PRINT March 1976

Islamic Art: The Met’s Generous Embrace

THE METROPOLITAN’S NEW ISLAMIC GALLERIES give us the gorgeous East we always hoped to find. Could any audience fail to be awed by the McMullan carpets and charmed by the Houghton miniatures? Art, we know, comes in many flavors, and we learn that Islamic is just as delicious as the rest.

We may not learn much more, for the installation is nondidactic, except for the rooms containing finds from the Metropolitan-sponsored dig at Nishapur. This section is gratifyingly crowded with words, fragments and things. Here you will find almost all the Metropolitan’s stuccos on view and better labels than elsewhere. Otherwise, no garish slide show ticks away, nor are we confronted with giant textual expositions of geography or history. Almost everything about the spacious Islamic galleries proclaims this art as a feast, a come-as-you-are party that requires no special effort.

In the Metropolitan installation, the most obvious puzzle of Islamic art, its ability to flourish without painting and sculpture and without attempting to interpret the visible world, evaporates. We are gently wrapped in an atmosphere of gracious living. In Islam, it seems, art is about that. But isn’t it everywhere? Dependence on elite patronage and the allocation of most artistic energy to the production of luxury goods are characteristics that Islamic art shares with the West. Are we so different, after all? Perhaps not. Yet the most fascinating thing about Islamic art is just those differences that, in the new galleries, all but disappear. What is missing here is the public, quasi-political dimension of Islamic art, an elimination sharpened by the exclusion of architecture.

That exclusion contributes immeasurably to the general impression of a consumer paradise; it also makes nonsense of Mr. Hoving’s claim that the galleries offer “a complete survey of Islamic art.” Nobody seeing these galleries could possibly guess at the existence, much less the power, of Islam’s major contributions to the world’s repertory of visual form, its monumental use of architectural stucco and tile. Given the absence of large-scale painting and sculpture in Islam, architecture takes on a singular importance as the only public art form we know today. With the omission of this public face of Islam, the purity and Puritanism of its art disappear from view.1 Western assumptions about decorative art (which we associate with wealthy, secular, individual taste) obscure the special role played by decoration in Islam.

Islamic art began, developed and continues as the expression of a universal religious community in a politically unstable world. Its ability to support the identity of that community without itself becoming politicized is a curious accomplishment. In both China and the West, an initially religious art divided into secular and religious forms, and each form tended to become identified with the interests of special classes or groups. Such developments never took place in Islamic art. Its sustained identity and abstractness illuminates, by contrast, the sensuous and polemical content of the idealism in Western painting and sculpture. A heavy exposure to Islam suggests a startling view of ourselves as devoted to propaganda and lust!

Even if we grant the socio-esthetic importance of Islamic architecture, however, it must be admitted that no art reveals itself in a single form. A grasp of art-making as a regular process is necessary if we are to distinguish the general characteristics of a style or culture from the particular qualities of a sample. This is the special task that a permanent museum installation undertakes. It is not an easy job.

Western ignorance of Islam is so profound that isolated facts and broad clichés, however true, are not likely to be illuminating. To say that Islamic art shows unity and variety, and to remark that its unity is derived from religion, is not enough, if only because the very same things could as truly be said of art in the West. The continuity and discontinuity of Western art are different from the same phenomena in Islam. But an appreciation of that difference requires us to take a novel view of Europe.

European art grew from a common source: the Roman empire distributed classical ideals and imagery among tribesmen with little material culture of their own. The barbaric invaders from the East and the establishment of Christianity acted on the same territory. Then the Renaissance, reverberating outward from Italy, reconciled Christianity and classicism throughout a community whose economic and social interdependencies had been established through 1,500 years of shared existence. Such a gross oversimplification of the development of European art offends our normal sense of European history. It neglects the painfully established distinctions that delineate the special identity of each European nation. For us, a predominantly political discontinuity obscures the cultural community—indeed, the very idea of a European “community” seems to us no more than a vague, still unaccomplished idea.

