The drama in Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk's wonderfully imaginative book, My Name is Red, unfolds at Topkapkı Palace in Istanbul in the early 1590s. In my book I write:
The court painters who are Pamuk’s characters in My Name is Red... painted their miniature paintings in the two-dimensional Persian style, which had been influenced by Chinese narrative art and calligraphy imported by the Mongols to the Middle East. Their pictures often depicted well-told stories like the epic Persian poem, the Shahnameh, (Book of Kings), stories that the Ottomans adopted as their own. In My Name is Red, the palace artists therefore regarded the sultan’s order to honor the Hijrah using new Western ideas in art as blasphemous. One of them feels so unnerved that he murders two of his colleagues, and the book begins with the voice of one of them, who has been stuffed down a well. (The Hijrah was the migration of the Prophet Muhammad and the first Muslims from Mecca to Medina, which took place in the year 622.)
The Topkapkı Palace painters were considered craftsmen, not artists, no matter how fine their work, which they were not allowed to sign:
In Islam, pictorial representation is considered sacrilege, as it has been at certain times and places among Christians and Jews, because of its ability to lead the faithful astray to worship false idols. But the Istanbul court miniaturists worked for the sultan who was also caliph, God’s shadow on earth. If they created beauty, it was only to summon the faithful to reflect upon the beauty that Allah himself had created by creating the world. And unlike their [Italian] counterparts, who were already developing discernable personal styles, reflecting the painters as much as the subjects the paintings were ostensibly about, the Istanbul court miniaturists worked anonymously. They did not sign their work. They were not allowed to develop a personal style or to call attention to themselves, or to paint using three-dimensional, or linear, perspective. Creating the illusion of space and distance on a flat surface would have been akin to playing God.
Imagine, then, how audacious it would have seemed when capitalists from Venice and Naples began commissioning portraits of themselves. Mere humans, who happened to be rich from the new capital markets developing, and who were thereby already upsetting the established order, they even dared to occupy the center of the paintings as if they were meant to be worshipped. It must have been like watching the ascendancy of the Ego, of the Individual, and of New Money – and the eclipse of the metaphysical – all at once.
And that brings us to today: Can Ego be separated from capitalism? Think about it. If we, all of us writers, actors, directors, artists, and others, worked anonymously and were not allowed to sign our work, if no credits rolled at the end of a film, how would that influence our choices? How many of us would still have something to say? And would we still toil, either for the love of the work or in religious spirit or simply to earn our bread, assuming the latter were possible? What would be our incentive and our reward? And would the creative impulse, in my case, and in the case of those seeking an MFA in creative writing in whatever genre, still call?
Writing is a craft first, akin to carpentry. But in a rampantly individualistic culture that encourages us to "follow our bliss" and tells us that we are unique, it's no wonder so many people struggle to prove it. Capitalism relies upon us for it.
Above, a manuscript page from the Shahnameh, c/o The Brooklyn Museum.