What is Islamic Art?
  • Sun, 08/14/2016
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Islamic Art is a contentious subject. There are many who deny that such a category of art even exists. They argue that people of Muslim faith follow numerous artistic traditions and cannot be put in a single group based on faith. Likewise, the lands traditionally associated with Islam are too diverse and have very distinctive and rich cultural and artistic traditions that should not be lumped together.

There are still those who recognise the existence of Islamic Art, but as a normative term that defines any art that complies with Islamic teachings. This definition, then, is not a category of art, but rather a judgement passed upon an art object as to whether or not it should be considered acceptable to Muslims. It is rather like an Islamic legal ruling on an art object.

Then there are those who define Islamic art as being art about Islam, regardless of the artistic style, as well as those who define it as the art of Muslim people, regardless of the topic.

The confusion surrounding how to define this artistic category is addressed in the Grove Encyclopaedia of Islamic Art and Architecture (GEIAA) as follows:
Islamic art is very difficult to define. It is neither fish nor fowl. It is not the art of a religion, like Buddhist art, nor is it the art of a single place or of a single time, like ancient Rome or the Renaissance. It is not confined to a single medium or technique, such as painting. Furthermore, the boundaries of Islamic art are fluid. The arts of Córdoba in Spain, for example, were part of Islamic art in 1200 but not in 1400, and the city of Baghdad was sometimes in the Iraqi cultural orbit and sometimes in the Iranian one. We have therefore taken the broadest definition of Islamic art: “the art made by artists or artisans whose religion was Islam, for patrons who lived in predominantly Muslim lands, or for purposes that are restricted or peculiar to a Muslim population or a Muslim setting [in the Christian Art entry].” Some scholars have found this definition confusing and have proposed differentiating “Islamic,” which would refer to matters associated only with the religion of Islam, from “Islamicate,” which would refer to matters associated with cultures that flourished under Islamic rule. Such fine distinctions, however, often bewilder the general reader to whom this work is addressed. We have tended to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, in line with modern scholarship that recognizes and celebrates the many facets of Islamic cultures around the world.
The problem exemplified here is that, on the one hand, the religion of Islam extends to artists who are working outside of the traditionally-defined Muslim world and who are producing art, even Islamic-themed art, outside of the specific cultural artistic traditions of the Muslim world, while, on the other hand, Islamic cultural influence covers many works produced by non-Muslim artists who worked within the context of traditional Muslim civilizations.

The Grove Encyclopedia, finally, decides to define Islamic Art on strictly geopolitical line, as art “created in the lands where Islam was a prominent, if not the most prominent, religion in the period between the rise of Islam in the 7th century of the Common Era (CE) and the present.” So, if an area was Muslim for a period of time, its arts during that time are classified as Islamic Art, and if the area was not predominantly Muslim later on – like Spain after the Reconquista – its art ceases to be defined as Islamic Art, regardless of the religion of the artist or the theme of the art itself.

New York artist Shazia Sikander is extremely critical with defining Islamic Art in this way, and even with the idea of Islamic Art in general. She says:
I find the definition of Islamic art or contemporary Islamic art or just Islamic art to be problematic and a misnomer as it encompasses far too much to be an apt representation of any sort. Muslim communities have varied histories and geographical locations that challenge singular definitions. If traditional Islamic arts’ implication is all of the art, made by artisans and artists who may or may have not practiced Islam but were part of Islamic culture over several centuries and over large geographical territories, then reducing such enormous complexity into a definition such as Islamic art is confounding. As well as in today’s transnational ways of living and being, such a framework feels even more restrictive. On the other hand, a quest to define an Islamic identity in the contemporary visual context may also be a paradox in of itself.
In spite of this confusion, interest in Islamic Art is growing, and major museums have established extensive and sumptuous Islam Art wings to showcase their collections and acquisitions in this category.

One of the most high-profile new art wings are the fifteen galleries for the “Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia”, which opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in 2011 after eight years of renovation and development, and at a cost of more than USD 50 million.

The other most notable opening was that of the Musée du Louvre’s Islamic Art Gallery (pictured above), which opened to the public on 22 September, 2012. The newly constructed gallery, which boasts 1,000 sq.m of exhibition space and cost USD 131 million, was the result of the Louvre creating an entire new department in 2003, its eighth and youngest to date, dedicated to Islamic art.

Both of these galleries choose to define Islamic Art as the art most generally as art produced in in the context of lands, civilizations, and individuals operating under the influence of Islam.

