Writing History: Islamic Calligraphy

L to R: Oleg Grabar, Melissa Chiu, and Glenn D. Lowry. (Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society)

NEW YORK, December 16, 2008 – Islamic art scholars Oleg Grabar, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, and Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, engaged in a lively discussion at the Asia Society. Moderated by Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society Museum, their talk revolved around two questions: is calligraphy art, and, if so, what makes it art?

Grabar set the framework for the discussion by posing provocative questions about the status and meaning of calligraphy in the Islamic regions of western and central Asia and its categorization as a religious expression. While he noted that as early as the 11th century, an aesthetic-minded class was collecting specimens of calligraphy in the Islamic world, it wasn't until the 20th century that the presumption that "writing is the most Islamic form of expression" prevailed. Grabar argued that this notion is rooted in an ahistorical and essentialist Western discourse that served to elevate Islamic writing to a form of art.

Using slides, Grabar focused the audience’s attention on a series of works on paper in which the quality, composition, and legibility of the writing greatly varied. After positing that calligraphy "becomes a work of art because you don’t have to read it," he asked repeatedly, What is it that makes it a work of art? And what distinguishes calligraphy from conventional writing—content or form?

In contrast to Grabar’s skepticism, Lowry asserted that scribes have long manipulated Arabic script, which lends itself to permutation and embellishment in a way that other scripts do not. He argued that there are consistent assertions in Islamic literature that "calligraphy reveals the soul of a man" as well as allusions to a collecting class that recognized certain scribes above others.

The high value assigned to calligraphy has also had an impact on contemporary Islamic art, Lowry alleged, explaining how artists in MoMA's 2006 exhibition Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking turned to calligraphy to examine ethnic and national identities and modernity. 

Reported by Jacqueline Ganem

Audio Excerpt: Glenn D. Lowry on the unique malleability of Arabic script and the emerging distinction between ordinary writing and calligraphy (1 min., 12 sec.)