Islamic art scholar Oleg Grabar: An underrated historian

Islamic art scholar Oleg Grabar: An underrated historian January 24, 2011
Telling the “long story”

Here’s a sad statement about Islamic art as a discipline: a Google news search for “Oleg Grabar” at publication time yields a mere four hits. This is particularly disappointing since Grabar (pictured), 81, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, died on January 8.

One of those hits, an obituary in the Times of Trenton, says Grabar “is credited with expanding the interest in and study of Islamic art in the US.” A statement from the Institute for Advanced Study says that over the last six decades Grabar’s research “has had a profound and far-reaching influence on the study of Islamic art and architecture.”

“The extraordinary originality, depth and range of his research and teaching made an enduring impression on the study of Middle Eastern culture, and he was chiefly responsible for the growth and development of historians specializing in the history of Islamic art within the United States,” according to the statement. All the other Google News hits are Turkish-language obituaries, like this one from Haber Turk, which, according to Google Translate, calls Grabar “the greatest living historian of Islamic art,” and this one from Samanyolu Haber.

Grabar, who earned his doctorate from Princeton University in 1955, chaired Harvard University’s Department of Fine Arts from 1977 until 1982 and was Aga Khan professor of Islamic art and architecture (1980 until 1990) and professor emeritus (1990 until 2011) at Harvard. He wrote more than 20 books and 120 journal articles. One of his books, Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem’s Sacred Esplanade, was published by University of Texas Press. In June 1997, the title of one of Grabar’s books was borrowed for the name of the exhibit “The Mediation of Ornament: Eight Texas Painters” at Transco Tower Gallery in Houston.

In an interview on March 1, 2007, Grabar told me that he didn’t see the response to the controversial Danish cartoons as indication that religious art was a divisive force. Instead, it was “a clear case of a manipulation by the media to make up stories,” he said. “There will be an art tied to religion as long as there is religion, and there will be a difference between popular art for the masses and sophisticated versions for elites,” he said. “Since elites are less attached to faiths than they used to be, especially in the western world, there is less ‘religious’ art, but it may come back.”

I also interviewed Grabar for an Aug. 4, 2007, article I wrote for Arab American News titled “Are drawing and painting haraam?” In the interview, Grabar said Islamic figurative art is not as controversial as it is sometimes portrayed. “Figurative art is only a problem in some circles, and a false problem at that,” he said, “since there is nothing in classical Islamic thought that would forbid representational art.”

He cautioned against misusing the term ‘Muslim American artists.’

“Most of the Muslim artists in America known to me are primarily American or rather modern and not Muslim,” he said. “Therefore, the pairing ‘American’ and ‘Muslim’ is not particularly appropriate. Would you call Barnett Newman an American Jewish artist or a modern artist who happens to be American and Jewish?”

Grabar, who was fluent in French and Russian and traveled a lot throughout the Muslim world for his research, quickly broadened the scope. “The matter is even more interesting in France and England, where there are particularly good modern artists of Muslim origin,” he said. “Most of their art is not religious at all.”

Asked why so many people assume Muslims and Jews are aniconistic, or allergic to art, Grabar had a theory: they simply don’t know better. “Ignorance dominates such judgments, based usually on the impossibility of representing God, but this is a long story,” he said. “The idea was picked up by fundamentalists everywhere, even among Protestants in earlier times.”

When I pressed Grabar to explain more of the “long story,” he responded modestly, and reassured me yet another time that I was asking good questions. “These are all important questions, which need better knowledge than I have of the material and a better sense of the audience you are trying to reach,” he said.

If the greatest historian of Islamic art didn’t have the answers, one cannot help but wonder who did.

Menachem Wecker is an artist and an art critic. He holds a master’s in art history from George Washington University and writes for various religious publications, including the Jewish Press. This article was originally featured at Houston Belief.

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