Islamic art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is now organized under the more sprawling rubric, Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia. As Holland Cotter wrote here when he reviewed the newly remodeled and opened galleries in 2011, “As its title implies, that vista has been carefully thought out and framed. Rather than presenting Islamic art as the product of a religiously driven monoculture encompassing centuries and continents, the Met is now — far more realistically — approaching it as a varied, changing, largely secular phenomenon, regionally rooted but absorptively cosmopolitan, affected by the intricacies and confusions of history, including the history that the art itself helped to create.”
About the art itself, Cotter wrote, “It is over all an art of intimacy; about one-on-one encounters with individual objects, more often than not quite small; and about the endlessly varied orchestration of a small number of visual motifs and mediums, and the minute felicities such variation generates. The alert eye will spot some of the motifs right away: besides the written word, there are images of stars, flowers, figures and abstract shapes, each migrating from one kind of object to another within a fixed repertory of mediums: textiles, ceramics, manuscripts, and so on.”
The tricky thing about the galleries is the sense of “so-on” tagged tacked onto the end of this description. For the neophyte, the challenge walking through the galleries is how to get a handle on the objects. The galleries work better at the level of mood, but at some point the energy of the novice begins to get worn out by the so many objects. Reading a lot of Oleg Grabar, one of the major scholars writing about what we could still call and with greater concision “Islamic art” provides a sharper historical introduction to this panoramic of largely precious objects. For all the attempts to avoid the problem, at the Metropolitan one gets lost in a sort of timelessness. I’ll write more about him later, except to say here that the opposite effect is shown in Grabar’s work because of its more sharply drawn geographical-historical orientation. The galleries at the Met represent the long curve of these arts presented in what is more or less one fell swoop, whereas Grabar cuts that curve up into segments.