“What is Art History when the Primary Sensory Organ is the Heart?” ‒ A Conversation with Wendy M.K. Shaw

In October 2019, Wendy M.K. Shaw (Professor of the Art History of Islamic Cultures at Freie Universität Berlin) published her new book, What Is “Islamic” Art? Between Religion and Perception, with Cambridge University Press. She sat down with Philip Geisler (Doctoral Fellow at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies) to discuss the project.

Wendy M.K Shaw. © Bernd Wannenmacher

Philip Geisler: Your new book is a study that rethinks the concept of art, or rather of perception, through cross-temporal and cross-geographical Islamic intellectual legacies. You pursue the fundamental question of “What is an image?” through discourses including poetry, philosophy, music theory, and spirituality. In the past few years, many scholars, including Gülru Necipoğlu, Olga Bush, and Kishwar Rizvi, have started to investigate what we commonly term as “Islamic art and architecture” from the perspective of perception and thus subjectivity. Is the field of Islamic art history experiencing a general shift towards the spiritual that refocuses itself on the question of subjectivity and begins to dissolve the boundaries of different forms of artistic expression?

Wendy M.K. Shaw: If we’re going to start out with names, I’d have to add so many: José Miguel Puerta Vílchez, Cynthia Robinson, Samer Akkach, Christiane Gruber, Margaret Graves… and that’s only a few in art history! I feel like we’re in a very exciting time for our field, a lot is happening.

Whether this is spiritual, as you frame it, is really debatable. There has been a strong avoidance of engaging with spirituality in art history in general, including in our field. There are concerns over generalization, and an emphasis on measurability. This also suggests that we can expand art history universally by using a uniform method to collect uniform types of data. And this works if what you’re trying to do is get your foot in the door of a bigger discipline.

But I don’t think we’re there anymore. I think for a lot of Islamic art historians, we avoid debating the parameters of our field because it’s complicated – is it a geography? Are things like carpets real “art”? What about non-Muslims making things that aesthetically fit into the category we call “Islamic”? Instead, the scholarly emphasis has been a true focus on documents in rethinking the meanings attributed to objects.

When it comes to spirituality, you’re right to say that a lot of recent works have been recognizing an alternative subjectivity to the kind of distance and material organization of conventional art history. My work tries to address that – how do we engage with the world not from a modern, positivist rationalism but from a position informed by Islamic discourses? How do we enrich the ideas these works inspire through the discourses that enabled their creation and with which they circulated? I wouldn’t call this a spiritual shift, but rather see this as new interests among a generation that has emerged after the critique of Enlightenment positivism. For some of us, this engages with spirituality, for others less so. And I think that is as it should be – any field needs a wide range of voices, and I’m excited to be part of this conversation.

Philip Geisler: But I assume you don’t consider yourself as understanding the past from outside of this secular gaze or modernity, either.

Wendy M.K. Shaw: Look, I am a modern person. I have a complex background, and diverse interests… including being an art historian. I can always come back to this position, which gives me one valuable way of understanding the world – my point is really that it is not the only or best way. Our position can be mobile. For me, the kind of art history that I would want is one that enables me to take on, wear, if you will, the subject position of different kinds of people. So an Islamic art history is an approach to that which we call art that comes from an Islamic position. I cannot let go of being a modern, Western-trained art historian, but I can add to our methods from a position informed by Islamic discourses.

Philip Geisler: Was this critique of secular scholarship your main motivation for this book?

Wendy M.K. Shaw: One of my starting points was an article of mine published in 2012, in which I look at how Islam became seemingly beside-the-point for art historians. By this I mean, people think you work with theology, but inside the field, traditional questions about meaning have been much more about things like patronage and trade. This exclusion of religion has a history deeply embedded in European art historical models. But this critique raised the question: What alternative do we have? I don’t like just taking everything apart and then not suggesting a solution the problem. My alternative is to take Islam not as an aesthetic, temporal, or geographic category, but as central in informing meaning in Islamic arts: How can we use cultural artifacts to rethink how we take in the world? How can we avoid replicating our biases through disciplinary categories?