If, however, we enlarge our view of art to include Islam, we must be prepared to reinterpret the West. Islam, exploding into existence in the seventh century, began almost immediately to spread over vast territories. Within a hundred years of Muhammad’s death, the empire had reached almost the widest range it would achieve. Nowhere did the Arabs encounter culturally virgin territory; the areas into which they moved had already developed their own traditions of form and imagery. Since no such traditions were available in the Arabs’ own, predominantly literary, culture, Islamic art began with the borrowed skills of hired hands and the strict requirements of religious converts. Its achievement of a coherent, unified style is thus quite unlike the regularities of Western art. Its unity appears as something more questionable, fragile and surprising, more closely bound to a sacred book and the traditions associated with it. It is important to keep in mind that for Islam, God has manifested himself most directly, not in Jewish flesh, but in Arabic script. The analog of the Koran is not the Bible, but Christ himself.

The iconic aura of Arabic script is important because our best clue to Islamic art comes from remembering that it is medieval. Like Western art during the same period, it has a great deal to do with skill and collective creation. (The very un-Islamic idea of the artistic genius did not flourish in Europe until the 16th century, and its value did not outprice the value of skill until the 18th.) Neither in the East nor the West, moreover, was medieval art concerned with the imitation of nature. Aristotle, otherwise so highly regarded as a sage by both Islam and Europe, was in that doctrine flatly rejected—in both cases, on religious grounds. The Christian church, having an iconic tradition to defend, came up with the idea of art as education. No theory was ever offered for Islamic art.2 It just grew, without the benefit of ideology or rationales. If we want to claim that the unity of Islamic art depends on a shared esthetic, it becomes necessary to take the radical expedient of extrapolating one!

The absence of theory intensifies our interest in Islam’s ordinary methods of artistic production.3 As was usual in medieval times, Islamic artists were trained, rather than educated, men, and apprenticeship was the normal form of training. But Islam had no guilds or any similar institution until the 15th century. Even more vulnerable than his European counterpart, an ordinary Islamic craftsman worked for a boss and did his own particular job. Accepting the fragmentation of production, he tended to see the given aspects of form as unquestionable necessities. Change had to slip in or be imposed from above. This circumstance, combined with the political instability of the Islamic world throughout much of its historic and geographic range, contributed to a constant of Islamic art: its tendency to compose artistic wholes out of a very limited repertory of simple units. This observation seems to apply to Islamic poetry and architecture as well as to the visual arts, and it is an extremely important consideration for criticism and appreciation. It is usually fruitless to look for Islamic inventiveness in the structural units or modules of its art. They are generally banal or borrowed or both. The beauty and power of Islamic art cannot be seen in wholes or individual details or in part-whole relationships, but in extended passages. (This sounds like a very arbitrary dictum and I cannot defend it. It is offered as practical advice to a Western viewer who is used to setting himself other spans of artistic attention.)

Think of carpets, so standardized in both their compositions and motifs. Or you may notice that there appears to be one way to make a good candlestick. For more than 300 years, Islamic metal candlesticks had roughly the same profile, and ceramic ones followed the metal prototype.4 No 12th-century examples are shown at the Met, but they exist, and four complete pairs from the 13th and 14th centuries are scattered between two rooms. One late 14th-century Syrian example does not follow the old scheme, but the others typically preserve a formula. One takes a single form in two sizes. The large version serves as a base while the smaller one functions as the actual candleholder. It is fastened to the base by a short cylinder whose diameter is that of the candle. The finished product, depending on its surface treatment, can be used in the mosque or the home.

The repetition of clearly articulated parts virtually guarantees the craftsman a reasonably well designed product, but it also means that Islamic forms fall into types and get boring very fast. Usually only the treatment of the surface offers interest and vitality. The artistic attention demanded by Islamic art is, therefore, the sort that we give to highly conventionalized Western forms, for we have such forms too. With structurally rigid and standardized products like soap opera, an Albers painting or television commercials, artistic interest lies in seeing how the usual thing is done this time. We do not expect a single instance of the form to tell us much of anything. Yet such forms are not meaningless.

