Orientalism in Art

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  • Topic: Western world, Slavery, Orientalism
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“What was the process of ‘Orientalising’ according to Edward Said? Discuss the notion of ‘Otherness’ from both a European and ‘Eastern’ point of view using three examples of work for visual analysis.”

The Near East or the Orient was a “place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.”[1] Edward Said describes the Orient as not an inert fact of nature but both Orient and Occident as man made.[2] The argument Said presents is that the Orient is an “idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West.”[3] In another words, Orientalism is derived from an experience by Britain and France of the Orient. Paintings such as “Turkish Bath”, “The death of Sardanapalus” and “Odalisque and Slave” reflect the fascinations which the artists experienced or imagined of the Orient.

Said argues that roughly from late eighteenth century, Orientalism was a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”[4] Some of the artists who painted the lives of the Orient, such as John Martin, never visited the East. The works that they produced were based on stories, works of other artists and often were derived from their imagination.[5] James Thompson argued that the East was “Imagined, Experienced, Remembered” as some of the artworks were painted before the artists travelled to the East, some were painted and sketched on the spot but majority were worked up after they returned.[6] Through portraying the Orient in the imagination of the artist, it can be said that the West has created a two mutual entities between the reality of the ‘East’ and the romantic notion of the ‘Orient’.[7]

Said criticizes works by other Western writers such as Flaubert and his encounter with an Egyptian courtesan. He claims that Flaubert created a widely influential model of the Orient woman while she never spoke of herself; she never represented her emotions, presence or history.[8] However Flaubert spoke for her represented her and concluded that she was ‘typically Oriental’. Said’s criticism lies within the fact that Flaubert was foreign, comparatively wealthy, male and these were historical facts of domination which allowed him to possess and speak for the courtesan to his readers. Through the words of the writer, an image of the Orient is created. The domination was possible because there was very little resistance from the Orient’s part.[9]

These notions were created because the “relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination.” This transformed ‘Orientalism’ which the Orient was appropriated by the Occident through being turned into a structure of myth made for western use.[10] The Orient was Orientalised not because it was discovered to be Oriental but also because it could be dominated and classified as one.[11] Therefore it can be said that Orientalism was essentially the product of two Western cultures, Britain and France.[12] Said made the claim that the whole of Western European and American scholarship, literature, and cultural representation and stereotype creates and reinforces prejudice against non-Western cultures, putting them in the classification of Oriental (or "Others").[13] The heart of the matter in understanding Orientalism is this power relationship and how the Occident has used and continues to use and understand the Orient on its own terms. He argues further by stating that the reason for the Orient to be named Orient is simply for the men and women of Europe to understand themselves, their identity. For them to identify, they had to see what they were not, the Orientals. This created the notion of ‘Others’, the opposite of the Occident, alienation and everything that wasn’t European. For example, the males from the Orient...
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