1. “Arts of Islam”:
Today, this expression has taken on a legitimacy that critics
who contest its claim to cover the products of cultural areas
extending from Andalusia to Indonesia and from Central Asia to
Mali challenge only at the margin. The distinction between Islam
and islam allows one to insist upon surmounting the religious
standpoint as a way of designating artefacts whose aesthetic unity
had gradually been identified during the course of the second
half of the nineteenth century through the Western gaze and as
a function of the West’s own needs. The expression “Mohammedan”
Art, despite criticisms of its overly religious connotations (which
would later make it give way to the term “Islamic”
Art, while the content remained almost identical), was aimed above
all at foregrounding its purely aesthetic aspects, but it later
came to substitute itself for generic characterizations, such
as “Oriental” Art, historicist ones, like that of
“Saracen” Art (with its medieval connotations), or,
especially, ethnoracial ones, like those of “Arab”
Art, “Moorish” Art, “Persian” Art, and
2. Purely aesthetic? Certainly less so than its
principal zealous advocates had dreamt. Such an outlook was able
to flourish in Europe, during the final decades of the nineteenth
century, first of all on account of an unprecedented disintegration
of “Moslem” societies, from Morocco to India, which
were staggering beneath the blows dealt by the colonial or paracolonial
expansion of the Western industrial powers. From this standpoint,
taste for the arts of Islam constitutes one of the many strata
of a discourse whose political mainsprings Edward Said analyzed
under the generic term of Orientalism. The extraordinary
influx of artefacts from those other shores, which drew their
aura in part from their status as fragments, greatly facilitated
the development of “purely” aesthetic interpretations
about the language of “Mohammedan” ornamentation.
Such interpretations were controlled by Western connoisseurs who,
most often, did not worry about linking their views in a deep
way to any linguistic or historical forms of knowledge. A majority
of these connoisseurs shared the prevailing convictions of their
time--notably, the idea that, as a whole, the cultures of Islam
belonged to the past, preferably a medieval one, and that the
present-day weakness of those cultures doomed them to accelerated
decadence and, eventually, annihilation. As for the connection
between aesthetics and political-economic power, it was ever apparent,
whether it was a matter of providing Western factories with models
for designing products suitable for export to the “Orient,”
of stimulating native industries when the countries in question
had been transformed into colonies, or, more generally, of entering
into the “mind” of these societies, the better to
control them in the competition with other colonial powers.
3. It is nonetheless inappropriate to deduce
from this that taste for the arts of Islam did not have any meaning
of its own. The network of private connoisseurs who promoted such
a taste readily prided themselves on its uniqueness in relation
to the various manifestations of Orientalism. Not only were they
hardly concerned at all with “Orientalist” science,
but above all, on the aesthetic level, the task they set for themselves
was to restore to this kind of art its truth, as against the insipid,
misguided ways of those whom Viollet-le-Duc, in 1874, called the
“partisans of fantasy in everything.” It was a matter
of “shattering the[ir] dear idol” by revealing the
male rationality behind Islam’s decorative language as against
its supposedly enchanting feminine display, underscoring thereby
its abstract rigor rather than its unbridled sensuality. Institutionally,
this movement was taken over by decorative arts museums--young
institutions that, flourishing in the 1860s in the wake of the
South Kensington Museum of London, had to find an identity of
their own in relation to fine arts museums and ethnographic museums.
Oriental arts in general and the arts of Islam in particular constituted
one of the most effective vehicles for such identity construction:
it was within the walls of decorative arts museums, first and
foremost, that this field was constituted and that, beyond their
documentary status, these artefacts conquered an artistic autonomy
which could then be offered to Western designers as a model.
4. If there was indeed one aspect through which
this movement was able to distinguish itself from the discourse
of Orientalism, it was the near-obsessive desire that Islam be
reinstituted as an active subject, a master of rational formalist
rigor, the very one who, in contrast to the Far East, seemed to
have taught the West the marvels of expansive ornamental form
as early as the medieval period. And even more than that, for,
quite often, the formal features, approached with solemnity, ended
up nurturing reflections of a moral-aesthetic character about
how those features were to be articulated in tandem with social
life. For these three reasons--confinement of Islam within a generic
reference to the Orient, sensitivity to connections between art
and civilization, and, finally and above all, establishment of
Islamic form as a subject in its own right, one to be imitated
and not treated as an object to be controlled--one can talk about
an Islamophilia based on emotional intuition more than
on scientific knowledge and yet distinct from the reveries of
Orientalism. Islamophilia demonstrated an active passion for the
promotion of a decorative message that, though totally transformed
by our desires and totally held within the grip of our needs,
was associated, by a network of connoisseurs, theoreticians, and
practitioners of the decorative arts, with the vast hope for an
“Oriental” renaissance of their own society.