Meaning is easily found in a Shakespeare play, which can be mined for intellectual themes. Cosmological, moral and social theories are stated or implied. We can read such references inward, toward the action of the play, and outward, toward the Renaissance world and beyond it to the human condition. The Elizabethan or Jacobean masque, on the other hand, is, like soap opera, a highly conventionalized art form. It is no less deeply implicated in the society that produced it than Shakespeare’s plays are, but its immediate justification lies in the ephemeral delights of spectacle, dance and song. The dramatic action and the text are secondary, and one masque is very like another, all of them being elaborate flatteries of the royal audience. Yet the masque is far from meaningless. It is more directly related to the most ancient ritual drama than Shakespeare’s plays are. It is, however, an art object whose intellectual implications must be sought in large-scale inquiries, in wide-range or long-term examinations of its habitual themes, forms and motifs, for meaning cannot easily be inferred from the object itself.5

Islamic art needs that sort of examination if we are to look for ideas in it at all. Thus it is fair, I think, to set the inalienable pleasures of this art aside and to consider the new Islamic galleries by asking whether they support a viewer’s attempt to understand Islamic art. The answer must be that while the galleries are marvelous for artists, they are not terribly helpful to amateurs and people in general.

The great advantage for artists lies in the wonderful scope of the Metropolitan collection, in the range of kinds and quality it makes available. An artist will immediately see that the silver-gilt plate and the bronze vase in the corner case at the right inside the entrance to Room 3 belong to another formal sensibility than do the figures, so misleadingly described as “examples of Iranian sculpture,” which flank the entry to Room 4B. Islamic Iran never really produced sculpture in the round. The dead, overgrown lion incense burner remains an overgrown object. In Islam, the full plasticity of Western sculpture is to be found chiefly in architecture and intermittently in a few types of small-scale objects.

But such considerations will not bother contemporary artists. They are not going to be upset by stylistic discontinuities or flat-looking sculpture. For them, the Islamic collection is likely to present a marvelous pool of untapped resources for abstract art, not only because of the geometric bias of much Islamic art, but chiefly for the peculiarly Islamic relationship between structural form and surface treatments. Western art regularly subordinates decoration to form—a principle deeply embedded in our norms of “good taste.” Islamic decorative surfaces have processes and powers of their own. In architecture, decorative forms have even initiated novelties of structure.

The very possibility arises because Islamic artists do not seem to conceive of the surface as we do. They see it as a physical rather than a purely visual entity. Western attention to pattern emphasizes its mathematical principles and sees its salient characteristics in abstract process: pattern is a self-generating, infinitely extendable form. But equally vital to artists is the Islamic conception of the surface as dimensionally ambiguous, that is, as simultaneously pointing to the extension and the particular density of the material being worked. Surfaces are permeable, vulnerable matter. Grillwork and openwork are visually analogous to the modulation of the surface by light and dark, a principle vividly demonstrated in a 13th-century Kashan jug. The painted harpies, dogs and deer are perfectly absorbed into the flickering forest of openwork vegetal ornament. Here it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to derive a mathematical formula to account for the pattern. Its regularity is unmistakable, but flowing and organic. The jug’s formal unity depends primarily on the regularized visual density of its very sophisticated surface, so neatly adjusted to the simple-architecture of its folksy plastic form.

Islamic art seems to me to be deeply concerned with visual density, an esthetic element that has only very recently been identified and stressed in the West. We arrived at it by way of tactility or texture, which became a radical “issue” with the work of Morris Louis and its interpretation by Clement Greenberg in the ’60s. Greenberg saw Louis’s saturated surfaces as a mark of historically progressive form, a logical development of Cubism’s explosion of plastic form into shallow, surface-hugging fragments. The canonically modern “preservation of the picture plane” that every art student learned in the ’40s required close attention to the interactions of figure and ground, lest the activity of the former destroy the continuity or “integrity” of the latter. By the ’60s, this concern became even more stringent. The surface was drawn into ever greater tautness, until the abstract picture plane dropped out of artists’ conversations, to be replaced by the color-saturated physical surface itself.

