Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

From the Prophet to Postmodernism? New World Orders and the End of Islamic Art

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

From the Prophet to Postmodernism? New World Orders and the End of Islamic Art

Article excerpt


This article addresses the peculiar fact that in most art historical surveys the narrative of Islamic art history ends around 1800 CE. It considers the roots of this idiosyncrasy and its implications for attempts to coopt or instrumentalize the objects of Islamic art in the decade after 2001 in discourses of liberalism and tolerance in which an originary Islam was contrasted with modern more 'fundamentalist' understandings of religious belief and practice. It explores contradictions inherent in related attempts to locate models for Muslim religious subjectivity in medieval artifacts secularized as art objects.


Islamic art, museum, art canon, nineteenth century, postcolonialism, Qajar art

When I read of Islam in the papers these days, I often feel I am reading of museumized peoples. I feel I am reading of people who are said not to make culture, except at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic, act.

Mahmood Mamdani, "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim-an African Perspective"

The breach between two kinds of art history, which treat either historical or modern art, and do this under different paradigms, no longer makes sense. We are just as poorly served by a rigid hermeneutic framework perpetuating a dogmatic strategy of interpretation. It is perhaps more appropriate to regard the interrogation of the medium of art, of historical man and his images of the world, as a permanent experiment.

Hans Belting, The End of the History of Art?

Ever since its inception as a sub-field of art history, no one has been quite sure of where to locate Islamic art and architecture within its master narratives. In Sir Banister Fletcher's History of Architecture (first published in 1896) "Saracenic" architecture belongs with the non-historical styles, branching (along with Byzantium) from the trunk of a decidedly Eurocentric family tree somewhere between Rome and Romanesque.1 While (generally speaking) the century since Fletcher's tree was drafted has seen Islamic art admitted into the exclusive club of historical styles, the problem of where to house it is no less current, a point reflected in its treatment within universal surveys of art. In the eleventh edition of Gardner's Art Through the Ages (2001), for example, the chapter on Islamic art is located between Byzantium and Ancient America, whereas the subject is entirely absent from the sixth edition of H.W. Janson's magisterial History of Art published in the same year.2 The enquiring reader who, seeking even a trace of Islamic culture in Janson's narrative, turns to the index will find only two entries there under the heading Islam: "art of" and "threat to Europe from."3 The juxtaposition has a disquietingly contemporary resonance, although the Europe in question turns out to be that of the ninth-century Carolingians. Nevertheless, the clear distinction between Europe/not Europe within which this single reference to Islam occurs reflects the frisson of alterity upon which the reception and accommodation of Islamic art has been predicated historically.

The problem of where to locate Islamic art stems, at least in part, from the peculiarities of the term itself, an invented rubric that must accommodate a vast array of artistic production stemming almost 1,400 years and spanning every continent.4 If artistic appreciation fulfills some of the cultural functions of religious adulation, then the position of Islamic art is particularly fraught, with the qualifying adjective caught between a religious identity and cultural identification. The resulting ambivalence is reflected not only in the lengthy apologias that accompany its use, but also in the tendency to oscillate between media-based and dynastic taxonomies, and in the appearance of ethnically or regionally based surveys.5

Many of these qualities were manifest in a myriad of new survey books on Islamic art and architecture published in the United States and Europe in the decade between 1991 and 2001. …

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