Category Archives: Art

Astonishing

Henri Matisse

In order to test the Queen of Sheba, and ultimately to demonstrate his superiority over her, Solomon orders the construction of a sarh covered with or built of slabs of glass or of crystal (27. 45). The exact meaning of the word sarh is the subject of much controversy and it may be easier to think of it as some sort of constructed space, without trying to be more precise. The peculiarity of whatever it is that Solomon built is that it is supposed to be interpreted by the Queen of Sheba as a body of water, as something different from what it really is. The pious implications of the story need not concern us here, but what is important is that a work is manufactured in order to create an illusion of reality. Two aspects of the story are pertinent to Islamic attitudes toward the arts, in partial contradiction with each other. One is that a work of art is something to wonder about, to be amazed by; it belongs to the category of wondrous things that became known as the ajaib (pl. of ajib, “wonderful” or “astonishing”), a term used constantly to praise manufactured items of all sorts. The other implication is that a work of art is a falsehood, a lie, because it gives you the impression of something that it is not.

Oleg Grabar, “Art and Culture in the Islamic World” in Islam: Art and Architecture, 2004

Big Tent

The fourteenth-century North African philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun singled out tents as one of the emblems of royal authority and luxury. Certainly, they could be of palatial dimensions. According to Clavijo, the Castilian ambassador, one of Timur’s tents, pitched on the plain of Kani-Gil outside Samarqand, was large enough to shade ten thousand people. Clavijo, who was in Samarqand in 1404, described another of Timur’s tents as having gates, a domed ceiling, upper galleries, a turret, and battlements. A fortune was spent on the inner furnishings, including tapestries, silks, and gold brocade; and it is illuminating to know that Timur, who had grown up among the nomadic Chagatay Mongols, relegated the Gok Saray, his palace in Samarqand, to the role of a storehouse and prison.

Robert Irwin, Islamic Art in Context: Art, Architecture, and the Literary World, 1997

Sacred Art

The love of ‘formulae’, that is, of formal syntheses which are both concise and rich in possibilities, is characteristic of every sacred art. Buddhist iconography is made up of type images of this kind, and the same is true of Hindu and Taoist art, as well as of the icons of the Eastern Church , whose colouring and composition are fixed by tradition. In each case the imagination of the individual artist is subordinated to the traditional model; his imagination is free only in an inward sense in that he endeavours to attain to the spiritual kernel of his model and to remake the image from that. In the case of Islam, it is in architecture and ornamentation that one must look for the formulae of prototypes which the artist ceaselessly reproduces and varies according to circumstance. These prototypes are inexhaustible because they are true.

This fidelity to models, which religion does not actually prescribe but which the consensus of believers has in a sense consecrated, has earned for Islamic art the stigma of being the victim of ‘stagnation’, as if its stability over the centuries had been the result of inertia or lack of awareness. In reality, the alternatives of stagnation are highly inapplicable to sacred art, which is either faithful to its principles, and hence active and aware, or forgetful of them, thus entailing decadence and collapse.

Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, 1976

Islamic Art

The methodological importance and intellectual interest of Islamic art, at least in its formative stages, lies in the encounter between extremely complex and sophisticated uses of visual forms and a new religious and social system with no ideological doctrine or behavioural need for them.

Richard Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar, The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250, 1987

The New Shit

Paul McCarthy

Novelty is a quality independent of the intrinsic value of the commodity. . . . It is the quintessence of false consciousness, whose indefatigable agent is fashion. The illusion of novelty is reflected, like one mirror in another, in the illusion of perpetual sameness. The product of this reflection is the phantasmagoria of “cultural history,” in which the bourgeoisie savors its false consciousness to the last. The art that begins to doubt its task and ceases to be “inseparable from utility” (Baudelaire) must make novelty its highest value. The snob becomes its arbiter novarum rerum. He is to art what the dandy is to fashion.

Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” 1939