Tradition or Innovation: The Relationship Between Art and Culture in My Name Is Red
Art, in all its forms and varieties, has existed throughout the millennia and been an important part of many diverse cultures. From simple cave drawings to impressionistic painting masterpieces to Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of David, art has always been present in human society and provides modern man with some clues about the society in which it was created. Different cultures produced different art forms and different styles within those forms. Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name Is Red details the separation between the Eastern, Islamic perspective of art and the Western, Christian perspective. These differences in art and perspective result from the cultural and religious differences between the empire of the Ottoman Turks and the Venetian city-state. In Pamuk’s novel, this conflict is depicted through the plight of the Turkish miniaturists who are torn between continuing the traditional Eastern methods of artistry and implementing the innovative Western methods. Is one of these perspectives superior to the other, and, if so, which one? Or, should a method based upon a middle ground between the two methods be advocated, and what would that style look like?
During the reign of the Ottoman Turks, art – especially renderings of people and animals – was frowned upon by the more strict and conservative Muslims. Renderings of Muhammad, in particular, were, and remain, strictly forbidden due to perceived idolatry. The creation of human images creates the possibility that men will fall into the dangerous sin of worshipping the image or the person in the image instead of focusing all praise and worship on Allah. Indeed, if one could not read the Koran in a completely unadorned manner, then calligraphy was mostly acceptable. The art of calligraphy was more honored in the Islamic culture than any other form of art. The illumination of texts was a controversial topic during the time period – even when the illumination consisted of simple designs in the margins of the pages. The most controversial art form of all was the illumination of texts by the miniaturists, in which illustrations of people and animals would be provided to accompany the texts. In My Names Is Red, a group of miniaturists are secretly commissioned by the sultan to produce a book full of illustrations. The miniaturists face many conflicts: between the two approaches of art, between obedience to the sultan or to Allah, and between tradition and innovation.
Apart from the idolatrous connotations of art, Muslims also believe that adopting a human perspective of an artistic creation is heretical. Instead, the Muslim miniaturists attempt to create illustrations from the perspective of Allah. In other words, the images in the picture are not arranged according to scale or any other type of organizational device. It is ironic that the Turkish miniaturists are so concerned with committing heresy in their work by depicting the world as man sees it, that they do not consider the heresy in attempting to portray the world as it appears to God. In order to paint the point of view of God, the artist must attempt to put himself in that mindset, must try to envision what it is like to be God and what He sees. This, it seems, is the greatest heresy of all! It does not involve the worship of false idols; it involves man’s attempt to make himself into God, even if only for a brief amount of time.
In addition, some of the traditional Muslims in My Name Is Red believe that the creation of these images infringes upon Allah’s distinction as the Creator. Allah, they believe, is the only one who can create, and painting these miniatures is playing with fire, essentially. “Olive,” in an argument with Enishte Effendi, states, “On Judgment Day, the idol makers will be asked to bring the images they’ve created to life… Since they’ll be unable to do so their lot will be to suffer the torments of Hell… ‘[C]reator’ is one of the attributes of Allah. It is Allah who is creative… No one ought to compete with Him. The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do what He does, who claim to be as creative as He” (My Name Is Red, 28). Some of the chapters in My Name Is Red are narrated by various illustrations such as a dog, a tree, a coin, and the color red. These illustrations speak to the power of creation, even when done on a lesser scale by mortal men. Even art created by men can have far-reaching and unforeseeable effects on other people, and sometimes even on society as a whole. Enishte Effendi recognizes this and tells “Olive,” “A great painter does not content himself by affecting us with his masterpieces; ultimately, he succeeds in changing the landscape of our minds. Once a miniaturist’s artistry enters our souls this way, it becomes the criterion for the beauty of our world… [the Master of Isfahan] not only witnessed the fact that his work, instead of disappearing, actually proliferated and increased; he understood that everybody now saw the world the way he had seen it” (My Name Is Red, 28). As a result, there is an element of danger in artistic endeavors, just as there are also elements of liberty, love, and inspiration.
