Posted by Wendel Swan on 09-15-2003 01:51 PM:

What is Islamic art?

Dear all,

I would like to share with the group three rather lengthy paragraphs from a book entitled “Islamic Arts.” Unfortunately, I do not have the author’s name at hand. I copied several interesting pages from a book, put the copies into my briefcase and forgot having them, but not the thoughts expressed. I just happened upon them and felt that there were some ideas that should have been set forth even before the exchanges on this salon began.

I quote the following without comment.

The term “Islamic art” refers not only to the art made for Islamic practices and settings but also the art made by and for people who lived or live in lands where most – or the most important – people were or are Muslims, that is believers in Islam. The term is, therefore, used somewhat differently than such comparable terms as “Christian” or “Buddhist” art: Islamic art refers to the arts of all Islamic cultures and not just to the arts related to the religion of Islam.

It is easier to say what Islamic art is not than what it is. Unlike such terms as “Renaissance” or “Baroque”, “Italian” or “French”, Islamic art refers neither to art of a specific era nor to that of a particular place or people. Whereas the art of Anatolia (now Turkey) was decidedly not Islamic in 1000 AD but was Islamic 500 years later, the art of Spain was Islamic in 1000 AD but was decidedly not five centuries later. Islamic art is neither a style nor a movement, and the people who made it were not necessarily Muslims, so that we cannot define it by confessional affiliation of the makers. Whereas some Islamic art was undoubtedly made by Christians and Jews for Muslim patrons, some “Islamic” art made by Muslims was intended for Christians or Jews.

In short, the idea of Islamic art – beginning in seventh-century Arabia and encompassing by the fifteenth century all the lands between the Atlantic and the India oceans, the steppes of Central Asia and the deserts of Africa – is a distinctly modern notion generated not by Islamic culture itself but by outsiders. No artist or patron mentioned in this book ever though of his work as an example of “Islamic” art, although it is possible that artists at some times and places may have though of their work in geographical or dynastic terms, such as “Syria” and “Egyptian” or “Ottoman” and “Mughal”. Paradoxically, restrictive geographic and ethnic rubrics, such as “Indian” or “Hindu”, “Persian”, “Turkish”, “Arab”, “Moorish” and “Saracenic”, which had been popular in early nineteenth-century Europe to refer to the arts of a specific region or period, came to be replaced by the end of the century with such all-embracing terms as “Mohammedan” or “Islamic” and “Moslem/Muslim”. These terms bring together ideas and works of art that were not necessarily grouped together in their own time. For example, the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal are two examples of Islamic art, but it is unlikely that the builders of one ever though that the other had much, if anything, to do with it.


Posted by Steve Price on 09-15-2003 02:16 PM:

Hi Wendel

Your post brings to mind a local situation in Richmond, Virginia. Be patient, I will get to the point, but it takes awhile.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts sponsors (which always seemed to me an odd way to refer to a group from which you seek donations, but that's another matter) a group called Friends of African and African-American Art. It's existed for, perhaps, 10 to 20 years.

It struck me as odd from the beginning to include African and African-American art in the same breath. Although the artist or artisan in both instances is black, and there is a fairly small piece of African-American art that shows strong influence from traditional African tribal arts, the two are about as closely related as, say, Italian and Italian-American art (who thinks there should be an interest group devoted to Italian and Italian-American art?). My own interest is in African tribal arts, and, for all practical purposes, the group consists of two clusters of people, with almost no overlap between them - one about African tribal art, the other about African-American art.

It seems to me that much of the western view of Islamic arts (and probably of much of the Muslim view as well) falls into the same intellectual trap. Islam has a huge range of cultural variation today, and has been far from monolithic for centuries. There are some things that are more nearly characteristic of Islamic than of non-Islamic arts, but it doesn't take much exploration to get to genres within Islamic art in which the fact that the artists practiced variants of the same religion is does not lead to a familial resemblance between their works (compare to Belouch group textiles, where several distinct ethnic groups produce textiles that form a natural cluster, easily identifiable).


Steve Price

Posted by Randall_Morris on 09-15-2003 09:07 PM:

Dear Steve,

It happens that your separation of African and African-American art is a very dated way fo looking at it. If you are making your surmisal by comparing African Tribal Art and Trained Contemporary African American Artists then one can see how you made this mistake.

There is a huge amount of African-rooted and african-derived and reinvented African vernacular art between Canada and the tip of South America including the Caribbean, some of it has been made for over 400 years. And I am holding the music and the cuisine etc aside. From African Art comes a tremendous visual diaspora ranging from amulets to easel paintings and sacred spaces.

I have been involved with that art on various levels for nearly thirty years. If it doesnt exist my life is a sad illusion.


Posted by Steve Price on 09-15-2003 09:41 PM:

Hi Randall

I am familiar with at least some of the African-American art to which you refer, and mentioned it as a fairly small piece of African-American art that shows strong influence from traditional African tribal arts. Evidently, it's a much larger piece than I thought, but the African-American art to which I've been exposed through the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts "Friends of..." group and most of the art in the museum produced by African-Americans is not of that genre. So, I plead guilty (with an excuse, as usual) to looking at the matter in a way that's behind the times. But being behind the times is a Virginia tradition, after all.

To be more serious: I'm sure that what you say is correct, but the two foci of the Friends of African and African American Art at the VMFA are African tribal art and the art of contemporary American artists of African descent (some, but not all, are academically trained). They make odd bedfellows, I think.

Thanks for enlightening me.