If we want to engage with Islamic culture, we have to do so by listening to those who have engaged with the world through Islamic discourses, which includes but is not limited to Muslims. So, what does it mean to take on a method that’s Islamic, and understand our terms of engagement through this method? The paradox is, for me, an Islamic art history wouldn’t be an “art history” at all. Like Islam, a verbal noun formed from the roots s-l-m in Arabic, which refers to greeting (the Divine), this experience would be a verb, taking in or perceiving the world as informed by Islamic discourses, just as we take in the world through modernity, including through art history. So in my understanding, once I get to the Islamic subject position, I’m taking in creation and creativity in a way that blurs the boundaries between subject/object, matter/imagination, architecture/language, music/image, and even created entity (including humans)/Divine. Just as art history puts Islam in its blind spot, Islam puts art history in its blind spot. They are mutually unseeable, but one can still feel them there in peripheral sensation. They compliment far more than erasing each other.

Philip Geisler: Many would probably argue that your methodological decision, which you also describe as a claim for a reenchanted academic practice, creates problems for a scholarly debate that likes to see itself as entirely secular. How do you come to terms with the field’s categories in relation to this idea of a secular episteme?

Wendy M.K. Shaw: The Kantian subject has this peculiar position of being there, judging everything, but also not acknowledging his own existence. Obviously, this God-complex is something that many offshoots of post-Enlightenment thought have in common. More detail doesn’t necessarily bring us more understanding; it just as often creates more objectification, more alienation. That doesn’t mean I’m against facts. What we can measure doesn’t constitute all of the facts. Our emotions, our dreams, our sexuality, our excitement, these are also realities. We communicate largely through these bodily, imaginative, spiritual modes of rhetoric. Our reaction to the world through the trope of art emerges through these modes. An entirely disembodied, Kantian art is like a Kantian positivism – it fails to communicate, and if it communicates as art, it fails to be entirely disembodied, even if it makes such a claim.

 

Philip Geisler: How, then, did you get to looking at poetry?

Wendy M.K. Shaw: Poetry was one of the primary media that provided entertainment while also spreading a lot of ideas derived from theological and philosophical debates, as well as circulating general attitudes, which I try to trace. Around the same time as I wrote the article critiquing mandatory secularism in our field, I was really annoyed by the whole discussion of the supposed image prohibition in Islam, for example, the one following the Danish cartoon controversy. The thing is, there are tons of images in the Islamic world, which must mean everybody is a bad Muslim, right? Obviously, this is insanely reductive. But this is the paradox that the insistence on a forbidden image as a norm leaves us with. So I started from a different premise: What is an image? How do texts talk about pictures? What do pictures do in this culture? Do the texts circulate repeating understandings of the image? And so that took me to poems that use images as tropes, and from there to the often religious texts that inform these poems. What became important to me at multiple points was to look at the agency of things rather than the relatively boring question of permissibility.

Philip Geisler: And then, so, what does an image do?

Wendy M.K. Shaw: Well, it’s different from our modern idea of the image. It isn’t only deceptive, like the modern idea of a representation of something absent, but it also can be something that makes itself present inside you. It can be music, or even things we see in dreams. What is art history when the primary sensory organ is the heart? When the boundaries of perception change like that, it becomes clear that a term like “art history” limits the frame of reference for understanding culture. In the book I tell well-known stories that function as parables about representation. So there’s a story about a Platonic philosopher who plays a flute that alters people’s emotions. There’s a picture gallery in China – actually two different ones, in different stories – which is full of pictures that try, but fail, to represent the divine. There’s a story about a competition between artists, which comes up with a very different solution to another story about artistic competition that is central to the modern European tradition. There are several stories interwoven with dreams and pictures about transgressive, transcendent love. These stories suggest that the cultures that I am discussing shared understandings of subjectivity, images, and materiality, and that these shared understandings were quite different from those that we, as participants in modernity, take as normative in art history as well as in global modern, everyday life.