Furthermore, the traditional Muslim miniaturists do not believe in introducing individuality and uniqueness into one’s work. Because the art of miniatures is so tradition-based, each artist relies on the innovation, talent, and influence of the artists who came before. According to “Butterfly,” one of the miniaturists commissioned to work on the sultan’s secret book, each artist is “beholden to the old masters for the perfection of his pictures” (My Name Is Red, 12). In fact, “Butterfly” also believes that “imperfection gives rise to what we call ‘style’” (My Name Is Red, 12). For the traditional miniaturists, style is what separates an individual artist from the centuries of tradition, and that is not viewed as a benefit. One past master miniaturist was notable because his works were not notable; he was accomplished enough to leave no individual style, and thus no clue to his identity, in any of his work. In the end of My Name Is Red, the individual artistic style of the murderer of Elegant Effendi reveals his identity. In essence, this fact further cements the negative opinion of style; it is something that reveals the artist, not for reward or recognition, but for retribution.
The Western Christian perspective of art differs quite significantly from the Eastern point of view presented in My Name Is Red. According to the Turkish miniaturists, the Western practice of drawing, painting, and sculpting human figures is indulging in sinfulness. It is idolatry; “After awhile we’d begin to worship a picture we’ve hung on a wall, regardless of the original intentions. If I believed, heaven forbid… that the Prophet Jesus was also the Lord God himself… and even, that He could manifest in human form; only then might I accept the depiction of mankind in full detail and exhibit such images” (My Name Is Red, 20). For Christians and Muslims alike, idolatry is a sin, but Christians seem to fear it or emphasize it less. Throughout the history of the Christian church images have been used, though controversies have not been entirely avoided. The Eastern Orthodox Church, for instance, uses icons as aids in worship, but this usage contributed to the schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. The Western Church feared the propagation of idolatry due to the icons, but the Eastern Church believed they were beneficial and justifiable. In the medieval era, churches also used stained glass, paintings, and other forms of artistry throughout the church in order to serve as a “poor man’s Bible.” Essentially, the illustrations of the Biblical stories serve as a way for the illiterate to learn the gospel and to come to Christ. In this way, such illustrations and depictions can be useful – even scriptural – and not idolatrous.
However, the depiction of human beings in Christian works did grow out of hand. Rich patrons began requesting for their likenesses to appear in the work of master artists, even in scenes in which the individuals did not appear. It became commonplace for the artist or the patron of the artist’s work to appear in a painting based on a Biblical scene. This, the Turks thought, was the most outrageous type of pride and vanity. Pamuk writes, “Portraiture had become such a contagion among affluent men…that even when they commissioned frescoes of biblical scenes and religious legends for church walls, these infidels would insist that their own images appear somewhere in the work” (My Name Is Red, 20). For the Turkish Muslims, whose religion so thoroughly emphasizes humility, this type of self-entitlement and self-aggrandizement is unacceptable, offensive, and heretical. Traditional miniaturists do not paint the exact portrait of a person in one of their pieces, but instead attempt to capture the essence of humanity. “Butterfly” provides the reader with parables on the topic. In the parable about a Khan and his Tartar concubine, the Khan is disturbed by a figure in a painting when the details of an image are changed to make it bear more resemblance to his lover. As a result, the Khan attempts to make his lover jealous, but instead drives her to suicide. Parables such as this prevent traditional Muslims from desiring to insert themselves in a work of art, contrary to the practice of the infidel Europeans.
Unlike the Muslims in My Name Is Red, the Christians also begin to paint using a certain perspective. All the images in the work of art are arranged according to size, scale, and position in order to remain realistic. In a way, this approach allows the viewer to participate in the work of art on some level. The viewer experiences the painting from the point of view of a realistic observer, and the entire painting is based around that perspective. In comparison to the Turkish miniaturists, the Venetian and Frankish Christians merely attempt to paint the world and all it contains from the perspective of mankind. In other words, these Western painters do not attempt to put themselves in God’s place in order to view the world and portray it on canvas or in marble. Remaining somewhat humble, at least in this area, the Western painters work mainly from human experience and human knowledge, and they do not try to reach for the viewpoint of God.
