A shamsa (literal meaning, “sun”) from the Met’s new Islamic Art wing

One of my favorite books right now is Between Artists: Twelve Contemporary American Artists Interview Twelve Contemporary American Artists. I have so much more to say about this book, and hopefully I will write about it in more detail later on. But right now I want to share an excerpt that is particularly pertinent to my current preoccupations.

This exchange was captured in Michael McMillen‘s interview with Kim Abeles:

McMillen: One of the fascinating aspects of your work is that you reach into history and culture and drag out and synthesize things into someting that’s not quite historical or formalist but more interesting than both.

Abeles: I’m interested in making my art interdisciplinary because usually you see history as a package deal in a museum, especially in the United States. In Europe you can walk the streets, and history surrounds you. Because I grew up in this culture, the only sense of history I ever had was if I went to a museum and paid for my ticket. I would go in, and history was in a little box, neatly labeled. That makes it hard to get a feeling for your position in history.

McMillen: The fact that an object is in a museum represents one person’s point of view or a school of thought, whereas that’s not really what history is. It’s only one of many views.

Abeles: Right, because when people see history like that, or when they read a book, they assume that a fact is absolute. They forget that there’s poetic license, that there are editorial changes, so in a sense, it’s not real history, even though the packaging looks real.

The new Islamic Art wing at the Met (the official name, “Art of the Arab lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia” doesn’t roll easily off the tongue) is a perfect example of the problem Abeles discussed. I have no frame of reliable reference with regard to the 13 centuries of elaborate, highly developed and complex culture covered in these rooms. It IS history in a box for the likes of me. But oh what a telling. I was utterly enthralled by every room. The advice a friend gave me was well taken: You can’t do it in just one visit. Plan to make pilgrimages repeatedly.

From Peter Schjeldahl‘s review in the New Yorker:

Clash or no clash, Islamic and Western civilizations hardly harmonize. Consider that almost none of the religious, courtly, and domestic objects in the Met wing were created for exhibition. They had uses. Many—very many—are beautiful. 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. But it’s beauty with a purpose. The logic of Islamic art isn’t iconographic. It is poetic and all but musical. The Islamic wing affords adventures in difference.

What did the curators do to make every room feel so beguiling? The sensibility in the choices of artifacts and how they are assembled together feels especially aligned with contemporary Western tastes and aesthetics. A modern bent towards minimalist design and more subtle expression is evident. As a result, I have never felt so at home among objects and artifacts so far from my own Western cultural milieu.

Knowing so little but loving these objects so much, I think the best approach is to show, not tell. With no context to share other than the utter pleasure of the eye, I am like the opera goer who can’t understand a word of the lyrics but loves the music so much it doesn’t seem to matter.

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