A tour guide leading a group of visitors through the new galleries of Islamic art at the Met explained that all of the works fell into four categories: calligraphic, vegetal (or arabesque), geometric and figural. After seeing the galleries I understood that all four of those things are the same. They are all about the line, and the art on display is essentially graphic.
The most powerful pieces are the manuscripts filled with text and illustrations. Sometimes a page requires careful inspection, and you fall into tit like a diorama. And sometimes a page compels you to step back so that the words, rendered in an extravagant, expressive Arabic script, collapse into a pulsating all-over pattern. The drawings of the human figure are naturalistic but not realistic. The artists were obviously looking at the body as they drew, but cared more about composing a fine, ideal figure on the page than about getting the proportions right. The scenes — of mythology, courtly life, war, and love — are well-observed but, to a western visitor, stubbornly anti-perspectival. Like so much of the artwork on display, it rests on the surface.