Speculative Realism’s Mongolian Debut

Siyah Qalam Painting

Speculative Realism is such a young and often disputably defined philosophical trend of thought that it might seem premature to wonder what the policies of a government or society predominantly run by like minded people to it would be. There is no example that matches with contemporary strain of thought, but if we are willing to go back to premodern times and be a bit flexible with what we define as speculative realist, I believe that the Mongol Empire was the closest thing we have to a historical example.

I just finished the art and cultural history book ‘Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief, and Art’ by Roxann Prazniak. I am not going to fully review the book here so much as synthesize why it underscores the materialist-realist turn of Mongolian imperial culture. Prazniak writes about the exchanges that took place at the height of the Mongol Empire by specifically focusing on a series of major metropoles in the 13th Century, both inside and outside of the empire proper. Her main focus is on the visual arts and the traceable trends that came-often from the Himalayas and Central Asia-to influence Middle Eastern, East Asian, and European artwork.

What she shows with art history is the cultural side of an often political and military history point made by many before: The Mongols were cross-cultural facilitators uninterested in imprinting their culture on the conquered so much as using their critical monopoly over military and trade power to create new synthesis forms of culture which would serve the state and royal family directly. Those of us who are into the details of Mongol Empire history know of these trends but as far as I know Prazniak’s book is unique for its soft power and artistic focus. While most of the rest of us Mongolists-and I would peripherally include myself here-can recite the litany of ways the Mongols made bank on empire, we often don’t talk about where that budget surplus actually went. For further information on the book, see this review of it by a fellow author and acquaintance of mine here.

As a cross-cultural empire ruled by a group always far outnumbered by its subject people not just in aggregate but in any locality outside of the homeland, the Mongols sought to leave a visible legacy in pushing for artistic innovation. Having a particular fondness for Tibetan and Nepalese art, this once utterly peripheral region would start influencing much of Eurasia through the exportation of its artists and schools of thought. Meanwhile, architects from Iran were being given jobs in China to introduce new building styles to visually display not only the wealth of the new rulers, but also their clear breaking with the past and expected tropes of codifying imperial rule from such entrenched cultures as the Chinese. Considering the Mongol affinity for Mahakala, then considered a patron deity of the empire, this commitment to innovation against stasis really isn’t surprising.

Up through even the fracturing of the empire into autonomous and sometimes even mutually hostile successor states, the general cultural attitude of the Mongol ruling class was one of secular patrons who showed their beneficence not by endorsing the dominant religion in society or among their own elite, but all religions represented held by their subjects. Whether the Ilkhanate in Tabriz or the Yuan in Dadu (and countless places in between and even outside the empire) the proper Mongolian method of spending surplus treasury funds was to construct public spaces, religious buildings, and works of art for as many people as possible. A Buddhist khan would show his fitness to rule not just by buildings stupas in Islamic Iran, but also built mosques for the locals and Nestorian churches for his wife. To say nothing of the mobile Tengriist shrines that would follow the still nomadic army as it migrated across the country. This was backed up with the legal precedent of the Yasa, or the Mongol Empire’s proto-constitution, which disavowed the state having an official religion and upheld the idea of religious freedom. Back in a time when humanist meant much more than its present definition of ‘lame liberal’ and clergy monopolized talent, this was something new and big.

The Mongolian ruling class saw itself as guarantors not only of commerce, but of directing that commerce towards tangible material outcomes that showed their patronage to as many different people as possible. There was no ideological project of the state outside of patronage of the arts (and of course survival, but all states have that). This set off a cultural explosion of innovation and new technique far afield of the specific courtly and public square contexts that the policy was directly applied to. Most interesting to me, with my affinities both for Central Asia and the Himalayas, was the return of figure portraits to a Muslim world notoriously hostile to human depiction. Himalayan style figures came to influence Central Asia, Iran, and eastern Anatolia for a while after having been gone for centuries. Most striking of these are the Siyah Qalam or Black Pen paintings attributed to a single school of now lost artists which are often spoken about as if they were a single guy.

These striking paintings show surreal takes on life, often with nomadic people or traders as their subjects. People from far afield such as pale Europeans and black Africans are depicted, showing a level of world awareness for non-courtly artwork that is truly remarkable. Even more frequently, monstrous figures either intermingle with people or are the only type of subjects. They fight, play instruments, and wrestle with animals. There is no definitive explanation that survives today to describe what these beasts were meant to portray, if anything.

I have a few books in my personal library that have large prints of many of these paintings. Personally, my view is that Siyah Qalam artworks were art for fun. A more refined version of the marginalia that creeps in around the corners of European illuminated manuscripts that simply found its own subgenre that took off, at least for awhile. Its the kind of thing that can only exist in a political culture that values talent and stuff for their own sake, rather than cloistered away commodities for theologians and bored aristocrats.

It is hard to talk about a young loosely bound school of philosophy like speculative realism, which lacks any kind of common political project, in a way that can guess how people educated in proximity to its ideas would govern. But the Mongol example shows what a fully materialist-realist state can do when it rejects conventional idealism and articulates the governing purpose of the state in purely real world terms. It is an example that both incorporates many different cultures and is long ago enough in the past to avoid easy comparisons to contemporary divisions of left and right. It does, however, have a revolutionary aspect in consciously trying to break with the past wherever it went. This break was done not in the messy fit of a Chinese style cultural revolution, but through patronage that innovated and forced change through a type of dynamic artistic merger.

A future government run by speculative realist-aligned people, I would like to imagine, would be something similar. Not destroying the past, but not leaving in unchallenged either. A desire to deliver real material results to reinvigorate culture from its long and debilitating postmodern malaise. Much as Islamic art removed the human figure for so long as to nearly forget how to draw people, so too have we in the present era been subjected to anti-material idealism for so long we don’t even know how to have concrete policies towards pressing issues of ecology and energy production. Not to mention that most modern art since the sixties has royally sucked. Future societies surely would not lose out by realizing that we could give our aesthetic public spaces a proper boot in the ass, Mongol style in inspiration but adapted for our own times.

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