Philip Geisler: You mentioned the exclusion of Islam in art history, but how do you reconcile your view of an allegedly secular art history with the circumstance that, at least to my mind, Islam has predominantly been theorized through religion and has been denied any intellectual or cultural achievement beyond a religious framework – which is what I understand to be one of Said’s central arguments in how Europe’s “Other” is produced as different in the case of Orientalism?

Wendy M.K. Shaw: You can’t really take the theorization of Islam, including art, out from the broader hierarchies of modernity – secular replacing religiosity, the West dominating the Rest, modern paradigms of gender and sexuality. In this framework, the Islamic world has worked to prove its modernity – partly by segregating the theological as something separate from culture, and proving participation in modern rationalism by marginalizing aspects of Islamic thought that don’t “fit”. Part of decoloniality is looking at these given frameworks critically, as modernity is no less ideologically driven than any other era.

Separating secularity and religiosity is anachronistic for premodern societies. We forget that Descartes articulated his famous “I think therefore I am” inspired by a dream, and as part of a philosophical proof of the existence of God; Hegel was trained as a minister. When you read Islamic texts that modernity codes as scientific, say Ibn al-Haytham’s Optics, which was essential for the development of geometries in the Islamic world as well as perspectivalism in Europe, it was also addressing spiritual issues, such as how to reconcile an all-powerful God with experimental method.

A lot of Islamic art history has used documentation as a means of finding meaning that is about patronage, trade, regional contexts, style, intention, and so on. That is fine, but I don’t think the limit of meaning is there. Just as I can engage with Christianity through a lot of European art history, I want to understand how images and texts interact to express and circulate Islamic ideas, many of which don’t fall into any of our modern disciplinary specializations or categories. They often also don’t fall into dominant modern understandings of Islam, which have also been shaped by modern rationalism and colonialism. How were pre-modern people experiencing their world? How did they write about it? I don’t want to use their texts to answer questions formed by modern premises, so much as to see how their texts frame an understanding of the world that is often quite distinct from our modern systems of knowledge.

The trope of the image often functioned analogously with the trope of the dream-image: Muhammad’s Night Flight, for example, is a prophetic vision witnessed through a dream. Image: Sultan Muhammad Nur (ca. 1472–ca. 1536), “The Mi’raj or The Night Flight of Muhammad on his Steed Buraq”, Folio 3v from a Bustan of Sa’di. present-day Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, probably Bukhara and Herat. ca. 1525–35. Ink, gold, and colors on paper. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1974.294.2), Purchase, Louis V. Bell Fund and The Vincent Astor Foundation Gift, 1974.

Philip Geisler: And the art historical belief in representationalism is not part of that understanding?

Wendy M.K. Shaw: I do see my work as an intervention on the idea that objects can represent culture. They can only do so if we take the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional world in which these objects operate seriously, without imposing our own premises on them. So, I was basically trying to find how the tropes of representation move through various types of texts, often across long time periods and geographies. The frequent repetition of tropes in various sorts of texts meant that they suggested a system of understanding beyond a single context. Some of these tropes emerge in art historical discussions, and have been discussed by my colleagues; others I was discovering in texts.

Philip Geisler: And hence your decision for talking about perceptual culture instead of art?

Wendy M.K. Shaw: When it comes to perceptual culture, what I’m trying to describe is this: each of us, as a subject, is hot water. You can put any teabag in that water, and it will take on that scent. We become that scent, that taste; it is our perceptual culture. Art history as we practice it now is colonial – it colonizes the past as much as it colonizes the elsewhere. I propose an alternative to this, which means changing our own subjectivity to that of the Other. I find this process exhilarating – it’s a kind of travel of the mind that no physical interaction could begin to replicate. And just like with travel, we can come home again – hopefully refreshed and with broader horizons. And so that’s how I worked with recent scholarship, taking these sources out of a matrix that emphasizes politics and geography, and putting them in a matrix of Islamic thought and poetry.

Philip Geisler: How are these two matrixes different?

