Jean-Léon Gérôme, Part Two

JEAN-LÉON GÉRÔME: History Painter

Part Two

The Artist and Gender

In painting after painting, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) clearly demonstrated his discomfort with women. Before his very profitable marriage to the daughter of Europe’s biggest art dealer, Gérôme lived a rather Bohemian life in a homosocial environment. Like most men of his time, he would have had little contact with women of his own class, and he would not have considered a woman to be his equal. His female nudes are far removed from actual women, and, as if their nakedness made him so uneasy, he had to use “the nude” as a mask for their disconcerting naturalness. But he is equally uncomfortable with male bodies. Both the gladiator in the celebrated Ave Caesar (1859) and the belly dancer in Dance of the Almeh (1863) are pudgy: the gladiator sports man boobs and the dancer has a large pot. But Gérôme was comfortable with little boys, carefully delineating their backsides in The Serpent Charmer (1880) and his early Michelangelo (in his Studio) (1849). In the former, the backside is bare, in the latter the backside is literally delineated due to a pair of red-striped tights, worn by the child. Many of his paintings are simply unseemly, in today’s terms, in their confirmation of the scopophilia of male desire for conquest through the passive gaze.

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Prynne Before the Areopagus (1861) presents one of Gérôme’s repeated themes: men looking at an object of lust. The object, in this case a woman, is isolated and alone and, most of all, naked, totally exposed to the male gaze. The artist tried to have his specious content both ways—men gaze upon women but the beauty of women’s bodies subdue them, stun them into silence and submission. But the male is always clothed and always retains his power. Young “Prynne” is examined by a group of startled old men, dressed in strong red robes, countering her pale hairless body. Nowhere were women under the command of the male as she was in the mysterious East. The notion of the submissive and speechless woman could have been especially appealing to Frenchmen, alarmed by the propensity of Frenchwomen to rise up during each revolution at home. Thanks to the Code Napoléon (1804), French women had been stripped of any social powers and political disenfranchisement, stripped naked in custom and law.

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The Dance of the Almeh (1863) also empowers the men, who watch the gyrating dancer who writhes for their amusement. The males in the circle are equipped with long straight phallic instruments, guns, spears, violin bows and even a pipe, as though they are protecting themselves. The same excess of protection and phallic display can be seen in The Snake Charmer (1870). The old man at the center of the group has a long sword suggestively rising above his upper thigh as he watches the naked little boy playing with a long snake. The rest of the men are well equipped with erect spears, raising the unanswerable question of whether or not Gérôme was aware of the sexual subtext.

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Gérôme. The Snake Charmer (1870)

For Sale (The Slave Market) of 1866 is the ultimate expression of the stripped and speechless woman being exchanged among men (according to Engels). The slave market in the Middle East has replaced the European concept of marriage as a financial exchange and, as the catalogue essay on this painting reports that the French public “hardly batted an eye.” The idea that the “public” was unphased by this painting implies that the painting was intended for men, which it surely was, and that the art was not viewed by women, which it surely was. Although women of the Second Empire were apparently not expected to see art or to be the audience, but, when they went to the Salons, women were embarrassed by the painterly display of helpless female flesh. One can imagine that some of these ladies imagined the slave woman biting the fingers of the man who was examining her teeth.

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Gérôme. For Sale (The Slave Market) (1866)

In other paintings, the (male) audience itself is outside the scene, looking it or looking at the imagined world of the harem. The external spectator was metaphorically internalized as a red robe reclining on a wooden chair in King Candaules (1859), watching the exchange of male looks. The King’s guard, Gyes, lurking in the dark, off to the right, is watching the queen Nyssia. The queen is caught in a triangulated gaze among men, but as Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) pointed out, she would not have been the “dull puppet,” depicted by Gérôme. As was typical for the artist, the woman is pale and naked and helpless with her back turned to the audience in a gesture of modesty thrown in by the painter. One could ask if showing a woman’s naked body from the rear is more or less discrete. The Moorish Bath (1872) is noteworthy for the carefully drawn Islamic tiles and for the inherent racism that exposed the naked breasts of the African slave and allowed the white woman to turn modestly away from the viewer.

