First thoughts of the Fitzwilliam Museum are probably either of a grand neo-classical structure, the sort which exemplifies late Victorian museum-building such as the British Museum, or else some array of French impressionist paintings, or light Georgian pastoral scenes, or, for the more eccentric, maybe medieval Christian iconography. The layout of the museum seems to reinforce this and one could almost miss the mosque lamp which is tucked against one of the pillars of an open, marble staircase. The lamp itself is transparent apart from the paint marks which form Arabic characters along the lamp in rotational patterns.
There is something disconcerting to the Western mindset about non-representational painting. We are prone to think of all art as representation, showing us what is real in a different way. This has allowed for our profoundest expressions of the way in which art can transform our lives (think of the representational drama in Caravaggio or Rembrandt), to make us see the same reality anew; it has also become a weapon for the enemies of art who deride it as a poor impression, escapism, pure romanticism – if only people stopped dreaming and actually looked at changing the world before them. Who needs drawings when we can get on with the serious business of making medicines which will cure millions, economic policies which will lift billions out of poverty, and industrial techniques which can transform production. As Adorno and Horkheimer put it, this is the mentality that ‘the businessman and the manufacturer are more important to our country than the artist or writer’.
Non-representational art creates a sense of nausea in the minds of many, it ruptures the dichotomy of ‘reality’ and ‘imagination’. We see here a form of art which, by moving away from representation, emphasises something more essential about art itself. It is well-known that Fascists in the 1930s derided abstract arts, and associated movements such as surrealism, as not ‘real art’ precisely because of their subversive potential but also ambiguous identity.
They somehow escape our grasp, just as we think we have understood what is going on with art. Of course, this also happens as we look at a beautiful painting of Constable; we must, in a sense, throw ourselves into the uncertainty which marks most worthwhile pursuits in life, and yet it is far easier to pretend with much representational art that this is not the case. We pretend that we know fully what is before us, that we can grasp it all at once, and make nice, safe little assumptions about it. What we are so prone to do, and what we aim to do, which is to continually pinpoint precisely what is going on is thrown around by non-representational art (and as it ought by all art itself). In accepting the limitations of our own perspective, and recognising it as merely a perspective, at first we experience total disorientation but, with time, we come to see the liberating impact this can have on us. In accepting the value of non-representational art due to its lack of representation, the closer we come to accepting art itself for what it truly is and can approach the whole of life with a more artistic mindset. This is not to throw our whole lives into doubt, or to be stuck in some endless cycle of uncertainty and inability to make any form of judgements, but it is to caution us, to make us take care before we do so. We can cherish the objective, but – as with all the things we value – we must take a step back, consider, and consistently evaluate and reflect ourselves to attempt to approach it. It is also not to denigrate representational art and all the power which it too can have for us, but it can serve as a cathartic way to reevaluate and understand what it is that we find in art, what exactly art aims to do (apart from the aesthetic pleasure which an artwork qua object can produce, something worthwhile in itself).
Encounters between the West and Islamic Art are fascinating and have for a long time not been appreciated because of the clash of paradigms which seem inevitable when we think about it – this is best place to introduce critical reading and this notion of ‘Islamic art’ and the way it has been treated by Western scholarship. Finnbarr Barry Flood in his ‘From the Prophet to postmodernism?’ observes this tension nicely, noting how ‘unlike surveys of European art, which proceed in linear (and more or less teleological) fashion from cave painting to minimalism and beyond, in surveys of Islamic art it is axiomatic that the advent of modernity heralds the end of art. Marking a tension between aesthetic, ethnographic, and historical value that has inflected the disciplinary study of Islamic art since its inception, this privileging of the pre – or early modern is something more than a reflection of the fact that historically, most Islamicists have been trained as medievalists. It is directly related to the rise of European colonialism and the new “global” patterns of circulation and consumption that it has engendered’. With Flood, we have come back full circle; we have seen how the same tensions arise as to how to conceive of not just non-representational art, but also art of a different religion with its own paradigm and conventions which have been not just mis-appreciated, but totally thrown aside. In Islamic art there is constantly this threat of a double Othering, the Othering of non-representational art as well as the Othering of the art of a different religion. And that threat is further seen through the way in which ‘circulation and consumption’ further threatens to prioritise the useful and the familiar, marginalising what is not clearly of use in the increasingly globalised world we are inhabiting – and this does not consign one to some sort of anti-globalism either. On the contrary, it is to try and find a way of being truly global, rather than seeking to uncritically map our own parochial ways of thinking onto the world outside us.
But the mosque lamp has its own illumination which draws me back to it, in all its fascination – even now as it lives in a museum behind a glass box divorced from its original purpose. The mosque lamp is inscribed, as are many, with a comparison of Allah with light, taken from the Qu’ran:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp,
The lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star,
Lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree,
Neither of the east nor of the west,
Whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire.
Light upon light.
Allah guides to His light whom He wills.
And Allah presents examples for the people,
and Allah is Knowing of all things. (Qur’an 24:35)
Is this not the movement of faith which has inspired billions? Dante speaks of the love which moves the sun and the stars, and here too we find the way in which a created vessel (in this case an artistic object but also a functional lamp) has become a vehicle for making known the most powerful metaphysical truths. It has made visible what is invisible, it has made material what is immaterial; in short, it has been able to strike at the deepest truths through its lack of representation.