Wendy M.K. Shaw: A lot of late-twentieth-century art history reads like a spy novel, pretty much inspired by Panofsky’s iconography, in which evidence functions as clues to hidden meanings. The problem of this is, while something may be logically convincing, such meaning may not represent the only possible truth or solution as to the question of meaning as experienced by people within historical cultures as sites and objects travel across time. Meaning isn’t only in origins, and when we “discover” an original meaning and find that more accurate than how that object produced meaning moving through the world, we presume to redefine the world. It occurred to me that the objects that we work with have existed in matrixes deeply informed by Islamic discourses, which I define loosely as a living set of interacting texts and practices informed but not necessarily restricted by Islam, accruing and falling away over long durations. This definition was articulated best by the work of Shahab Ahmed, to whose work the title of my book makes direct and meaningful reference. By now, a lot of the field has moved away from this model, often with breathtakingly detailed and immensely insightful primary research. This work enables mine.

Building on the work of my colleagues in art history, Islamic studies, and religious studies, I wanted to provide an intellectual matrix, a way of giving meaning to objects that isn’t grounded in dynasties or periodization, resulting in meanings vested in political interests or tracing trade interactions. I want to develop alternatives to the traditional overview that, despite all critiques, maintains order through geographic-temporal linearity. To me this is as meaningful as defining me as living in Angela Merkel’s Germany. This is true, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the ways I understand the world, which are informed more by say film, novels, songs… and now Islamic literature and Platonic philosophy. How I think is informed by, but not restricted to, my place in history and geography. We are what we eat, and that goes for thought as well as for food.

Philip Geisler: And you truly did not confine yourself to working only with art historical research.

Wendy M.K. Shaw: Just like how we can’t only eat vegetables, I needed a lot of input from other fields. I turned to the vast corpus of translated texts from the Islamic world, much of which has been read in great detail, but less often through an intertextual approach. As with art history, much of the best work is the most obscure from general knowledge, which remains mired in outdated premises laced with colonialism and racism. While I often compared translations and used my knowledge of the languages to approach the translations critically, it was important for me to point out how much material we have readily available to enter into this other mind-space of the past, and how little we have used it. Islamic studies led me to investigate Platonic philosophy, particularly through approaches emphasized in classics rather than through philosophy, which emphasize context over canonical readings that have come to define the “Western” tradition. Religious studies similarly provided a dynamic approach to rethinking categories.

Philip Geisler: Within this broader setting of perceptual culture, how do you theorize music as integral to an assessment of visual culture?

Wendy M.K. Shaw: Everybody talks about the forbidden image, but for the first few hundred years, during the institutionalization of Islam and the growth of Islamic regional hegemony, scholars never discussed the permissibility of images, so much as the permissibility of music. Like many things with which it was associated, including wine and sexuality, music could induce sinful behaviors, but its transgressions could also prove transcendent. While these attitudes are not normative in Islamic law, they are pervasive in numerous expressions of Islamic culture.

As in Plato, dreams, music, and philosophy are often inseparable in Islamic perceptual culture and Plato often acts as a parable of this connection in Islamic painting. Image: Plato as a Musician. India, Mughal Empire, circa 1600; border: Iran, Qajar, 19th century. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, from the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection (M.80.6.7). Opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on paper. Copyright: bpk / Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY / Staff Photographer

Islam emerges out of late antique culture, including that of the Arabian Peninsula and the Sasanian and Eastern Roman Empires. As the classicist Stephan Halliwell explains, this culture favored inward over outward mimesis, and I interpret Islamic cultures through this lens – I think this may also be useful for looking at premodern Europe; it’s only in the modern period that disembodiment, objectivity, and distance become favored modes of aesthetic engagement here as well. In the Islamic world, this became strongly intertwined with the inheritance of Platonism, enabled by the translation movement of the ninth century. As in Plato, dreams, music, and philosophy are often inseparable.

Philip Geisler: These themes also feature prominently in narratives of both poetry and painting that you discuss, including Yusuf and Zuleikha and Attar’s Language of the Birds. How do you think through such multilayered narratives in terms of perceptual culture?