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Gérôme. The Moorish Bath (1872)

Echoing European and American notions of racial hierarchy, The Grand Bath at Bursa (1885) is yet another Imaginary Orient, complete with white women (presumably captured by swarthy Arab chieftains) who are sexual slaves and black women who take care of the needs of the concubines. At least in the harem, the women are together and have each other’s company. In many of Gérôme’s paintings, the women are alone, with no friend and no one to defend or take care of them, reflecting the Western version of marriage, the isolated woman, entirely dependent upon her husband.

The Artist as Colonialist

Much has been written about Gérôme as painter to the colonizers, and indeed his many trips to Egypt coincided with France’s desire to master the Middle East and to build an empire. Although their imperial ambitions dated back to Napoléon, the French never caught up with the British who had an empire upon which “the sun never sets.” The Second Empire and the Third Republic, the era of Gérôme, were the high points of French acquisition of territory and artifacts from northern Africa and the Middle East. Gérôme was at his best when he acted as ethnographer, observing the Other. As distasteful as the Imperial gaze was, it did have the virtue of freeing Gérôme from the tropes of classicism and the poncifs of academia. One does not often think of Gérôme the landscape artist, but, as my friend Irina pointed out, his desert paintings are beautiful, dappled with the blue of the sky reflected upon the pale golden buff-colored rocks, just as an Impressionist would (The Lion on Watch, 1890). Here in a desert light that flattens everything, the silhouetted sharp edges of Gérôme’s dry drawing make sense. In Arabs Crossing the Desert (1870), the large scale of the figures is permissible in such open distances. In these paintings of the Middle East, colors are intensified in the light and Gérôme came into his own with his strong colors, unexpectedly pinks (The Black Bard, 1888) and brilliant oranges and blazing yellows (The Marabou, 1888), hot reds vibrating on the surfaces (The Standard Bearer, 1876). The Color Grinder (1891) summarizes the importance of color with a row of large stone mortars lined up in front of a dark shop in the Holy Land. In an age of paint in tubes, Gérôme painted the encircled lips of the large stones, which are glowing with vibrant colors pounded into submission.

Although Gérôme replicated the Middle East and its male inhabitants with apparent exactitude, his paintings are fantasy pastiches. But they are totally convincing and carried a larger truth of white European fantasies of conquest and control of the inferior Other. The people he so carefully studied and observed during his many visits are from another century were devoid of technology beyond the seventeenth century, backwards and in need of French guidance. Heads of the Rebel Beys of the Mosque El Assaneyn (1866) mixed actual events with infidel barbarity, necessitating the civilizing French touch upon a people who favored a public beheading. The irony of such an attitude of superiority may have escaped Gérôme. (The French continued to use the guillotine into the 1940s.) A fascinating and harmless object of curiosity, entertaining the French audience, The Whirling Dervish (1889) needs to be Christianized and Europeanized. Due to the precise accuracy garnered from a photograph, the Salon goers assumed that the artist was educating them with The Carpet Merchant (1887). Each painting of Middle Eastern life can be seen as a contrast to European life–a market instead of a bank, souks, not department stores, fanaticism instead of Catholicism–with the Muslim barbarians being presented as the Other, as Different, as Inferior, as Strange, as Something to be Looked At, as Spectacle, captured by the artist, commanded by the whitened gaze of the spectator.

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The Artist and Orientalism

Gérôme seemed to suffer from a tendency toward a rather Victorian form of clutter and his penchant was to fill in his canvases with overwhelming detail about the Orient. Full of bric-à-brac, the paintings are crowded with information, much of which was gained from the artist’s many visits to the Middle East and documentary photographs recently published in albums. From one perspective, the artist’s work was typical of the a hoarder’s “horror vacui.” From another point of view, the artist was on a mission. The French tactic of conquest through military might and the gathering of facts dated back to Napoléon’s ill-fated foray into Egypt. The history of paintings of the Middle East done by French artists also stems from the early nineteenth-century when the Turks and the Muslims were depicted as brutal and backward. Gérôme nodded to his artistic precursor, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), in his painting of Marcus Botsaris, a hero of the war of Greek Independence who fought with Lord Byron. But the 1874 painting itself, is typical of Gérôme’s approach to the unfamiliar: he delineated a veritable encyclopedia of an Eastern inventory of décor and paraphernalia.

