My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk illustrates a deep divide between Western and Islamic cultures. It compares the way each culture has historically reacted to the visual arts.
Western art from about the 1500’s to around 1900, incorporated a point of view and perspective that made people and things look realistic and individualistic. The artist is also a strong individual with his or her own style and vision of the world.
My Name Is Red explores a conflict between illustrators in sixteenth-century Turkey. A Turkish man who had traveled to Venice wants to illuminate a book for the sultan by using the realistic Western manner. Islamic fundamentalists hate Western art. The only good art is art that praises Allah. Objects should be drawn according to their importance in Allah’s eye and not in proportion to their environment.
Islamic art was limited to manuscript illustration. Style, perspective, vision, a sense of time, individualism; these are undesired traits of manuscript illustration. A worthwhile painting exists when it represents the memory of Allah. The whole idea of illustrating a text borders on the blasphemous as it is; great care must be taken not to add to the art anything more than exactly what the text demands.
Skillful renditions of real people and things on canvas are an affront to Allah. Allah is the creator and not the artist.
When cameras began snapping realistic images, Western painters began to be less realistic and more interpretative. Western culture was scandalized by this unrealistic art. Is abstract art really art? Does it take less skill? Can your four-year old paint as well, or for that matter, can your cat paint with the same amount of skill?
The West was shocked by abstract art that seemed to lack any level of skill. No one can paint like Botticelli or Michelangelo did in the good old days. Yet how many Westerners were aware of how shocking a Botticelli had been and may still be to an Islamic culture?
My Name Is Red was an eye-opening book for this Westerner. I’m sure there is so much more to learn. No wonder insurmountable obstacles divide West and Mideast.
But in turn, let the Islamic world dare to understand Western culture. Unless the world is truly only black and white with no capacity for red. Then doomed we may be.