Islamic Art, Cultural Diversity and Chosen Mediums and Techniques

  June 30, 2021   Read time 2 min
Islamic Art, Cultural Diversity and Chosen Mediums and Techniques
Each artistic tradition has tended to develop its own favorite mediums and techniques. Some, of course, such as architecture, are automatic needs of every culture; and, for reasons to be developed later, it is in the medium of architecture that some of the most characteristically Islamic works of art are found.

Sculpture in the round hardly existed as a major art form, and, although such was also the case of all Mediterranean arts at the time of Islam’s growth, one does not encounter the astounding rebirth of sculpture that occurred in the West. Wall painting existed but has generally been poorly preserved; the great Islamic art of painting was limited to the illustration of books. The unique feature of Islamic techniques is the astounding development taken by the so-called decorative arts—e.g., woodwork, glass, ceramics, metalwork, textiles. New techniques were invented and spread throughout the Muslim world—at times even beyond its frontiers.

In dealing with Islam, therefore, it is quite incorrect to think of these techniques as the “minor” arts. For the amount and intensity of creative energies spent on the decorative arts transformed them into major artistic forms, and their significance in defining a profile of the aesthetic and visual language of Islamic peoples is far greater than in the instances of many other cultures. Furthermore, since, for a variety of reasons to be discussed later, the Muslim world did not develop until quite late the notion of “noble” arts, the decorative arts have reflected far better the needs and ambitions of the culture as a whole. The kind of conclusion that can be reached about Islamic civilization through its visual arts thus extends far deeper than is usual in the study of an artistic tradition, and it requires a combination of archaeological, art-historical, and textual information.

An example may suffice to demonstrate the point. Among all the techniques of Islamic visual arts, the most important one was the art of textiles. Textiles, of course, were used for daily wear at all social levels and for all occasions. But clothes were also the main indicators of rank, and they were given as rewards or as souvenirs by princes, high and low. They were a major status symbol, and their manufacture and distribution were carefully controlled through a complicated institution known as the tiraz. Major events were at times celebrated by being depicted on silks. Many texts have been identified that describe the hundreds of different kinds of textiles that existed.

Since textiles could easily be moved, they became a vehicle for the transmission of artistic themes within the Muslim world and beyond its frontiers. In the case of this one technique, therefore, one is not dealing simply with a medium of the decorative arts but with a key medium in the definition of a given time’s taste, of its practical functions, and of the ways in which its ideas were distributed. The more unfortunate point is that the thousands of fragments that have remained have not yet been studied in a sufficiently systematic way, and in only a handful of instances has it been possible to relate individual fragments to known texts. When more work has been completed, however, a study of this one medium should contribute significantly to the commercial, social, and aesthetic history of Islam, as well as explain much of the impact that Islamic art had beyond the frontiers of the Muslim world.

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