Arts Islam, Or Not
For the first time since the attacks of Sept. 11, a major American museum has mounted an exhibition of contemporary art from the Islamic world, and appropriately, it’s the Museum of Modern Art (NY). But MoMA is taking a beating from both critics and artists for Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking. (Lee Siegel’s review in Slate is great—do the slide show, and Tyler Green’s interviews with two irate artists are in a new piece about MoMA’s geopolitics in the New York Observer.)
The main criticism of the show is that its artists either live now or were educated in the West (there are even two American artists, Bill Viola and Mike Kelley), and yet the show doesn’t ask why those creative souls felt they had to escape from the Islamic environment that their work supposedly represents.
The Iranian-born exile Shirin Neshat has work in the show but also is one of the loudest voices against MoMA’s presentation. As Green points out, it is a rarity for an artist to rail against an institution as powerful as MoMA. From the Observer:
“My immediate reaction was, how could anyone today discuss art made by contemporary Muslim artists and not speak about the role the subjects of religion and contemporary politics play in the artists’ minds?ā€¯ Ms. Neshat said. “For some of us, our art is interconnected to the development of our personal lives, which have been controlled and defined by politics and governments. Some artists, including Marjane Satrapi and myself, are `exiled’ from our country because of the problematic and controversial nature of our work.ā€¯
Green proposes that perhaps other museums will become inspired by MoMA’s Islamic initiative to present more contemporary Islamic shows. He explains that MoMA, at this point, is more corporate than intellectual, and that could account for the show’s bland, aestheticized lack of engagement. But if MoMA can’t take on complex issues, will smaller, weaker museums? We’ll see.
And where does the timidity come from? Guilt? Ignorance? Lazy cultural relativism? Or is it actually fear of violent reactions like the ones that came with the Danish cartoons? Blogger Edward Winkleman has a good point here when he calls out the museum world’s double-standard in thoroughly pissing off Christians and tiptoeing around Islam.
Tucked away in a corner of the Seattle Asian Art Museum currently is Neshat’s Tooba, a 12-minute video installation of a woman on a dry, dusty hill who is thoroughly menaced by a band of men in black until she makes a sort of magical escape—or does she? It is a beautiful piece, and so indicative of Neshat’s nightmarish response to her native land. I only wish it were part of a larger exhibition.
Here’s a still from Tooba, followed by a still from The Last Word at MoMA, a video (only the still is included in NY) that pictures an Islamic woman and an interrogator.
As much as art should be and would like to be, in many ways, a realm apart, how can these images today not be political?