A quick word on my choice of header art. The piece is called “The Moorish Warrior,” by William Merritt Chase (1844-1916). I first came across the painting while strolling through the Brooklyn Museum of Art several years ago. I wasn’t familiar with the artist, but I knew the style–part of what was known as the Orientalist movement, which created picturesque paintings of the Near East. Like every other graduate student in the social sciences, I had the pleasure of reading Edward Said’s groundbreaking work, Orientalism.
To condense his multilayered argument, Said noted that Western art, literature and even academic disciplines, were immersed in the colonial act of creating the imagined racialized “other.” This Orientalist “other,” often imbued with such descriptors as primitive, static, irrational, superstitious, tyrannical, was the opposite of the Occidental (European/white) West, defined as modern, progressive, reasoned, scientific and free. These ideas flowed into Western art of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as European travelers sought to portray the Near East–including what is today Turkey, Greece, the Middle East and North Africa–in their paintings. Some came from travelogues and the writings of soldiers; others came directly from artists who journeyed to capture their own imagery. Many of these works operated as distinct propaganda, meant to display the enlightened benevolence of Western conquerors in contrast to the despotic, barbaric, lawless, decaying regimes of the lands they now colonized. Others fulfilled romantic notions of an exoticized, often sexualized, non-Western world filled with slave markets, nude harems and noble warrior savages–more so indicative of a European gaze than anything approaching reality. As Said noted, Orientalism in the end was a study of the West alone. In that sense, Orientalist art is already fantasy–with its staged costuming and exaggerated exotics. Take the picture in my header. In all actuality, it was likely done in the artists’s studio in Venice. The figure depicted was a model and the scimitar he was holding belonged to the painter, along with all the assorted props. Now that’s FANTASY! So is there a way to rescue Orientalist art? To turn racialized, often fraudulent, depictions with a history of colonial propaganda into competing images of an alternative fantasy world? Certainly, some have tried, even while acknowledging the historical shortcomings. And it’s possible through some genres like steampunk, with its re-imagingings of technological creativity rooted in a rich cultural moment, that Orientalist art may prove a goldmine–especially when used to subvert some of these same subjugating histories. My header, like the name of this blog, acknowledges the imaginative nature of such art, alongside the troubling histories they represent.