As we noted earlier, Islamic art has no known theoretical component, and thus no concept so abstract as the picture plane. Yet sensitivity to a need for controlling surface density can be documented through discussions of the only art form early Muslims recognized as such: calligraphy. Abu Haiyan al-Tawhidi, in a manuscript dated 1328 A.D., remarks: “Handwriting is a difficult geometry and an exacting craft. If it is elegant, it is weak. If it is solid, it is easily washed off. If it is big, it is coarse. If thin, looks scattered, if round, is thick . . .” (My italics). “Easily washed off” is a baffling objection unless we think of the surface as requiring artistic reinforcement of its physical continuity so that it can “hold” a cluster of marks. Indeed, the regularized, allover density of Islamic decorated surfaces has often been noted. It is usually “explained” by scholars as a quasi-genetic characteristic of the Oriental mind, a native horror vacui, or primitive dislike for unmodulated surfaces. No artist is likely to agree. We no longer find it so hard to understand that an Islamic artist might see strongly contrasted surface densities as disintegrating visual form and causing undesirable spottiness and fragmentation. Only bad Islamic decoration looks merely dense. Good examples play virtuoso games with scale shifts and contrapuntal sets of linear rhythms.

In Islam, an unmodulated surface seems to be read, not as space or air, but as solid matter. An empty surface is thus a closed mass which can and often should be opened and aerated by introducing marks or patterns. The use of enveloping fields of pattern represents Islam’s basic technique for estheticizing and spiritualizing an object, dematerializing it by evoking different quantities and qualities of light.

For a Muslim, neither patterns nor images are intrinsically spiritual, but light is. Contemporary Persian shrines (which most Westerners find decadently flashy and formless) are composed entirely of faceted mirrors—pure, directionless light.6 It may be plausible to consider Islamic pattern as the evocation of filtered light. (This interpretation was suggested by Persian art, and even if I’m right, the notion may be specific to Iran and depend on Shi’ite or Sufi concepts inapplicable to Islamic art in general.) The fact remains that almost no investigations of Islamic pattern as an esthetic element have yet been made. Art historians are still in the process of sifting motifs to establish sequences of objects and to distinguish between local stylistic developments and foreign borrowings.

Like the surface itself, Islamic line continually flirts with materiality. It flips between reference to its maker’s hand and reference to depicted form with an insouciant wit matched in the West only by Saul Steinberg. You can trace its ambiguity in the cut-glass beaker or the ivory chasse. For part of its length, a single continuous line will serve as an independent decorative element, then become the contour of a form, only to return placidly to two-dimensionality as a nonreferential, self-determined mark. In the ivory casket, with its interlaced framing circles, forms are set now behind, now in front of the hoops, in a continuous two- and three-dimensional play of closed and open, advancing and receding space. The extreme fluidity of Islamic framing elements, so marked in the miniatures, is a corollary of this peculiarity of line.

One could go on, pointing out fascinating novelties in Islamic usage of formal elements, most of them still unremarked in the literature. In the modern West, disrespect for decorative form denies it expressiveness, but little visual sophistication is required to perceive the “voices” of different styles of script. Anyone can see that it would be difficult to make Kufic script buoyant or Shikastah grave.

It must, however, be admitted that this sort of stimulus is primarily available to artists or people whose eyes are already connected to their brains. Most visitors to the Islamic galleries are in a more passive state, awaiting delectation and enlightenment. And even artists are well advised sometimes to step aside from looking at Islamic art as a possible professional acquisition. To remove completely any art from its human and social context is a kind of barbarism. In grateful acknowledgment for the splendor of its Islamic materials, the Metropolitan was honor-bound to try to restore that context. Getting it to look nice was clearly a lot easier.

The Metropolitan does not appear to find Islamic art particularly problematic. Metropolitan Islamic begins promptly in the seventh century, there all at once, like a djinn popping out of a bottle. Its apotheosis is reached in Room 7, the fully lit, high-ceilinged room with the Safavid carpets. It travels then, in its voluptuous maturity, to Turkey and India, and comes to a screeching halt in the early 18th century, its ethnicity destroyed by the industrial modernism of the West. “Islamic art” becomes a mythically monolithic entity, now pinned against 10 roomfuls of walls like a giant, dismembered butterfly. Some corrective information is given in the two second-rate texts that the museum provides, but the general assumption of intrinsic coherence never falters.

Islamic art is anything but pure. Early and late, there are things in these galleries that also “belong” to various non-Islamic worlds.

Europe entered into the formation of Islamic art in several stages, through the pervasive, disintegrating classicism that affected the whole Mediterranean basin, and through Byzantium. Byzantium, being Christian, was Western as far as the Arabs were concerned. They called it “Rum” or Rome, though we are usually more aware of the Eastern, particularly Syrian, components of Byzantine art. (It would be chastening for casual visitors to learn that for something like 800 years the cultural tides flowed westward—a shuttle bus between the Islamic galleries and the Cloisters could be a real eye-opener!)