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Gérôme. Marcus Botsaris (1874)

Gérôme’s dedication to accuracy was part of larger tendencies: the rise of modern history writing, the rise of the French Empire, the use of photography to record and preserve the known world, and the period’s fear of empty space. Gérôme’s paintings are packed with these cultural vibrations of foregrounded empiricism. His art owed a great deal to the French delight in the Pre-Raphaelites and their facility for storytelling, which he put in the service of imperialism. It would be anachronistic to accuse the artist of “complicity” on a conscious level in an enterprise that would, a century later, be described by the French as “an accidental empire.” Undoubtedly, Gérôme shared the prejudices and desires of his time and believed in the right for the French to have an Empire and, whatever his motivations, his Middle Eastern subjects exuded Orientalism. His paintings were part of a deeply felt belief system of Western superiority and Eastern inferiority. In his investigation of the pioneering efforts of French artists in picturing the “Orient,” historian Todd Porterfield did not accept that the current French scholarship which insists that the imperialism of France was “haphazard” and “timidly entered into.” According to Porterfield, the French artists portrayed,

…national attributes are posited that pit French science, morality, masculinity, and intellectual rigor against supposedly representative traits of Easterners: fanaticism, cruelty, idleness, vice, irrationality, deviance, and degeneracy.

As was pointed out earlier, this was exactly the dialectical strategy employed decades later by Gérôme in his paintings of the Mysterious East and the Backward Other. It would be safe to assume that the artist believed, in common with most other Europeans, that the culture of the West or the Occident was superior. The discourse of racial and cultural superiority had been in the making among European scholars and writers for decades. The late Palestinian philosopher, Edward Said (1935-2003), revealed the role of discourse in the literary manufacture of “Orientalism” in his 1978 book of the same name. Although the cover of his book featured Gérôme’s The Serpent Charmer, Said did not discuss “Orientalizing” art. Said pointed out that when the Europeans wrote about the East, the scholars were creating, not the truth, but a “representation” of the “Orient.” Using Michel Foucault’s (1926-1984) concept of “discourse” in which serious speech acts from experts shape what becomes received knowledge surrounding a topic, Said stated in his book Orientalism (1978) that the “Orient” was constructed in terms of what the West was not. As Foucault pointed out, representation as constructed by the One would fabricate the Other into a inferior for purposes of discipline and punishment, power and control. Said continued the French philosopher’s thought by pointing out that an “Imaginary Orient” was manufactured for the purpose of defining the Europeans themselves by using the “Orient” as the negative to the Western positive. The Imaginary Orient had little to do with the “real” Middle East, for the Europeans were essentially uninterested in the Other and were concerned with the task of writing themselves into a position of dominance.

The concepts of Foucault and Said was quickly taken up by art historians, resulting in a major investigation into the attitude that European artists had towards the Other. Thanks to post-colonial theory, it is possible to view Gérôme and his art as an expression of French power over a dark-skinned people who refused modernity and Westernization. The art of Gérôme had to overwhelm the viewer with facts, information, detail, as though to compensate for a fundamental Lack of knowledge. Foucault equated seeing/sight with power–voir, savoir, pouvoir: to see is to know is to have power over. For all the privileging of vision in Gérôme’s work, the Other, the “Oriental” remained a slippery character in the French imperial drama. All the knowledge in the world is spread out on his canvases, but it is all from the French point of view and we learn everything and nothing. In the end, all the superiority, all the power in the world could not hold the Empire together, and today, as Porterfield, pointed out, the French seem vaguely embarrassed about their role in colonialism.

