• Follow us on
  • twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Google Plus

Bridging The Divide Between The United States And The Muslim World Through Arts And Ideas: Possibilities And Limitations

Appendix IV: Background Paper
Cultural Awareness In A Time Of Crisis


The history of art cannot be separated from the history of patronage of the arts. However, patronage must be seen as involving ordinary consumers with a taste for beauty and not just rulers and august cultural institutions. It must also be recognized that some creative efforts have more to do with individual expression, whether spiritual or worldly, than with any market, though this sort of individuality is less marked in pre–modern times than over the past two centuries. Historians sometimes sort out different creative contexts by distinguishing between “fine arts” and “minor arts” or “crafts,” between “secular” and “sacred” objectives, and between personal expression and market–oriented production. Unfortunately, from the perspective of Euro–American exposure to the artistic cultures of the Muslim world, these distinctions are not particularly helpful. An Anatolian silk rug or an Iranian ceramic bowl originally produced for sale to ordinary homeowners may end up in an exhibit, hundreds of years later, in a major European or American museum, or sell at auction in London for much more money than an oil painting by an early twentieth century Turkish artist striving for individual expression. Similarly, an amulet or talisman in a finely tooled silver case, originally created to ward off evil, may be used today as expensive jewelry in New York or Paris. This can also apply to performance arts. A Sufi dance that originated as a religious ritual, and that still conveys spiritual meaning to those who participate in it, may become simply a cultural exhibit when performed on a European or American stage. In short, the world of patronage that surrounds a cultural artifact or performance at the time of its creation may differ considerably from the world of patronage that transfers that artifact or performance from its native land to a Western audience.

Yet despite the fact that the ways in which Westerners have become familiar with Islamic art throughout the centuries do not directly reflect the creative or commercial environments in which the art was produced, nevertheless, over the past century, the forms of creative output and the practical aspects of creative life in the Muslim world have tended to converge with the realities of trans–cultural marketing and exposure. At the most mundane level, this is seen in the transformation of artisans in such crafts as pottery, leatherwork, and metalwork from producers for a local consumer market to producers for a tourist or export market, as mentioned above. In a different vein, this convergence can be seen in the adoption and adaptation of Western literary forms, artistic styles, and modes of expression, e.g., novels or motion pictures, by creative individuals who are acutely aware of the different impact their work may have on international as opposed to national or regional audiences. Changes in the lives and working conditions of Muslim artists cannot be ignored when considering how their work has been received in the West, both long ago and today.

Envisioning the lifestyles and creative environments of Muslim artists at different periods can be a useful exercise insofar as the work produced by these artists, as received or encountered by Europeans and Americans, has shaped and continues to shape the West’s shifting image of the Islamic world as an arena of cultural expression. There are five basic periods that illustrate the changes in creative lifestyles that took place historically: 1) the ninth century, when the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad still represented a unified Islamic empire; 2) the fourteenth century, in which the Islamic world settled into a more stable social and economic pattern following the wrenching dislocations brought about by the Mongol invasions of Genghis Khan and his grandson Hulagu (which in turn came on the heels of decades of economic disarray, Turkish invasion, and Crusader warfare); 3) the late eighteenth century when most Muslims came under the political and economic control of European imperialists but had still not felt the impact of the Industrial Revolution; 4) the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, when the phenomenon of industrialization in Europe and America was having its strongest economic and political impact; and 5) the contemporary world of the twenty–first century.

(24 of 42) Next >>

Back to the top.

Give Now

Make a tax-deductible donation to the NYU Center for Dialogues


© 2014, The Center for Dialogues: Islamic World - U.S. - The West

Site by Bianchi