How can an understanding of the arts and humanities foster better relations between conflicting cultures and different religions; specifically cultures and religions of Asian, Islamic, African, and American?
Victor Hugo's seminal work, Notre Dame de Paris was inspired by the magnificent cathedral. For, Hugo felt, architecture was the first form of writing, declaring that
The Celtic dolmen and cromlech, the Etruscan tumulus, the Hebrew galgal, are words. Some, especially the tumulus, are proper names. Sometimes even, when men had a great deal of stone, and a vast plain, they wrote a phrase. The immense pile of Karnac is a complete sentence...every religious symbol...every human thought, has its page and its monument
From the "immense book" of architecture, then, man can learn of other cultures. Similarly, from other works of art such as paintings and sculpture, drama, and music, one can find the emotional and cultural past revealed. Indeed, the true histories of cultures are revealed in their artifacts and architecture. For instance, the grandeur and perfection of Greece is captured and reflected in the Parthenon, the temple dedicated to Athena.
Therefore, a knowledge of the arts and the history, literature and rhetoric, language, and moral philosophy of a nation leads to a better understanding of that nation. For, through the arts and humanities, a person comes to know the way in which people of a nation think, their religious and social tenets, their cultural beliefs and values, their mythology and history. For, music is the language of the soul and literature and philosophy the language of the heart and mind of a people.
In the Asian culture, for instance, the individual is not as important as in Western cultures; thus, there is a strong sense of interdependence that exists in the Eastern mind. Whereas appeals to the importance of the individual is a high priority in America, this importance does not exist in Eastern cultures. Knowing this, diplomats from Western countries will wisely avoid appeals to Eastern countries based upon the importance of the individual.
An example of misunderstanding and complete miscommunication that occurred because a person was not knowledgeable of Islamic cultures took place during the Carter Administration when American diplomats in Iran were taken hostage by the Iranians for 144 days. One of the wives of the hostages appealed to the Iranians in "the name of the Jesus" to release her husband. To the Iranians this appeal was probably insulting; certainly, it did nothing to ease the tension between the two groups as the wife failed to understand that God is a single person to the Muslims and they do not believe in Christ. So,knowledge of Islam would have benefited the American.
With regard to African cultures, it is important to understand that they are polychronic whereas the American culture is monochronic, meaning Americans want to do one thing at a time, and they adhere to schedules whereas the polychronic culture can ignore schedules and balance two or more occupations. Certainly, understanding the history of an African's background aids extensively in comprehension of that person's desire to communicate with others while performing a task, or wish to go somewhere else and then return. Knowing that the African culture has an oral tradition of storytelling also aids an individual in understanding such retelling of stories as part of African heritage. Thus, there is no question that knowing what attitudes and beliefs the peoples of different countries possess is beneficial to an individual who wishes to attain a better understanding of these people.
The study of arts and humanities shed light upon the quality of people's lives in a society. Further, this knowledge of a people's values aids in understanding their needs.
The art of a different culture or religion embodies the beliefs that the people in the group hold. Art has always been a form of expression and a method of communicating ideas, and throughout history, it is through the artifacts left behind, usually the art, that tells historians what has happened. Whenever a movement occurs, it is always the art that changes first. Art embodies literature, music, and art (as in paintings, sculptures, etc) itself. Art tells a story of the people who created it; what values they hold dear, what deities they worshiped, what philosophies they endorsed.
For example, the art of medieval Europe and Renaissance Europe was the physical rendition of a shift in cultural thought. Prior to the Renaissance, the people believed that the purpose of life was to get into Heaven; man itself came second. The Church played a forefront in their lives. The art reflected this - dark colors, simple images, golden halos around giant Jesus's, etc. However, during the Renaissance, there was a shift in thought that placed importance in man's accomplishments. Again, art expressed this belief - brighter colors, human backgrounds, human proportions, realistic portraits, etc.
In the arts of the different cultures, you can tell what the people believed. In Asian cultures, there is a pervasive cycle of energy, that everything is interconnected, that peace itself is found through a connection with the natural world. The art itself follows no story line, but rather flows in whatever way that it should.
While in African cultures, there is a constant belief in connecting to the earth, that the earth itself creates life, that everything follows a cycle. Their art comes from the earth - from the trees, from the earth, from the leaves.
Meanwhile, in Western cultures, there is a sense of man's pride, that moving forward is better than looking backwards. In Western art, there is a consistent pattern of man growing, learning from his mistakes, and achieving his goals.
By understanding art, different people can understand the different cultures. The first thing I thought of when I read the question was The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. In the book, a white, Christian family came as missionaries to a village in the Congo. The book itself presents the wild beauty of the jungles of Africa, in which it consumes itself to stay alive, in which the earth is the mother. The family did not try to understand the people they were trying to convert, bringing with them their Western idea of civilization, trying instead to wreck what was already thriving.
To understand another culture, the first thing you always look at is their art.