Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship Program
The theme for 2015-2016:
Religious Culture and the Arts: Christianity, Judaism and Islam
The Mellon Fellowship Program on “Religious Culture and the Arts” is designed to explore, test and refine our understanding of the relationship between religious culture and the production of the arts, whether in literature, drama, music or the visual arts. We are seeking applications for Postdoctoral Fellowships among those whose work addresses the conceptual, philosophical, aesthetic and practical aspects of artistic endeavor in relation to the underlying religious cultures that guide such artistic activity.
It is clear that much of the world’s greatest music, art, literature and drama has its origins in and draws continuing inspiration from the cultures of the three “religions of the book”: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Each of these religions has generated characteristic artistic, cultural and philosophical expressions of their overarching religious beliefs, creating cultures that are in many ways related, but ones that possess distinctive positions on questions of the representation of the divine, on the ways in which their liturgical practices give rise to musical, literary and dramatic forms and, therefore, the evolving artistic modes of expression that they tend to favor.
If one begins from the premise, articulated by Clifford Geertz, that religion can be seen as a “system of symbols” which functions as a cultural system, shaping and giving voice to aesthetic production of all kinds, then the differential ways in which the cultures of these three related, but none the less diverse, religious traditions inflect aesthetic expression can help us to understand the role of the arts as instruments of religious expression. To view the arts from this perspective means first of all to approach religious sensibilities and emotions as historically embedded phenomena, in which the connection between religious culture and the arts is historically grounded, hence changing over time. In that sense, despite continuity in the fundamental tenets of each religion, the aesthetic expression of those beliefs is nonetheless shaped by the historical and local contexts in which each religion develops and influenced by the nature of and intersection between the multiple cultures in which each takes root and resides.
The program is designed to consider Christianity, Judaism and Islam together in order to trace the intersections and continual borrowings between them in a wide variety of historical contexts, since for most of their histories they not only drew upon a common religious foundation, but lived side by side and intersected with each other’s artistic traditions. Indeed, one could argue that the exchange between them is more vigorous and visible in their artistic works than in their scriptural commentary or strictly religious writings as such. In a more general sense, some of the questions that our program seeks to address include: how ought we to theorize the aesthetic in cultures where religion has played a vital role in all spheres of art and everyday life? In societies where Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries (Spain, North Africa, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, among others), does the relation between religious culture and the arts necessarily work out differently for followers of each faith or are there border crossings and unexpected commonalities? Given the specifically religious connection between these three “religions of the book,” is it not axiomatic that they might share certain common attitudes and beliefs that promote interchange among their followers, ones that would also find expression in their respective literary, artistic and musical forms? And if that is not the case, how do we explain the absence, both in terms of religious and aesthetic traditions? Alternatively, assuming that exchange is ongoing yet generates distinctive artistic expressions, what does this tell us about the aesthetics of religion and/or the ways in which the arts not only articulate religious identity from the inside, but are at the same time shaped by developing cultural traditions that inform artistic traditions by drawing boundaries, visualizing difference and giving expression to particular cultural and social orders? In short, what are the historical and aesthetic forces that generate similarities and differences in the artistic representation of religious cultures, and how do we account for each?
In bringing together scholars from diverse fields and disciplines in the Humanities, we are seeking to investigate the complex processes involved in the aesthetic expression of religious culture and to highlight the ongoing modes of aesthetic exchange between the three great religious traditions. There is, therefore, an inherently comparative orientation to the framework of the program, one that might even include the consideration of other religious cultures and artistic traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. We therefore welcome applicants who work cross-culturally in a comparative vein. However, the main focus of the program will remain the question of the relationship between religious culture and the arts in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.