As a result, Christian artists also tend to have more lenient views about the subject of art as a whole. Though some art and artists have been controversial, it has largely been accepted throughout Christianity. Christians do not believe that man’s act of creation necessarily limits God’s own creation. In fact, many Christians would argue that because God has first created, humanity has been given the ability to also create – to a lesser extent. Art and other creative endeavors, therefore, are not frowned upon in Western society to the extent described in the Turkish culture of My Name Is Red.
Throughout My Name Is Red, the characters struggle to create and adopt the most appropriate, successful method of artistry, and each character arrives at a different decision through different methods. The division occurs along the East-West and tradition-innovation polarities. Elegant Effendi, a skilled miniaturist and the corpse who opens the novel’s narration, chooses to remain on the side of Eastern tradition. Elegant Effendi does not approve of the secret book that some of the miniaturists are working on for the sultan, and he believes they are sinners and threatens to reveal the project. By relying on Venetian strategies and not on traditional Muslim strategies alone, there is a fear that doing so will result in a decreased “purity” of the art and “reduce [the Muslim miniaturists] to being their slaves” (My Name Is Red, 28). Pamuk reveals the Eastern culture’s fear and distrust of Western culture, and it is not without cause or merit. Western culture often has a way of completely overpowering and subduing other people and cultures. Elegant Effendi’s strict adherence to the traditional and Eastern method results in his murder, so one may conclude that in My Name Is Red Pamuk does not support this particular viewpoint.
Enishte Effendi, in contrast, supports the merging of the Western and Eastern philosophies of art. In his estimation, “Nothing is pure… Two styles heretofore never brought together have come together to create something new and wondrous… To God belongs the East and the West. May He protect us from the will of the pure and unadulterated” (My Name Is Red, 28). He advocates a more moderate position because he is able to see and appreciate the positive aspects both sides have to offer. This is also the position Pamuk advocates throughout the entirety of My Name Is Red. The struggles of the miniaturists are indicative of the struggles of the Ottoman Empire as a whole. In order to become more powerful and more respected, the Ottoman Empire must Westernize in some areas without completely ridding itself of its heritage. Similarly, some of the miniaturists recognize that their art must also be Westernized if it is be to appreciated and preserved on a more wide-scale, international level.
Unfortunately, “Olive” discovers that he cannot draw well when he attempts to draw in the Western style; he can only draw as he has been taught. Here, Pamuk makes a statement about the difficulty involved in merging the two cultures. Because the miniaturists are only familiar with their style of art – a style that has been passed down for generations – they will struggle to adapt successfully to a new method. For the empire as a whole, this is also true. Pamuk subtly admits in the book that it will take years for the nation to “catch up” to the Western countries, and it may never happen completely. For Pamuk, My Name Is Red uses the plight of the miniaturists to make statements about the larger issues in the Ottoman Empire and in present-day Turkey. The miniaturists must come to understand that the most advantageous, most successful method is the one that combines their traditions with innovations. It is important for the Turkish Muslims to respect and preserve their heritage and traditions without being too rigidly attached to them. Progress and innovation, in art and society, cannot be ignored wholesale; on the contrary, they must be appreciated and applied in order for the continuation of the field in question. The miniaturists’ illustrations are quickly becoming a dying art in My Name Is Red, while the Western painters’ works only continue to rise in prominence. In order to maintain relevancy, the miniaturists must adapt to the changes. This more moderate method will lead to greater longevity and success for the work of the Muslim miniaturists, and the same approach will yield similarly promising results for the Republic of Turkey, according to Pamuk.
Pamuk, Orhan. My Name is Red, trans. Erdag M. Göknar (New York: Vintage Books, 2001). ISBN: 0-375-70685-2.