Prepared by Majd Musa and Mohammad al-Asad
The Social Sciences
The sixth direction Grabar mentioned concerning the study of Islamic art is the "social sciences." Grabar considers this direction the most "curious" and the most "prized" direction. He mentioned that to him, and at least to people of his age, one of the great creations of the mid-twentieth century was the codification of major approaches and principles of the social sciences in anthropology, sociology, economics, etc. This codification aimed, and still aims, at creating a framework within which one can understand and explain human behavior and human creativity. For Grabar, the social sciences are the same as the DOS (Disc Operating System) was to computers when they first appeared. Computers would not work unless the DOS was installed in them; and social sciences created a DOS through which we understand and feel so many phenomena.
Grabar added that he spent many years of his life thinking about the relation of the social sciences to art, and that he wrote many pages of unpublished writings about issues such as how to carry out an "anthropology of art" or a "structuralism of art." Grabar wonders whether it is worth pursuing such attempts to understand art. In this context, he gave some examples of how the social sciences affected, and may affect, the study of art. For example, one can explain the whole history of art through a "structuralist theory" of anthropology, according to which artifacts are perceived as being derived from underlying systems of laws, which makes it possible to reproduce new artifacts similar to already existing ones that still would be considered authentic. One of the main principles of structuralist theory is the emphasis on the meaning of a certain artifact rather than on its material entity, i.e. artifacts are treated as signs. According to this theory, a sign has no meaning by itself, but derives its meaning through its participation in a system of relations. Therefore, structuralists look for relational patterns between artifacts, such as parallelism, opposition, inversion, etc. The most important pattern of relationships for structuralists is binary opposition.
In addition, through sociology, and also Marxism in part, art has become a "product," in which many material aspects are involved. Expressing admiration for a piece of art by saying "how beautiful it is!" or "how gorgeous it is!" no longer is the only way of seeing art. Art has become a product that costs X amount of money to be paid for the materials through which it is made and for people who make it. Here, Grabar commented that the cost of things is something art historians have never worried about in earlier times.
Psychology is another field of inquiry that has a bearing on art. According to Grabar, for a long time, the artist's pleasure had been a "Victorian" term about which people did not talk. Through psychology, however, pleasure has become a subject deserving attention and study. In addition, one has the right to say that something is beautiful and something is not. Today, this can be "proved"; people can discuss together what is beautiful and what is not beautiful, and not do so simply because they like or dislike certain things. There now are different ways in which one determines what the pleasure of seeing and the pleasure of feeling are.
Linguistics is another branch of knowledge that affects the way people see and understand art. Grabar mentioned that this involves the phonetic division of structure, which is easier to accomplish with architecture than with other arts. For example, architecture may be discussed as phonemes, as with bricks and stones; as morphemes, as with a vault or a courtyard; or as sentences, as with a house or a palace. Thus, there are meaningless elements of construction, meaningful elements, and also compositions. For years, Grabar had thought this to be of use, but he has given up on it. Grabar added that languages carry out this division all the time, and there are techniques of carrying it out. This is clear in the difference between poetry and prose. He, however, feels uncertain as to whether we can employ such techniques in art and architecture.
Grabar added that a more recent science that may affect the study of art is gender studies, which have been extraordinarily important in identifying approaches to use and taste. This partly is about asking how a work of art was used: Was it used by men or by women? Is there a difference between how a building or a work of art was used by men and women? Grabar commented that gender studies have revolutionized our sense of how buildings and objects operate.
According to Grabar, the social sciences have provided us with a possibility for developing a vocabulary of thinking about the arts, be they Islamic arts or other arts. The point here is to know whether it is important that these theories and approaches be used for the study of Islamic art. Perhaps they illustrate something that was not seen otherwise. Perhaps works and tendencies of Islamic art demonstrate the validity and usefulness of such approaches. However, it also is possible that such theories and approaches are not important for the purpose of the study of Islamic art. Maybe the incorporation of some of these theories into the study of Islamic art makes no sense, and is done simply to "join the crowd." Maybe carrying out a gender study on mosques, for instance, is of no use. However, Grabar believes these are the kind of issues that should be raised and investigated.