Islamic World of Art is an inspiring yet tricky name for a magazine. It brings up many questions: what is the Islamic world? What is Islamic Art?
In order to set a coherent and consistent narrative of Islamic art, we had to spend many hours thinking about a definition of Islamic art, which should not be elusive or too generalised, but on the other hand, not too detailed and strict.
Unity in Diversity – in time and space
One of the most common paradigms used when speaking, or in this case writing, on Islamic art is ‘Unity in Diversity’. Everyone who is even somewhat acquainted with Islamic art well understands what it means: the art produced under Islam, whether it belongs to North Africa or Iran, is internally consistent, based on the same aesthetics and principles, providing outputs that are comparable. According to this paradigm, Islamic art took upon peculiar characteristics when developed in different contexts, yet based on the same core values; it seems to form a big and uniform mass, which bears a common name, ‘Islamic art’. In a sense, ‘Islamic art’ is a label that can be given to a great variety of artistic output dating to different eras, coming from different places, but all related to the Arab-Islamic word.
As Marina Alin, in a recent article put it:
Every geographical area within the Islamic lands in every given period of time shows its own recognizable style but all of them stay within a tradition called Islamic art, representing the main principle of the Universe – “Unity in diversity”.
Things get more difficult to define when it comes to far-away places, and here I refer for instance to Indonesia, where the art produced under Muslim rule relies on local traditions and does not look Islamic in a sense.
Richard Ettinghausen recognises the varieties within Islamic art:
The unique character of Muslim art is a commonly known fact, which is experienced even by people who know hardly anything about this civilization … Yet, in spite of the apparent uniform character of Islamic art, everybody who becomes familiar with its various aspects realizes more and more the tremendous variety in the different regions and even in the changing periods within a single territory … What is actually more intriguing, yet more difficult to establish than this general state of diversity, are the various factors which, through interaction and integration, constantly helped to reinforce the strongly felt universal aspect of Muslim art.
Ettinghausen’s point is enlightening, in a way: he differentiates between those who ‘know hardly anything about [Islamic] civilization’ and those who are ‘familiar’.
When designing an open-access magazine about Islamic art, this is something to keep in mind: the difference between scholars and laypeople and their understanding on the subject is crucial.
A non-generalised narrative of Islamic art
Islamic art is something people in general are fascinated with: they can be professionals, researchers, students, amateurs, or simply curious.
Professionals in Islamic art are well aware of the different currents and developments of the art, although amateurs are only rarely really conscious of the differences and variety, which is a pity. There is a deep gap between laypeople and scholars on the subject of Islamic art, which can be overcome easily.
The history of Islamic art should start to be presented and in a way re-thought, including those periods which are not always included, such as Indonesian art, and new perspectives and insights should be provided, relying on the specific context and not the general group. The aim is to provide a narrative rooted in the context, with interest not only in the aesthetic value but on the historical background. Art for art’s sake is a paradigm commonly used for Islamic art, placing it in an ephemeral space, in which aesthetic is the core value. Art was used: beautiful to see, it could have propagandistic aims, religious motivations, and material connotations.Setting Islamic art in context will not simply provide a deeper understanding of it, but it will also give people the chance to appreciate it for what it was: the visible output of its time.