Ethics, Anxiety, & Qur’anic Art: Episodes from Indonesia

Kenneth W. George

Ethical and ideological clashes over offensive images often unfold on the frontlines of national and global conflict. What predicaments and crises are posed, whose interests are served, and who are offended, when artists use the Qur’an for aesthetic projects? Episodes of scandal, self-censorship, and anxious iconoclasm suggest how a custodial ethics for handling Qur’anic Arabic has played into the hands of Muslim religious conservatives as they extend their authority into Indonesia’s contemporary art public. Neither designer Karl Lagerfeld nor painter A. D. Pirous could evade criticism, or avoid being drawn into debates over secularism and religion, when they used Qur’anic verse for pictorial effect.

Professor Kenneth M. George is a specialist on Southeast Asia and has been the Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies since 2005. His research principally concerns the cultural politics of language, art, religion, and violence. His early work in Indonesia (1982-1992) dealt with ritual speech, song, and violence. Since 1994, he has been collaborating with Indonesian painter A. D. Pirous in exploring the predicaments and possibilities for Islamic visual culture in national and transnational art publics, especially those wounded by state violence. Prof. George is also using that collaboration to set agendas for ethnographic art historical research, and the cross-disciplinary analysis of ideology, experience, and subjectivity.