5. Still, it must be noted that the intention
of this impulse with utopian overtones was to go beyond historically-based--or,
a fortiori, ethnoracial--forms of cultural particularism in favor
of a kind of universalism whose primary impact was an eclipse
of religious interpretations. These Islamophiles--at least those
in France, who were organized in circles gravitating around the
Central Union of Decorative Arts and its museum--often were marked
by secular, republican leanings, on the faith of which they promoted
a lay reading of Islamic ornamentation, itself deemed admirable
to the extent that it could be detached from its native culture.
Whence the relatively weak impact of racialist clichés,
which were certainly repeated on every possible occasion, but
rarely in order to establish interpretive mechanisms. As for the
historical dimension, it was championed above all as a way of
counterbalancing the touching precariousness of artefacts that
were worn down by use and that, in addition, were destined to
disappear at an accelerated rate owing to modernization. This
situation but sharpened the contradiction between a desire for
history and, this desire notwithstanding, a rejection thereof
with regard to a corpus whose grandeur was, in the eyes of its
defenders, based on the ahistorical character of its formal grammar.
Only this ultimate disenchantment would have allowed the aesthetic
lesson of Islam to liberate the West in turn from the dizzying
burden of memory and to bring it back to life in the present by
dispelling the specter of those imitations in which, it was thought,
nineteenth-century eclecticism had enduringly become lost.
6. At bottom, Islamophile taste and the collections
reflecting that taste, which were designed to act on the Western
decorative consciousness and to sway it, were indeed linked to
a specter. We are speaking here not only of the specter of a West
condemned to mere copying, unable to live freely in the present,
and held down by the increasing weight of various and, what’s
more, innumerable pasts, but also, at a more basic level, of the
specter of a degeneration of our Being-in-the-world, one measured
paradoxically by the yardstick of our power to destroy other cultures.
On all sides--that is to say, beyond the circle of the “antimoderns,”
to borrow an expression whose dualism is in this instance inoperative--what
people worried about was the increasing “ugliness”
being spread by the West like leprosy beyond its own shores, itself
a symptom of a “degrad[ation of] our moral intellect,”
as Richard Redgrave wrote in London in 1876. What seemed to be
fermenting within this mass of technoindustrial products was a
tendency to forget the basic task of artistic work: transforming
a finite material practice into an infinite life-experience.
7. In other words, the appropriative drive of
the modern West, which was particularly evident and violent with
regard to the arts of Islam, stemmed from a divided collective
consciousness, both sides of which were nourished by feelings
of superiority and inferiority, power and collapse, melancholy
and revolutionary activism, acceptance of the colonial situation
and cultural-political self-criticism. The contradiction grew
between the global power of the West, spreading out over the world,
and a sense of weakness, which can be likened to what Rémi
Brague has called European “secondariness”: cultural
identity based on the endless quest for origins both prior and
external to itself and condemned thereby to constant self-questioning.
Indeed, never was this contradiction sharper than in the late
nineteenth century. One is entitled to think that this structural
inferiority, this dizzying sense of weakness lodged at the heart
of a superpower, fed one and the same movement. That movement
occurred under the impact of an accentuation of tensions, acts
of depredation of unprecedented breadth, produced by a sort of
melancholic hubris and a critical disquietude (of equally unprecedented
intensity) with regard to this spreading destruction. And that
destruction involved the dismantlement of entire societies and
the pulverization of aesthetic and cultural systems within the
curio cabinets of museums and collectors. Within this conflict,
a panic-induced desire took shape that let itself transformed
by a decorative message drawing its instaurating aura from the
perception of its otherness; at the same time, another desire
was born, a desire to convert such alterity into a universal,
as if in order to redeem the feverish feeling--which was all the
more feverish as it appeared paradoxical--of our historical precariousness.
8. Nothing very different happens today when,
to use Edward Said’s expression, “the almost decorative
weightlessness of history” in the age of postmodern consumerism
becomes intertwined with a critical consciousness that is more
highly developed than ever. On one point, however, the Islamophilic
combat of the nineteenth century does belong to the past: that
of a reinvention of European consciousness, located at the junction
of social life and inner life, through the achievement of a new
balance in decorative form--a utopian horizon whose decline today
has turned the arts of Islam over either to the still quite vigorous
projections of Orientalist fantasies or to the fine-tuned exercise
of scholarly knowledge within the closed circle of museums: in
France, the Louvre or the Quai Branly Museum, though no longer
the Museum of Decorative Arts.
