This week the Louvre Museum in Paris opened up a new wing devoted to Islamic art. The structure, which cost a reported £80 million and took a decade to build, is fitted with a wave-like, gold tinted rooftop which has been likened both to a flying carpet and sand dunes in the desert. It has been granted a privileged position in the Louvre’s central courtyard alongside I M Pei’s glass pyramid, and will house the largest collection of Islamic art in Europe – a rotating selection from the Louvre’s 18,000 strong Islamic archive.
It’s all very exciting, but what, exactly, are the implication of this grand new home for the cream of the Islamic cultural crop? The new space is being billed as a symbol of tolerance in the face of growing unrest and misunderstanding between the west and the Islamic World. Sophie Makariou, director of the Louvre’s Islamic Art Department, said in an interview with the BBC: “We need to state that there is a distance between what the Islamic civilization was, its contribution to world history, and what is happening now.” She went on to call the exhibition space a chance to “give Islam back its glory”. French president François Holland, who inaugurated the wing on Tuesday, called it a significant project at a significant time.
And it’s not just those in camp west who see the endeavour in these terms. The gallery’s largest single donor – Prince Waleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia – made this statement: “After 9/11 all Arabs and Muslims have the duty and the responsibility to tell the west about real Muslims, about real Islam, and how peaceful our religion is.” Substantial donations have also poured in from individuals in Abu Dabi, Kuwait, Oman, not to mention the Moroccan Royal Family and the president of Azerbaijan. An international project with ambitious intentions, no doubt.
France has a long history of secularism, which has of late been invoked justification for cracking down on the country’s four million strong Muslim population. The 2004 ban of headscarves in public schools sparked protests, followed by further controversy over last year’s outlaw of the niqab in public spaces. In 2010, the mayor of the northern city of Roubaix initiated a row over whether the sale of halal meat in fast food burger chains let religion in where it didn’t belong. Then there's the recent unrest over satirical cartoons in the weekly Charlie Hebdo, and the banning of anti-Innocence of Muslims protests by the interior minister Manuel Valls.
In a sense, the museum's message is a harmless one – a politely reassuring statement of cultural collaboration. But in another sense it amounts to a failure to acknowlege the modern Muslim condition - an implication that only in the past did Islamic culture aspire to beauty, integrity, intelligence and refinement.
The Louvre has borne the standard for western high art since the French Revolution. Art from Islamic antiquity (the new wing will house work from the 7th to the 19th century), with its fondness for calligraphy, narrative painting and lush decorative textiles, ceramics and ornaments, conforms perfectly well to the aesthetic criteria of western art from the same periods. In previous centuries, eastern and western sensibilities were very much in tune. It’s the world today that the French seem to feel uneasy with – hence the appeal to an idealised past.
Ancient art is beautiful and important, no doubt. But for many young people today – those at the heart of the east/west debate - it remains inaccessible and elitist. The French youth might call the Mona Lisa an invaluable artefact, yes – but provocative? Topical? A catalyst for conversation? Hardly. Should we then expect Moghul mosaics to speak for the modern Muslim?
It’s comforting to imagine that misunderstandings and intolerance on both sides could be placated by a round of applause for what came before. But if all we can celebrate about Islam is its past, then we are ignoring the equally beautiful aspects of its present. The Louvre’s new wing is a worthy home for a collection worth celebrating. But it is but a small bridge over a chasm that continues to widen. An honest celebration of contemporary Islamic art and culture is still needed and major art institutions like the Louvre should be doing their bit.