Culture and Kitsch
by Mohamed Zakariya
Culture is a compound of many things, and is the sum of many contributions, over spans of time. It is also elusive, and even ephemeral. Cultures can exist within natural boundaries, and spread beyond them, even beyond their time. American culture exists to some degree outside the States by adoption, willingly and otherwise.
There is no such thing as a generic Islamic culture, yet all Islamic cultures have characteristics in common. In the days when the Islamic cultures were “high culture” (today, what passes for culture in Muslim lands is pop culture, except in marvelous, rare circumstances). In Islam, culture is a by-product of the religion. It happens that way, because it needs to be that way. It ensures a congenial situation for Muslims to operate in.
Culture has been conditioned by the condition of the religion. Religious establishments evolved that became great institutions that promoted Islamic knowledge and art. As the various states began to fall to malfunction and impotence, usually these religious establishments continued to function, even clandestinely. While religion was often subverted by the states (yes, there was quite a bit of separation between religion and state, always to the advantage of the state), the process of decay in the religious establishments didn’t really get moving until this century. But, they still largely exist.
A good case in point was the calligraphic arts in the Ottoman Empire (including the ancillary arts that go along with them). The ottomans (Osmanis) had a strong organizational ability, and their genius was to establish institutions, from Shari’atic models, or Shari’atic intent, that existed over the life of the empire, and to a large degree, survive today in contemporary Turkey. As ottoman power declined, over its remarkable 600 or so years, its religious establishments retained their vigor—they did their job. Alone among the mass of limping, declining Muslim states, their arts, and most impressively, the high calligraphic arts not only maintained their level of quality, but actually improved steadily, until at the time the Empire was euthanized, these arts were at their peak. At that time, a brave group of men and women were able to protect and save those arts and indispensable techniques, and take them through the hard birth of modern Turkey, and bring them, in fine condition to our time. These people were the true heroes of Islamic art in our century, and with the help of God, I’ll write about them someday. While all this was happening in Turkey, arts in the Arab world weren’t doing so well. Islamic art in peripheral areas -China, Morocco, and West Africa—did better. In the Arab lands, art began to turn into kitsch.
Kitsch is a transformed kind of product. A piece of Kitsch is a form which has lost its meaning. Ultimately, its very form becomes debased. In its new guise it can masquerade as art, music, literature, architecture, etc. or just doodads. Sometimes it is imitated by those who see it as a progression from old, worn out modes.
It can have a “Dajjal” kind of quality, on the surface pleasing, even intriguing, but cynical, without depth and meaning, it leads away from truth. In the service of manipulative despots, kitsch art can be a dangerous tool of mind control. In less threatening surroundings, it can be a silly, harmless, even amusing thing.
Kitsch in America often takes the form of those little German figurines, paintings of Elvis on black velvet, the religious imagery of Pat Robertson, many TV advertisements and programs, pop music and much of pop literature. Not all that is shallow, maudlin and glib is Kitsch. You have to train yourself to spot it. Places like Disneyland are monuments of it.
We see it in the Muslim world in the bowdlerized, Victorian versions of some of the classics of Arabic literature, the portraits of dictators, the relentless pop music, the manic statuary, the self-obsessed, whining poetry, all posing as significant and important. And, in calligraphy which has lost its nerve.
Muslims are generally quite nice people. I recommend to those who like to travel to try the Muslim world. Spending the time and trouble to learn the language can open doors of a lifetime of knowledge and the making of loyal, lifelong friends. Language skills can be reinforced by establishing a network of correspondents and pen pals in Muslim countries, and this benefits everyone. While there are obviously some very dangerous and hostile situations that must be avoided and just plain off-limits countries, the American Muslim traveler can find a lot of good will, sympathy and help for his Din. In their old world environments, Muslims are often gifted with a kind of Sunna based friendliness that can seem very strange to those of us who grew up in the U.S. People tend, in some ways, and on some levels to get on with each other. This is very nice to experience. It has Shari’atic origins. This kind of social interaction has consequences for art and culture.