Steve Price

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 09-16-2003 04:09 AM:

Dear Wendel,

A very appropriate question. The answer, unfortunately, is still debated.
Hope you don’t mind if I quote the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Ed. 1999):

…since early Islam as such did not possess or propagate an art of its own, each area could continue, in fact often did continue, whatever modes of creativity it had acquired.
It may then not be appropriate at all to talk about the visual arts of Islamic peoples, and one should instead consider separately each of the areas that became Muslim: Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Iran, Anatolia, India. Such, in fact, has been the direction taken by some recent scholarship. Even though tainted at times with parochial nationalism, the approach has been useful in that it has focused attention on a number of permanent features in different regions of Islamic lands that are older than and independent from the faith itself and from the political entity created by it. Iranian art, in particular, exhibits a number of features (certain themes such as the representation of birds or an epic tradition in painting) that owe little to its Islamic character since the 7th century. Ottoman art shares a Mediterranean tradition of architectural conception with Italy rather than with the rest of the Muslim world.
Such examples can easily be multiplied, but it is probably wrong to overdo their importance. For if one looks at the art of Islamic lands from a different perspective, a totally different picture emerges. The perspective is that of the lands that surround the Muslim world or of the times that preceded its formation. For even if there are ambiguous examples, most observers can recognize a flavour, a mood in Islamic visual arts that is distinguishable from what is known in East Asia (China, Korea, and Japan) or in the Christian West. This mood or flavour has been called decorative, for it seems at first glance to emphasize an immense complexity of surface effects without apparent meanings attached to the visible motifs. But it has other characteristics as well; it is often colourful, both in architecture and in objects; it avoids representations of living things; it gives much prominence to the work of artisans and counts among its masterpieces not merely works of architecture or of painting but also the creations of weavers, potters, and metalworkers. The problem is whether these uniquenesses of Islamic art, when compared to other artistic traditions, are the result of the nature of Islam or of some other factor or series of factors.
These preliminary remarks suggest at the very outset the main epistemological peculiarity of Islamic art: it consists of a large number of quite disparate traditions that, when seen all together, appear distinguishable from what surrounded them and from what preceded them through a series of stylistic and thematic characteristics. The key question is how this was possible, but no answer can be given before the tradition itself has been properly defined.
Such a definition can only be provided in history, through an examination of the formation and development of the arts through the centuries…

What makes the question particularly difficult to answer is that the study of Islamic art is still so new…. Much, therefore, remains tentative in the knowledge and appreciation of works of Islamic art…

Each artistic tradition has tended to develop its own favourite mediums and techniques. Some, of course, such as architecture, are automatic needs of every culture; and, for reasons to be developed later, it is in the medium of architecture that some of the most characteristically Islamic works of art are found. Other techniques, on the other hand, acquire varying forms and emphases. Sculpture in the round hardly existed as a major art form, and, although such was also the case of all Mediterranean arts at the time of Islam's growth, one does not encounter the astounding rebirth of sculpture that occurred in the West. Wall painting existed but has generally been poorly preserved; the great Islamic art of painting was limited to the illustration of books.

The unique feature of Islamic techniques is the astounding development taken by the so-called DECORATIVE ARTS--e.g., woodwork, glass, ceramics, metalwork, textiles. New techniques were invented and spread throughout the Muslim world--at times even beyond its frontiers. In dealing with Islam, therefore, it is quite incorrect to think of these techniques as the "minor" arts. For the amount and intensity of creative energies spent on the decorative arts transformed them into major artistic forms, and their significance in defining a profile of the aesthetic and visual language of Islamic peoples is far greater than in the instances of many other cultures. Furthermore, since, for a variety of reasons to be discussed later, the Muslim world did not develop until quite late the notion of "noble" arts, the decorative arts have reflected far better the needs and ambitions of the culture as a whole. The kind of conclusion that can be reached about Islamic civilization through its visual arts thus extends far deeper than is usual in the study of an artistic tradition, and it requires a combination of archaeological, art-historical, and textual information.

Personally I favor the "view from outside" that identifies the common aspects of an "Islamic art". I have a book "The Umayyads - the rise of Islamic art" containing articles written by westerner and Arab scholars. The latter have no problem in writing about it.



Posted by Sue Zimmerman on 09-16-2003 01:38 PM:

Hi Steve,

Odd bedfellows? Do you feel the same way about the weavings made by court trained "tribal/nomadic" people who have left court to resume weaving back home when their work is exhibited alongside the weavings of those who never left? Have they ever been exhibited otherwise?

Who started the rumor that there was such a thing as "bell jar" tribes or nomads anyway? Where is the evidence? I haven't seen any. None. Sue - following the red wefts, etc....

Posted by Steve Price on 09-16-2003 02:12 PM:

Hi Sue

Your post is the first exposure I've had to the notion that some nomadic tribeswomen went to urban centers (which, I guess, is what you mean by "court"), were trained, then returned to the tribal community and continued weaving. Since I don't know that they exist (or, if they do, who they are and what they wove), my answer to your question can only be hypothetical.

If, upon their return to the tribal community, they wove things more or less in the tribal traditional formats, colors, layouts and motifs, then I wouldn't consider their products as strange bedfellows to those of their stay-at-home sisters. If they were Tekke women who came home to their yurts and began weaving Kashan-like carpets, I'd see their products as quite unlikely to be among the passions of collectors of mainstream Turkmen textiles.

I'm also puzzled by the analogy you draw. Are you suggesting that the products of these women are to the products of their stay-at-home sisters as the art of Americans of African descent (5 or more generations removed from Africa, trained in western schools of art) is to that of tribal Africans?


Steve Price

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