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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

The Oriental Rug as a Work of Art

by Sam Gorden

This is modified from the text of a talk given at the request of the Turkish government on October 12, 1984 at the Attaturk Cultural Center in Istanbul during the "First International Conference On Turkish Rugs". A German version was printed in "Heimtex" by Heinz Hegenbart. It received pride-of place in the Turkish press.

As an afficionado and collector of Oriental weavings, I have been subjected to countless lectures and expositions dealing with a great interest in art historical, ethnological and technological terms. The art historians, in general, have concentrated on tracing designs back to the ornamentation of former periods like Seljuk and Coptic art. The ethnologists have taken to visiting the more primitive rug producing tribes, whose lifestyles have remained relatively unchanged, writing about them, replete with color photographs and describing the role that this plays in their lives. Recently, there has been a plethora of dissertations, concerning dyes, the types of knots employed, the way the structural yarn has been plied, how the selvage has been bound, etc. The justification for these activities is that this technical analysis leads to a more accurate determination of age and provenance. This is based probably on Dr. Schurmann's contention that designs travel more readily than do methods of construction.

I always have maintained that the Oriental carpet should be regarded as an artistic creation and, as such, must be evaluated primarily by the aesthetic worth it offers. An editorial in HALI, Vol.1, No.2, touched on this vital subject. In discussing the label of "Minor Decorative Arts" given by many apparently enlightened institutions and art historians to Oriental weavings, it said: "Of course, one has sympathy for this attitude, based as it is on an incomplete understanding of the importance of weaving, in Eastern, and specifically in Islamic culture. As Titus Burkhardt, himself a scholar of distinction in the fields of European and Renaissance art, wrote in his introduction to The Arts of Islam exhibition catalogue two years ago, 'It is by conforming to a certain hierarchy of values that the arts are integrated into Islam… The ignorance of this hierarchy of values is the basis of all the misunderstandings which are current about the arts of Islam. The European observer who is not aware of this hierarchy of values - and here we mean any representative of Western culture - instinctively values the artistic level of other cultures by applying the scale of values which is habitually applied in a European milieu."

It would be interesting to begin with an analysis of the first part of the HALI editorial. In order to understand the difference between "Fine Arts" and "Minor and Applied Arts", one must understand the aristocratic tradition. In the past, an aristocrat was an individual who did no useful work, except such as his class did not consider plebeian, and was proud of the fact. As late as the 19th century, English tradition held that no matter how large and important a commercial enterprise a man directed, he was still "in trade" and socially second-class! Oil paintings, sculpture, serious music were deemed "Fine Arts" because these serve only to provide aesthetic satisfaction, sometimes dubious, to the viewer or listener. Furniture, textiles, porcelains, etc. are classified as "Applied or Decorative Arts" and considered inferior to "Fine Arts" because the former also have a utilitarian function. One must regard this dichotomy as a relic of an extinct class culture which has no place in modern thinking.

If I were asked to define art, my concept would be that it is essentially emotional communication. The true artist is one so moved by an experience that he must transmit this sensation to others and he does this via a medium of which he has acquired technical mastery. The importance of his creation depends on whether what he has to communicate is trivial and/or trite or profound and/or original, how skillful and apt that creation is and how many recipients react to his message and are influenced thereby. By this definition, the finest work of art, when kept in a closet, loses its identity because nobody is able to see it and respond to the artist's communication. I take firm issue with Professor Burkhardt when he claims that the Western ignorance of the Islamic hierarchy of values is the basis of all our "misunderstandings", which provides the essential clue to his thinking. Understanding implies cerebration and is fundamentally intellectual. I maintain that cerebration plays a trivial role in art-appreciation. Ergo, the individual's response to any artistic creation is fundamentally emotional.

Dr. Schurmann, in his forward, "On the Art and Connoisseurship of Oriental Rugs from Canadian Collections" states, "Perhaps I should try to define 'art' in this context. Command of technique alone does not mean art. It is of much greater importance that the artist infuses something of the divine into the object he or she is creating. It is this innate, elementary force dormant in us which finds its expression in the primitive Oriental rug of the nomads, as well as in the courtly design of luxury carpets - which is so important. In addition, one must consider the effect that the rug has on the beholder. It is not even necessary for the individual to "understand" the work of art. It is sufficient if his eye is pleased and his heart gladdened." (my emphasis) Here, Dr. Schurmann, as a collector and dealer, touches on the very core of our appreciation of the Oriental Weaving as a work of art.

