art history = dangerous

My online art history class is about to invade the blogosphere. You’ll see why.
Each week we have to respond to a forum question. Yesterday, we were given an choice between two questions:
Choice 1: The iconoclasts changed the art of Byzantium for over a century. There are other examples of artistic expression being the victim of censorship. Can you think of any? Is art dangerous? Why do you think art is seen as having such influence?
 

Choice 2: Discuss the history and beauty of Islamic art and architecture. What aspects of Islamic art do you like? How does Islamic art reflect Islamic culture’s knowledge of science? What’s your opinion of not allowing depiction of people or animals? What does Islamic art say about Islamic culture?
Choice 1 caught my attention with “dangerous.” Choice 2 offers an opportunity to answer the same banal questions this chapter would elicit in every single art 101 class ever (or 107, in this case). Guess which I chose? To be fair, I ended up answering parts of Choice 2, also.

‘Can you think of any examples of artistic expression being the victim of censorship?’

…uh, duh…

But my favorite part of the question is, “is art dangerous?” Ha! Well, yeah! If you’re, you know, threatened by freedom of thought.

My actual (in class) response follows:

There is no form of artistic expression which has not been subjected to censorship at some point – concurrent or not (even children’s books!). Of course art is dangerous! It challenges people’s conceptions, changes the way we perceive things and holds a mirror to our own humanity for better or worse. Many times, people don’t care to see the ‘worse’ parts, or even to see a perception that contradicts there own. When those people are given an ounce of power, censorship happens. Art is seen as being influential because it is. What we see changes our neurochemistry. Maybe only infintismally, maybe too little for us to notice, but maybe not. The fears of tyrants ride in the art of the bold.

Islamic art represents, in my opinion (and among many other things that it represents), an explicit cultural recognition of the power of art over the human mind. They knew that art could change how people thought about their god, and they acted to prevent that by incorporating their artistic guidelines into the mores of their religion when their religion was still in its infancy. That’s a highly effective method, especially in collectivist cultures because the welfare of the group is more highly valued than the welfare of individuals, and individuals are less likely to question rules set by the authority figures of the group. Had Islam’s natal culture been more individualistic, it may not have worked.

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