So The Wall Street Journal has reported on a new exhibit of Islamic art at the Louvre. First, let me just say that as a unapologetic Anglophile who spent most of the last decade in Britain, I expect everyone reading this to pronounce it “loo-ver” in their head. Seriously, try it. It’s great fun.
I find it interesting that the article seems to be fascinated by the issue of the Louvre ‘inventing’ or ‘creating’ a concept of Islamic art, and the question of whether the Louvre is successful in this cause. The thing is, “Islamic art” exists. It’s a whole discipline of its own. It even has a wikipedia page. What it is, however, is probably not well to a lot of people, even people who frequent art museums in the West. Not a lot of Western museums have Islamic art collections – there are some, and there are some museums devoted to the subject (the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, although small, remains one of my favorites, mostly because it’s also my alma), but certainly you are less likely to find a collection of Islamic art in any given art museum in the West than you are to find a collection of say, American colonial art or European post-Renaissance art.
So I can see where the author is coming from – the Louvre is probably the most well-known art museum in the West, and it having a collection of Islamic art will make many more people aware of the existence of Islamic art than would have been otherwise.
But the fact is that Islamic art exists – museums in the Middle East are full of it, just like museums here are full of European and post-colonial American art – and the idea that the Louvre is doing anything but bringing in a pre-existent thing to be experienced by people who might not have experienced it otherwise is ridiculous.
Museums are complicated things, and the study of museums – and of our human love of collecting – is something that probably should be studied more. As it is, it’s a pretty specialized subject – I was introduced to it mostly because I was forced to take some anthropology as an undergraduate, a requirement I detested completely, and which I didn’t come to appreciate until years after I had studied it, when I was confronted with issues of presentation and experience in art and art history, and suddenly understood why my professor had tried to make me write a paper about the interior design at the Nike store.
The WSJ article reveals a lot of the problems with museums. When the author says that “the Louvre’s ‘Arts de Islam’ places arts from the Islamic world on a par with those from the museum’s seven other departments, including European ‘Paintings’ and ‘Sculptures,’ ‘Ancient Egypt’ and ‘Greek, Roman and Etruscan Antiquities,’” he’s trying to be positive, but he is already revealing the unbalanced way in which art is presented in museums. “Paintings” and “sculptures” are kinds of art – and are generally curated into very specific time periods, regions and artistic styles. “Ancient Egypt” is a rough regional and chronological marker that could denote any number of artistic forms and styles across a period of several centuries, and “Greek, Roman and Etruscan Antiquities” is a general term for physical objects from a specific region, but again spanning a chronological period of centuries. But by putting them all together, it implies that they are similar.
Probably the best way to study museums that I’ve ever come across is still the one given to me about the Nike store, and it goes like this: the next time you’re in a museum of human works (so not a natural history museum), walk around and consider how the various exhibits make you feel. Stand in the center of the room and look around, and think about what you could guess from the stuff around you. Is it behind glass? Is it arranged by chronological period? Region? Style? Shape? Use?
What’s amazing is how much this changes from exhibit to exhibit. Rooms of European paintings will have huge numbers on the walls denoting the twenty or thirty year period from which these paintings date, but a room of Ancient Roman art will have a century’s or more worth of material, all marked with little tiny notes.
The difference for use of objects is often even more noticeable. Objects from ancient times or non-European regions will be arranged in glass cases, with no implication of what goes with what or how any of the objects are used, whereas European objects will be arranged into dioramas, with paintings, tables, chairs, cups and plates all arranged as they would be in a home.
So what difference does it make? Well, objects arranged without usage behind glass seem more foreign than a room full of furniture and paintings. The objects behind glass feel like they belong in a museum – that they have no function or purpose beyond the purpose of being cool things to look at in a museum.
For ancient cultures, that’s fine, if a bit weird. After all, ancient Egyptians and Romans ate food, made pretty things and had interior design for all of the same reasons we do. It could give the museums another layer to consider the function and experience of these objects for their original owners, but many people find that sort of anthropological approach off-putting or childish, and also many of those objects are incredibly fragile and moving exhibits can become massively expensive and difficult operations.
But the whole thing becomes a lot more complicated when you’re talking about a concurrent culture to other ones featured in the museum. At the same time that Europeans were producing paintings and sculptures, the Muslim world was creating its own traditions of art, with its own schools and styles and periods. To give the European art full range of the museum, but compress the Islamic art into a single collection makes a statement about the relative significance of the art. It implies that the European art is Art, the serious stuff, and the Islamic stuff an addition or an outgrowth.
I’ve heard some of my art historian friends talk about “uniting” the art, that art museums should start creating collections without regional segregation, and I have to admit, I think it’s a pretty cool idea. For many people, museums are how they develop their concept of what Art is – we get dragged to them as children, and are made to stare at naked ladies in seashells and men in high collars, and that becomes what Art is for us.
But that image of Art has all sorts of problem. Almost all of the people you’ll see in a standard Western collection are white, and the ones who aren’t will often be depicted as slaves, servants, savages, or even demons. Especially for the Renaissance and the post-Renaissance periods, the women will be naked, and often portrayed as sexual objects, whereas the men will be clothed, and more often depicted as doing things – painting, building, reading books, fighting battles, even fighting monsters.
Including non-Western art in these collections wouldn’t correct these problems entirely, but it would certainly make a difference. Edward Said talked at length in Orientalism about the role art played in shaping the Western perception of the East – the images of the souk and the harem that circulated in the West became the only image many Westerns had to grasp onto for what the East was like, and once those images were ingrained in their minds, they had no reason to even seek out another.
One of the arguments that has always stood about museums being segregated by region is that there’s more interest in ‘local’ history, but in a multicultural world, that argument would seem, at least to me, outdated. As it happens, at least one branch of my family can trace itself back to the American Revolution, but I still don’t feel a closer historical affinity to the American colonial collections here in Boston than I did to the collections by Mexican artists in my hometown of Phoenix. If anything, I actually feel the opposite, because Mexican history and culture played a significant role in my early life, so I feel a connection to it that I don’t to Bostonian history, which seems slightly foreign (and very snowy) to me.
We aren’t just European anymore – and for that matter, neither is Europe. The effects of multiculturalism are very visible, and to some, terrifying. But art collections could actually help to alleviate that fear – rather than cornering off the Islamic art in one wing, it could integrate it into the larger collection, show how everything to architecture to literature to styles of dress were impacted by interactions between East and West, from Andalusia to Venice to Turkey, and how even our idea of Western art and Eastern art are really just artificial distinctions, and that the reality is just as muddled and mixed as our world is today.
 For the record, I didn’t do that – I wrote my final paper about the Chicago Field Museum, but the Nike store was one of the options.
 In my experience, this implication is often worsened by exhibits that attempt to familiarize the non-European art by comparing its style to European art – it makes it seem like all Art comes from Europe, and then spreads everywhere else.