Art as an Arena for Interreligious Dialogue

Aaron Rosen on Ruth Illman’s Art and Belief

Ruth Illman, Art and Belief
Ruth Illman, Art and Belief: Artists Engaged in Interreligious Dialogue, Equinox Publishing, 2012. 248 pp. $99.95.

Even as interreligious dialogue sets out to discover and appreciate difference, it often begins with some misleading generalizations about the ‘nature of religion’. As Ruth Illman argues in Art and Belief, much contemporary practice and theory of interreligious dialogue proceeds from essentialist constructions of religion, in which ‘each tradition constitutes a monolithic unity of creed, conduct and belief, clearly separated from other similar unities’ (p. 7). However well-intentioned, interreligious dialogue handicaps its own potential when it fails to grapple with religions as more than the sum of set texts, doctrines, and rituals. In the face of such reductive approaches, Illman makes a compelling call for ‘more holistic approaches to dialogue’, which take seriously the complexity and fecundity of lived religions (p. 7). While she is careful not to endorse any single discursive model to the exclusion of others, she believes that ‘creative interreligious dialogue’ (p. 3) – which draws its inspiration from the arts – has a vast and largely untapped potential.

The broad strokes of Illman’s study are convincing. After completing her introduction with a drawn out disquisition on ‘qualitative research approaches’ and modes of collecting ’empirical material’ (pp. 22-8), chapter two offers an introduction to modern trends in interfaith dialogue, which should prove useful to those fresh to the field, but will likely feel belaboured to those who already possess some background in the topic. In the third chapter, Illman develops her understanding of dialogue, which ‘needs to be understood as an encounter between religious subjects: a search for interpersonal relatedness and respect between persons with different religious backgrounds as well as between persons who represent different ways of being religious within the same tradition’ (p. 46). Illman bears her greatest debt to the dialogical philosophy of Martin Buber, whose I and Thou (1923) has exerted tremendous influence, especially in the wake of World War II when its romantic vision of deep, reciprocal engagement became a focal point for Jewish-Christian exchange. To her credit, Illman recognizes that while Buber’s vision is not as simplistic as critics have sometimes claimed, it does require substantial buttressing, for which she summons – among other figures – Hans-Georg Gadamer, Homi Bhabha, and Emmanuel Levinas. This material could be developed and integrated more deeply. For one, we do not hear enough of Buber’s own voice, and the changing inflections he gave his philosophy of Ich und Du dialogue over the course of his Noachic career. Moreover, while Illman acknowledges Levinas’ critique of mutuality in Buber (p. 52), she allows the substantial, even radical differences between the two thinkers to melt away, leaving little trace in her philosophy of dialogue.

The most problematic features of Illman’s monograph emerge when she turns to the ’empirical material’ of her study. ‘[T]he aim of this study’, she writes, ‘is to analyse and reflect upon the worldviews and visions of these artists, not to anaylse or review their art as such. Even if the works of the artists are presented…this is done primarily to describe the context within which the artists formulate their reflections’ (p. 28). While this may sound reasonable enough, prima facie, the flaws in this approach soon become abundantly clear. Why choose to write a book about artists if their actual works of art are only of peripheral interest? These individuals have chosen to express themselves through creative outlets presumably because they thought these were the most potent ways to express their personal visions. By engaging principally with their biographies, and their comments about their work, we lose an opportunity to see what might be most significant for a wider audience. This approach may be satisfying for scholars with only an orthogonal interest in creative works, or those researching one of the artists in question, who will no doubt be grateful for Illman’s extensive interview material. However, if we take Illman’s own call for ‘creative interreligious dialogue’ seriously, we need to provide this process with the greatest chance of success. Reconstructing the interreligious interests of a given artist may be illuminating, but it cannot inspire and engage as effectively as when we allow the collective processes of looking, reading, and listening to generate dialogue. When we do so, we might even discover that works created without any conscious interest in interreligious themes may prove profoundly important for such endeavours.

Illman’s approach severely constrains her analysis of the six European artists who constitute her case studies: the viol player and conductor Jordi Savall, the writer Susanne Levin, multimedia artist Marita Liulia, musician Chokri Mensi, visual artist Cecilia Parsberg, and the writer Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. She introduces intriguing themes, such as the confluence of beauty and destruction in Parsberg’s work (pp. 157-8), or the importance of humor in Schmitt’s treatment of interreligious dialogue (pp. 173, 183). But given her focus upon articulating the artists’ worldviews, she never develops these avenues further. Instead she leaves us with basic formulations such as: ‘Savall’s argument can be summarized as: music makes people happy and happy people make peace’ (p. 189); or, ‘Philosophy makes me happy, Cecilia Parsberg claimed’ (p. 193). When Illman compares her examples in the conclusion, the results likewise tend to be prosaic. Thus, we learn that, ‘all of [the artists] regard practical and ethical aspects as quintessential to the practice of dialogue’ (p. 178), and share a ‘vision of common humanity’ and a ‘basic attitude of optimism’ (p. 199).

The editorial staff has not done Illman’s prose any favors. There are some rather basic errors: the table of contents lists ‘Conclusions: The Art of Dialogue’, while the same chapter appears in the body of the text as ‘Conclusions: The Heart of Dialogue’. A few recurring malapropisms also pepper the text, such as references to the ability of artists to ‘inflict change’ positively (pp. 167, 177, 182). Some readers will also be disappointed to find that despite a gorgeous reproduction of work by Marita Liulia on the cover of the book, there are no other images in the book, even when discussing visual artists. Despite these structural shortcomings, and a debatable approach to creative material, Illman’s book is a useful resource for scholars in the new, burgeoning field of interfaith dialogue and the arts. Even if she does not deliver fully upon the aims she sets herself, her work remains an important call to recognize ‘art as a holistic, personal and creative dialogue arena’ (p. 8).