The Golden Age of Denial: Orientalism

Considered by some a patronizing Western reimagining of the Middle East, many of these Orientalist depictions are frankly homoerotic.

BY Christopher Harrity

August 09 2014 4:00 AM ET


Above: Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Snake Charmer, 1870

From tribal tattoos to tiki bars, Western culture has been enthralled with its own interpretation of "exotic" cultures for centuries. For example, in the 17th century Europeans created their own hybrid form of Far Eastern decorative arts, chinoiserie.

In 1978 the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his influential and controversial book, Orientalism. Said used the term to describe what he argued was a historic Western tradition of prejudiced outsider interpretations of the East as undeveloped and static. In particular, England's imperial steamroller mashed the various cultures of the Middle East into one sensuous and mysterious ideal that depicted the women — and the men — as erotic and uninhibited, as well as available.

The homoerotic portrayals walked above the safety net. as the sexualized paintings of young men were merely depicting their culture. The English gentleman could observe these naked young dark-skinned men from the promontory of an interested ethnographer.

Another book, published earlier this year, hit the nail on the head more directly. The Homoerotics of Orientalism (Columbia University Press) by Joseph Allen Boone explains that the cultural exchanges between the Middle East and the West have always been reciprocal and often mutual, and amatory as well as hostile. Boone examines European accounts of Istanbul and Egypt as hotbeds of forbidden desire, juxtaposing Ottoman homoerotic genres and their European imitators. This remarkable study models an ethics of cross-cultural reading that exposes, with nuance and economy, the crucial role played by the homoerotics of Orientalism in shaping the world as we know it today. 

Armand-Philippe-Joseph Bera, Portrait of Dominique Vivant, Baron de Denon in Egypt, 1804

Tags: Art

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