Peter Schjeldahl wanders blind through the Met’s new Islamic wing

Sophocles teaching his students 461x500 Peter Schjeldahl wanders blind through the Mets new Islamic wing

In his survey of the newly reopened Islamic wing at the Met, The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl is to be commended, I suppose, for his frank acknowledgment of how little he knows about the art, culture, people, or history of the region under review:

I count myself a fit representative of the sketchily informed Occidental viewer, almost confident at some points while gasping like a beached fish at others. The coincidental timing of the new wing’s debut invites each of us to a personal Arab Spring.

And he can’t be faulted for exhibiting an innate hostility to the work, of which he says:

Beauty rolls in waves and seethes in eddies throughout the installations of dazzling ceramics, noble architectural fragments and statuary, fabulous carpets, enchanting miniatures from manuscripts and albums and the extraordinarily varied and elegant calligraphy of handmade Korans, along with choice fabrics, metalwork, jewelry, and weapons.

Yet the shallowness of his understanding shapes his view of the art all the same and leads him to render some judgments that, while no doubt widely shared by the general public, constitute something of a dereliction of duty for an art critic. He concludes:

The Islamic wing affords adventures in difference. It made me acutely aware of myself as a European-American — a latter-day scion of the Renaissance wedding of Greek and Roman with Judeo-Christian traditions.

Can Schjeldahl be unaware how profoundly this “Renaissance wedding” was shaped by Islamic life, language, thought and design even as Europe stood apart from Islam as a religion? For reasons of geographic proximity, political competition, and economic trade there is no culture on earth with which Christendom has engaged more deeply, for more centuries, with greater exchange in both directions than with the Islamic world.  Indeed, a very great part of what we know about the Greek philosophy we regard as the foundation of Western culture is through Arab translations and exegesis, with figures like Averroes and Avicenna serving as the bridge between us and Aristotle. This is one way among many in which, from Moorish architecture in Spain in the west of Europe through southern Italy to Constantinople/Istanbul in the east, centuries of cohabitation have left what is European inextricable from what is Islamic.   Artistically, this transmission can be seen in everything from porcelain, carpets and illuminated manuscripts to mosaics and Mudejar architecture.  There are differences, to be sure, just as there are differences between Greek and Roman, but an art critic’s role is to tease out the influences and references within a work — to find those points of exchange — not to retreat into some mythical idea of isolated creation.

Would Schjeldahl ever approach a contemporary art exhibit this way?

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Update 27 Nov: For a much more insightful view of the new Islamic art wing, consider the approach that Peter Brown takes in the New York Review of Books: here, Islamic art is a broad, dynamic, and evolving constellation of works that connects to the many distinct cultures with which an empire extending over thousand of miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific inevitably comes into contact.  Brown writes:

The layout of the galleries is devoted to stressing the diversity of the lands and cultures associated with Islam. Yet the rooms are aligned in such a way that we can shrink the distances between different regions. For example: if we look across the galleries from the room dedicated to the arts of western Islam, our eye catches, in the distance, a majestic Ottoman carpet. On this carpet, patterns that had already circulated through many regions for centuries, Andalusia and North Africa among them, are gathered up once again, in sixteenth-century Anatolia, into yet another explosion of beauty.

Our journey is constantly punctuated by such thrills of recognition across wide distances. The objects in each room do not fall into enclosed regions. Nor do they speak of a rigid uniformity. Rather, they emphasize the remarkable degree of mutual visibility created by a civilization that had turned the southern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Iran, along with Central and South Asia, into a vast whispering gallery of stories, motifs and techniques.

And almost as if writing in direct rebuttal of Schjeldahl’s parochial understanding of the origins of his Greco-Roman “Renaissance wedding,” Brown makes explicit the point I made above about the depth of exchange between Christendom and the Islamic world:

Over much of the Middle East, Christianity took a long time to shrink into the position of a religious minority. Well into the Middle Ages, Christians in the Middle East and Zoroastrians in Iran and Central Asia were the majority, and the Muslims were a vivid but small minority.

