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Art Under — And Out From Under — Islam (Part I)
by Hugh Fitzgerald
Saloua Raouda Choucair, Poem Wall, 1963–65.
This past February, Art News published an article about an exhibit at MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) that it described as an “Elegant Riposte to Trump’s Travel Order.” Here’s that “Elegant Riposte”:
Less than a week after President Trump signed an executive order banning citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has responded by installing works by artists from those countries, including the late Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid, the Sudanese master Ibrahim El-Salahi, and the young Iranian painter Tala Madani, in the galleries devoted to its permanent collection.
Alongside each work is a placard that reads:
This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States.
The additions so far are almost uniformly impressive and well-considered, broadening the geographical and cultural scope, as well as the political implications, of MoMA’s collection galleries.
In the gallery devoted to Matisse, the curators have installed a remarkable work from 1962 by the Iranian Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, who is 80 this year. It is a deliriously patterned geometric drawing of Zenderoudi and his father, more than seven feet tall and made with felt-tip pen and ink on paper, and it plays beautifully with the Matisse’s glorious color, emphasizing the vital role that art and textiles from the Middle East and surrounding areas played in the Frenchman’s work. (Just a few steps away is Matisse’s 1915–16 masterpiece The Moroccans, which shows a man in a turban looking out at a white-domed mosque.)
Like Tate Modern and a handful of other major Western institutions, MoMA has been making efforts in recent years to broaden its reach beyond the European and American canon, expanding its holdings of art from the Middle East and elsewhere, but it is notable that many of the works installed here have long been in the museum’s collection. They just have not regularly been on view. The Zenderoudi was acquired the year it was made, and a potent little abstraction by the great El-Salahi, The Mosque (1964) was purchased the year after it was made, and has now found a home in the museum’s Picasso gallery, across the way from his Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), a work heavily influenced by African art. Let us hope that some of these new inclusions stick, even after the order and the president who signed it are long gone.
The African art that influenced Picasso in his Demoiselles d’Avignon were sub-Saharan masks having nothing to do with Islam; placing El-Salahi’s The Mosque in the Picasso gallery implies a connection between Picasso and Islamic art that does not exist.
The story of modernism in the West is, of course, a story of global travel, of intercontinental influence, and of colonialism with artists in the United States and Europe looking to other countries and cultures for inspiration.
Why does “colonialism” come up here? Because we must be reminded of the West’s wickedness on every possible occasion, and what is an article in Art News on MoMA’s “riposte” to Trump if not such an occasion? Yet just how important for Western artists was this contact with the “colonized” lands and peoples? Matisse is always adduced, for those bright North African colors and fabrics and artifacts that he painted, and Picasso for his African-mask period (1907-1910), but how many other important Western artists of the 20th century were similarly influenced in their art, and especially, how much did the art of the “colonized” Muslims influence Western art? Out of the many thousands of Western artists, how many, or how few, found such inspiration in those “colonized” lands?
It is also a story of forced displacement, wars forcing artists to become refugees and seek safety abroad. Tala Madani’s 2007 video Chit Chat—a work finely attuned to current developments, showing a variety of old men conspiring and then spewing bile—sits in a room with a Marc Chagall, who fled Occupied France in 1941 and came to the United States along with so many other vanguard artists of the time.
The implication is that Muslim artists wanting to come to America from Muslim countries are “fleeing for their lives” from persecution. They are not. Those who want to come to America want to leave their unpleasant countries, mainly to further their careers. They are economic refugees, or the children of such refugees. They should not be likened to Jewish artists who had to flee for their lives from the Nazis. But MoMA wants you to think of Tala Madani in connection with Chagall, a Jewish refugee who had to flee the Nazis, and to think of other Muslim immigrants, too, supposedly so cruelly denied entry by Trump, we are asked to believe, simply for being Muslims. But Tala Madani, born in Iran, and raised from childhood in the U.S., is not one of those whom “wars forced…to become refugees” – her parents simply sought better lives in the U.S. Finally, Madani has not herself been affected by the latest ban. She continues to live in L.A., doing quite handsomely. She’s exactly the kind of “artist” now in great favor; the description of her latest solo show at an L.A. gallery conveys something of her inimitable style, for it offers “a new body of paintings by Tala Madani and her fourth solo exhibition at the gallery. Inside Shitty Disco a penis projects a cave-painting. Other figures project mise-en-scenes from their assholes.” Clearly an artist not to be missed.