Looking at Gérôme’s art in today’s world is an interesting enterprise. The colonized subjects of the French empire have long since come home to the Mother Country, unsure of their identities, as Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) so eloquently stated in Black Skin, White Masks (1952). So thoroughly imbued with the doctrines of colonialism and imperialism, the colonized think that they are partly “French” and came to France to live, but they insist on bringing their “Oriental” culture with them. Suddenly, what seemed exotic in the Middle East caused controversy in Paris: head scarves or not? The fear of the Other continues. Gérôme, like all artists, was engaged in acts of representation; and, as for his attitudes, his biases, his complicity, his patriotism—that is for history to decide.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Post-Colonial Theory: Edward Said

POST-COLONIAL THEORY

PART THREE: EDWARD SAID (1935-2003)

Orientalism

Perhaps the most influential and widely read Post-Colonial critic was the late Edward Said (1935 – 2003) a Palestinian intellectual who was born in Jerusalem and died in exile in America. His well-known book, Orientalism was published in 1978 and is probably the often utilized structural analysis of Post-Colonial theory. Said’s approach is the first fully developed analysis of Post-Colonialism that is impersonal, intellectual, and yet in the tradition of engaged scholarship. A generation after that of Albert Memmi and Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon, Said was more of a New Yorker than a colonized individual and belongs to the postmodern phenomenon of the global diaspora. In the privileged precincts of Columbia University, Said joined the “cultural turn,” in which literary theory and Foucauldrian discourse became methodological tools through which to view culture.

It is obvious that “culture” is neither nature nor natural, but how is culture made and for what purposes? By the seventies, Marxism had been folded into a postmodern theory of representation which is where “Orientalism” can be located. With the now-expected antecedents of Hegelian logic embedded in critical theory, it was possible for Said to build on the foundation of previous scholars. In contrast to Memmi and Cesaire and Fanon who viewed colonialism as a psychological sickness created by the twisted intertwined Master/Slave dialectic, Said took a Post-Structuralist–he read the discourse of “orientalism,” consisting of text of 18th and 19th century European scholars and antiquarians who constructed a representation of an idea of an East that was not the West and conversely of a West that was not the East.

The basic assumptions that underly the book include the historical fact of European colonial domination and imperialist exploitation that put European scholars in the position to gaze upon the exotic other and to study this alien otherness for European purposes. As was noted in an earlier post, the European concern with the East can be traced back as far as the religious clash between Christianity and Islam that began in the seventh century and continues today. For centuries a parity was reached when the demarcation between religious territories was sealed by the Austro-Hungarian empire, but, after two world wars in the 20th century, the wound was reopened and laid bare. When the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East began to weaken, the Europeans, led by the French under Napoléon, began to encroach upon northern Africa. Under the scientific gaze of Europeans, Egypt and by extension the Holy Land became an object of study and a place of imaginative exploration.

This land, Holy to Christian and Muslim, this territory that was an eternal historical battleground trod over by many civilizations was the starting point for Said who turned the intellectual tables on the West. For Said, “Orientalism” or the Western construction of the “imaginary Orient” was fashioned by Europeans through practices of writing, which had the effect of representing the Other, the East. Few people, except for hard core historians and literary theorists have ventured much beyond his introduction and most readers probably find his later work, Culture and Imperialism (1993) more interesting to read. When he established the notion of the “Occident” in opposition to the “Orient”, Said was echoing Georg Hegel and Simon de Beauvoir and using these intellectual sources, Said re-positioned the West as the masculine One to the East’s feminized Other.

That said, Michel Foucault’s elaboration on the “discourse” is probably the most important of Said’s intellectual influences. Foucault’s impact can be discerned clearly in traces: the repeated exhortations as to what Said is not saying and the long meandering sentences with endless pauses with semi-colons. When Said established a literary or discursive “field” in which “the Orient” is constructed through language and representation, he was following the concepts of Foucault. Foucault dated the habit of Western Othering from the post-Medieval substitution of the leper with the mad person as the Other in society. Someone had to be an outcast. As Foucault pointed out in Madness and Civilization, this Other was constructed through discourse, or non-expressive utterances, that constructed an object to be first written of and then examined and then incarcerated. The language must be created for the Other to be spoken of and for the discourse to be constructed. People had always lived in territories that had a Muslim history but in order for these groups to be elucidated they had to be discursively constructed–named and studied and controlled.

