Common types of Islamic Art have nothing to do with Muslim art, but what does Islamic art say about the intricate complex culture that surrounds it?
The West might have much to learn about the types of Islamic Art. Of course The West might be ignorant of many things including this multifaceted art form. It’s Mr. Giorgio Vasari’s fault though. So Americans shouldn’t be too hard on themselves. However people sure do fill in empty space quite often with more empty space. People make assumptions about the types of Islamic art that simply are not true. Someone who is ignorant about this confusing canon of art might make assumptions that are equally ignorant. The name is a trap! People often assume incorrectly that Islamic art is Muslim art. Art that is made by artists who are Muslim is not necessarily Islamic art. This rightfully leaves The West wondering what is Islamic art?!
These complex types of Islamic art deserve a dig that is a little deeper. The mystery of Islamic arts and its characteristics can be solved within those little dusty things people call books. People willing to read The Mirage of Islamic Art by Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom will soon discover the broad scope of this canon. One who reads and researches enough will see how to complex these classifications can be. Realizing the many facets is just the beginning. The authors point out that there are a few problems with classifying these works. Despite their problems there are many ways to talk about Islamic arts. The complex cultural Islamic arts can be characterized by religion, but also region, dynasty, and monuments.
“While some Islamic art may have been made by Muslims for purposes of the faith, much of it was not. A mosque or a copy of the Koran clearly fits everybody’s definition of Islamic art, but what about a twelfth-century Syrian bronze canteen inlaid with Arabic inscriptions and Christian scenes? A carpet bearing a design of a niche containing a lamp and laid on the ground in the direction of Mecca is clearly Islamic art, but what about a technically identical but iconographically different carpet used simply to cover and soften the floor?”
– Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom
It’s easy to say regions are a sweet and simple way to study art. At first this method sounds as easy as a scoop of rice pudding. Studying art of a certain geographical area might be an effective way to break down complex types of Islamic art. Though this criteria may not be as simple as a delightful Middle Eastern dessert. Art in Islamic areas changes over time. Nomads may pack up and move on. Their traditions and cultures will most likely follow them. And obviously political boundaries will change. The location of peoples, their culture, their politics, and their arts all change over time just like tastes in traditional sweets. Classifying these decorative arts isn’t as delicious when generalized into regions.
Another generalization of this beautiful and fascinating artwork is by dynasty. The types of Islamic art can be studied by sultans and their shopping lists of art. The Byzantines may have made a few pots and pans and maybe some gorgeous incense holders. Then The Ottomans hastily appropriated them via their gold encrusted guns. Dynasties acquired artifacts, often Muslim art, like they’re shopping on Black Friday. Museums are just as happy to collect these artifacts quickly and viciously. Exhibitions are often organized with a specific dynasty in mind. So studying the artworks in this way ends up just being a means for museums to reap profit. It is certainly one way to categorize, but seem too general for something so interesting.
Region and dynasty may be good breakdowns, but Islamic art and architecture can be broken into individual monuments too. People love a glossy finish volume all about art of the Italian Renaisannce. Similarly it is possible to break up the complicated sometimes Muslim art by its Islamic art and architecture. Westerners write massive publications about specific works and monuments all the time. But this is as cleaver as crossing the desert with now water. Like water, monographs and decent texts on Islamic art and architecture by monument are hard to find. This scarcity in publication creates little interest in Islamic Art and Architecture and provides even fewer scholarly resources. Of course it has its drawbacks, but it is just another way to understand the complexities of the art of Islam.
These complexities may wrongfully seem to have no productive end. Of course this is a another trap of Western thinking. Actually it’s a shame Art in Europe and The Americas isn’t studied like Islamic art. Perhaps the art in the West isn’t ready or is just incapable of this way of study. But it makes sense that art (not just Muslim art) should be so mesmerizing in its intricacy. Art is a reflection of culture and its people. And culture is complex. Looking at art means understanding each intricate detail of a culture and its artists. Islamic art is full of splendid culture! It begs to be studied in new ways. Because of this there are many challenge to find the perfect way to understand the many types of these works.