Is Calligraphy Considered Art?

Calligraphy was present not only in Asia and the Islamic world but also in the West, transforming in form and status over the centuries.

Apr 30, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art



Calligraphy is the ancient art of writing that sits at the intersection of art and literature. It was particularly important in ancient China, perceived as the most virtuous of arts, training both mind and spirit. However, despite centuries of its existence, its status as an art form remains questioned. Today, we will examine the long history of calligraphy to understand its position and meaning.


The Origins of Calligraphy: How Did Writing Become Special?

hisari galleon calligraphy
Calligraphic Galleon, by ‘Abd al-Qadir Hisari, c. 1766-67. Source: The Metropolitan Museum, New York


Calligraphy is the ancient art of lettering and design, treasured in many cultures. It emerged from the writing itself, when ancient people noticed the transformative power of composition, life, and form over the words’ meanings. In different cultures, calligraphy was intertwined with painting and poetry, presenting an intersection between them rather than a slightly elevated act of writing. It was an activity suitable for both aristocracy and artisan masters, capable of acting as a tool for climbing the social ladder. To master calligraphy, one had to demonstrate exceptional patience, precision, and mental focus.


Particularly important the art of calligraphy was for Chinese culture, where it originated at least four thousand years ago. From China, it traveled to Japan and Korea, transforming according to the aesthetic and spiritual needs of the region’s inhabitants. In India, artists used calligraphy for religious texts and sacred sites. However, not all uses of calligraphy were strictly religious. The art of lettering soon moved to a secular domain used for all kinds of texts, official documents, and signatures.


Calligraphic art by street artist Pokras Lampas. Source: Pokras Lampas website


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Over the centuries, calligraphy was valued for its extra expressive qualities that enhanced both the visual and semantic sides of it. Even today, hand-made calligraphy is still used in product design and communication, even though it is mostly separated from the domain of ‘high’ art. In the contemporary art scene, calligraphy in its transformed state remains popular among street artists, who continue the tradition of adapting it to the urban environment.


Asian Calligraphy

ma lin scholar calligraphy
Scholar Reclining and Watching Rising Clouds, Poem by Wang Wei, calligraphy and illustration by Ma Lin, mid-13th century. Source: Cleveland Museum of Art


In China, a basic form of writing was already present in the early days of the Bronze Age, with exquisite carvings found on divination instruments like oracle bones. As the Chinese writing system developed, its complexity and nuance turned into a spiritual and aesthetic feature. In the 8th century, Chinese written sources confirmed a deep fascination with the literary legacy from the past, praising not only its content but the aesthetical qualities of writing. Over the years, the Chinese hieroglyphic system developed, branching several simpler scripts deemed suitable for clerical work and fast writing, and more complex and decorative ones that required more skill and effort.


However, the question of the artistic value of calligraphy was always present. In the 2nd century C.E., a critical essay accused calligraphers of wasting mental and physical resources on the superficial appearance of letters rather than their meaningful content. But, despite the efforts of the critics, calligraphy was soon elevated to the highest form of art, necessary to master for every educated person. Calligraphers even became performers, creating their compositions in front of audiences and controlling their every move. Despite the categorization of the scripts, every master had their own signature stroke and absorber influences of their teachers, thus developing and transforming the average standard for calligraphic writing.


saga saicho calligraphy
Cry for noble Saichō, by Emperor Saga, c. 820s. Source: Wikipedia


In Japan, the calligraphic tradition was introduced in the Middle Ages. It had Chinese origins yet quickly transformed into a specific genre with its own particularities. In Japanese calligraphy, the mental state of the artist is the crucial ingredient of the work. The lack of confidence or concentration would immediately reveal itself through the brush, ruining the only chance for artistic expression. Japanese type of calligraphy usually does not tolerate corrections.


In 1882, a Japanese painter Koyama Shōtarō, known for his watercolors and pastels, published a critical article titled Calligraphy Is Not Art. Koyama was known as a Westernized artist who blended Japanese subject matter with European techniques and conventions and received substantial criticism for it. In his article, Koyama insisted on calligraphy being solely a work of literature, lacking ‘true’ characteristics of visual art. However, as was noted by Koyama’s critics, Koyama formed his opinions based on Western art theories and the Eurocentric relationship of text and image. By forcefully imposing the standard of foreign culture upon his own, he discarded the centuries-old tradition of calligraphy by labeling it simply as a linguistic sign that could have no other function.