Foucault posited the power of the “gaze” of the One that would then represent the Other. In his later work, Discipline and Punish, he linked “voir” (to see) with “savoir” (knowledge) and “pouvoir” (power). Thus seeing (the gaze of the authority) produces knowledge, which produces power. Through historical circumstances, it was the Western regions who “advanced” technologically faster than the East and thus it was the Europeans who took it upon themselves to name the regions, “The West” and “The East,” “The Occident” and The Orient.” Today to merely use these terms is Eurocentric–Europe is at the center of the world and all other regions relate to it–a totally imperialist position. The imperialist stance and language is part of the discourse of Orientalism, which is an example of how the powerful represent the powerless. from former Secretary of State, Henry Kissenger, stating the the problem of the Middle East that the region did not experience the Enlightenment to the more recent work of scholar Bernard Lewis who insisted that the Muslim nations deliberately refused to participate in Modernism, the “Orient” has been seen as the uncivilized, barbaric, backward Other.

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John Frederick Lewis,. The Reception (1873)

But all that has been stated by Western scholars is merely words, language which have created a veil of representation that allows the East to be spoken of from a position of power, not truth. Said, following Foucault, stated that “Orientalism” is a discourse, a whole network of interests. Orientalism as a practice of writing was mainly a British and French enterprise due to the particular closeness of these nations with the “Orient.” Another way of expressing this “closeness” is to point to the long history of colonialism and imperialism by these two nations in the Middle East. “Orientalism” was but part of a network of cultural effects that justified Western control over such a backward region. The Orient is not a fact of nature but an idea that has a history with its own vocabulary and its own imagery. European culture gained in strength and identity be setting itself up against the Orient, so, as Said stated, the two geographic entities support and reflect each other–as opposites in a mirror.

Like a mirror, the images reverse each other with the privileging on the side of the Occident. In Lacanian language, the Orient is the narcissistic reversal of the fictional Self of the Occident or the “idea” of Europe. This Orient is a European idea and invention, not, as Said warned, essentially an idea with no correspondence in reality. The East is a European construction that facilitates a very real relationship of power and domination between West and East. Orientalism became a textual grid through which “The Orient” was filtered into Western consciousness.In saying that the West was a prevailing ideology, Said borrowed the concept of hegemony or prevailing “cultural form” from a new influence on Post-Colonial theory, Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) and his odd assortment of Prison Notebooks from 1929-1935 . According to Gramsci certain cultural forms or representational discourses have dominance over others and reflect cultural leadership. Orientalism was a collective European notion of European superiority with the West having the upper hand. The network of discursive structures was put in place by European scholars over time with the intention to understand (to produce knowledge) in order to control and manipulate a very different world: the Orient.

The European encounter with the alien culture was not only a cultural clash but also a meeting between unequals. By the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the Orient was but a shadow of its former self. According to Said’s arch intellectual enemy, Bernard Lewis, Professor Emeritus at Princeton, the Middle East had deliberately made the collective cultural decision to eschew Western scientific modernism and thus “missed” the Enlightenment at a crucial moment. The technological gap between East and West was signaled by the stunning victory of Napoléon over the Egyptians in 1794 (where his army discovered marijuana. Soon everyone was inhaling and Baudelaire writes under the spell of the weed. The British imbibed the drug as a “medicine” and the Queen herself used hashish for menstrual cramps.). The Western imagination was fevered by thoughts of the depravity of the East and, although Said did not discuss art, by the second decade of the nineteenth century, Ingres was painting his many paintings of the legendary harems and Delacroix actually paid a visit to the secluded ladies of Algiers. The idea of the Orient was “appropriated” both artistically and scientifically by the all conquering Europeans. It is at this point in time, the early decades of the 19th century, when the West was actively changing the West, Lewis wrote,

Some centuries earlier, the Islamic Middle East had led he world in science and technology, including devices for measuring time. But Middle-Eastern technology and science ceased to develop,precisely at the moment when Europe and more specifically Western Europe was advancing to new heights. The disparity was gradual but progressive.

