Prepared by Majd Musa and Mohammad al-Asad
An audience member, who has been teaching history of Islamic art and architecture for over twenty years, raised the issue of the uses of teaching art history. He mentioned there are nationalistic reasons for the teaching of this subject, in the sense that learning one's own history makes one proud of his or her heritage. In addition, studying art history serves to help one understand that heritage. He mentioned that there also are economic reasons for the study of art history in that historical works of art and architecture often have a very high material value, and can generate considerable economic movement through activities such as tourism. This audience member added, however, that he would rather use art to question heritage and to facilitate the process of the transformation of the Islamic heritage. He moved on to ask Grabar as to what degree the work of historians of Islamic art resonates with contemporary audiences, and what effects it may have on them.
Grabar responded that, unfortunately, he does not have an answer to this question, although having such an answer would definitely affect many issues relating to the study of Islamic art history, particularly access to grants and fellowships. He mentioned that he did not discuss in this presentation the nationalistic dimensions of the study of art history, and he would be dealing with it in a meeting that will take place in Paris a month or so after this presentation. Grabar believes that the politics of art are very interesting in the Muslim world. In very recent years, countries and governments have discovered that art has a value. They therefore started creating exhibitions, which usually are of an archaeological nature, and intended to display the history of a certain nation and its unprecedented inventions and discoveries. He added that the success of contemporary artistic production in the Islamic world would be when the Museum of Modern Art in New York arranges an exhibition on the arts of the Muslim world or the Arab world. Grabar mentioned that he suggested the establishment of such exhibitions in Kuwait several years ago since he saw some wonderful paintings there. Unfortunately, the Kuwaiti authorities did not respond positively to the suggestion.
Another audience member raised the hypothetical issue of how the social sciences may affect the study of Islamic art. He asked whether Grabar would have looked at Islamic art and architecture from a completely different perspective than what he has so far if the advances in the social sciences that took place during the second half of the twentieth century had taken place at the beginning of the twentieth century. The audience member also inquired as to how the developments in the social sciences have affected Grabar's view of Orientalism and his stance on the critique of Orientalism made by Edward Said.
Grabar replied that he could argue that he ultimately has been disappointed by the social sciences, which have failed to bring him what he expected them to bring. The social sciences are useful for understanding the production of art, as with the economics of art or the social uses of production, but not for aesthetic judgment or taste. However, Grabar added that this may change. On a related note, he mentioned that he believes the application of structuralist theories to the study of art has failed. Grabar himself has tried to provide a structural analysis of works of art, but does not believe it has worked. He mentioned, however, that it is possible that the experiment simply was not carried out correctly. Linguistics is another science that Grabar referred to in this context. According to him, linguistics also has failed as a discipline to be of value to the study of art. Grabar mentioned that one cannot explain a work of art or architecture through a system of morphemic or phonemic structures. (6)
Grabar added that he found the theory of "pleasure" absolutely fascinating. According to him, this is an area where there is a deep study by social scientists regarding what pleasure is, and how one makes judgments regarding pleasure. Grabar mentioned that we make judgments relating to taste all the time, as when we pick our clothes, for instance. What art historians mostly miss is specific "helping devices" regarding why we make such judgments, and how we make the decision as to whether such judgments are true or false. Grabar mentioned that the social sciences have analyzed certain things, such as food, with considerable detail, and that there are books and manuals that discuss and analyze food. However, there is nothing on judgments that we carry out more frequently. Grabar added that he is tired of looking at works of art, and wonders whether this matter has something to do with age, in the sense that if he was younger he could spend more energy trying to see many more things.
Commenting on the question of how his understanding of Edward Said's critique of Orientalism is related to developments in the social sciences, Grabar pointed out that what makes this matter difficult for him is that he knew Edward Said fairly well, and he thinks that factors other than intellectual study were involved in Said's "brilliant gesture of anger." According to Grabar, it was a passionate gesture, and a scholar always should be aware of passion. Grabar believes that although one can be passionate as a scholar and can deal with passion in scholarship, one cannot always be passionate in deciding why he or she studies a certain subject.
Another audience member asked Grabar to elaborate on Mohammad Arkoun's view of not writing the world "Islamic" with a capital "i". Here Grabar replied that it is a problem in a way that is difficult for a non-Muslim to talk about. Arkoun wanted to present Islam as a philosophical religion that one may discuss philosophically with philosophers of religion without the need to believe in it. In this sense, the word Islam would be written with a small "i". Grabar added that he agrees with Arkoun's point of view in this regard, and believes it is a valid construct, but it has not worked because once a term has been written with a capital "I", it cannot be "demoted."