The concept of Orientalism, deeply rooted in the West's romanticized portrayal of the East, has had far-reaching and controversial implications. This examination delves into Orientalism, its deceptive golden era, and the ways it has manifested in art and literature. Furthermore, we will investigate Joseph Campbell's philosophical connections to Orientalism and how these relate to the broader theme of denial.
Orientalism encompasses the Western representation of Eastern cultures, particularly the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa, by academics, artists, and authors. Emerging in the 19th century, during the colonial era, it was initially a means for Western powers to comprehend and control these regions. As time progressed, the concept evolved to include not just the artistic and scholarly depictions of the East, but also the underlying attitudes and beliefs shaping these portrayals.
The Illusive Golden Era
Colonial Perspectives of the Eastern World
In the colonial era, Orientalism functioned as a tool for Western powers to justify their dominance over Eastern societies. By presenting the East as exotic, enigmatic, and ultimately inferior, Westerners could rationalize their imperialistic pursuits. This viewpoint allowed them to perceive themselves as saviors, delivering civilization and enlightenment to the so-called "backward" Eastern realm.
Orientalism reinforced and perpetuated colonial perspectives of the world through various means, including art, literature, and cinema. Here are some specific examples:
- Literature: 1.'s poem "The " (1899) exemplifies the colonial mindset, portraying the East as uncivilized and in need of Western intervention to "civilize" the native peoples
- Art: 2. paintings, such as 's "The " (1879), depicted Eastern cultures as exotic, mysterious, and primitive, reinforcing the idea of Western superiority and justifying colonial ambitions
- Cinema: Films like 3. (1921) and " " (1962) perpetuated Orientalist stereotypes, presenting the East as a place of exoticism, danger, and sensuality, while also reinforcing the notion of the heroic who brings order and civilization to the region
- News coverage: Western media often portrays the East, particularly the 2., as a region of conflict, terrorism, and religious extremism, reinforcing negative stereotypes and justifying Western intervention
These examples demonstrate how Orientalism has been used to create a binary worldview that divides the "East" and "West," with the West seen as superior, rational, and civilized, while the East is portrayed as backward, exotic, and despotic3. This perspective has served to justify colonial projects and continues to influence Western perceptions of the Eastern world2.
A Fanciful Eastern Vision
The golden age of Orientalism brought forth an abundance of idealized images of the East in Western art and literature. These works often emphasized the exotic and sensual facets of Eastern cultures, presenting them as alluringly different from the West. This romanticized view of the Eastern world only served to reinforce stereotypes and increase the distance between the East and West, perpetuating a sense of "otherness."
Two fanciful and distorted depictions of Orientalism in art history include:
- Eugène 1.'s "Women of Algiers in their " (1834): This painting depicts Algerian women in a harem, presenting them as passive and sensual objects of desire. The work perpetuates the stereotype of Eastern women as submissive and exotic
- 1.'s "The " (1862): This painting shows a group of nude women in a Turkish bath, emphasizing their sensuality and exoticism. The work reinforces the notion of the East as a place of hedonism and indulgence
By presenting the East as a place of mystery, sensuality, and with a hint of danger, these artworks perpetuate stereotypes and misconceptions that continue to shape Western perceptions of the Eastern world1.
Artistic and Literary Impressions
Enchanting Eastern Canvases
, Eugène , and were leading luminaries of the Orientalist movement in 19th-century academic art1. They shaped Orientalist art by depicting imagined Orientalist scenes and carefully painting what they observed. Gérôme, in particular, is known for his sensual, gaudy, and sexually explicit style1.
Common themes in their work include exoticism, eroticism, and mysticism2. They drew inspiration from cultures, including Indian, Byzantine, and art2. They also depicted themes such as ascetics, slaves, and captives, often with a lack of realism and dynamism to heighten the emotional impact of their work3.
Overall, their work contributed to the Western world's fascination with the East and helped shape the Orientalist movement in art history.
Exotic Eastern Tales
Writers such as Pierre Loti, Gustave Flaubert, and Edward FitzGerald also contributed to the Orientalist oeuvre. Their works often featured Eastern settings and characters, casting them in exotic and mysterious roles.
FitzGerald's translation of the was particularly influential in shaping the Western perception of the East1. Flaubert's , a novel set in ancient Carthage, is also a notable work of Orientalist literature1. Loti's works, including and , were also influential in shaping the Western perception of the East1.
Overall, their works contributed to the Western world's fascination with the East and helped shape the Orientalist movement in literature. These literary portrayals furthered the notion of the East as a place of fantasy and escape, divorced from reality.
Orientalism: A Veil of Denial
Distorting the Eastern Reality
One of the most damaging aspects of Orientalism is the way it distorts the reality of the Eastern world. By focusing on an idealized and romanticized version of the East, Westerners have created a false image that denies the true complexity and diversity of Eastern cultures. This denial not only misrepresents the East but also reinforces a sense of superiority in the West, further entrenching the divide between the two worlds.
Perpetuation of Stereotypes
Orientalism perpetuates several stereotypes about non-Western civilizations' culture, practices, and society12. These stereotypes include the portrayal of the as exotic, mystical, and sensual, as well as the portrayal of the East as inferior to the West12.
Orientalism also perpetuates stereotypes about the status of women in non-Western societies, portraying them as oppressed and in need of Western intervention1. Additionally, Orientalism perpetuates stereotypes about East Asian Americans, portraying them as nerds, immature, childlike, and infantile looking3. Orientalism is also associated with the stereotype of the "noble savage," which is used to justify colonialism and white supremacy4.
Overall, Orientalism perpetuates a range of stereotypes that have contributed to the Western world's fascination with the East and have helped shape the Orientalist movement in art and literature.
Reinforcing Power Structures
Orientalism and imperialism are closely related. Orientalism is the practice of portraying the as exotic, mystical, and inferior to the West, while imperialism is the practice of maintaining or extending power, particularly through expansionism, employing hard power (economic and military power), but also soft power (cultural and diplomatic power), establishing or maintaining a hegemony and a more or less formal empire1.
Cultural imperialism refers to the cultural dimensions of imperialism2. It describes practices in which a country engages culture (language, tradition, and ritual, politics, economics) to create and maintain unequal social and economic relationships among countries2.
Cultural imperialism can refer to either the forced acculturation of a subject population or to the voluntary embracing of a foreign culture by individuals who are not part of the dominant culture2. In other words, imperialism is a broader concept that includes cultural imperialism as one of its dimensions31.
Orientalism was used to justify imperialism by portraying non-Western societies as inferior and in need of Western intervention2. argued in his book "" that literature has "the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging", which might contradict the colonization of a people2. Therefore, Orientalism was used to control distant lands and peoples2. Overall, Orientalism and imperialism are closely related, with Orientalism being used to justify and perpetuate imperialism.