Can understanding classical art give us insights into our political relationship with the Middle East? Artist and scholar Stanley Bulbach believes so.
For Bulbach, who weaves flatwoven carpets, the phrase “classical art” expands in both aesthetic and historical meaning. This expanded view of classical art, he suggests, can challenge us to reconsider where Western civilization came from—back past the Greeks to ancient Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, but traditionally called the Near East.
Bulbach defines classic as it is commonly understood. “Classics to many means ideas and works of the past that epitomize cultural ideals that hit the target somehow in expressing who or what we have been. Classics frequently fall out of favor and then are rediscovered based upon their powerful ability to speak to us decades, centuries, or even millennia later on—even for classics of one culture to speak across unbridgeable distances to foreign cultures,” he said in a recent email exchange.
The ancient Near Eastern flatwoven carpet still speaks to us of our common humanity.
“Near Eastern flat woven carpets, often called kilims, had important utilitarian functions—primarily to transform the cold hard ground into something softer and warmer. They were beds on which the stages of life were played out. People slept and dreamt on them, made love and procreated, gave birth, convalesced, even died. Often those same carpets then became their burial shrouds.
“For nomads, at end of day’s journey, these carpets unrolled to transform foreign ground into more protective familiar turf,” Bulbach said.
It seems odd to dignify a functional carpet with the aesthetic distinction of art. But consider that although we associate the term “aesthetic” with visual art, the word comes from classical Greek and means “to feel” or “sense,” Bulbach explained. Think of “anesthesia,” its opposite.
Even if only seen, woven carpets, because of their texture and thickness, provide people a tactile experience.
Even more important than its aesthetic value, the carpet, so fundamental to ancient life, became imbued with spiritual importance.
“The designs with which these carpets were decorated, related to the most powerful and important human experiences and events, ranging from birthing symbols, to trees of life, to gardens of paradise. When created for prayer in Islam, these carpets had designs pointing to Mecca,” he wrote.
“Could any artist—ancient or contemporary—seek a more expressive and exciting canvas than this woven metaphor of the human condition?” Bulbach asks, on his website.
The Aesthetics of Flat-Weaving
Allowing the tactile qualities and significant designs to stand out is in the nature of weaving itself—in its very structure. It “favors designs in some directions, but not other directions,” Bulbach said.
This type of weaving flattens and abstracts a pattern. “This further combines with the mathematical structure of this weaving, which is perfect for replicating designs, introducing abstractions such as pattern and rhythm,” he said.
Enriching this art is yet another element: the dyes. Hand weaving included the process of hand dying wool with natural colors, necessarily limited in hue yet rich in gradations.
The more perfectly the patterns were replicated, the more valued the variation of wool yarns and dyes became in making each replication slightly different. This imbued “this art form with spirit and liveliness,” he said.
Ancient flatwoven carpets were, of course, meant to be used. Bulbach, however, intends that his own carpets, created in the same traditional way, be enjoyed as art to be viewed on the wall.
His M.A. and Ph.D. in Mesopotamia studies from NYU led him to Morocco, where he became fascinated with Near Eastern carpets. In the 1970s, he joined the contemporary craft movement and devoted himself to mastering the art.
He bases his work on the three distinct types of ancient Near East carpets: prayer carpets, carpet beds, and flying carpets. “Each speaks to a different type of human consciousness,” his website explains.
For example, his prayer carpet titled “Fall Too Soon” depicts a large snowflake in its center, which acts as a “focal point of prayer and meditation.”
Acknowledging Our Roots
Western culture typically sees our heritage beginning with the ancient Greeks, about the 5th century B.C. “In reality, our history and culture began twice as far back and from farther east,” Bulbach wrote.
It’s only been 200 years since we’ve been able to decipher ancient clay tablets of the Near East. Yet we owe astronomy, geometry, accounting, science, and even our basic writing systems to the Near East. Thus we lag far behind in understanding these shared roots.
“For modern Western culture, much of ancient textile’s story is new information about a world that is still foreign and puzzling to the West, a world currently in tragic conflict with both itself and the West, a world and history to which we are inextricably related,” he wrote.
He believes that our lack of understanding is a reason the 9/11 attack is unimaginably difficult for us to understand and also why we remain mired in the Iraqi region.
Bulbach believes flat-weaving art continues to be important today—if only we acknowledge the gifts ancient weaving has bequeathed to us.
Its artistic heritage is not hard to see. The art of flat-weaving is the prototype leading to Coptic weaving, medieval European tapestry, and contemporary tapestry arts.
But the Near East is also the root of our modern technology. The vegetal dye industry that can be traced in the West as far back as ancient Mesopotamia eventually led to the development of chemical dyes and then to the photochemical industry, he explained.
Similarly, the early loom developed over time so that by the early 19th century, looms had hole-punched cards that controlled the woven designs. This technology, in turn, was usurped in the 20th century by the computer industry.
“Thus, these carpets are a visual history of our technology up to the modern era,” Bulbach asserted.
More profoundly, the flatwoven carpet tradition exemplifies that both the Near East and the West have approached the mysteries of the unknowable in similar ways.
The early Mesopotamian visual arts can be characterized by pattern and rhythmic design. “Later in the Near East, Islam raised [these characteristics] to religious status as the only possible and permissible way to approximate the ineffable.” Islam forbids human representation for the purpose of worship because it is considered idolatry.
“This is not dissimilar from what the classical music arts of the West have done for centuries in their close relationship with religious practice,” he stated. Music, of course, is by its very nature abstract, full of patterns, and rhythmic.
Perhaps, then, a step toward peace today with the Near East would entail exploring its ancient art and learning about our shared heritage.
In our series “The Classics: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” practitioners involved in the classical arts respond to why they think the texts, forms, and methods of the classics are worth keeping and why they continue to look to the past for that which inspires and speaks to us. For the full series, see ept.ms/LookingAtClassics