Arts & Culture: Diversity Dialogue

Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier

Religious art – 2

The comments on the previous post introduced an issue that I want to follow up. The question of “what is [fill-in-the-blank] art” depends in more ways than one on how the blank is filled in. For a minority community – really any community that does not see itself as the mainstream – there may be a distinction between art by members of that community and art that embodies themes that are especially meaningful in that community.

For example, as I noted in a reply to a comment, if we classified every work by a Jewish composer as “Jewish music,” then “White Christmas” would be Jewish music. This is a more expansive definition that most people would accept; in fact, so expansive a definition has probably only been used in societies that classified certain kind of art, and works by certain artists, as “degenerate.”

This question comes up in my work because my employer, in addition to its educational and philanthropic work, is an arts presenter. Some organizations like ours (that is, Jewish community centers) have extensive performing arts programs. The 92nd Street Y in New York City and the Westside JCC in Los Angeles probably have the largest, but even the Rochester JCC has its own theater. All of these present some plays that no one would describe as Jewish, although they may be performed by Jewish actors, in addition to some written by Jewish playwrights or dealing with manifestly Jewish themes.

Although there have been some discussions in our board of directors about presenting art that is not manifestly Jewish, simply for its benefit to the community in general, we have usually chosen not to do so, for two reasons. One is that the amount of Jewish art that is presented locally tends to be small: we feel that we need to present it, because no one else is is likely to. (There are exceptions. Middle-school and high-school groups often perform Fiddler on the Roof; the last performance I saw in a public school used costumes borrowed from a Catholic school. Fiddler and other widely popular works might be presented almost anywhere.)

The other is that our resources aren’t sufficient to do everything we think would be desirable, so we focus on the things that we believe are most important for us to do.

As a result, we are unlikely to present artists and works that are clearly in the mainstream. But that depends on a self-definition that places us outside the mainstream, or at least not fully in the mainstream, so we may have to ask, “What is mainstream art?”

For example, is Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List Jewish art? Based on its subject, perhaps. Spielberg himself is Jewish; I used to teach Hebrew in the synagogue of which he is a member. But is his film Amistad, which deals with a African slave rebellion and the ensuing legal case, therefore also Jewish art?

In other words, defining ethnic or minority art requires a definition of mainstream art. I am uncomfortable with defining the mainstream as white, Christian, Europe-centric, heterosexual, and so forth: I want to think that we all participate in creating the mainstream.

One of my academic specialties is regional American literature. That specialty is somewhat dominated by voluminous scholarship on southern literature, with some attention also to Appalachia, New England, and the Old West. My particular interest is in Midwestern literature, and my sensibility as a writer is at least as much Middle Western as Jewish, but it is hard for most people to think of an identifiably Midwestern body of literature. (Quickly: name a Midwestern writer other than Mark Twain – whose study is a landmark in Elmira and whose house is a landmark in Hartford – or Sherwood Anderson.)

Anyway, the question came up at one Midwest MLA conference of whether there was regional New York [City] literature. The cultural dominance of New York City, especially in literature, means that to a considerable extent, New York culture is the national culture. Nevertheless, we were able to think of a few writers, most conspicuously Edith Wharton and Grace Paley, whose work could be considered regionally specific to New York City.

3 comments on “Religious art – 2

  1. Connie Sullivan-Blum
    December 22, 2008

    Again, this is a fascinating subject to me. It seems to me that the question of the universal vs. the particular creates a contradiction at the heart of multi-culturallism. When a particular region/culture stands in for the “universal” (like NYC or whiteness or heterosexuality or Christianity) this creates a kind of parochialism that is stifling. In response, we fragment ourselves into ever more exclusive identities that are not-whatever the “universal” seems to be (not-urban, not-white, not-straight, not-Christian) and embrace the “particular.” Does this exclude those identities from the “universal?’

    We may all be part of the mainstream in one sense. But, in another sense the “mainstream” is just another fragmented identity, but one with a lot of power.

  2. Akua
    December 22, 2008

    Happy Hanukkah!

  3. Arvid
    December 23, 2008

    At Valparaiso University (www.valpo.edu), starting January 12, we’ll be taking up these issues in a graduate course titled New Ideas in Midwestern Literature. The “spine” of the course will be formed by these books:

    Black Hawk: An Autobiography
    O Pioneers by Willa Cather
    Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
    Native Son by Richard Wright
    Another Way Home by Ronne Hartfield
    In Limestone Country by Scott Russell Sanders

    These will be complemented by poetry, prose, drama, film, art, and music. Persons interested in the questions raised by Mr. Solyn are welcome to read these texts with us and contribute to the course blog and http://blogs.valpo.edu/midwestlit/.

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