The MET argues that Islamic influences do indeed provide a discernible unity to work developed in Muslim lands, regardless of the artists’ faith, as well as by Muslim people, regardless of their cultural background. The MET defines Islamic Art as follows:
The term Islamic art not only describes the art created specifically in the service of the Muslim faith (for example, a mosque and its furnishings) but also characterizes the art and architecture historically produced in the lands ruled by Muslims, produced for Muslim patrons, or created by Muslim artists. As it is not only a religion but a way of life, Islam fostered the development of a distinctive culture with its own unique artistic language that is reflected in art and architecture throughout the Muslim world.

The lands newly conquered by the Muslims had their own pre-existing artistic traditions and, initially at least, those artists who had worked under Byzantine or Sasanian patronage continued to work in their own indigenous styles but for Muslim patrons. The first examples of Islamic art therefore rely on earlier techniques, styles, and forms reflecting this blending of classical and Iranian decorative themes and motifs. Even religious monuments erected under Umayyad patronage that have a clearly Islamic function and meaning, such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, demonstrate this amalgam of Greco-Roman, Byzantine, and Sasanian elements. Only gradually, under the impact of the Muslim faith and nascent Islamic state, did a uniquely Islamic art emerge. The rule of the Umayyad caliphate (661–750) is often considered to be the formative period in Islamic art. One method of classifying Islamic art, used in the Islamic galleries at the Metropolitan Museum, is according to the dynasty reigning when the work of art was produced. This type of periodization follows the general precepts of Islamic history, which is divided into and punctuated by the rule of various dynasties, beginning with the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid dynasties that governed a vast and unified Islamic state, and concluding with the more regional, though powerful, dynasties such as the Safavids, Ottomans, and Mughals.

With its geographic spread and long history, Islamic art was inevitably subject to a wide range of regional and even national styles and influences as well as changes within the various periods of its development. It is all the more remarkable then that, even under these circumstances, Islamic art has always retained its intrinsic quality and unique identity. Just as the religion of Islam embodies a way of life and serves as a cohesive force among ethnically and culturally diverse peoples, the art produced by and for Muslim societies has basic identifying and unifying characteristics. Perhaps the most salient of these is the predilection for all-over surface decoration. The four basic components of Islamic ornament are calligraphy, vegetal patterns, geometric patterns, and figural representation.
The Musée du Louvre boasts that its Islamic Art Gallery “spans thirteen centuries and three continents”. The Louvre defines Islamic Art more narrowly than the MET does, restricting their definition to geography, and describes their collection as follows:
The department exhibits over a thousand works produced in Islamic countries over a period of over thirteen centuries… The current installation is essentially chronological, providing an overview of different kinds of items produced since the beginning of Islam in the 7th century.
In truth, though the MET defines Islamic Art in broader terms, by including art “created by Muslim artists” along with art produced in and for Muslim lands, their collection is essentially as geo-political as the Louvre’s. Their definition, however, would also allow for the inclusion of Islamic and Islam-inspired art made by contemporary artists from around the world. This is not a concern of the Louvre, which is dedicated to pre-modern art. (The French national museum system exhibits modern and contemporary art at Musée d’Orsay and at the Musée National d’Art Moderne.)

This geo-political and quasi-cultural definition of Islamic Art is clearly the one that has currency in the art world today. It is the definition that governs Islamic Art sales at auctions like those held by Sotheby's, Bonham’s and Christie’s.

This phenomenon has its positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, it downplays the distinctiveness of various cultures and civilizations around the world, lumping them together on the basis of a religious theme, without the art itself necessarily being religious in nature. It can lead to seeing Islam as a single, exotic “other” to be viewed from a particularly Western perspective.

The geo-political and cultural definition of Islamic Art is also very problematic for contemporary art, since there are today many Muslim artists working in cultures and idioms that are not associated strongly with the Muslim world, but who nevertheless express genuine Islamic themes in their work, as well as artists living in the traditionally-defined Muslim world who distance themselves from Islam in their work.

On the positive side, the trend to define much of the world’s artistic heritage as Islamic Art presents Islam in the context of beauty, culture, and artistic achievement, showing Islam in a positive light in our times when Islam generally gets negative exposure.

It is as Sheila Canby (who heads the MET’s Islamic department) said in an interview she gave soon before the opening of the galleries: “There is always a tendency to vilify a people as if they have come out of nothing,” “But these things are humanizing. They show the beauty and achievement and even the sense of humour of a great culture. Whether people apply that to their view of public affairs is their own business. But at least they will be able to use their eyes and draw their own conclusions.”