As we worry about the recent uptick in terrorism threatening the United States, it’s worth spending a moment on a connection not often discussed, between open societies and their art.
It’s often said that Islam never had a Reformation—this is meant to explain why the Islamic world still has not reached a level where substantial numbers of clerics and laypeople can have peaceful dialogues within the faith and with outsiders about important religious questions. By extension, it explains why Islam has problems with democracy and the rule of law.
But it may be just as important that Islam didn’t go through a period when its visual arts were in ferment, in the way that European visual art was in the second half of the 19th century and to the present day. In shorthand, Islam didn’t have Impressionism.
More than the modern era in art began when the jury of the annual Salon de Paris rejected Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe because of the unclothed woman in the middle of Manet’s picnic. This rapidly led to large numbers of artists and critics asking a key question, “What is art?” Marcel Duchamp answered, “this urinal”, in 1917. Around this time. Wassily Kandinsky showed the world’s first purely abstract paintings. And so on.
But these developments in art also embodied a sea change in society at the time, which I would call, following Nietzsche, perspectivism. Perspectival culture means regarding reality as lying mainly in the eye of the beholder rather than being fixed, immutable and objectively given.
What does this have to do with Islam?
Well, consider the Nazis’ famous hatred of modern art, which they labeled in a 1937 exhibit, “Degenerate Art”. The specific problem was “Jewish influence”, even in non-Jewish painters, but the real problem was with the avowedly subjective (the Nazis preferred the term “distorted”) nature of much of modern art. Ironically, it was a Jew, Max Nordau, who coined the German phrase that is translated as “degenerate art”, but the Nazis turned it from a cranky aesthete’s theory into policy.
The Nazis understood that the perspectivism implied by modern art—the “this is how it looks to me” aspect—was incompatible with the dogmatism they required of their followers. Reality can’t be both embodied in National Socialism and in the eye of any beholder.
Had the Islamic lands gone through the equivalent of the revolution in painting embodied in Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, van Gogh, Cezanne and others, some or perhaps most of the cultures living under Islam might have shifted toward perspectivism. (I’d argue that Turkey came the closest to experiencing the modernist ferment of Europe, and that is why it was able to change its culture radically under Ataturk.)
A word of caution—“Islamic Impressionism” wouldn’t have looked like Europe’s. For one thing, since representation of the human form is prohibited in the Koran, Islam never had a need to rebel against representation in the direction of greater subjectivity. Indeed, rebellion might have meant realism, and the depiction of human beings in just the earnest Salon styles that the Impressionists attacked. It might have looked more like Gericault than van Gogh.
But without artistic rebellion, I suspect, the Islamic world could not make the leap to perspectivism, intellectual distance, irony, and the other sometimes-annoying traits of current Western culture that have inoculated most of us against fundamentalist terrorism. People who can imagine that a urinal, or “Piss Christ”, is a work of art may be responsible for a lot of posturing and lefty whinging—but no suicide bombings.