Why do we keep talking about ‘Islamic art?’

First of all the term “Islamic Art” is disingenuous and intellectually dishonest, as it suggests the art is religious in nature. The truth is the art was merely produced by a wide variety of cultures in predominantly Islamic regions. The term “Islamic Art” makes as much sense as “Catholic Art” as a blanket term for Renaissance works. How it continues to be an official term in the West despite its patently misleading nature is beyond me.

This was a reader’s comment on my WSJ review of “Spirit and Matter: Masterpieces from the Keir Collection of Islamic Art,” and I cannot tell you how many times I have had these very same thoughts myself.  Nor am I alone.  There probably isn’t a student or writer or scholar who deals with art from Islamic societies that does not struggle over the use of this term.

So why does it survive?  My take on this is that, for all its inadequacies, the term offers a helpful shorthand.  “Islamic architecture” conjures images of domes, intricate geometric patterns, pointed arches, arabesques in tile…  “Islamic ceramics” triggers images of lusterware, bowls with beautiful calligraphy running along their borders, colorful tilework with arabesques and interlocking shapes…   If someone talks about “a 17th-century  Islamic battle scene” you’re not going to think it looks  like this Italian drawing by Francesco Allegrini…Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 3.41.05 PM

… or this Japanese screen.

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You’re going to immediately imagine something along the lines of this 17th-century Indian Mughal miniature…Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 4.25.56 PM

or this 16th century Persian miniature from the Princeton Peck Shahnama (whose 48 paintings, by the way, are currently on view in a lovely show).

Persian, Iran, Shiraz, Giv Charges into Battle against Piran, folio 185a from the Peck Shahnama, 1589–90. Image courtesy of Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.  Currently on view in “Princeton’s Great Persian book of Kings at the Princeton University Art Museum.

So is  “Islamic art” an all-comprehensive term?  No.  Is it sometimes misleading?  Absolutely.  Does it at least point us in the right direction?  Well, yes.  For good or ill, “Islamic art” has come to denote an aesthetic, an approach, a redilection for certain kinds of forms, and a repertoire of techniques that are recognizable even if not actually definable.  But — and this is a crucial but — “Islamic art” only means something if we’re on the outside looking in.  Its very vagueness implies  distance in the same  way that, say, “Indian art” is only meaningful from the perspective of someone standing in Europe or the US.  Go stand in Gujarat or Tamil Nadu, and a marble statue of Mahavir bears no resemblance to a Pala bronze of Shiva.  Yet, from afar, we recognize both as  “Indian.”

A conversation with artists in Kabul drove this point home not too long ago.  I was researching a piece for Aramco World magazine and, at one point, asked several artists at the Turquoise Mountain Institute  whether they were making “Islamic art.”  They answered no, their work was not religious.  And in terms of style, calling it “Islamic” seemed to make no sense to them at all.  Their work, they said, was Afghan.  But for many  in Europe and the Americas “Afghan art” doesn’t conjure an image.  Referring to “Islamic art” does.

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Chiseling between his guidelines, a wood-carving student at the Turquoise Mountain Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture in Kabul carves out an eight-point floral arabesque. All draw upon Afghanistan’s rich and colorful artistic heritage. Photo published in Aramco World courtesy of the Turquoise Mountain Institute.



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