Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Lure of the East

This was an exhibition of Orientalist art I saw with my beloved in the Tate Britain, during a recent trip to olde Londone towne. Not everyone is familiar with the concept of Orientalism, so some background is in order here. Basically, the term Orientalism emerged in the 19th century to refer the study of the Arab and Turkish lands on the eastern shore of the Mediterranaean, a region we would now call the Middle East. At the time, Orientalism was a value-neutral term.

More recently, though, the Orientalist mindset has been subjected to serious critique, most notably by Edward Said in his book Orientalism. I have not read Said's book, but my understanding is that he accused the Orientalists, and indeed the whole academic discipline of Orientalism, of being part of an imperialist programme based around the conquest and subjugation of the Middle East. Orientalist academics were not engaged in rational enquiry but in constructing stereotypes of inferiority, an endeavour they were aided in by artists who turned to Orientalist subjects. Said's arguments have found considerable purchase, and Orientalist has increasingly become a pejorative term. It is interesting that London's School of African and Oriental Studies is now much happier to go by the acronym SOAS, and if you have ever spent time among the pro-Palestinian left you will have witnessed Orientalist used as a debate killing insult akin to fascist or imperialist.

This exhibition in the Tate was of work by a number of 19th and early 20th century works which can broadly be lumped into an Orientalist paradigm. The artists are people who went out to Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, etc. and brought back exotic images to serve up to their domestic publics. Some of these pictures do very much fit the kind of Orientalist model that Said was talking about, presenting the East in a lurid manner seemingly designed to show off its strangeness and inferiority. The frequent depictions of harems also play to overactive metropolitan imaginations, with the male artists who produced them having to conjure up images of harems from their mind's eye, as it would never have been possible for them to visit the women's quarters of a Middle Eastern house. That the harem remained such a staple of Orientalist art, despite the artists' ignorance of what they were depicting, lends considerable support to Said's idea that the purpose of the art was to belittle and stereotype. Interestingly, the harem as a subject largely fell from favour when the first women artists visited the Levant and were able to enter a world hidden from European men. Their paintings depicted the harem as a world of almost dull domesticity, in contrast to the world of sexual exploitation or mindless drudgery the male artists depicted.

I did find, though, that I was not entirely convinced by the Said thesis. While some of this art was undoubtedly crudely stereotypical and sensational in its depiction of the East (witness a French artist's voyeuristic and seedily eroticised rendering of a slave market for naked women), a lot of the paintings did look like they were by people coming to terms with somewhere very different to the land they were used to. If you have ever been to the Middle East today, you probably will have found a lot of it most unusual, and the contrast between was probably even greater in the 19th century. And with some of the artists, notably Holman Hunt, it isn't really fair to accuse him of making the Middle East look strange and unrealistic, as everything he paints has an air of not being quite of this world.

I did find myself wondering, therefore, if the whole Saidian Orientalist thesis is a bit overblown, with the 19th century Orientalists being to some extent just people who were grappling with a strange culture and trying to come to terms with it and interpret it for the people back home. Maybe some of them were tainted by imperialist ideas then current, but we are all products of out backgrounds to some extent.

I suppose maybe I should try reading Said's book, as I could be crudely stereotyping his ideas here. However, I am fearful of doing so, as it is apparently written in the kind of dense and semi-legible prose style beloved of a certain type of academic. But we will see.

Would you like to know more?

Orientalist Pandas


Andrew Sherman said...

SOAS was called, er, SOAS by everyone in the early 1980's when I used to go to gigs there.

Queenie said...

I read Said's book a few years back and I found it very dull. Having said that, I don't have the interest in the subject that you do, so you might not find it so dull. But it was very opinionated. As opposed to having stories of guys being cut in half because pappy didn't want them both sent to the war.

Ammonite said...

I'd be interested in seeing the harem scenes by women artists. Was there a catalogue?

'Travels with Herodotus' sounds interesting, but I'm not convinced that it delivers more than reading Herodotus himself would.

Ian said...

yes, there was a catalogue.