By Mohammad Mazhari

Views towards Islamic art is changing in the cultural centers of the West: professor

September 27, 2021 - 17:9

TEHRAN - Professor Kevin Richards, chair of the Liberal Arts Department at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, says that attitudes towards Islamic art in the West are changing.

"I think the view towards Islamic art is changing in the cultural centers of the West," Richards tells the Tehran Times.

"In part, this is due to the powerful critique of Orientalism offered by the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said.  He helped point to the problems around how Islamic culture and art was housed in Western cultural institutions, as well as how it was studied in Western academic institutions."

Despite common misconceptions towards Islamic art in the dominant culture of the West, new generations of scholars seem more aware of Islamic heritage.

"Subsequent scholars, informed by Said's groundbreaking work, have helped bring a renewed interest to Islamic art and culture, while also leading to newer institutions that attempt a different approach from those informed by the concept of Orientalism," Richards argues.

He was very kind to participate in a written interview as follows:

Q: To what extent the contemporary art is inspired by religion? As we know, Europe before the Renaissance was under the control of the church. 

A: Regarding contemporary art, institutional religion is not necessarily a primary point of inspiration, even as the spirit continues to be a crucial concern in art.  One can point to some of the new developments in art, such as land-based art, as a quest to use the art to contemplate the spiritual in a secular society. One can also see artists working in installation who try to provide such contemplative spaces within museums and galleries.  Artists still seek areas to offer viewers the meditative experience that marks religious experience, even as it does so beyond the confines of tradition.  

Today, identity and social justice questions are of much greater concern, pointing to a shift from art before the twentieth century.  These questions can brush up on religion when they pertain to identity or communities marginalized by institutional forces. Still, contemporary art tends not necessarily to work in concert with institutional religion today.  Sometimes, religion is a touchpoint for works that attempt to shock audiences.  For instance, Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) or Maurizio Catalan's The Ninth Hour (2003) make direct references to the tradition of religion but do so in a way that often leads to controversy and protest.

Q: How do you describe the relationship between modernity and religion? Coexistence or contradiction?

A: Modernity tends to be at odds with religion.  The world of modernity, marked by the rise of urban capitalism, led to a more secular society and a focus on the material world instead of spiritual concerns.  In the West, this represents an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and the critical perspective that most Enlightenment thinkers had towards religion and its ties to the aristocracy.  As a result of these influences, as more artists broke away from the official institutions of art and society, one sees a more critical stance on religious traditions.  The French avant-garde artist Gustave Courbet, expressing this attitude, once said, “I cannot paint an angel, for I have never seen an angel.”

“Today, identity and social justice questions are of much greater concern, pointing to a shift from art before the twentieth century.”At the same time, however, art comes to take the place of the spiritual in a secular society.  One sees this with the rise of public museums in the nineteenth century.  Many of these museums took on the form of classical architecture, especially temples from Ancient Greece and Rome.  These modern temples to culture began to displace religious institutions as spaces for spiritual contemplation and considering the meaning of existence.  This shift is supported by the language used by the advocates for public museums, pointing to how museums were supposed to help people transcend the concerns of the material realm.

Even in the twentieth century, within modernist aesthetics, this ideology is espoused.  Perhaps most notably, one sees this in Michael Fried's formalist aesthetics, especially in his seminal essay "Art and Objecthood."  He concludes his observations on minimalist painting and sculpture by noting that we are literalists most of our lives but that “presentness is grace.”  These spiritual yearnings can also be seen within any number of points within twentieth-century art in the West, from Kandinsky to Rothko and beyond to contemporary figures such as Bill Viola.

Q: How can art go beyond the languages and cultures and touch the deep sense of humanity?

A: Art's use of visual forms allows for an appeal to the immediacy of visual sensation to stir feelings and thoughts that are not dependent on being articulated in words.  The potential to speak universally is something that marks some of the utopic longings of early modernism.  There was a faith that art could potentially provide a universal language through color and forms alone.  One instance of this was the de Stijl movement in the Netherlands that believed that the use of yellow, red, and blue, along with black, white, and gray, in concert with grids and rectilinear forms could provide a visual language not just for the fine arts, but also for architecture and design.  They believed that all creative individuals could find ways to use this limited language not just for fine art but for all forms of creation that come to impact daily life.  

