Abstract- Laura U. Marks

Artificial life from classical Islamic art to new media art, via 17th-century Holland

The nonfigurative patterns of Islamic art have an algorithmic liveliness that prefigures artificial life. The implicit life and movement of abstraction attracted Western artists to Islamic images. These patterns were incorporated into a solidly figurative art form, the Dutch genre painting, as early as the 17th century. I contend that the Islamic influence on 17th-century Dutch art was one of the first bursts of algorithmic, non-figurative expression that slowly led European art to abandon figuration, and in turn to release the living, performative qualities of computer-based art. Indeed, carpets and painting have proto-qualities of artificial life, even though their movement occurs not in software but in the mind of the beholder.
Trade between Venice and the Near East began in the Middle Ages, with silk damask and other fabrics from Levantine weavers, objects from Egyptian metalworkers, and carpets from Turkey and Iran reaching European clients. By the 17th century, textile trade from the Orient to Europe was well established. Both Italian and Northern Renaissance paintings began to feature carpets and other imports from Islamic countries in religious painting, then in secular portraiture and genre painting. At some point, these luxury objects from the Orient began not only to signify wealth but also to inspire style. This may have been as early as 16th-C Italian painting; but it certainly was the case that in 17th C Dutch genre painting, the Islamic carpets featured in these works became a force of abstraction. This force injects Dutch painting, injecting them with sensuous, haptic, material, intellectual, and properly performative meanings. As Islamic carpets become sources of aesthetic inspiration for European art, abstraction fights to the surface of these paintings. My central example will be Thomas Keyser’s Portrait of Constantijn Huyghens (1627), a work that relies on Islamic abstraction, in a prominently featured carpet, to express its subject’s mental activity.
Islamic abstraction, dependent as it is on Islamic aesthetic values of aniconism, latency, and performativity (as I will argue), thus influenced the European turn toward abstraction before 19th-C forays into abstraction, and well before the rise of artificial life in computer-based media, which strikingly reiterate the principles of Islamic algorithmic abstraction.