Not only could Western powers come and go in the Middle East as they pleased, but it was also at this time that the East became the object of the European gaze. The scrutiny of the “Orient” is linked to imperialism and empire with the Middle East the first and closest territory of conquest. As Foucault stated in Discipline and Punish, to see is to produce knowledge and to have power. The Orient was constructed along the lines of other conquered territories, as “inferior”, as “feminine”, as “uncivilized”, as “barbaric”, and as the Other. Europe is powerful and articulate; Asia is defeated and distant. The Orient is insinuating and dangerous; and Western rationality is undermined by Eastern excesses. These literary characterizations fulfilled two needs, first to justify the domination of one group over the other and second to create an identity for the dominant group. The Orient was contained and represented within the dominating framework. The rise of Orientalism as a system of representation coincides with the rise of European empires. Between 1815 and 1914, Europeans directly controlled 85% of the globe.

Orientalism as a European textual construction is implicated with colonial authority and is a product of exteriority in which the Orientalist is the one who represents the Orient as the other. If the Orient could represent itself, it would; but it cannot, and therefore, it is the task of the Orientalist to represent the silenced culture. Thus the Orient is made clear to the Westerner, and the representation of the East functions in terms of traditions, conventions, and codes. The Oriental is “irrational, depraved, fallen, childlike, different”, while the European is “rational, virtuous, mature, normal”. This “knowledge” of the Oriental produces “the Oriental”. The Orient is divided into two spaces: the Near East and the Far East, but this Orient is but a stage where the East is confined. The Orient is penalized for being outside the system of Western Christianity’s morality. The tropes of Orientalism were collections of free-floating fragments that were accumulated into units of knowledge. This “knowledge” was a resistance to the strangeness of the Orient. Said pointed out,

..Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions; nor is it a large and diffuse collection of texts about the Orient’ nor is it representative and expressive of some nefarious “Western” imperialist plot to hold down the “Oriental” world. It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction (the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also a whole series of “interests” which, by means as scholarly discovery, philological reconstruction, it not only creates but also maintains; it is rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate,what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world; it is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power..

Said wrote that the Western writers had a strategic location, or a location of power, from which s/he writes texts that become part of a strategic formation or a discourse where the “oriental studies” reside. He pointed out that the practice of Western representation of the East, from the “exterior” is done on the assertion that if the East could represent itself it could and since it cannot, the West must do this task of representation. These cultural discourses are ” not ‘truth’ but representations. “It hardly needs to demonstrated again that language itself is a highly organized and encoded system, which employs many devices to express, indicate, exchange messages and information, represent and so forth.” As a result of this “representation,” regardless of the century, the Orient is always fixed in time and place in the mind of the West and the represented “history” of the “Orient” is conceived of as a series of responses to the West which is always the actor and judge of Oriental behavior. Edward Said made the point that this binary opposition based upon the semiotics of power results in paternalistic or aggressive foreign policy decisions. He noted that Henry Kissinger based his policy towards the Orient upon the very binary relations that Orientalists had been constructing for centuries.

Henry Kissinger, architect of the last stage of the Viet Nam War, divided the world in terms of the colonizer: there are those societies which are pre-Newtonian and post-Newtonian, undeveloped and developed. In other words, Kissinger assumed that the experience of the Enlightenment is necessary for “civilization”. His assumptions were based upon the supposed superiority of Western—Newtonian—scientific, rational thinking that produced “superior” technological society. In the year 2007, Kissenger warned against imposing Western ideas upon a region that did not share the same history,

In the West, democracy developed within a religion that, even when it when it was the dominant religion, elaborated a distinction between what was God’s and what was Ceasar’s. That doesn’t exist in any other religion. Then we had the Reformation. Then we had the Enlightenment. Then we had the age of discovery. None of these precedents exist anywhere else.

Edward Said lived long enough to witness September 11th an event that elevated Bernard Lewis to a consultant to the Bush administration. He also lived long enough to watch the American invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, an invasion predicated “Oriental” perfidy and the need of backward peoples to be rescued by democracy. Forty years later and two invasions of Iraq later, Orientalism was still one of the best known books, widely read in theory but completely ignored in practice. Edward Said died in exile, never wavering from his position that Israel was a colonial entity established by imperialist powers and imposed illegitimately upon a people that were considered to have no claim to territory or to identity.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]