Wendy M.K. Shaw: I started my book by looking for narratives about the image in Persian poetry. I discovered that the trope of the image often functioned analogously with the trope of the dream-image, as well as with the mirror-image. At this point, I suppose it becomes clear that I’m not talking about the image in the way we usually do, but rather a broader range of informative perception. I also discovered that “Persian poetry” was a weak category for these stories, as they circulated through multiple texts in many languages across several centuries. This movement indicates their cultural centrality, and enables me to interpret them as expressions of underlying understandings of perception in Islamic discourses – elements of an overview.

Philip Geisler: And, certainly, your study exemplifies how discourse and deconstruction can be implemented as a productive critical tool for the field of postcolonial art history. Yet, obviously, your methodology does not stop with Foucault and Derrida.

Wendy M.K. Shaw: I’d say these thinkers opened up my questions and perhaps my reception, but over time I became increasingly infused with Islamic thinkers, and also with Platonism, and then also with figures like Bergson and Freud who build on earlier thinkers and inform later thought; it’s a multi-dimensional matrix. Our culture often expects us to take in these thinkers as “fathers,” and quote them as if their thought were static and true by virtue of their authority. But Plato’s discussion of the slippage between speech, writing, and painting in Phaedrus points to a very different understanding, in which knowledge is only safe as a movement that circulates like a seed engendering a plant, engendering a new seed. Islamic discourses incorporate Plato in this way – one sees the tendrils more than direct quotation, because that is not what is central to philosophical knowledge.

My method came from reading texts and seeing their intersections as best as I can, which ultimately did two things. I let go of a lot of my premises. As I learned, I entered into their discursive mode, which is this living, Platonic mode of knowing, not through quotation so much as through internalized incorporation. Of course, I still footnote everything, I’m still modern. A central realization for me is also that most of human experience has always been and continues to be lived through stories that make up discursive fields, including what we call religions. We understand our world through rhetorical structures, not through information. In order to understand a discursive field, and even partake in it, we don’t need to believe in the truth of stories so much as think about how they reflect and produce meaning. Engaging with Islam as a discursive field does just this: it discovers meanings as much as possible without the limitations imposed by the categories that we, as subjects, as a disciplinary framework, bring.

Philip Geisler: Still, in this reorientation towards pre-modern spiritual discourses and sensitivities that you ground in a theoretical base gained partly through Sufism, I wonder how much space is left for the possibility of the non-spiritual: the voices, ideas, and narratives that transgressed or transcended the religious even in pre-modern times. For example, how would you approach al-Wasiti’s illustrations of al-Hariri’s social satire in his Maqamat – a painter about whom we now very little? Or the irreligious, virtually blasphemous ridicule of al-Ma’arri? Shouldn’t we doubt the alleged reality of an omnipresent religiosity for pre-modern times just as much as we doubt the reality of secularism as being a seamless modern reality in order to gain a full picture of a heterogeneous, multifaceted pre-modern world?

Wendy M.K. Shaw: Religious studies includes several debates about how to think about religion, and how this concept has been globalized, which I touch upon in my book. Like art history, it fails as a universal category. And as often as not, the transgressive can be interpreted through the transcendent – as I said before, this culture is one in which Islam is a verb, it is a greeting of the Divine in the world, or even the possibility of greeting the Divine even in places where we may not expect it, and perhaps also not all the time. Which is to say, nothing is in itself Islamic, but everything can be. An object is what we bring to it. Is the Maqamat just social satire? Or is it also about the stages – maqamat – of a Sufi path, which is also what the title connotes? We can only determine this from how our position of reading is informed.

“Khusrau Seeing Shirin Bathing”, Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami. Iran, Shiraz. 1447–48. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (28.22), Rogers Fund, 1928.

Philip Geisler: Through stories such as Shirin and Khosrau as well as Yusuf and Zulaikha, you also touch much on narratives of romance and eroticism. How do these feature in the overarching intellectual discourse and Islamic perceptual culture that you suggest?

