- Islamic Aesthetics: An Introduction
Oliver Leaman is a prolific philosopher, and he could be forgiven if, on occasion, quality made concessions to quantity. However, Islamic Aesthetics in no way disappoints. Indeed, it fills a yawning gap in Islamic Studies in splendid fashion, covering a subject that heretofore has received little systematic treatment and none whatsoever from philosophers of an analytic bent (with regard to professional training and methods, not ideological persuasion). What is more, it is utterly refreshing to find something under the rubric of aesthetics that need not reference Duchamp's urinal (Fountain) or Warhol's Brillo Box; explain yet again what Kant meant by "disinterested pleasure" or "subjective universality"; ritually critique expressionist theory; lament the transgressionist obsessions of contemporary art or the pretentious posturing of "post-aesthetic" art; proclaim the "end of art"; invoke historicist or institutional theories of art; decry the nihilism and narcissism of avant-garde art; and so on. That said, we do learn from Leaman a bit about the hyperrealist figures of Duane Hanson as part of an interesting discussion of realism and the range of meanings in art. And yet it might have helped had he not sidestepped current debates and controversies in aesthetics by coming clean as to just where he stands. I'll hazard a guess and say he identifies with the neo-Kantian formalism of a Nick Zangwill (1995 and 1998), and is put off by theory along the lines of Noël Carroll (2001), the latter energetically arguing against "both the thesis that aesthetic responses are definitive of our responses to artworks and the thesis that art is to be characterized exclusively in terms of the promotion of aesthetic responses" (p. 5). If this seems implausible, we might recall with Stephen Davies (2000) that in non-Western societies "nothing is created solely for aesthetic contemplation" (p. 201). Put differently: "most cultures do not distinguish art from craft or from spiritual devotion. Indeed, Western culture did not draw these distinctions until perhaps three hundred years ago" (Sartwell 1995, p. xiii).
Leaman first conducts what in the forest management lexicon of chaparral ecology is called a "controlled burn." That is to say, he carefully clears away all the thick underbrush of theoretical shibboleths, facile "orientalist generalizations," and suffocating if not supercilious Sufi approaches that appear to preclude a properly aesthetic [End Page 271] appreciation and discernment of the semantic richness of both religious and secular art in the Islamic world. Among the regnant presuppositions, assumptions, and "arguments" consumed in this deliberate fire (keeping in mind that such burns serve to regenerate chaparral ecology, as some seeds do not germinate without the benefit of the fire's heat): that "Islamic art is essentially Sufi"; that "Islamic painting is very different from other forms of painting"; that "Islamic art is essentially minor" or it is "atomistic"; that "there is a horror of the empty in Islamic art"; or that "calligraphy is the supreme Islamic art."
One proposition in particular that rubs Leaman the wrong way merits further explanation, namely that "Islamic art is essentially religious." Yes, you might say, by (circular) definition. What Leaman is referring to here is the annoying and perhaps neurotic tendency to find religious meaning everywhere, when it may merely and solely be in the head of the beholder: "Why cannot decoration be just decoration," asks Leaman, "there to make the surface more beautiful? The answer is of course that for those that seek meaning everywhere meaning is everywhere, even if in reality it is not." (There's a delightful discussion of this topic more generally under the heading "The Obsessional Search for Meaning," in Elster 1983, pp. 101-108). This jibe makes a point, but perhaps it speaks only to the choir—the agnostic, the skeptic, and the nonbeliever. Consider, for instance, one who, with the Psalmist, makes what James Kellenberger (1985) memorably christened a "realization-discovery," that is, a realization of the meaning of what is familiar to him, for he "come[s] to see the significance of the familiar...