The Art of Nameless Violence

Faisal Devji in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

PhpThumb_generated_thumbnail (1)Since 9/11, major museums and galleries in North America and Europe have embarked upon an extraordinary buying spree of works by Muslim artists — or, in more secular parlance, artists from the Muslim world. And yet unlike the case of Islamic art, which almost invariably refers to pre-modern objects limning an apparently global civilization, these works are rarely, if ever, described as “Islamic,” and their makers just as infrequently called “Muslims.” This has to do not with the presence or absence of any “religious” markers in these productions, for such “secular” pieces can also be found in what is called “Islamic art,” but indicates perhaps a certain sense of discomfort with the category itself.

“Islamic art” refers to the material culture of rich and powerful states in the past, and is meant to reveal the sophistication of a stable and settled civilization. Even its late products, contemporaneous with the rise of European empires, can be seen as the final survivals of an earlier splendor. New art from the Muslim world, however, or at least that which enters the global market, tends to represent poverty and oppression, if not war, destruction, and chaos. And since it would be indelicate to refer to these works as “Islamic” or even “Muslim,” they must be differentiated in national terms in a gesture that accomplishes the exact opposite of what Islamic art does.

Precisely because such works of contemporary art are clearly about jihad movements, counter-terrorism, and the like, and are appreciated for this reason, they must never be named for what they are. Islamic art must remain the realm of historical glory, while contemporary works should speak to violence as a national phenomenon that cannot be given the name of Islam. In both cases, the aim of collectors and institutions may be the same — to extol an alternative history of Islam by dissociating it from contemporary violence. And this depends upon bringing together different regions under the banner of Islamic art, while dividing them into national units when dealing with modern politics.

More here.