Returning to the above-mentioned HALI editorial, "There are other impediments to a full understanding of Oriental carpets. The lack of substantive documentation has created considerable confusion, which is unlikely ever to be fully resolved. In recent years, the growth of a scientific approach to carpet - for instance the concern with technical analysis has proved of interest to scholars and serious students with a deep background knowledge of the subject but has been of little help to the cultured layman seeking aesthetic guidance. Indeed, one of the major lacunae in Western literature is a study of the subject in purely aesthetic terms, in opposition to the plentiful ethnic, historical and technical exegeses. Such an approach naturally pre-supposes a universal standard of aesthetic merit and despite the valid anthropological objections to such an approach, it is the only one, in the end, which may be practical." (note: my emphasis; and take the terms "scholars and serious students" cum grano salis).

My psychological training caused me to be intrigued by the dilemma revealed in the editorial. How and why does the average Western collector react psychologically to the Oriental rug? In general when I asked an aficionado why he had acquired a certain specimen, he usually replied, "It was love at first sight." It appears that aesthetics were, by far, the collectors' most important consideration.

Regarding the editorial, in this particular instance I must agree with the anthropologists. It must be obvious that the mores of a people, in general, and their art appreciation, in particular, is a cultural phenomenon. The world's population is composed of many cultures, each of which has its own standard of values. Therefore I find that a universal standard of aesthetic merit is untenable. Not only does his culture dominate the aesthetic taste of the individual but, within this very culture, changing fashions and lifestyles may greatly modify this appreciation. This becomes evident when we examine the aesthetic standards of the English, as representatives of the Western world, in the last century. The Victorian, raised in a decadent, romantic culture, was overcome by a trite painting depicting an aged couple holding the bridle of a riderless military mount, entitled Bad News. The paintings of Bougereau and Alma Tadema were revered, Rudyard Kipling was considered a second Shakespeare and Edward Elgar another Beethoven. It is extremely doubtful if many would react similarly today because our society has acquired a different set of aesthetic values. The Victorian looked askance at folk art and regarded it as uncouth and primitive. Today it is cherished.

The difference in the art appreciation of different cultures is sharply delineated in Donald N. Wilbur's article, "The Triumph of Bad Taste: Persian Pictorial Rugs", which appeared in HALI, Vol.2, No.3. By our standards, these pieces are incredibly ugly. However, recently these weavings have found great favor in the oil-rich Near East. This is because such textiles satisfy the aesthetic standards of THEIR culture. Nothing presented herein should be construed as implying that one culture is superior to another, only that their standards are different.

Further on, the editorial states, "Thus the cultured onlooker is confused by two contradictory views, one which suggests that Oriental carpets, like any other objects, should be judged by some universal, immutable standard, and the other, which avers uncompromisingly that Oriental textiles, like other Near Eastern or predominantly Islamic objects, must only be judged by the values of the culture which created them. The reality, of course, is that the world's population is not made up exclusively of anthropologists; a profound knowledge of the cultural and social background of any object is rarely the cause of an aesthetic response but rather the result of aesthetic appreciation. THE HEART WILL ALWAYS RULE THE MIND!

It should be remembered that Western appreciation of many different types of artistic creations from outside the mainstream of European classical art is largely the result, not of the work of scholars in converting us to strange cultures, but of the acceptance afforded such things by European painters and sculptors who have injected such cultural influences into the life blood of 20th century Western art. " I could not agree more with these conclusions. A case in point is the work of the American painter, Whistler, in introducing Japanese art into the Western world.

By this time, it should be patently evident that we, as Westerners, must aesthetically appreciate an artistic creation, and that includes Oriental weavings, within the standards and context of OUR culture because this is the only one we have.

The aforementioned observations of Dr. Schurmann opened the door to a great deal of introspection as to why I and therefore others in our culture react favorably or unfavorably to any work-of-art, in general and to the Oriental carpet in particular. To begin with, I must take issue with the use of the word "divine" which implies a religious factor. To me, the psychological reaction of the beholder to the Oriental rug is human - all too human! At the risk of offending some Deists, I must maintain that God is not involved directly in this process.

