Sunday, February 26, 2006

What Does Islam Look Like?

What great questions: "Can Islamic Art Help the West See?" and "What Does Islam Look Like?" NYT's art critic, Holland Cotter, tries to give an answer, and I kind of like it. You may differ, but first let's read the article here. Obviously I feel good about reading something like this because, in part, of what I tried to say (in op-ed vernacular and space) in my Christian Science Monitor article, about identity theft linked to cultural and artistic anonymity. Here are a bit or two of Mr. Cotter's article, extending the definition of "fair usage." If it is, I'll be happy to condense:

"The West and Islam are on a cultural collision course. That's the best-selling fiction that many people — politicians, religious leaders and the media on both sides of the equation — are working overtime to turn into fact. Actually, it's a very old story, and art is routinely pulled into it."

. . . .

"The cartoon issue isn't primarily an art story, any more than the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya in India was an architecture story, or the censure of "The Satanic Verses" was a story about contemporary fiction. It's a political story, an ancient and universal one, about how an image, and almost any image will do, once it is fused to cultural identity — Islam, in this case — can end up being used as a weapon."

. . . .

"By far the most prominent exhibition of contemporary art on the subject yet seen in New York opens today at the Museum of Modern Art. You would never guess that subject, though, from its title — "Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking" — in which the word Islam does not appear. All but three of the featured artists were born in some part of the so-called Islamic world: Algeria, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine and Turkey. "

. . . .

"So, is there an "Islamic" to be found in the picture that all these exhibitions together create? If there is, it is capacious, multifold, fantastically detailed and, of course, still unfinished; like Western art, it's a project in progress. The political fictions that have commandeered center stage represent only a part of the picture, though it is easy — and dangerous — to take them, or their Western counterparts, for the whole. If art does nothing else, it challenges us not to look at the world too narrowly. By its very breadth it reassures us that no image is the image. That culture is, always, about change. That sometimes collision courses can turn into open highways."


Blogger sume said...

Thank you Ibrahim, it's a very interesting article. Islamic art or art by Muslims. Could the two really be separated. I agree that it's an old story as far as tradition vs innovative. Overall, I think this is a good thing. In the past, artist have played a large role in social awareness. In bridging the gaps between cultures and showing 'Islam' and "Muslims" in a much more multi-faceted, universal way artists are doing what they have always done. I guess there will always be those who struggle to confine 'art' to narrow terms and those who will always seek go beyond. Honestly, I think both have a roll to play and are just as important. I think there is also a justifiable fear of 'Islamic' or 'Muslim' culture being 'colonized' and made into nothing more than a commodity the way it's happened before not only with Islamic cultures but with Native American, African, Asian, etc., but I'm going off on a tangent here.

It makes me think of that age old question of whether art defines culture or vice versa. I read somewhere that "Culture defines art, art defines culture and the human spirit is defined by both.".

I was just talking about along the same lines with someone else except concerning poetry. I believe we're also starting to see a similar thing happening with writers. I'm waiting for Muslim slam and performance poets to hit the mainstream. The process has probably already begun in some places.

2/27/2006 4:44 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...


Your dissection is right I think. The issue is complex because it deals with human creativity and the inspirations behind it, which are never one. But I tend to think that like science and technology, art does not always lead; it is more often subtly informed by the ethos of the day. So art either affirms the going modern narrative or it rejects completely. Either way, the "times" does much to drive art. On rare and unique special moments do we see art driving new trends, instead of popularizing them or critical of them.

I think many talented Muslims are stopped by this. For they confuse form with substance, as if to say the very form of art today is as "corrupt" or reflective of the message itself. It's an interesting outlook, but ultimately shortsighted, for the various art forms have always been copies or imitations of primordial and universal forms, like story-telling, poetry, paintings, song, etc.

Any case, I also hope that Muslims can bust out creatively and show that art doesn't necessarily mean one thing.

Any case, I also hope that Muslims can bust out creatively and show that art doesn't necessarily mean one thing.

2/28/2006 3:55 PM  
Blogger Unconventionally_Urs said...

The actually article itself is a little deep for me, but I do know that there are many Islamic artists who are upcoming. In the light of this article, it is interesting that in the blog that follow everyday, there was a call for Islamic artistic display as a response to the cartoon desecration. See
Unfortunately, there are Muslims who choose to remove any form of art or music from Islam. Art reaches out and touches and moves the soul. Removing art, is like removing the soul.

2/28/2006 8:58 PM  
Blogger Unconventionally_Urs said...

Oh, I hope you don't mind, but here is yet another related blog. salaams

2/28/2006 9:02 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Agreed, Unconventionally. Especially this: "Art reaches out and touches and moves the soul. Removing art, is like removing the soul."

3/01/2006 7:20 AM  

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