Art against History

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, March 29, 2012

Antiquity washes away the immediacy of historical pain and injustice.  Our ability to feel suffering is indexed directly to its epoch: the more remote, the more detached we are.  Museums play on this—pander to this—and to our forgetfulness.  History is softened, elided, or erased.  Reality is too harsh; beauty numbs our compassion and critical mind.

The beauty of things is amply displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's recently opened "New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia," a massive remodeling of the museum's former Islamic art galleries; but the realities of history are carefully disguised.

The engine of Islam was Arab imperialism.  Indeed, the new galleries bear the name of the conquerors—"Arab" lands—and identify the conquered only by their locations.  The first exhibit makes the point clearly, if unintentionally: It is a display of Qur'ans, announcing the putative unity of Islam and its (capitalized) Prophet.  If not quite treated as divine revelation, Islam is depicted as appearing out of nowhere.  Only a visitor coming straight from the neighboring Ancient Near Eastern galleries will have a sense of Islam's historical origins.

Exhibit labels in the Arab Lands galleries say Islamic power "arose" in the former Roman and Byzantine empires.  Countries "came under the rule" of Islamic governors.  Islamic dynasties "established themselves" or "took control" of various places.  Sometimes Islamic forces "ousted" or "wrested control" from one another.  The euphemisms deliberately mask the nature of Islam's spread.  Islamic sources themselves more forthrightly call it conquest.

The nameless inhabitants of these worlds are Muslim.  There is no mention of the multitudes of cultures destroyed, subsumed, and reduced to minority status.  Mamluks are described as "elite soldiers of slave origins"—obscuring the fact that slaves, taken as prisoners or given up as children, formed the backbone of most Muslim armies.  The Islamic conquest of India, in which millions of Hindus perished, is described as "the arrival of the Muslim rulers."  The word "Christian" appears perhaps six times in the exhibition halls.

The word "Jew" appears once, and "Jewish" three times—all, predictably, in connection with Spain.  One display allows that Seville once had a "sizeable Jewish population" and Toledo at least ten synagogues.  Even those mentions are sullied by mendacious elision.  On display is the Sefer Musre Hafilosophim, a Hebrew translation of ibn Ishaq's Maxims of the Philosophers, which contains fragments from Greek philosophers.  It is described as "one of the numerous ancient works that survive due to the ambitious program of translation into Arabic sponsored by Abbasid caliphs."  Nowhere is it admitted that preserving tiny fragments of a deliberately destroyed civilization is hardly "ambitious."  Nowhere is it said that the manuscript is written in Hebrew.

The objects themselves are astonishingly beautiful and diverse.  There are tiles, screens, bowls, ewers, carpets, carved ceilings, boxes, helmets, and swords of every imaginable variety.  The lushness of glazes that cannot be captured in photographs and the indescribably detailed craftsmanship are nearly overwhelming.  The density of design, whether on a remote ceiling tile or a prosaic box, reflects an immensity of effort devoted to covering empty spaces.  Voids are a source of horror; they must be filled, even if what fills them carries no intrinsic ideas. Arabesques and geometric designs have their intended lulling effect on the visitor.

The objects presented come solely from palaces and mosques. This is a typical conceit of museums.  Also typical is the extent to which the galleries reduce history to artistic motifs that swirl, combine, or influence one another through "creative reciprocal exchanges," entirely independent of people.  There are elaborate discussions of techniques for glazing, glassmaking, enameling, and metal-working—but none about the people who practiced them.  Indeed, people of any sort are almost invisible.  Part of the reason lies in religious prohibitions against depicting the human form (although enough are scattered throughout to show that such restrictions were hardly uniform).  Only Mughal paintings and illustrated pages from Persian and Afghan books—representing places far from the "Arab Lands"—show humans.  Even here, the people are both literally and, somehow, figuratively tiny.

History, peoples, the fabric of life, even the underpinnings of the arts and crafts themselves are cast away. The result will be seen as reflecting deep spiritual beauty and repose.  In fact, it is glorious decoration evincing human desolation and emptiness.

Fortunately, a temporary exhibition now at the Met shows some of what was deliberately left out and lost.  The inartfully-titled "Byzantium and Islam, Age of Transition" has the advantage of starting with Orthodox, Coptic, and Syriac Christians, as well as Jews.  In the "Arab Lands" galleries, the human figure is largely absent; but Byzantine Christians reveled in both human images and words.  

The 7th-century silver plates from Constantinople depicting David and Saul and the carved ivories of the 7th- or 8th-century "Grado Chair," showing St. Mark, the Nativity, the wedding at Cana, and other scenes, render the human figure as yet another glory of God.  From the delicate, Gospel-bearing gold lettering of the 6th-century Codex Sinopsensis to the letters on papyrus and silk recording the purchase of textiles, words served not just pious but prosaic purposes.  The palimpsest of the 6th-century Hebrew poet Yannai over Aquila of Sinope's earlier Greek translation of II Kings exemplifies the layering of cultures.  The 1st- and 3rd-century synagogue mosaics from Lif in Tunisia speak to an ancient Mediterranean Jewish experience, now extinguished.

Reliquaries, pilgrim tokens, and silk clothing, along with boxes, bowls, buckets, and lamps from diverse communities of the Mediterranean and the Near East, are among the items of daily life displayed, not yet reduced to "motifs" by conquest or museum conventions.  Only with the arrival of Islam, in the exhibit as in history, do princely goods and architectural fragments take over.  Words and images disappear, leaving only Qur'an pages and more empty decoration.

When the temporary exhibit is dispersed, the "Arab Lands" galleries will remain—vivid imperial decoration, tiny marginal manuscript figures, and no one in between. 

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