More than 60 of the world’s finest Qurans are headed to D.C., for a major Smithsonian survey. In October, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery will host the first major exhibit of Quranic texts to ever come to the U.S. This is blockbuster news. A real October surprise!
The collection comes courtesy of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, which was founded in Istanbul during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Thanks to the foresight of these departing Ottoman rulers, ornate folios that might have been lost to political fissure and tribalism were instead relegated to a single imperial museum. In some ways, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts is the best argument for the kind of encyclopedic museum favored by internationalists such as James Cuno—but yeah, none of that is gonna matter to Donald Trump.
“The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts” will feature manuscripts rom Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, highlighting the history of Islamic illumination spanning back as far 8th-century Syria. And when Republicans find out about it, they are going to hear “Quran” and “Smithsonian” and “Hillary Clinton,” somehow, and that will be that. Right?
It takes a certain kind of demagogue to make a culture war. The former Republican senator, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, had a gift for the art of intimidation (and the intimidation of art). He publicly dogged contemporary artists Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, knowing full well that a condescending gloss of the artists’ work—a crucifix in a jar of urine, photos of butt stuff—would be enough to offend traditionalist voters who might never even see the artworks. As I wrote after Helms’s death in 2008 for The Huffington Post, “No public figure promoted artists in the late ’80s and early ’90s quite the way the recently departed Senator Helms did.”
In an episode that is now D.C. lore, the late senator targeted the Corcoran Gallery of Art specifically. In 1989, Helms lambasted the museum for its plans to show a survey of Mapplethorpe’s photography, which depicted classical values in composition alongside homoerotic and bondage themes. When then–Corcoran director Christina Orr-Cahal submitted and canceled the show, fearing retribution from Congress, she received an angry call from the senator’s office. Helms, of course, wanted the show to go on, because outrage was good for business.
The salience of outrage hasn’t diminished at all since then. In 2010, during the last dust-up between the professional right and the Smithsonian, the Castle caved quickly, even proactively, at the mere whiff of scandal. After a conservative journalist named Penny Starr described a video work as anti-Christmas, part of a show of LGBTQ art at the National Portrait Gallery, then–Secretary of the Smithsonian G. Wayne Clough hastily pulled the work. It’s telling that in 2010, Starr—who worked for one of Brent Bozell’s operations—couldn’t simply object to the fact that the work was queer. It’s also telling that in 2010 the threat of an artwork being deemed anti-Christmas was enough to do the trick.
In both of those cases, conservative actors (Helms and Starr) needed to make the case for a contemporary artwork in order to make the case against it. It would not be enough for Starr to say that the National Portrait Gallery was showing David Wojnarowicz. These works required a frame in order to be construed as controversial.
The Quran doesn’t require any such frame. It’s a demeaning thing to write about a holy text revered by nearly 2 billion people, but part of the electorate in the U.S. sees the Quran as offensive. And in October 2016, a month before the election, there might be a demagogue willing to sow fear and discord by questioning the moral propriety of the Smithsonian Institution.
Of course, hate-mongering voters and their representatives might be surprised to hear that Islamic art plays an important role within the Smithsonian and on the National Mall. Beyond the more than 2,200 Islamic art objects in the Freer and Sackler collections, one of the gardens within the Enid A. Haupt Garden draws its design from Moorish landscape and tile design. The Fountain Garden, which abuts the National Museum of African Art, mirrors the ancient Court of the Lions from the 12th-century Andalusian fortress known as the Alhambra. The four streamlets of water that flow into the Fountain Garden represent the four rivers of paradise described by the Quran: water, wine, milk, and honey.
If conservatives make a stink about a show of Qurans appearing on the National Mall, they will be embarrassing themselves and the country. To give social conservatives some credit, this may never come to pass. The show promises to be gorgeous, filled with powerful calligraphy and intricate illumination; it is precisely the kind of historical museum show that appeals to viewers who regard modern art with suspicion. At the same time, conservatives showed up to primary elections in record numbers to vote for a presidential candidate who is promising a national ban on Muslims. It’s not enough to trust that conservatives will be rational about a museum show.
Should it happen that a House back-bencher or a Breitbart News writer goes after the Smithsonian for showing Qurans, the Castle must not be cowed. Massumeh Farhad, the Freer and Sackler’s chief curator, deserves the unyielding support of Secretary of the Smithsonian David J. Skorton. In times of controversy and upheaval, the Smithsonian has been shy about speaking up in determination on behalf of culture, history, and inclusiveness. If it is necessary this fall, let’s hope that the institution finds its voice.
“The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts” will be on view Oct. 15–Feb. 20, 2017.