Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Credulity at Arm's Length - The Met and Islamic Art

Long overdue, of course. Over winter break I spent some time in New York, where I have friends, family, and a 1-year-old niece that supersedes either category. New York is also home to the new exhibit of the Metropolitan Museum. I know it's an exhibit of Islamic art, you know it's an exhibit of Islamic art. But there, it's titled "New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia." The title is indicative of the whole experience. The folks at the Met tried real hard to do something big here - they saw it as their onus to bridge West and East in some way. The metaphor I think of initially is a first date; the Met made sure their hair was just so, they were wearing the shirt that brings out their eyes, all of that. But they spent so much time thinking of how it would make the Met appear that they forgot that the purpose is to educate the audience and elucidate aspects of the exhibited culture. And there they missed on what could've been a great opportunity.

The biggest problem with the Met is that it isn't the Aga Khan. The Met doesn't have the Aga Khan Museums' resources, networks, or devotion to a single purpose, and it shows. Rather than AG's devoted galleries and lengthy contextualizations, we have square rooms and flash cards in New York. Everything is segmented and instead of seeing the breadth and depth of Islamic Art, we shuffle from room to room to stare and nod in approval.

It's difficult to get too upset about it. After all, the Met is handcuffed by their environment and their donors. There's only works from where the Met could get works: lots of Iran, a little bit of North Africa. And although there is a small room to describe the collectors, there should really be more. What were they doing in Iran? How did they get these things? What is the provenance, what are the storylines? Instead of those stories, we get...flashcards. It's de rigeur, I suppose, but it could've been much more.

There are two stars to the collection. The first is a copy of Ferdowsi's Shahname which, while impressive, lacks the dynamism of Aga Khan's version. The Aga Khan used page flip technology, had translations in English, Turkish, and Arabic, and had wall-sized screens to turn the miniatures into tangible parts of life. The Met had postcards.

The second star is more telling - the Damascus courtyard in the center of the exhibit. Unlike the rest of the works, the courtyard has context and a story: workers coming into New York to build it out of stone, the importance of a courtyard in traditional life. It had pictures, videos, and lots of context...but not a lick of historicity. And yet its the one getting most of the critical (or at least pop critical) attention.

This may all sound a bit critical of "art for arts sake" and the like, but what I'm trying to do is ask what the museum sees its purpose as. This is a question that my sister could handle far better than me, but I'll still try to answer it.

If the Met only wanted to throw some works on its walls, that's precisely what it would do - and precisely what it has done for other exhibits. Was this new exhibit on Islamic Art supposed to be something new? Something unique? If so, it likely failed. It is perhaps the most sophisticated permanent exhibit in the Met and the most credulous Islamic Art exhibit in the US. But all the same, the art is kept at arm's length. The audience is handcuffed into a system of pointing and gawking rather than interacting with the art or personalizing it. Who are these artists? Why did they feel compelled to create? Meh.

The killer is that the Met knows what they're doing. The neighboring exhibit on Indian painters was incredible. It introduced its audience to the individual painters and their styles, allowing us to see how they portrayed scenes and why those scenes were chosen. Fascinating stuff to be certain.

But the Islamic Art exhibit? If you can't get out of the US, then by all means, its worthwhile. But Toronto's just a short flight away. Check out the AK instead.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful Islamic Arts catch the attention of some high-end want to award our lives which is so contemporary in nature. Historic sign in arts has cemented the way to swallow Islamic arts and crafts which are extreme investment in lieu of the years to be as long as. Our natural attachment with our homes need the luxury issue & these wonderful unique designs of Islamic arts in Dubai are twisted by supply and excessive genre paints. This is something bake them a genre apart.