Islamism and Western Art

By Aryeh Tepper
Friday, August 19, 2011

Osama bin Laden will forever be remembered spending his last days like a common shlub: sitting on the floor, wrapped in a blanket, remote control in hand, watching TV. Unlike most other shlubs, however, bin Laden just happened to be contemplating his own image on the boob tube. All that's missing is a picture of the leader of Global Jihad sitting by the computer with a bowl of cereal, googling his own name.

The picture of bin Laden contemplating bin Laden was a powerful exercise in image-breaking and image-making. Image-breaking, because the noble Islamic warrior living ascetically in the hills of Afghanistan and evading the grasp of the Western crusaders was revealed to be a middle-aged, domesticated narcissist worried about going gray. Image-making, because bin Laden was revealed to be a middle-aged, domesticated narcissist worried about going gray.

The Americans, of course, knew what they were doing when they released the photos of bin Laden lounging around his Pakistani villa. One front in the war between Islamism and the West is the battle over image and reality—and in that battle, both sides claim to be selling reality while charging the other side with peddling distorted and distorting images.

The relationship between image and reality in the conflict between Islam and the West is the subject of an exhibition, West End, now showing at Jerusalem's Museum on the Seam.  Housed in a battle-scarred building that served as an outpost between Israel and Jordan until East Jerusalem was conquered by Israeli forces in 1967, the Museum on the Seam bills itself as "a socio-political contemporary art museum" dedicated to tolerance and coexistence. True to the multicultural values espoused by the museum's curator, Raphie Etgar, West End features the works of Russian, American, Swiss, Iranian, Iraqi, Moroccan, Israeli, Egyptian, Saudi, and German artists. But in a telling twist, not a single Palestinian artist agreed to participate in the exhibit.

In light of the museum's commitment to "socio-political" art, it comes as no surprise that the  works exhibited in West End are by and large postmodern, reflexive gestures of social and political protest. Most play on tired clichésdepicting, for instance, the Statue of Liberty perched on a drinking glass slowly sinking in the depths of a dark sea.  Or, as frequently, they try to move the mind through surprising juxtapositions, such as a map of jet-black America linked not to South America, but to the African continent. For anyone who has seriously contemplated the present problems of immigration, identity, and the clash of civilizations, the exhibition offers little food for thought.

Interestingly, the few pieces that manage to arouse the imagination are those of Arab artists. In one striking piece, "Evolution of Man," Saudi artist Ahmed Mater shows the universal image of a gas pump with a coiled gas hose and nozzle suspended at its side fusing into the X-ray of a man pointing a revolver at his head, ready to take his own life. In these five silk screen prints, Mater's associative intelligence penetrates the essence of some of his country's deepest conflicts and contradictions.  That is to say, the self-destroying gas pump is an apt image for the process whereby the ultra-conservative, petro-fueled Saudi Arabia's massive oil profits financed the madrasas that in turn produced the radical Islam that now threatens the kingdom's foundations.

In an unfortunate bow to political correctness, the exhibition concludes with an anodyne passage from Barack Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo condemning those "stoking the flames of division" and standing "in the way of progress." That speech is reprinted in full in the exhibition's super-thick, culture-hopping catalogue that contains selections from Western intellectuals, Islamist preachers, and everything in between.  Particularly relevant in this context is Obama's praise of Islam's "proud tradition of tolerance" that was best embodied "in the history of Andalusia" and that remains "the spirit we need today."

Now, when it comes to those trafficking in the Middle Eastern reality, nearly everyone seems to have their own ideal that they cull fromor project ontothe history of Islamic Spain.  Even bin Laden did. As it happens, bin Laden's ideal Spain was an Islamic Andalusia cleansed of religious impurities and returned to the hands of the triumphant Muslims. Obama's very different ideal, articulated in his Cairo speech, is a riff on the mythologized "Golden Age" of Spain's Muslim-Christian-Jewish convivencia (roughly, the 10th–11th centuries C.E.)a true period of achievement, but one with serious constraints unimagined by Obama. 

Take Raphie Etgar's comment in his introduction to the exhibition's catalogue that the works in West End succeed in engaging with contemporary reality because they "do not pass judgments." In Andalusia, it was precisely the capacity to articulate one's well-considered judgments that entitled one to an entrance ticket into the cultural festivities! This capacity for moral assessment was exemplified in the art of the Jewish poets of Islamic Spain. Like their Spanish-Arab contemporaries, these poets, writing on wine, love, and friendship, assigned praise or blame by judging matters against an ideal of excellence.  Today's multiculturalists ape the cross-cultural gestures but evade the rigors of true exchange. 

Obama thus got it right, but for the wrong reasons. The Andalusian artistic model could still be relevant today.  Unfortunately, most contemporary artists seem all too eager to evade the difficult work of honest and deep engagement with their subjects in favor of a superficial, sloganeering multiculturalism.  It is this artistic triviality that more than anything else is now on display at the Museum on the Seam. 

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