What Secular Space?: The Met Hedges Muslim

Ashley Baxstrom: If you’re in New York (and if you’re not, come), head over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and check out their New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. November 1 marked the grand reopening of 15 enlarged, reconceived and renovated galleries of what the Museum touts as one of the world’s best and most comprehensive collections of Islamic art.

Museum Director Thomas P. Campbell says the exhibit “trace[s] the course of Islamic civilization over a span of 13 centuries, from the Middle East to North Africa, Europe, and Central and South Asia. This new geographic orientation signals a revised perspective on this important collection, recognizing that the monumentality of Islam did not create a single, monolithic artistic expression, but instead connected a vast geographic expanse through centuries of change and cultural influence.”

The collection is comprised of over 12,000 works in its entirety; the galleries will host some 1,200 pieces ranging from Spain to India. Artdaily.org cites a few particular highlights, including the Damascus Room, built in 1707; restored classical carpets from the 16th and 17th centuries; and pages from the sumptuous copy of the Shahnama (Book of Kings) created for Shah Tahmasp (1514–76) of Iran.

It will probably be beautiful, and interesting, and there’s really old stuff, and who doesn’t like art, and museums are nice, and go see it!

Therein I’ve done my duty as far as saying nice things about what does sound like a really lovely exhibit. Honestly, I’ll be visiting as soon as I get my homework done; I’ve already seen the Egyptian collection, and I’m so over 20th-century European painters right now.

But now let me do my duty to you, our readers, and briefly trouble these aesthetic waters.

Fellow Revealer-writer Amy Levin suggested considering the exhibit alongside Kenneth M. George’s book “Picturing Islam: Art and Ethics in a Muslim Lifeworld,” which, among other things, evokes questions about what makes art Islamic and what happens when Islamic art is displayed in a public space that is not necessarily, but possibly, non-religious, such as a museum.

Thompson says the galleries will highlight the “plurality of the Islamic tradition and the vast cross-fertilization of ideas and artistic forms that has shaped our shared cultural heritage.” So – ok, so it’s Islamic art? Well why didn’t they say something about that in the exhibit title? “Art of the Arab Lands” sure covers the geographic expanse, but doesn’t necessarily give due credit to the spiritual influence.

But wait – Sheila Canby, the Patti Cadby Birch Curator in Charge of the Department of Islamic Art, emphasized that “because the objects in our galleries are primarily secular in nature, they can easily be appreciated both for their innate utility and for their astonishing beauty, whatever the viewer’s background may be.”

… so it’s secular art. So it’s not Islamic. Is that it? I guess I’m not sure (a) what the Museum thinks the collection is about, or (b) what they’re trying to say with the exhibit.

Let’s review. The collection consists of art of varying mediums, from the past 1,300 years, from places across the world that could somehow be considered to be somewhat “Arab” (since that’s the term they’re going with), and the museum’s Director says it’s Islamic, while the curator says it’s secular.

No, no that didn’t help at all. When they say Arab, do they mean something about ethnicity? Or are the caustically lumping together some form or Islamic religio-cultural identity as a way to link together the pieces into a cohesive collectivity? Perhaps they mean that the people who made the art were Muslims, but the art is not – but how do they know, and what would that even mean? Because it’s a rug or a dish or doesn’t have Qur’anic sayings embossed on it, is it “secular”? (And some pieces might have Qur’anic sayings embossed on them, but like I said, I haven’t seen it yet. Homework.)

Furthermore, let’s talk about the context within which these pieces are displayed. Museums might commonly be considered secular space, but isn’t there something about the sacred in the way art is gathered, displayed, and admired in them? It could certainly be considered a kind of worship, an act of devotion, to come to this place and gaze upon a piece of work, whether it’s a painting of the crucifixion, a scrap of Native American pottery, or Shah Tahmasp’s Book of Kings.

I guess we can’t ask the painters if their work held any religious significance for them, or the weavers whether they hoped their patterns would instill a moral ethic in those who trod across their rugs. But if my time in grad school has taught me anything, it’s that very little of the human process is disengaged from social, historical or cultural contextualization. The Metropolitan Museum may or may not be able (or want) to participate in a discussion about artistic forms of religiosity, but whether or not the information is available next to the displays, at least we can keep these considerations in mind.

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