One room over, where a major Picabia has long been displayed, a large photograph of what appear to be billiard balls by the Iranian-born German photographer Shirana Shahbazi hangs not far from Marcel Duchamp’s To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour, which Duchamp made in 1918 in Buenos Aires, where he lived after first heading to the United States to get away from the Great War.
The photograph by the Iranian is lent a borrowed sheen by being in the same room as this work by Duchamp.
There will be those who will say that a move like this is just a gesture, that it offers no concrete help to the more than 100,000 people whose visas have been revoked as a result of this racist executive order. In a sense, they are right. Only a fundamental political reversal can begin to repair the damage that has been done. But until that shift happens—and it will—every institution with a belief in the free sharing of ideas, in combating Islamophobia, and in ensuring the safety of victims of war has an obligation to support those causes in the ways that they can. That is what the museum is doing right now.
What ARTNEWS calls a “racist executive order” had nothing to do with “race.” (It is maddening that this idiotic charge has to be continuously rebutted, but so be it. Once again, for the nth irrefutable time: Islam is not a race.) The order had to do with security, and what many – though not, of course, writers for Art News – believe is a perfectly reasonable precaution to take: that is, to temporarily ban people from a handful of countries where terrorist groups — Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Al-Shebab, Hezbollah — are known to be operating right now, until such time as the American government has a better sense of how to conduct that ballyhooed “extreme vetting.”
And why does MoMA think its mission ought to be “to support those causes [as preventing the American government from adopting those security measures it deems prudent, and that some might even deem insufficient] in the way they can,” by turning its galleries into AgitProp centers? And why should MoMA be in the business of “combating Islamophobia” – a tendentious term used to bully and silence sober critics of Islam, by depicting them as know-nothings, suffering from an irrational “hatred” of Islam, when their real sin is that they know too much about Islam not to be alarmed?
Acting quickly and wisely, MoMA has managed a feat that is far too rare in the museum world: it has made its collection a living, breathing thing, responsive to current events, and ready to educate and challenge visitors. Artworks have unique powers—the ability to transmit complex ideas instantaneously, to highlight unseen histories, and to question the status quo. MoMA is letting those powers get to work.
The air at MoMA and Art News is thick with self-righteousness and self-congratulation. Apparently for a museum’s collection to be “a living, breathing thing,” it must reflect the latest headlines (“responsive to current events”), a strange insistence, given that so much of the greatest Western art treated subjects and themes that were beyond, had little to do with, the political, the quotidian, the passing parade. From Giotto to Leonardo, Michelangelo, Piero della Francesca, Rembrandt, Titian, Vermeer, Chardin, Velazquez, Vermeer, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Derain, Picasso, Munch, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Balthus, Morandi, and so many others, one would have a hard time – save in a handful of cases, such as Goya’s “Los Desastres de la Guerra” and “Picasso’s “Guernica” — finding painters “responsive to current events,” that is, reflecting in their art the immediate political concerns of the day.
MoMA has decided its task is no longer that of displaying art for art’s sake – apparently that’s not enough any more for any self-respecting art museum — but to take political sides, and to deplore what Art News calls the “racist executive order” of President Trump. That “racist order” affects Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but only from seven countries, six of which are known to harbor fighters from the Islamic State, or Al-Qaeda, or Al-Shebab, that is Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia, and one, Iran, known to support Hezbollah terrorists and repeatedly demonstrate that it regards the U.S. as its longstanding and permanent enemy. Far from trying to ban all Muslims, Trump’s executive order affects only 12% of the world’s Muslims, and the ban itself lasts only for 90 days. This is nothing like the complete ban on Muslim migrants that Trump the candidate suggested until “we can figure what the hell is going on.” And given the potential threats to national security, does this watered-down version seem outrageous?
This is not to deny that the subject of “Art Under Islam” deserves attention. It does, but not the kind of attention MoMA and ArtNews are giving it by tying it into a protest over Trump’s ban. What deserves to be covered – what Islam has meant for the world’s art, and what Islam has meant for the individual Muslim artist — will be dealt with in the second and third installments of this piece.
First published in Jihad Watch.