On the Iranian plateau the Arabs encountered ancient Eastern traditions in a purer form. Here a highly developed technology supported refined architecture, metalwork, monumental stone sculpture and wall painting—forms of artistic production which had been in regular use from the time of Old Kingdom Egypt. The Met also has quite a lot of the fascinating and puzzling “Sassanian silver” first collected by Peter the Great. The examples included here are not labeled as such, though their relationship to Islamic art, like almost everything else about them, is irregular and complex.

A third independent artistic tradition may be embedded in Islam that we can only dimly perceive. For the last 20 years, archaeologists have been hinting at the existence of a Central Asian culture with definable artistic characteristics of its own. If they are right, we may soon learn to see it in Islam, through the early importance of Khorosan, so much larger than the present northeast of Persia, and in the sequential contributions of Seljuk, Turkoman and Mongol dynasties in Iran. Central Asian sources have been cited for many elements in Islamic carpets and metalwork. In important but more specialized areas, even Chinese influences contributed to Islamic art, especially in the early phases of Persian miniature painting, in silks and ceramics. T’ang wares appear as models in the ninth century, Yuan under the auspices of the Mongol Empire, and Ming in the Oriental chinoiserie of the Safavid period. And Islamic pottery, through Spain and Italy, influenced Europe’s development of majolica.

Of course, the Metropolitan can’t show all that, and Islamic studies are barely two generations old—there’s a lot we don’t know. But it is intellectually wasteful to treat Islamic art as just another pretty face. In Islamic art we feel the presence of a novel formal sense we can neither define nor assimilate into our own. Nor does Islamic art history fit comfortably into the patterns of artistic development that have been developed for Western art.

We might see it as the anachronism of a medieval art that never died. Although the Metropolitan galleries strongly suggest that no significant Islamic art was produced after the early 18th century, that conclusion is, at the very least, questionable. Certainly some textile arts and some Iranian painting survived the effects of Western influence, though you have to go to the Brooklyn Museum to see Zand, Qajar and Bokharan examples. Moreover, publications suggest that interesting integrations of Islamic and African traditions are visible in African architecture (I don’t know of any American exhibitions dealing with that material).

Islamic art, highly synthetic from its inception, has often demonstrated how easily it can be adapted to the requirements of foreign cultures. Its history also suggests a complex relationship between the art of the rulers and the ruled, the rich and the poor, the “elite” and the “folk.” The religious conversion of Seljuk, II Khanid and Timurid chieftains resulted in distinctive forms of Islamic art, produced under courtly patronage. But for each succeeding wave of conquerors, the art of their predecessors, however deeply admired, was something to mark as their own. To find an analogous situation in the West, one must go back to the Roman conquest of Greece. We may note that however “Greek” imperial Roman art became, continuing production in Greece was thenceforth irrevocably provincial, non-elite and “popular.”

Barbarian conquerors quickly discover that art adds beauty, dignity and social tone to their works and lives, and they are able to afford the best that money can buy. Their art comes to define the highest type of production available, although the respective contributions of imported experts and local workmen may be hard to disentangle. Quality of workmanship and materials distinguishes between economic levels of patronage, but our categories of “high” and “popular” art imply more complex distinctions. In the West, artistic change is generally studied as a manifestation of high art. Our art is then perceived as characteristically dynamic and iconic. We interpret it as changing in accordance with shifting perceptions of a reality whose philosophic, religious and esthetic norms were codified and promulgated by elites. Popular art followed at a slower pace, dropping many high-art elements in the process. It was less “serious” and style-bound, and more consistently decorative. As a source of inspiration or innovation, it was negligible until the 19th century. Non-elite art—folk art, popular art and later, mass art—hardly figures in Western art history until the Romantics and the Impressionists. However, given Islam’s extraordinary geographic range and its rapid turnover in ethnic elites between the 10th and 16th centuries, popular traditions may play a more vital role in Eastern art history. Apart from quality of execution, can we even distinguish “high” from “popular” art in Islam, where orthodox tenets deny that art has any significance at all?