In articles refuting Koyama’s position, Japanese intellectuals highlighted the skill, creativity, and intellectual level needed to work with calligraphy, as well as the additional meaning created by composition and the intensity of brushstrokes. Although Koyama’s attempt to tackle the traditional Japanese art form was futile, his arguments nonetheless illustrate the main issue with the categorization of calligraphy as art—cultural differences and Eurocentric standards.


Calligraphy in the Islamic World

blue quran calligraphy
Folio from the ‘Blue Qur’an,’ written in Kufic script, c. 9-10th centuries. Source: The Metropolitan Museum, New York


For the Islamic world, calligraphy was and remains one of the main forms of art, bringing together intellectual pursuit, artistic skill, and deep spirituality. Some sources state that the emergence of calligraphy in Islamic cultures developed from a ban on all non-abstract images, but this is not entirely correct. Despite popular belief, figurative images of people and animals are not directly prohibited in the Qur’an, yet the attitude towards them can vary, depending on specific branches of Islam.


For centuries, Islamic secular figurative painting existed and bloomed independently from the calligraphic tradition. Nonetheless, the images of humans or animals cannot appear near sacred sights, thus calligraphic compositions remain the principal form of decoration in mosques. The practice of writing is particularly important for Islam since the revelation of Prophet Muhammad was written down and then copied to spread God’s word. Thus, copying the Scripture was a holy act that promised the scribe a reward from heaven.


suleiman insignia calligraphy
Tughra (Insignia) of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent, c. 1555-60. Source: The Metropolitan Museum, New York


The earliest type of script used in Islamic calligraphy was the Kufic script, easily recognizable by angular forms and horizontal orientation. Some historians believe it originated in the eighth century CE from the transformed cuneiform writing. Artists and scribes used it for architecture, textile, and coin decoration, but its main function concerned the Qur’an writing. Evolving over the centuries, Kufic writing was stylized in various ways, sometimes transforming into strict geometric forms.


Later on, more scripts emerged, employing various degrees of decorative excess and various functions. Some calligraphic compositions became emblems of authority and were used as signatures under important documents. For instance, the insignia of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent, the incredibly complex blend of writing and ornament, was created by at least two masters: a calligrapher and a decorator.


Calligraphic materials also hold a special meaning for those working with Arabic calligraphy. Some artists collected shavings from their reed pens, asking their families to use them for heating water for the master’s burial. The preparation of inks and pens is a complex and important process within itself, with even pen boxes often being made by hand, lavishly decorated with calligraphic carvings.


Calligraphy in Christian Europe

cloisters apocalypse manuscript
The Cloisters Apocalypse, c. 1330. Source: The Metropolitan Museum, New York


The relationship between text and image in the West had dramatically different connotations from those in other parts of the world. Traditionally, one thing had to complement another, with either the text explaining the image or the image facilitating the understanding of the text. Given the incredibly low literacy rates in Medieval Europe, images were the primary method of communication with the crowd. Religious art and Biblical scenes represented in churches aimed to convey God’s word to every parishioner regardless of their status.


The tradition of manuscript writing, which developed in monasteries all around Europe, was essentially related to the concept of calligraphy. Creating illuminated manuscripts was a tiresome and time-consuming task that sometimes took years to finish. European scribes were less concerned with the tones of meaning conveyed by the form or position of their letters but used calligraphic methods to facilitate reading the text. Small illustrations were sometimes intertwined with letters to highlight certain passages. The initial letters of each chapter or paragraph marked the beginning of the text and sometimes set the tone for the narrative. Nonetheless, in the West, calligraphy did not receive the same revered status as in other regions. As the invention of the printing press facilitated the reproduction of texts, calligraphy remained solely a decorative method used for product design and advertising.


Does Calligraphy Contribute to the Rise of Abstract Art?

mihrab met niche
Mihrab (Prayer niche), 1354-55 CE. Source: The Metropolitan Museum, New York


Calligraphy played a surprising role in the discussion of the origins of abstract art. For the past century, art historians have been digging through archives, anxiously trying to find the first person or the first movement who surpassed the limits of figurative art. The conversation is, as usual, Eurocentric and operates within the definition of art and its development conventionally defining a single region.


Some art historians, however, are ready to take a more open look at the global picture and challenge the conventional notions. If we look at abstraction as the opposite of figuration then Asian and Islamic calligraphy fits this concept. Moreover, given the ornamentality of Arabic art, for a person unfamiliar with the Arabic language it would represent the realm of complete abstraction, with no recognizable elements behind it.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.