What happens when previously separated cultures come in contact? Often, as happened when Europeans invaded the New World from the 16th century, or very recently in the American invasion of Iraq, the militarily stronger culture ruthlessly conquers the weaker one. But frequently, also, the results include international trade. When, starting in 1528, Europeans circumnavigated the globe, they brought back products from everywhere in an immensely profitable series of commercial endeavours. Sometimes such formerly distant cultures are too dissimilar to inspire sympathetic mutual understanding. But occasionally the result of these cultural collisions is a synthesis displayed in visual art.
In the Brera Museum in Milan is an extremely large, very puzzling painting by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, St Mark Preaching (1504-7). A strange, anachronistic exercise in time travel. It shows Muslim women and Venetians (and a giraffe) in a setting that has an uncanny resemblance to San Marco, with the patron saint of Venice preaching to both Christians and Muslims. The Venetian and Islamic worlds, united in Venetian trading, both appear very much on European terms. And a current Swiss-German exhibition Rembrandt’s Orient: West Meets East in Dutch Art of the Seventeenth Century provides another pre-modern perspective on multicultural relationships. It shows exotic animals, fabrics and other artifacts gathered by the Dutch traders, as appropriated in European art. Since the Renaissance, Islamic carpets have been treasured by Europeans, who frequently depicted these luxurious decorative designs in their paintings. And after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the American response, refugees have created War Rugs, images of the Russian and, more recently, the American war planes and weaponry employed in their country. Here, in this very traditional art, you find powerful up-to-date imagery.
In pre-modern nations visual cultures remain too distant for any real artistic synthesis to be possible. Rembrandt imitated some Persian miniatures, but there was no room in his art for painting in an Islamic style. And, conversely, 17th-century Chinese or Indian painters were unlikely to abandon their own traditions and imitate European styles. When, however, we arrive at the 20th century, previously distant traditions were close enough for a real synthesis in which artists from different traditions learned from one another. This happened in 1912 when Henri Matisse visited Morocco and was inspired by its decorative fabrics. His great, all-over compositions made in that decade incorporate that direct experience of Islamic art, including what he also saw in European museums. It took place again in 1969 when Sean Scully also visited Morocco, and his art, too, was decisively influenced by that experience. Here, two previously distant artistic cultures were ready for imaginative artists to connect. The Western visual ways of thinking are transformed in response to non-Western art. Only then, I think, can a real cultural synthesis be achieved. Neither Matisse nor Scully wanted to become Muslim artists, but they found something of real use in a previously foreign visual culture. Many more such artists, who now work between cultures, could be cited.
What’s at stake here makes the seemingly parochial concerns of the art world of real political significance. The famous Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) developed a pioneering account of cultural relativism, arguing in his New Science that various cultures have distinct diverse values. The ancient Greeks and the Christians of his era understood the world differently, and so made different forms of art. Pre-modern cultures tended to make condescending judgments of unfamiliar art, judging it limited when evaluated by their standards. The Europeans were astonished by Aztec metalwork, but they did not respond to it in their art. And when Jesuit painters got to China, the artists there were puzzled. What by contrast defines our contemporary multicultural ways of thinking is an acute awareness that alternative styles of art making deserve attention, both because they are intrinsically interesting and because they reveal the inner lives of other peoples. We believe that we ought to seriously attend to art from other cultures because that’s an essential act of cultural respect. It involves an acknowledgment that people who may think differently deserve serious attention, even if we don’t accept their moral or social values.
I had a modest friendship with Oleg Grabar, the renowned French-American specialist in Islamic art. Were I young, and a good linguist, I would have been inspired to devote myself to his field, which – at least in his accounting – is morally challenging and intellectually inspiring. He was not, at least in his published writings, a political writer. I once asked him an obvious question, why after 9/11 and our numerous conflicts in the Middle East, did American scholars not devote more attention to this art, in order to better understand Muslim culture. “The problem”, he told me, “is that we don’t respect them as people”. That very sad statement struck as a melancholy comment on our intellectual limits, which need revision.
Volume 35 no 5 May / June 2021