Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Concept of Islamic Art: Inherited Discourses and New Approaches*

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Concept of Islamic Art: Inherited Discourses and New Approaches*

Article excerpt

Abstract

The article examines the shiftin the field, since the 1970s, from a predominant focus on the early period of Islamic art and architecture in the 'central zone' of the Fertile Crescent to a broader chronological and geographical scope. This shifthas contributed, among other things, to a change of emphasis from artistic unity to variety, accompanied by an increasing diversification of concepts and approaches including dynastic, regional, media-based, textual, theoretical, critical, and historiographical inquiries. The article seeks to address the unresolved methodological tensions arising from the expanded scope of the field, along with concomitant anxieties over the fragmentation of its traditional 'universalism'. It begins by outlining the premises of still prevalent approaches inherited from the construction of the field during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a field rooted in the entangled legacies of Orientalism, nationalism, and dilletantism. The article then reviews recent statements on the state and future of the field before turning to personal reflections on challenges posed by its expanding horizons and its relationship to the Museum.

Keywords

historiography and construction of the field of Islamic Art; inherited discourses of Orientalism, nationalism and dilletantism; future of the Islamic field; Pergamon Museum; layers of meaning in museum objects

My paper examines the shiftin the field of "Islamic Art" since the 1970s, from a focus on the "early period" in the "central zone" of the Islamic lands, to a broader chronological and geographical scope.1 This shifthas contributed to a notable change of emphasis from artistic unity to variety. Whereas the typical question asked before the 1970s was "What is Islamic about Islamic art?", inquiries thereafter began to foreground diversity, hybridity, and intercultural exchange. This shifthas been accompanied by a diversification of concepts and approaches. Often characterised by interdisciplinary frameworks and a close engagement with written sources, avenues of research are increasingly emphasising contextual factors ranging from questions of agency (of patrons, artists, or ecology) and modes of artistic creation and reception, to socio-political, religio-cultural, and aesthetic dimensions of the production of meaning and value. This contextualising trend has also promoted the historicisation of concepts of aesthetics, visuality, spatiality, and materiality. More recently, "thing theory" has started to bring the phenomenology of objects to the centre of art historical inquiry, thereby counterbalancing the "power of images" with the "potency of the object." The first part of my paper outlines the traditional approaches we have inherited from the construction of the field of Islamic art during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The second part comments on some reviews on the state of the Islamic field, before I turn to my own reflections on its expanding horizons. The concluding third part addresses the layers of meaning in museum objects and the question "Islamic Art or Material Culture?".

Let us begin, then, with the early historiography of the field, a topic that has turned into a subject of inquiry in its own right. Several overviews have situated the birth of the field of Islamic art at the interstices of Oriental studies, epigraphy, archaeology, museology, the art market, and art history. The approaches that emerged at that time can be correlated, in my view, with the entangled legacies of three paradigms that are still prevalent in our day, namely, Orientalism, nationalism, and dilettantism.2 Although it is not so easy to disentangle the intertwined discourses of these approaches, I shall briefly consider each of them separately.

The basic connection between Orientalist discourses and the very constitution of the field of Islamic art has come under scrutiny since the publication of Edward Said's seminal Orientalism in 1978. …

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