This weekend I posted a guide to Berlin’s Pergamonmuseum. If you read that and have also read the news recently, something probably caught your eye. I mentioned that one of my favorite things in the museum is the Aleppo Room, located in the Islamic Art galleries. I said it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen in any gallery of Islamic art. Then I read that the recent violence in Syria had reached the city of Aleppo, where the house containing the room was originally located.
That something so beautiful could be from a place that is currently so full of ugliness was both shocking and saddening to me. As someone who studies art I deal mostly with the aesthetic side of cultures and have the privilege of being able to put aside some of their baser elements. But I have to wonder, how much could we accomplish if we took the time to appreciate the beauty in other cultures? How much more open would our dialogue be, how would our opinions of others change, if we stopped to look at the artistic accomplishments of societies and simply acknowledge their merit?
In cases of human conflict it can be easy to overlook the beauty in other cultures. A perfect example of this is the underwhelming American Indian galleries in many American art museums. To fully accept these artifacts as art instead of anthropological objects is to bring up complex questions on the moral history of the United States. Likewise to study the art of the Middle East is to admit there is good in a part of the world that many in the West claim is backward or even evil. It’s harder to dismiss American Indians as primitive when looking at the amazing geometry of a mask done by the Kwakwaka’wakw people of the Pacific Northwest or Islam as violent when surrounded by the serenity of the colonnades of the Cordoba mosque.
Visiting an art museum and acknowledging the beauty in other cultures takes us a step closer to understanding. I’m not speaking of the fetishization of the exotic, but the real understanding that humans have always sought and appreciated beautiful things and that maybe we’re not as different as we think. I took more interest in the situation in Aleppo because of the room in the Pergamonmuseum. Rather than something happening in a foreign land, it feels closer somehow. Art creates a feeling of our common humanity. It helps us to feel, to understand, and allows us to grieve when we see mankind act against itself. Art is the shared heritage that unites us all.
There is one surprising thing about the Aleppo Room that only enhances its meaning. The man who commissioned it for his house was a rich merchant in the city, and he was also a Christian. Biblical scenes coexist with Ottoman decorations. Two cultures that seem at odds to our modern worldview converge to form one beautiful object. I think it was that very juxtaposition that fascinated me the most. Yet again I was reminded how the boundaries we know now, whether national, ethnic, or religious, are not now nor have ever been as set as they may seem.
They say that the opposite of seeing the world in black and white is to view the shades of gray, but I have to disagree. Instead we need to turn to the bright colors in artwork. The idea may seem naive in the face of global problems such as the current situation in Syria, but the beauty of one work of art or even one room can go a long way toward inspiring us. All we have to do is look.