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Islam Without Politics

There is good news at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum’s “Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands,” which have only been open for a few days, look as if they have been there forever. The ambience is warm and subdued, with frequently medium-sized rooms designed to underline the meticulous opulence of objects created to serve the needs of what were in many respects a succession of courtly cultures. There is no hype, no hyperbole. Museumgoers are urged to move in close, to take it all in. By comparison, the Metropolitan’s earlier installation of some of the same material, which closed in 2003, was a little too cool and corporate in feeling. What has been preserved is the brilliant device of seating arranged so museumgoers can relax and take a long look at miniature paintings that are among the sublimities of Islamic art. I will hazard only one generalization about an installation that covers some twelve centuries and ranges from Spain to South Asia. Islamic art releases us from the distancing devices of Western perspective. Everything feels close at hand. The planar power of such an achievement, while often admired for its abstract elegance, also suggests a magnification of our experience of the world. Working with ink, opaque watercolor, and touches of gold, the artists in sixteenth-century Iran reimagined all of creation as one tight-knit pattern, with plants, animals, buildings, men, women, and entire narratives given a preternatural immediacy.

I would not discount the courage the Metropolitan has demonstrated in refusing, and refusing unequivocally, to play to the hot button issues that some may want to see reflected in the works on display. Visitors will be disappointed if they come looking for insight into the Arab Spring or Islamic fundamentalism. Considering that there are masterworks here that were produced more than a thousand years ago, I doubt that much of it has anything to tell us about the troubles roiling the world today. Of course politics was inevitably going to play a role as the greatest museum in the United States reopened these galleries almost exactly a decade after 9/11. A catalogue published to accompany the reopening is entitledMasterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art, while the galleries themselves have the ungainly name “Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.” I have heard it suggested that the absence of the word Islam from the title of the galleries amounts to obfuscation. My feeling is that the people in charge at the Metropolitan should be applauded for insisting that this immensely complicated history can afford a name that is something of a mouthful. The galleries embrace some great periods in what must be called cosmopolitan culture. And New Yorkers, who pride themselves on their own cosmopolitanism, ought to applaud this complexity.

It has been said that the art you will find in the Art of the Arab Lands is alien, at least to anybody who has grown up in the West. But all great art is simultaneously familiar and alien, self-evident and nearly impenetrable. I am not so sure that a Spanish carpet or a Persian polychrome tile prayer niche is any more or less difficult to comprehend than a painting by Rembrandt or a Meissen porcelain figurine. A hundred years after Matisse, Bonnard, Kandinsky, and Klee first discovered the pictorial power of Islamic art, Persian miniatures may in fact make a more urgent and direct appeal to some museumgoers than the canvases of Rembrandt and Chardin, with their somber chiaroscuro. Roger Fry, reviewing the exhibition of Islamic art in Berlin in 1910 that had such a profound impact on Matisse, spoke of “an art in which the smallest piece of pattern-making shows a tense vitality even in its most purely geometrical manifestations, and the figure is used with a new dramatic expressiveness.” We are still fascinated by the particular kinds of dramatic truth that Islamic art has to offer. All art turns reality into a fiction that is a form of abstraction, whether that fiction is grounded in Rembrandt’s shadowy earth tones or a sixteenth-century Iranian painter’s unequivocal yellows, purples, and golds. So go to the Art of the Arab Lands and let your mind wander. This eloquent new installation has a very old soul.

Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.