Wendy M.K. Shaw: With these stories, I’m trying to do a few things beyond my basis that they use tropes of the image and dream-image, providing information about how to perceive images. I’m interested in the transcultural aspects of both stories. I’m fascinated by their female protagonists who enact political authority and who are in full control of their sexual desire and marital agency. Most importantly, I’m also fascinated by the depiction of sexuality, here and in other poems, as positive, rather than negative as in the Christian tradition, which emphasizes original sin. While in these stories, sexuality can be transgressive, it is natural, deeply human, and potentially transcendent. These uses of the image point to a perceptual culture that depends on experiences like dreams and sexuality, things that are deeply embodied and subjective. Informed by feminist discourses that situate the author in embodied experience, particularly that of Hélène Cixous and her readings of Plato, I see this type of deep subjectivity as central to the decolonial project at the heart of recognizing perceptual culture. And yes, this is a stepping outside of Islamic discourses – but they also live over time, incorporating diverse ideas and interpretations. I see myself as part of this flow.

Philip Geisler: With your revision of “Islamic art,” you ultimately suggest an alternative paradigm for the field. Yet it struck me that some elements of it seem to reconnect with Orientalist tropes that postcolonial critique dismantled. I am thinking of views such as an inherently and invariably religious pre-modern Islamic culture and subjectivity, your critique of the avoidance of essentialism in our understanding of Islam, an emphasis on eroticism, your return to textual sources very much in the spirit of conventional Islamic studies, and your call for being reenchanted by the material. So, how do you theorize these as part of a not only postcolonial, but decolonizing art historical practice that your book envisions?

Wendy M.K. Shaw: I see the anti-Orientalist discourse that disenchants just as alienating as that which enchants. The modern suppression of spirituality, eroticism, and subjectivity to prove properly modern identity repeats the Orientalist premise that a culture is lesser for differing from the norms of modernity as defined by colonial powers. Rather than following this hubris of modernity, I seek to listen to the voices of the past, not just to learn about, but also to learn from them.

Decoloniality doesn’t mean erasing the effects of modernity, somehow returning to a uniform, ideal past. Rather, for me the decolonial rediscovers traces of that which has been lost within a context inevitably impregnated with modernity. Rather than being bound to reinscribe the colonial terms of modernity, it allows for a multiplicity of that which was lost to coexist within us. It is a recovery, but not an erasure.

Decolonialism frees us – all of us, wherever you are from, whatever your faith or non-faith – to learn from and pay respect in this manner of incorporation. When I mention Re-enchantment in the book, I want to speak of this multi-form learning from each other that transcends boundaries of “scientificity” as understood in the positivistic humanities, but perhaps comes closer to more contemporary models of scientific knowing that have more complex systems of categories and interactions. But we cannot do this where we cannot encounter the Other on its own terms. I’m trying to provide one means of access to this, in one context. This informs new kinds of meanings that supplement those offered in a historicist matrix. I don’t imagine it would, should, or could erase that matrix. It just frees us from the illusion that it is the only interpretive matrix. The aim of decoloniality cannot be to remove the colonial, which is impossible – as even in doing so we would be repeating it – but to destabilize its supposed neutrality.

Philip Geisler: How does your study then add to our understanding of what transregional approaches are and what they can achieve in a decolonizing academic practice?

Wendy M.K. Shaw: That’s hard to say. I’m from two countries, I’ve lived and worked in four. I don’t know what it means to not be transregional. I’m hardly unique in this. I think this is a common experience – even in the historical world which I have been exploring, and certainly now. The idea of fixed identities is, for me, part of this illusion of objectivity, part of the imposition of nationalism as a model for all sorts of identity, including religion and gender. I think that every time we can enter into the possibility to see the world otherwise, we come to realize what Barthes pointed to so clearly – that myths make culture appear as though it were natural. Making such myths visible allows us to move between them and remove the colonial privilege that makes some myths more apparently normative than others.

Philip Geisler: One way you do this in your book seems to be that you clearly include yourself in the analysis.

