The doodle as high art

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's surprising how fine a line can get before it disappears altogether.

It's surprising how fine a line can get before it disappears altogether. There are some exceptionally fine lines at the Royal Academy's new exhibition, Turks, markings so delicate and attenuated that they are only just visible to the naked eye. It is true that my eyes are feeling a good deal more helplessly naked these days than they were 10 years ago, but even visitors with 20:20 vision can be seen bent over the display cases in attitudes of devotional observation, trying to grasp the minuter details of the illuminated manuscripts they are looking at.

This is an art, you sometimes feel, that is striving to disappear in front of your eyes. "There's room at the bottom," the physicist Richard Feynman famously noted in a visionary lecture about the possibilities of nanotechnology; but the calligraphers of the court of Mehmed II seem to have understood that centuries ago, pursuing decoration to the vanishing point.

The text of one of his elaborately illuminated Korans is bold enough - but it's only when your nose is virtually against the glass that you can see that the faint blush of pink, against which the letters stand out, is actually created by microscopic cross-hatching in red. And it isn't just the books either: a carved wooden box made for Ulugh Beg (whoever he was) in the early 15th century has astonishingly fine carving, while a wooden quiver is decorated with inlays so small that you can't easily grasp how they were manufactured. "Grasp" is the pertinent word, too - the human hand begins to look like a very blunt instrument indeed when set alongside components of such hairs-breadth delicacy.

It isn't very difficult to offer some explanations as to why this passion for the minuscule should have flourished in the Ottoman court - or, indeed, any court. Conspicuous consumption, after all, is an inflationary principle - always seeking to exceed what has gone before - and essentially it only has two ways to go. The ambitious potentate can commission awesomely big things or fill a more modest space with more decoration than seems humanly possible. And if you want your assertions of wealth and power to fit in your pocket... well, small is beautiful.

What such objects do, quite apart from their elaborations of a cultural tradition or their testament to spiritual belief, is to squeeze unconscionable amounts of human labour into a small space. They make human submission portable and easy to show off to others. The artist has a motive for going small too, though. In an art which prizes the submission of personality to technical discipline, going small-scale enormously increases the stakes. You or I could make patterns as complicated as these were we so disposed. It's called doodling. But I doubt that one in a thousand of us could do it at this scale or with this degree of control. It's the difference between plonking out "Chopsticks" on an upright and playing a Bach partita.

An old Arabic saying has it that "Calligraphy is music for the eye", which does some justice to the way in which these artworks seem freed from the task of transcribing the real that dominates so much Western art. But what's a bit harder to say is why we should respond so instinctively to the tunes it plays. It can't, after all, be anything to do with the content of the work. For most of the Royal Academy's visitors these are open and closed books at one and the same time - the Arabic cursives an ornamental fence behind which words and meanings lie obscured. And it can't surely be that we're simply obeying the Sultan's desire to inspire awe by his accoutrements (though there is quite a lot of that in the wonder that we bring to these objects).

I think there may be a clue to the nature of our response in the word that is most commonly employed to describe such objects - "exquisite" - a term of praise that has come to imply a discrimination at the microscopic scale (a skyscraper can't be exquisite, though the millimetre-precise detailing of its façade might).

This sense of fine distinctions is only tangentially in the word's etymology. It derives from the Latin exquaerere, to seek out - but then that does suggest the pursuit of something fugitive and furtive, and that seems apt to the meditative scrutiny these works insist upon. You simply can't stand back and admire them. Instead you have to go up close and follow their creators into the gap between the lines where, more often than not, you discover more lines and a yet smaller gap. There's an almost fractal sense that it's only the limits of your vision that halt the process, that if you could looked farther you would discover yet more patterns within patterns. It is - however modest the scope of the objects themselves - no small pleasure.