Historically, in the great Islamic civilizations art and culture existed in a rather rough and tumble setting. There was humor, sarcasm and wit in it, as well as just plain meanness and all the social vices that are discouraged in Islam. Nevertheless, there were great achievements. There was serious art criticism, and it was tough. It still survives in the teaching of such classical activities as calligraphy, music, poetry, language, and religious studies. But, in contemporary Muslim societies, there is little sober criticism of art. In a way, this is nice. Everybody’s work gets shown, and art shows are very social events. At the local level, it works quite nicely. The sad effect is that although these works gain local popularity, they arc, in an international sense, kitsch. Even sadder, young artists assume that these are models to be emulated. Further, when these contemporary works are held in comparison to good work from the Islamic past, they are still kitsch, even though the artist claims to have been “inspired” by this or that great artist from the legendary “turath” heritage.
These works cannot be shown in the serious modern art world without embarrassment. And yet, they are. This doesn’t lead to a quest for improvement, nor to constantly refining one’s skills, or looking deeper into one’s heart, rather it leads to self-satisfaction and complacency—the “I am already a master, so why should I strive” syndrome.
An artist has something to say. Usually it isn’t something that can easily be put in words. There are other media that can be employed instead of direct speech, painting, sculpture (this form of art has rarely been used successfully in an Islamic context), ceramics, metal and wood work, calligraphy, music (a touchy subject to some Muslims), poetry, and prose. The media that do not use words still speak nevertheless, more or less eloquently. It is up to the viewer or listener to try to appreciate the work.
So, here is the neat part. Art is a kind of language. It communicates in ways that normal language cannot. Even good prose, when it becomes art, gives more than it seems. In Islamic calligraphy we don’t just write out the words - that would only be propagandizing and pamphleteering. More than that is involved. Great calligraphy makes the words seem more vivid and real, it increases their effectiveness, and clothes them with light and beauty, and makes them seem new again.
An artwork should be able to stand up to criticism, if the critic knows his stuff; but an artist should never be asked to explain his works. If they need an explanation, they aren’t working. An artist should have the talent and drive to develop the skills needed. Lacking this, many have successfully become serious amateurs for love, fun, and profit. Amateurs are very important for the arts as a whole. Art, as we know it, could not exist without them. This lets a lot of people participate, and indeed, forms an important aspect of culture.
It is not a good idea for a real no-talent to pursue an art. Take myself, I’m a lousy writer and shouldn’t be writing this essay. I have something to say, but don’t have the talent to do it well. Soon I will give it up and go back to what I’m good at. It is the same with a lot of Islamic writing in America. People have a burning desire to say something, but no way to say it with grace and clarity. There are some greats among us. Two of them are Steven Barboza and Tarajee Abdur-Rahman. You can read about her in Steve’s new book American Jihad—get a copy, it’s about all of us. Tarajee is a flaming, gifted light. A real artist.
The great writers of the past were not only people of great knowledge, with tremendous things to say—they wrote with art. They wrote world class literature. It can hold its own against anything today coming out of Europe and America—powerful stuff, and a standard to look up to. Sadly, it doesn’t translate well, so to get at it, we need to learn languages, and then bring something of it back for our friends and colleagues.
In order to get some Islamic culture going here in America, we are going to need to do it ourselves. Nobody from overseas is coming to show us how it is done. We need to get serious, sharpen ourselves up, recognize the kitsch and get rid of it. Take our dysfunctional mosques, and our dysfunctional architecture and fix them or do it right next time. We need to learn from the mistakes. We are going to need to find ways of putting Islam into practice in a casual way as well as an institutional way. Passive attendance at lectures and harangues are not enough. Our children will laugh at us, and leave the religion. If we can’t pass it on, we’ve really messed up. I think we need art and culture for that, otherwise, there won’t be any water for us to swim in. With culture, we can operate at peak and otl1ers can participate without pain.
In the dark area of the Rustem Pasha Mosque in Istanbul there is a crude piece of calligraphy over an exit that sums it up:
The believer in the mosque is like a fish in the water.
The hypocrite in the mosque is like a bird in a cage.
Originally published in the TAM print edition Spring 1994