Let us begin by defining our terms and consider attraction as relating positively and repulsion as a negative relationship. For the purpose of this discussion, we will concentrate on attraction, i.e. the positive relationship. If we accept these premises, we must deem that all art appreciation is essentially an emotional experience, which basically agrees with Dr. Schurmann's thesis. The old adage, "Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder", now takes on a more defined meaning. It becomes clearer if this attraction is examined in the light of the needs theory. This, simply stated, holds that every organism adapts to their environment in such a way as to meet its needs. All individuals have this need to make this unique adjustment to the cultural criteria of their particular society. These values are absorbed from parents, schools, media and contemporaries. If an individual is in rebellion against his society and its criteria, that bias is expressed by adopting those of a counter-culture. In the rug, the weaver imbued her emotions and the viewer is attracted in direct proportion to the extant with which her message is received and appreciated. This appreciation depends upon how much and in what way the experience fulfills the beholder's emotional needs. We relate, positively or negatively, to familiar things and experiences. The piece attracts us when it is a bridge to past, pleasurable sensations, to the aesthetic standards of our immediate environment or to our benign fantasies. We are moved only by objects to which we can relate. Most of us have a need for such a relationship. The satisfaction of this need, like that of any other, gives us pleasure. Dr. Schurmann avers that it is not necessary for one to understand an artistic creation. I go one step further and maintain that "understanding" has nothing to do with art appreciation.

At this point, you well might say, "Hold on a minute! I am a member of a highly sophisticated, technological society. I have been an urbanite all my life and have nothing in common with primitive nomads and peasants. Why does their folk art give me that warm glow which indicates that I am attracted and that my needs are being met? What needs?"

Since, for many, many years, the Oriental carpet has been accepted as an integral item of interior decoration, the obvious answer might be that these examples of folk art complement the modern or functional furnishings which have become so popular in the last fifty years. Tribal rugs now exceed in popularity the urban, floral carpet which once was the stereotype of the Oriental rug. This aspect, however, contains a lesser portion of the total truth. As my imaginary urbanite proclaimed, he is a member of a highly sophisticated society. It is a very complex social order, and although it grants its membership many privileges and pleasures, it also demands a great deal and imposes considerable psychological stress. Life within it, is extremely hectic and fraught with nervous tension. At such times, he likes to fantasize about living in "The good old days", an earlier, less complex society wherein life was simpler with little routine and pressure. A hunger develops for this imaginary past. Nomad and peasant weavings symbolize those days of yore. He hungers for the past of his fantasy. This psychological reaction probably occurs at a subliminal level. Perhaps, the most important aspect of this attraction involves the machine age culture of his milieu. It is the age of the computer where productions have become more and more dehumanized. He is drawn to these rural textiles because they reflect the personal traditions, fears, religious fervor and dreams of their creators and the evident HUMANITY which these project. This is the quality which is so lacking in his daily life.

At this point, I would like to discuss the general prejudices of western society regarding the Oriental carpet. Dr. Schurmann compared it to an oil painting. Like the latter, it is basically two-dimensional with a frame and a field which can be likened to the painting. Let us examine these prejudices concerning their fundamental attributes:
1. Colors: This the most important attribute because these have the greatest emotional impact. For the westerner, these must not be glaring and should exist in close proximity without clashing. Where white is included in the coloration, its quality is a vital factor. The whiter it is, the more brilliant the other colors will appear. The reason that some tribes use white cotton instead of wool because the former exceeds the latter in this characteristic!
2. Design: The patterns of most carpets may be categorized as either all-over or with one or more medallions. In general, the former is regarded as more restful and will not be competitive with the decor. However, it frustrates the eye, which seeks a center of interest. Of the medallion types, the single medallion pattern is the most exciting, insists on claiming attention and most nearly satisfies the eye's desire for a center of interest. The design with several medallions falls somewhere between these two. The use of too much extraneous, minor decoration, detracts from the principal motives and gives the piece a "busy" appearance. This is an instance where more is less.
3. Format: The Westerner prefers his rugs, like his paintings, in rectangular format. The length should be somewhat greater than the width. He is less inclined towards the "runner" shape wherein the length is much greater than the width! The square or round format is also less appealing.
4. Age: Our collectors favor the antique weavings because time has mellowed the colors, the designs have not been "Westernized" and the rugs have acquired a patina which only time and gentle use can grant. It may have achieved a sheen that the English call "Icy".

In summation, it is apparent that each member of Western culture has been affected by his society's set of aesthetic values. As for all people, these in combination with his personal life experiences will determine his unique reaction to any artistic creation. It is quite possible that although members of different cultures may admire the latter, they probably do so for different reasons. From the foregoing discussion, it can readily be seen that the concept of either a universal standard of art-appreciation or that one should evaluate an objet d'art by foreign standards, is patently fallacious. Shakespeare said," Unto thine ownself be true…" This applies especially here.

Our subject is so vast and, I may add, contentious that this exposition can only serve as the briefest of introductions. Recently, many academicians have devoted themselves to the study of Oriental weavings in order to enlarge the body of related knowledge and our understanding of the subject. Nevertheless, as the Bard said, "What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Let us be grateful that these treasures exist to gladden our hearts and refresh our souls!