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May 27, 2003

An Often Misunderstood and Marginalized Category of Art


The difficulties the Metropolitan Museum of Art is having in coming to grips with its considerable if undercataloged holdings in Islamic art are by no means unique. And the marginal stature Islamic material holds for Western audiences is at least as much a product of basic cultural biases as of institutional failures.

Three-dimensional sculpture and easel painting, so central to Western aesthetics, played little role in Islamic art before modern times, while media highly regarded by traditional Islamic cultures, like ceramics, textiles and — above all — calligraphy, are indifferently valued in the West. That is one reason Islamic material has until fairly recently ended up in the decorative arts collections of museums. For some viewers, it still belongs there.

Conceptually even more problematic is the use of "Islamic art" as a term for a diffuse, multicultural range of objects. As a label, it is at once too broad and too narrow, and either way creates stereotypes. In one common view, for example, Islamic art is the product of the Arab-speaking desert lands that we now refer to as the Middle East. In another, Islamic art is by definition religious in origin and function.

Both views are off base. Soon after emerging in Arabia in the seventh century, Islam and Islamic art spread through Asia to Africa and Europe, dynamically shaping and absorbing all that they encountered. Today an Islamic culture of one kind of another exists in some 40 countries, from Saudi Arabia to China, from Senegal to North America, taking different forms wherever it goes. Much art made by Muslims is and always has been secular, meant to be admired for its craftsmanship and contemplated for its intellectual and sensuous, as well as spiritual, stimulation.

In short, there is no single Islam, and there is no single Islamic art, which is important to understand at a time when words like "fundamentalist" and "Islamic" are used interchangeably. A museum can do its part to clarify this reality. The galleries that are closing next week for four years at the Met have offered one version of clarity in the form of a linear progression of objects, most made for elite patrons, mapped out by time and place. But that view is out-of-date and incomplete.

It will now be useful for the museum to consider a different approach, one that embraces simultaneity, impurity, contradiction. Islamic art has always been about a high-low mix, the kind that Western art, or Western art history, is inclined to suppress; the new installation should make this clear. It should also acknowledge that Islamic art, far from ending in the 18th century, is alive and well; its past and present exist on a continuum, one illuminating the other. Attention to original contexts for objects, hitherto neglected, will be important, as will an expanded geographic reach. Baghdad of the 10th century meets Dakar of the 21st. Why not?

How the Met will go about this revisionist task is impossible to say. Its curators have four years to think hard and experiment, and they will. Meanwhile, there is no question that Islamic culture, cosmopolitan and dynamic, will stay in the international eye. And locally there will be art to see.

Spectacular objects will reappear at the Met next week; the smaller but still valuable collection in the Brooklyn Museum of Art galleries is open. For New Yorkers willing to travel, the Newark Museum has Islamic work in a show titled "Courtly Arts of the Indian Subcontinent.' And the Philadelphia Museum of Art is giving Islamic material star treatment in its European galleries, where two fabulous Anatolian carpets flank Rogier van der Weyden's altarpiece of "The Crucifixion With the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning." All three date from the 15th century. All three are masterpieces. And the appearances of patterns from the Islamic carpets in the Flemish painting speak of fruitful exchanges of influence we are only beginning to understand.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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