16 March 2006

where is Islamic art?

In several panels at the recent CAA, as my colleague over at moksha has discussed, how to define the boundaries of Islamic art became the central topic of discussion. South Asianists focusing on the past millennium of Indo-Islamic art, Southeast Asia specialists working on Indonesia, or China specialists working on the myriad Islamic traditions of both western China and the more mainstream heartland (as in Xian), have long been marginalized (like their counterparts studying sub-saharan African Islam) in the academic field of Islamic art history. In museums, this becomes a difficult problem, because the categorizations are not commensurate. With typologies of temporality (Renaissance, 1500-1525), region (Asia, the Middle East, Africa), and religious culture (Islam, Buddhism) vying for space, manuscripts like the Hamzanama cannot easily be placed: is the 16th century figurally-illustrated volume commissioned for the Mughal ruler Akbar Islamic art? or South Asian?

These are questions that many have had to deal with and juggle in their museums, something that will likely not end or be decided any time soon. But the discussion at CAA took a more strident turn than this, indicating that the conservatism of Islamic art history, perhaps a result of Oleg Grabar's lineage at Harvard, remains entrenched. Islamic art, according to this view, is only art of the Mediterranean Islamic world, with a few concessions for the related but very different orbit of the Persianate Islamic world, but not extending eastward past the Indus river, or westward to include the Umayyads in Spain, or even including more recent developments in world-wide Islam. And, as Stefano Carboni's quote about an exhibit of Southeast Asian Islamic art in today's NYT suggests, this difference can be mapped onto Art (with capital A) versus culture (with little c):
Stefano Carboni, the associate curator of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, said the show was probably more a cultural experience than an artistic one, an effort perhaps to help the audience connect with Southeast Asia.
In general, he said, he believes that Islamic art should feature calligraphy in Arabic form, with geometric and arabesque patterns. "You can argue one way or the other, it's a very thin line," he said. At the Met, Indonesian textiles are placed with Oceanic art, and the Chinese export porcelain with Islamic inscriptions that flooded Southeast Asia is shown as Asian art, not Islamic art.

The Met, is, of course, an extremely conservative institution. And thus it is also a touchstone (among many) by which folks measure what Islamic art is. I'm not sure what the "thin line" he's talking about is. (And I will note here that the only direct quote is a bit strange. Perhaps Carboni's meanings/words are utterly taken out of context, since he isn't quoted otherwise.) If you restrict Islamic art to objects associated solely with religious worship, you are doing short shrift to the overwhelming visual culture of those parts of the world affected by Islam since the 7th century. Plus, I doubt that every object in the Met's Islamic art collection is "Islamic" even by the Carboni's definition paraphrased above. The Automata manuscript that pops up on the first page of "highlights of the permanent collection" (see above) is, by his own understanding, not Islamic art. And yet here it is. And it is crucially important for understanding 14th century Islamic culture. I don't see the thin line. It seems to me to be a rather thick one, that, if carried out consistently, would limit Islamic art displays to Qur'ans, prayer rugs, architectural decorations from mosques, and that's about it.

I have taught my Islamic art courses as I was taught Islamic art: as a cultural category that is fairly problematic, but if one makes sure to keep that problem in mind, it can be a fairly helpful category. The analogy is the Christmas tree: is it Christian? not particularly. but it is part of "Christian" culture, adapted from earlier traditions, specifically a Germanic tradition of decorating trees in winter. It's Christian-related culture. Similarly, is the Persian Book of Kings or Shahnameh Islamic? not really, but it does include some important foundational stories for many Islamic cultures, and thus it is culturally related to Islam.

Perhaps we should do away with the religio-cultural category of Islamic art, as the conservative faction does have a point: once you start to include the Great Mosque at Xian, Tipu's Tiger, the installation art of Mona Hatoum, and the Mosque Maryam of the Nation of Islam, we must acknowledge the historical and local specificities of Islamic culture, something certainly shaped by religion but perhaps primarily about something else entirely.


Rebecca said...

okay, it's obnoxious commenting on one's own blog, but as an addendum (given that the blog is really long anyway) I've realized what really gets me about Carboni's statement.

Western Islamic art is Western and therefore Art. non-western Islamic art is non-western, non-civilized, and therefore culture.

we often do the nature/culture binary, with parallels to barbaric/civilized, feminine/masculine, Other/Self. But in the context of the low art/high art debate, or even the non-art/art dichotomy, culture becomes the lesser term, producing a culture/art dichotomy that Carboni uses here.

Moksha said...

Of course - I agree with your Carboni comment. That can really be traced to methodologies of anthropology for viewing and understanding the non-west as a series of monolithic (and inferior) "cultures".

I also thought his comment bizarrely conservative - who talks about the "arabesque" as an Islamic art prerequisite?!

But I think all of this debate is good - because it ultimtely throws up this category for further inspection and - as I noted in my blog - draws attention to the very real construction of boundaries that occur within western museums (to be echoed, reflected, refracted, in art history).

The more meanings that can be parsed from Islamic art - the less meaningful the term becomes. And then real reevaluation and rethinking begins.

vida said...

rebecca you are so far up your own backside you've stopped talking about art.What artist has the interest ,or time ,to analyze art in the way you do.Who in Gods name do you have to listen to your drivel.I shall now go to my studio and get on with the buisness of trying to please myself,and others,with my sculpture.