Brague, Rémi. Europe, la voie romaine.
Paris: Gallimard Folio, 1999. Original ed., 1992.
Discovering Islamic Art: Scholars, Collectors and Collections
1850-1950. Ed. Stephen Vernoit. London and New York: I. B.
Irwin, Robert. For Lust of Knowing. The Orientalists
and their Enemies. London: Allen Lane, 2006.
Jones, Owen. The Grammar of Ornament.
Illustrated by examples from various styles of ornament. One hundred
folio plates, drawn on stone by F. Bedford and printed in colours
by Day and Son. London: Day and Son, 1856.
Oulebsir, Nabila. Les Usages du patrimoine.
Monuments, musées et politique coloniale en Algérie
(1830-1930). Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences
de l’homme, 2004.
Parvillée, Léon. Architecture
et décoration turques au XVe siècle. Preface.
Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. Paris: Vve A. Morel et
Peltre, Christine. Les Arts de l’Islam.
Itinéraire d’une redécouverte. Paris:
Découvertes Gallimard, 2006.
Purs Décors? Arts de l’Islam, regards du XIXe
siècle. Ed. Rémi Labrusse. Paris: Les Arts
Décoratifs and the Musée du Louvre, 2007.
Quinet, Edgar. Oeuvres complètes.
Vol.1. Le Génie des religions. Paris: Pagnerre,
1857. Original ed., 1841. (Reprint of chapter 2 of Book 2: Edgar
Quinet, De la Renaissance orientale. Paris: L’Archange
Redgrave, Richard. Manual of Design.
Compiled from The Writings and Addresses of Richard Redgrave,
R. A., Surveyor of Her Majesty’s Pictures, Late Inspector-General
for Art, Science and Art Department, by Gilbert R. Redgrave. London:
Chapman and Hall for the Committee of Council on Education, 1876.
Riegl, Alois. Questions de style. Paris:
Hazan, 1992. Original ed., 1893.
Roxburgh, David J. “Au Bonheur des Amateurs:
Collecting and Exhibiting Islamic Art, ca. 1880-1910.” Ars
Orientalis. Exhibiting the Middle East. Collections and Perceptions
of Islamic Art, 30 (2000): 9-38.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.
Schwab, Raymond. La Renaissance orientale.
Preface. Louis Renou. Paris: Payot, 1950.
Surface tile with letter fragment, rosette, and saz leaf,
Turkey, “Iznik,” c. 1575, engobed ceramic, glazed
painted decoration, height: approx. 20cm; length: approx.
24 cm, Paris, Museum of Decorative Arts (holdings of the
Department of the Arts of Islam of the Louvre Museum), purchased
from Alexis Sorlin-Dorigny, February 14, 1890.
Eugène Grasset, poster for the À la Place
de Clichy department store, Paris, 1895 (Paris, Decorative
Arts Library, Maciet album, 293-7).
The “oriental” salon of Albert Goupil, 9 rue
Chaptal in Paris, prior to 1888 (Catalogue des objets
d’art de l’Orient et de l’Occident, tableaux,
dessins composant la collection de feu M. Albert Goupil
[Paris: Drouot, Mes Escribe et Paul Chevalier], Charles
Mannheim exhibition at the Imprimerie de l’art, April
Arts of Islam room at the Museum of Decorative Arts, Paris,
Louvre Palace, Marsan Wing, posterior to 1908 (Paris,
Decorative Arts Library, Maciet album, 81-14-1).
Main hall of the Exhibition of Mohammedan Art in the new
Algiers madrasa (M. Petit architect), April 1905.
Albert Racinet, “Persan. Faïences émaillées
et vernissées. La famille bleue, verte et blanche”
[sic, for a set of Ottoman ceramics], in L’Ornement
polychrome. Deuxième série. Cent vingt planches
en couleur, or et argent. Art ancien et asiatique, Moyen-Âge,
Renaissance, XVIIe, XVIIIe et XIXe siècles. Recueil
historique et pratique avec des notices explicatives
(Paris: Firmin-Didot, no date [1885-1888]), plate 29.
Adalbert de Beaumont and Eugène Collinot, “Combinaison
de lignes géométriques à l’aide
desquelles il est facile d’obtenir des dessins complets,
se modifiant à l’infini, en variant les couleurs,”
in Encyclopédie des arts décoratifs de
l’Orient. Ornements de la Perse (Paris, 1880),