve been discussing the past couple of days in my course on theory and methods for the study of religion).

The passage of the play from which the title comes (or at least where the title is used) has always intrigued me for being one of the most obscure passages of the play. The point being made, basically, is that if you discount Native Americans, America is a land with no history. For Louis, the gay Jewish leftist delivering this coffee shop rant, America’s history-less-ness opens up the possibility for change, for constructing a just society. Europe, by contrast, he describes as a place where “hope is dissolved in the sheer age of [the] place, where race is what counts and there’s no real hope for change.” And then this:

Ultimately race here is a political question, right? Racists just use race here as a tool in a political struggle. It’s not really about race. Like the spiritualists try to use that stuff, are you enlightened, are you centered, channeled, whatever, this reaching out for a spiritual past in a country where no indigenous spirits exist–only the Indians, I mean Native American spirits and we killed them off so now, there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics, the shifting downwards and outwards of political power to the people . . .

Except, it turns out in the play, there are angels in America: Jewish angels, Mormon angels, Christian angels, angels in statuary commemorating the nation’s fallen dead. And they become, in a decidedly postmodern, eclectic, ironic-yet-serious, non-totalistic way, a paradox-laden symbol of hope. Kushner reaches out for a spiritual past in a country that, according to the character I suspect is most like the playwright, doesn’t have one–and it turns out there’s something he can work with.

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A Muslim at Diwali

In honor of Diwali, here’s excerpts of a story told by a Muslim student at my university about her participation in our annual Diwali celebration. Her story was collected last year as part of the university’s “Year of the Arts” initiative. Students, staff, alumni, etc., submitted accounts of how exposure to the arts changed them while they were here. You can read the student’s full account here.

It all started my Freshman year, when I joined the Indian Students Association.

I didn’t know a whole lot about Indian tradition and culture except from Bollywood films and a few festivals, but after the “Diwali” show, things CHANGED. . . . Though I am Muslim, and am a first generation Kashmiri-American . . . , I thought it would be worth a try. I went into this without any dancing experience whatsoever. At the time, I questioned my decisions. Would I embarrass myself, or would I be able to master this “Diwali thing”? . . .

In order to be a part of ISA’s Diwali show, Freshmen do a separate dance comprised of just the first years of the organization. It helps bring out leadership and team work within the group . . . There was no easy way to do it, so we did the best we could. . . .

It wasn’t until October I began to realize how fun the show would actually be. . . . Before this, I had seriously considered transferring because I wasn’t making any friends. During the last few weeks before the show, I had a family bond so tight, that my dilemma was no more. Art had kept me at Miami. Friendship kept me at Miami.

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Election 2012: Satan vs. the Antichrist

A few days ago, I gave a public lecture on “Religious Controversies in the 2012 Presidential Race,” surveying various religion-related claims that have been used to create negative impressions of Romney, Obama, Ryan, and Biden. One highlight I thought I would share here is that both Romney and Obama have been linked to a Christian symbol of ultimate evil: Romney as Satan, Obama as the Antichrist. These are fringe claims (in my presentation, I surveyed claims from mainline news and commentary as well), but they reveal the ferocity with which each candidate is regarded by some extremely conservative Christians.

Romney is, in effect, Satan, if you believe Florida evangelist Bill Keller. Keller achieved national prominence during the 2008 election cycle thanks to a Salon article on evangelical opposition to Romney, which took its headline from Keller’s provocative slogan that “A vote for Romney is a vote for Satan.” Keller now runs a website with that title. Keller’s opposition to Romney is basically apolitical. It’s not that he’s gunning for another candidate; Keller may well be a political quietist. He just wants to win souls to Jesus, and he’s worried that Romney–or worse for Keller, Romney’s evangelical endorsers–will give the impression that Mormonism is authentically Christian, not the diabolical fraud that Keller insists it is.


Meanwhile, the Westboro Baptist Church, creators of the famous godhatesfags.com, have created a website declaring Obama to be the Antichrist and the Beast of the Apocalypse: beastobama.com. They had less biblical prooftexting to support their assertion than I had expected. Basically, their rationale for identifying Obama as the Antichrist/Beast, at least as they explain it on the website, is that his stepfather raised him a Muslim, and he supports same-sex marriage (making him, in the WBC’s parlance, a “fag-enabler”).


In a twist that I suspect some observers will find ironic (I’m not so interested in applying the label myself), Mormon artist Jon McNaughton has created a painting that portrays Obama as a kind of anti-Christ. McNaughton has gained some national notoriety for his propagandistic paintings reflecting Tea Party sensibilities; his most well-known work, One Nation under God, depicts Jesus holding aloft the U.S. Constitution as if it were a sacred text. More recently, McNaughton has produced a painting, One Nation under Socialism, that shows Obama holding the Constitution aloft in the same pose that Jesus used in One Nation under God–but Obama is burning the Constitution. The identical pose, I’m arguing, casts Obama as an anti-Christ figure. (The mutually referential titles of the paintings reinforce that interpretation.)


BTW, I can’t say for sure since I can’t vouch for how accurately the online scan I found reproduces the colors of the original painting, but it looks like McNaughton may have painted Obama’s skin as darker that it actually is.

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Chaim Potok on Simchat Torah

In recognition of Simchat Torah, an excerpt from In the Beginning, by American Jewish novelist Chaim Potok. The narrator is a teenager in New York City [I forget which borough; only a New Yorker would be provincial enough to think it matters] who has immersed himself in historical criticism of the Bible, an encounter that both shakes and fascinates him. Near the end of this except, he recalls a childhood friend, an Italian Catholic. The story is set during World War II.

I remember the night in the second week of October when we danced with the Torah scrolls in our little synagogue. It was the night of Simchat Torah, the festival that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. The last portion of the Five Books of Moses would be read the next morning.

The little synagogue was crowded and tumultuous with joy. I remember the white-bearded Torah reader dancing with one of the heavy scrolls as if he had miraculously shed his years. My father and uncle danced for what seemed to me to be an interminable length of time, circling about one another with their Torah scrolls, advancing upon one another, backing off, singing. Saul and Alex and I danced too. I relinquished my Torah to someone in the crowd, then stood around and watched the dancing. It grew warm inside the small room and I went through the crowd and out the rear door to the back porch. I stood in the darkness and let the air cool my face. I could feel the floor of the porch vibrating to the dancing inside the synagogue. It was a winy fall night, the air clean, the sky vast and filled with stars. [. . .]

The noise inside the synagogue poured out into the night, an undulating, swelling and receding and thinning and growing sound. The joy of dancing with the Torah, holding it close to you, the words of God to Moses at Sinai. I wondered if the gentiles ever danced with their Bible. “Hey, Tony. Do you ever dance with your Bible?”

I had actually spoken the question. I heard the words in the cool dark air. I had not thought to do that. I had not even thought of Tony–yes, I remembered his name: Tony Savanola. I had not thought of him in years. Where was he now? Fighting in the war probably. Or studying for the priesthood and deferred from the draft as I was. Hey, Tony. Do you ever read your Bible? Do you ever hold it to you and know how much you love it?

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