Keeping up momentum: comparative approaches to art and religion

Philippa Adrych, a co-founder of Talking Religion, discusses the proceedings of the research group’s second workshop focusing on comparative techniques for the study of religion through material culture.

In our first workshop, we tried to tackle the problems of how to study religion through material culture, in only six hours. For the second workshop, we decided that there was no reason to slacken the pace, and chose the equally thorny subject of comparativism. As with the first session, the emphasis was on getting the students to think about some of the more theoretical aspects, and then on applying these to more concrete examples.

Reading and discussions

Before the workshop, we set a modest amount of reading. It proved quite difficult to find much that dealt explicitly with the problems of comparison in religious art and objects; we decided instead to focus on slightly older works that really opened up some of the methodological routes into comparison. We did not necessarily agree with all the ideas expressed in these chapters and articles – nor did we want the students to buy into them wholesale – rather, we hoped they would engender plenty of criticism and lively debate.

The bibliography for week two was:

Dan Sperber, Rethinking Symbolism (1979), pages 1-16

Rodney Needham, Circumstantial Deliveries (1981), chapter 4

Jonathan Z. Smith, To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual (1987), chapter 1

Richard Neer, ‘Was the Knidia a statue? Art History and the terms of comparison’ in Elsner (ed.) Comparativism in Art History (2017)

As with most theory, there is a need to abstract the propositions made from one field or specific set of examples onto our own. Asking broader questions in relation to these texts can help us to think more critically about what we are looking to do, particularly in relation to how we use comparative methods. So we can usefully consider whether it is possible to compare objects from different cultures and time periods, and if so, on what grounds? What is it to be ‘useful’? And how do we avoid caricatures of other disciplines when we make comparisons?

Predictably, when herding cats / dealing with a room full of students with diverse interests and approaches, these questions barely came up at all during the discussion. However, given that it has never been our intention to stymie the conversation, we were happy to see them raising their own questions and taking the discussion in their own directions.

Theory in practice

Following a morning of theory, we moved on group work in the early afternoon. As with the previous workshop, practical examples were at the heart of the process. The choice of objects and images was somewhat arbitrary, although all of them leant themselves to a theme of comparisons of power and authority, and its relationship to religion. There were several obvious connections to make between certain images; others required rather more subtle drawing out. Instead of working as one large group, we split the students into smaller teams, and gave them an hour to prepare brief presentations of their thoughts on the images in the afternoon session.

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Sylvia, Kristyna, and Hugh hard at work in the sun

After a well-earned lunch break, we all came back together to hear the presentations, and have a response from Professor Jaś Elsner – project leader on Empires of Faith – and Dr Neil McLynn, of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. It was instructive to see the students trying to apply the lessons and conclusions of the morning to their discussion of objects. In particular, the spectre of object agency was ever-present, as was the requirement for simplicity of language in attempting comparative conversation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were no firm conclusions about how to approach comparativism, especially when it comes to religious objects and art. In fact, one of the main things we all took from the day was the realisation that our vague stabs at defining the vast terms ‘religion’ and ‘art’ hadn’t quite been sufficient. We had, however, made steps forward in actually looking at images carefully, and avoiding reading our own expectations and enthusiasms onto them.

Image 1
Penny, Fuchsia, and Helena in a more appropriate setting

Splitting the students into small groups had done wonders in reinvigorating them after a period of intense debate in the first hour. It also encouraged much greater confidence in expressing opinion, as became visible in the final discussions of the day. The sunny weather and beautiful lawns of Wolfson College almost certainly helped too!


Author: Philippa Adrych

All images © 2017 Empires of Faith

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