Wendy M.K. Shaw: One way anthropology addresses the power differential implicit between subject and object is to situate the subject as part of the analytical experience. This correlates with many ways of knowing: feminist, the dialogical learning of Socrates, and the inclusion of the self in many Islamic texts as well. I include myself because we are all present in our thought, and to think otherwise is precisely the alienation that, like many others, I find deeply problematic in Enlightenment thought. Also, building on Islamic discourses, the ideal position is not one external to the subject at hand, but deeply invested in it through the preparation of the heart towards reception. The external, supposedly “objective” position is particularly poorly suited to understanding this cultural position.

Assimilation enters a tacit agreement that our backgrounds will not (at some point) matter, that we can all enter the neutral subject. This has not been my experience, whether in terms of my gender, my ethnic background, or my religious backgrounds. Against the default presumption of a white, Christianate name, I respect both my Muslim and my Jewish roots. I have put more effort into knowing Islam, but I have just as much respect for Judaism; if I were to not mention my father being Jewish, becoming American through the violence that created the modern Jewish diaspora, it would be as if I were hiding it. That would be disrespectful. All of this is part of my being an embodied subject – a woman, a professional single mother, with a certain age and a certain history that often confuses people’s expected identity categories. Yes, this embodiment is central to decolonizing. We are all people, who speak from experiences. There should not be one position that gets to claim it’s neutral, but we should be able to speak from where we are, as we are, letting our arguments convey our authority rather than hiding behind some false neutrality. At a time when so many are rallying to reaffirm this hegemonic authority, it becomes all the more important to speak as informed by our embodiment in the world. 

Philip Geisler: This, eventually, lets you outline a shape-shifting academic practice: art history “out of perspective,” as you write.

Wendy M.K. Shaw: There’s a discussion of how art history places the person who knows the subject looking at the whole world in perspective – like looking over a vast terrain of history. The geometry that enables perspective is a different use of the same mathematics in Islamic geometries – the difference is that it focuses on depth, whereas the Islamic dominant use focuses on lateral infinity. Where perspective forces a fixed viewing position outside of the image, infinite surface geometries destabilize the subject. Rather than having to stand in a particular position to see through the perspectival position correctly, as in the European tradition of realistic painting, pattern offers the viewer no fixed position. Each time you focus, you focus again at the next nexus. The gaze slides. Just as perspectivalism has been used as a metaphor for historicism, I use this mode of pattern as a metaphor for decolonial art history. This means that we shift subjectivities, sliding between various discursive frames rather than privileging one as the correct place from which to look. My work is not oppositional – it’s not trying to unseat the historicism through which my work itself becomes possible. It’s not arguing that Muslims are religious all the time, or that Islamic is necessarily spiritual. It’s not replacing one viewing system with the other, but recognizing that multiple positions are possible. This does not have to be and should not be a competition – this idea reflects the often retold story of the competition between the artists of Rum and Chinese artists that I suggest as a paradigm for perception in the book. I am saying that our positions are always necessarily provisional and informed by that which we know. The more systems of analysis we know, the more free we become to move between them and inhabit them. I find this freedom deeply beautiful, perhaps even hopeful in this complex, divisive world that we find ourselves in. The only winning is when we all win.


Wendy M. K. Shaw is Professor of the Art History of Islamic Cultures at Freie Universität Berlin. She works on the intersection between modernity, colonialism, postcoloniality, philosophy and art in the Islamic world through museums, art historiography, archaeology, religion, film, photography and contemporary artistic production. Her work features a regional emphasis on the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey within comparative perspectives with other regions of the global south and Islamic majority cultural legacies.

Philip Geisler is a Doctoral Candidate of the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies and Fellow of the Gerda Henkel Foundation. In his dissertation, he pursues a critique of representationalism through theorizing the cross-cultural agency of object-based and performed forms of heritage displayed through Islamic art museums.


Citation: “What is Art History when the Primary Sensory Organ is the Heart?” ‒ A Conversation with Wendy M.K. Shaw, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.03.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/22802.


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