In work produced for local or popular consumption, old symbols may retain special significance. Certainly, too, heterodox sects have risen to power and incorporated doctrinal messages in aristocratic or courtly art.7 Such high art may be hard to distinguish from good-quality popular decoration. But more visible differences in class patronage also appear. While Westernization makes Islamic art history very complicated after the 17th century, it seems worth noting that in the first half of the 20th century the esthetic preferences of the Iranian elite led to 18th-century French styles, while popular and middle-class aspirations to modernity favor Art Deco even today.8

Such considerations give Islamic art a unique fascination that should at least color our admiration of its beauty. Its unity is undoubtedly complex, and cannot be explained as the expression of a religion or an ideology. Yet the mosque room at the Met surely ought to be up near the front, despite its rather pedestrian mihrab. Historical sequence isn’t everything. The conflation of the Seljuk and Timurid periods seems peculiar, since they had quite different cultural orientations, and the strong articulation of the passage separating the rooms devoted to them is oddly, physically misleading. The large amount of space given to Mughal India also seemed strange, considering the pluralism of Indian art, and a relationship to other Islamic materials is often hard to grasp. Surely we are not to infer that all art produced under Muslim political control is Islamic. Without acknowledging the indigenous Indian miniature tradition, for example, it is easy to overestimate Indian indebtedness to Persian influence.

As for more specific matters, I wish the Met’s lighting were more even, that mirrors sometimes had been placed to show the bottoms and backs of things, and that the magnificent Nigde carpet had been hung vertically, so that it could really move. I wish somebody nearby were allowed to move the movable rug panels. There should be more carpets around anyway—all that white marble in the Syrian room is blinding.

Such objections must be balanced against treasures like the magnificent Spanish ceiling and felicities of the installation: the considerate provision of chairs and seclusion for the study of miniatures, the inclusion of textiles hitherto relegated to special collections, the frequent availability of seating for looking at complicated, “slow” objects like the carpets. In terms of generating involvement with an unfamiliar art, the variety of the rooms, each of them distinct in shape, size, lighting and density of materials presented, is an important advantage. The strain of looking at so much detail is obviated by the repeated stimulus of a new environment.

The new Islamic galleries are unquestionably alluring, and the wealth of the collection guarantees its usefulness to scholars, who bring a parallel wealth of information to it. The galleries may be least satisfactory to amateurs, already enchanted with this art, but painfully aware of how little they know. We are, admittedly, a minority group, but we also represent a stage of development through which every student must pass. It is the amateurs who may feel excluded from the Metropolitan’s generous embrace.

Amy Goldin contributes frequently to Artforum and various other art journals.



1. As documented, for example, in the sumptuary legislation of early Muslim jurists.

2. The first known treatise on painting appears in 1606.

3. The reader will notice that the following section and the later discussion of the place of noncourtly production imply a hypothesis—that the characteristics of a style can usefully be related to prevailing systems of production. This must remain a very tentative suggestion. Professor Grahar, for example, in The Foundations of Islamic Art, proposes linking the general characteristics of an Islamic esthetic to the tastes and purposes of its early patrons.

4. Contemporary ewers in lavender plastic use forms that were firmly established by the 15th century.

5. These are the methods of investigation demonstrated in the French Annales. They require examining a static slice of local production throughout its social range or looking at long-run developments over a period of a century or more.

6. An old story, which is found in several sources in different forms, describes a competition organized by a king to determine which artists were the best in the world. A Byzantine and a Chinese painter were given opposite walls to decorate, and a curtain was hung to separate them while they worked. When they were finished and the king came to inspect the results, he looked first at the Byzantine’s wall. It showed a hunting scene, with all the plants and animals admirably portrayed. Then the curtain was raised and he saw that the opposite wall presented the exact same image, in reverse! Puzzled, he had the curtain lowered again, at which point he realized that the Chinese had painted nothing, but had polished his wall to a highly reflecting surface. The Chinese was awarded the prize. A moral tale.

7. See Grace Guest and Richard Ettinghausen, “The Iconography of a Kashan Luster Plate” in Ars Orientalis, Vol. 4, 1961.

8. See furniture, “Waziri” carpets, a beautiful inlaid wood lamp in the tiny museum at Fin, and the wrought iron doors produced all over the country.