To take one example: the Syriac-speaking populations of what are now Syria, eastern Turkey, and northern Iraq continued to act as intermediaries between the Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean and the new Arabic culture of Baghdad in Mesopotamia. As late as the eighth century CE, abbots of great Syriac monasteries on the Euphrates still wrote about the river Tiber in Rome and the relation of the story of Romulus and Remus to the New Year’s feast of the Roman Kalends (first day) of January. This was a feast that Christians had continued to celebrate with pagan exuberance—despite the admonitions of their bishops—well into Muslim times, in great basilicas as far apart as Antioch and Tunis. In large areas of the Middle East, no clock had struck to sound the end of late antiquity.

Indeed, far from vanishing, these Christian populations played a crucial part in passing on to the Muslims much of the culture of the Greco-Roman world. This transfer happened through innumerable dialogues between representatives of the old world and their new Arabic-speaking interlocutors.

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Update 29 Nov: And if all that is not enough, Aramco World has a terrific article about the reconceptualization of the new Islamic art wing written by Walter Denny, who was an advisor to the project working on carpets and textiles.

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Click here to read my articles about contemporary art in Cairo and going off-road in the Libyan Sahara, both for Travel + Leisure.  Or here to read about a 19th century Arab-Chinese-Peruvian portrait, a perfect example of the way in which Spain became a vehicle for transmitting elements of Islamic culture.  Or click on the country name to see my photographs of Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Click here to see a list of all my blog posts on the Middle East and North Africa.

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  • Gregg Dourgarian

    It gets worse Sean…Schjeldahl shamefully mistakes Sinan, the great Armenian (read: Christian) architect  forcibly converted to Islam to serve in the Janissary corps, to be Muslim.

    He’s way off spiritually as well writing that Islam via Sinan’s Suleymaniye Mosque produces in Schjeldahl “The effect, like Heaven pressing down to earth…the opposite of …Christian religious architecture”. 

    It’s the descent of the holy spirit that Sinan is depicting.  Too bad the poor guy had to censor himself.

    • http://seanrocha.com/ Sean Rocha

      Glad you wrote that: Sinan is a poor example to illustrate his intended point but a perfect illustration of the shallow knowledge of the Middle East. Also, am I the only one astonished to learn that a renowned art critic in his late-sixties has only traveled to one predominantly Muslim country? What an odd and unexpected lack of curiosity this suggests. And it shows: I had drafted a whole section about that ending of his piece but dropped it because, among other things, I simply couldn’t figure out what he meant. “Christian prayers skyrocket. Muslim prayers skim the ground, toward Mecca.” Really?

      Sean

    • Sean

      Glad you wrote that: Sinan is a poor example to illustrate his intended point but a perfect illustration of the shallow knowledge of the Middle East.  Also, am I the only one astonished to learn that a renowned art critic in his late-sixties has only traveled to one predominantly Muslim country — and even then, to a city that was predominantly Christian for much of its history?  What an odd and unexpected lack of curiosity this suggests.  And it shows: I had drafted a whole section about that ending of his piece but dropped it because, among other things, I simply couldn’t figure out what he meant.  ”Christian prayers skyrocket. Muslim prayers skim the ground, toward Mecca.”  Really?

      Sean

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  • Nasser Rabbat

    You hit the nail on the head Sean.  Schjeldahl does display an alarming ignorance about Islamic religious practices, cultures, and most importantly art.   His views are of course widespread within the general culture, but they are also dominant in academe, which is where the problem lies.  Especially damaging is the notion, still defining all fields of history in Western universities, of the separation of cultures, mostly alone the lines of us and them, and the insularity of a unified Western culture from its presumed roots in Greco-Roman cultures to today.  That a Judeo-Christian tradition permeates this cultural lineage is not only a new invention (probably after WWII) but also wrong for most of the history of European Christianity.  Most egregious, of course, is the insistence that Islam is not part of that monotheistic heritage, which is still the way most Americans see it, and, to judge from Schjeldahl’s statement you quote, so does he.