Some of these ideas led to the growth of international modernism in architecture, even if there is great skepticism about this quest for the universal in the early twenty-first century.  Early modernism's search for the universal appears as another form of Western cultural hegemony from the twenty-first-century perspective.

Q:  Do you believe that art is a global phenomenon, or is it dependent on cultural or geographical values? What does the post-modern approach say?

A: It might be more accurate to say that aesthetic experience, often linked to art, is a global phenomenon, but that art itself often depends on cultural and geographical values.  That is to say, visual culture, a term that can include the fine arts and other forms of visual expression, is something that marks all cultures, even if cultural difference is a critical element to how these visual phenomena take form.

At the same time, the contemporary art world is marked by globalization, leading to a more cosmopolitan art world, one where many different cultural perspectives are housed.  This represents a progressive step towards an ideal of inclusiveness that is quite different from the attitude of post-modernism.  That is to say, the rise of post-modern aesthetics, which permitted an eclectic use of ideas and forms from many cultures, was still tied to elements of Western privilege.  Today, there is a greater sensitivity to the potential for cultural appropriation and the need to respect other cultures in a way that post-modern art did not always do.  In many instances, post-modern aesthetics continued the aspect of Western cultural hegemony permeating early modernism.

In this regard, the contemporary art world is marked by artists from all over the globe, embodying an ideal of pluralism and inclusiveness. Many of these artists explore questions of identity that are deeply rooted in their cultural context.  The attempt to drive visual culture to a universal ideal has led instead to an exploration of cultural differences and visions that have been excluded or marginalized in the traditions of the West.  

Here, artists exploring questions informed by the post-colonial theory are significant, as their work opens up narratives that counter the Eurocentric trajectory of modernism and post-modernism.  One sees this not only in the range of artists included in the major biennials around the globe but also by the curators who have a crucial role in helping make decisions about whose work should be brought into conversation with audiences at these significant cultural events.  In this regard, the work of the late curator Okwui Enwezor is important to note, as his contributions to major events such as Documenta and the Venice Biennale, among others, helped open the contemporary art world to other perspectives.

Q: How is Islamic art viewed in the West?

A: I think the view towards Islamic art is changing in the cultural centers of the West.  This is due to the powerful critique of Orientalism offered by the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said.  He helped point to the problems around how Islamic culture and art were housed in Western cultural institutions and how it was studied in Western academic institutions.  Subsequent scholars, informed by Said's groundbreaking work, have helped bring a renewed interest to Islamic art and culture while also leading to newer institutions that attempt a different approach from those informed by the concept of Orientalism.

In terms of the contemporary art world, there are several important artists whose work engages with the traditions of the Islamic world.  Three that most immediately come to mind are Shirin Neshat, Shahzia Skikander, and Mitra Tabrizian.  While none of these artists are traditional, they each find ways of engaging with their cultural identities that take into consideration from perspectives of the Middle East and the West. Looking too complicated questions surrounding how to negotiate a space between cultures and between the contemporary and the historical.  An interesting study of Islamic aesthetics and contemporary art is Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art by Laura U. Marks.  She explores the connections between traditional Islamic aesthetics and contemporary artists working with video and other new media. 

At the same time, the art world is moving towards a more inclusive space of respect and cosmopolitanism. It is also important to note that popular culture in the West still perpetuates many misconceptions around the Islamic world that fuels ignorance around the beauty and richness of Islamic art and culture.  In this vein, there is a struggle between progressive forces attempting to build a more inclusive space built around mutual respect and knowledge and conservative forces fueling a pervasive common culture that still sustains cultural misunderstanding and fear, especially within the West.  In trying to build a better future, artists and intellectuals still have a lot of work to overcome these cultural biases.

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