Orientalism as a Veil for Promiscuity in Art History

Orientalism is the theory coined by Edward Said which shines a light upon West’s modern conception of the East. Siad claims with the West’s increased interest in eastern culture (particularly ancient eastern culture) came the rise of a distorted perception of eastern customs and lifestyle. The scientistic, sociologists and archeologist perpetuated narratives about middle eastern and northern African culture that cast them mystical and mysterious in an archaic, patronizing manner. This narrative served the imperialist agenda; branding these foreign cultures as otherworldly and and antiquated justified European colonialism as a means of “civilizing.”

Orientalism modern application are far reaching and fascinating, but what interests me most is the prominence of this theory applications in art history. Recently in my art history class, we looked at a piece by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres entitled La Grand Odalisque (Odalisque refers to female member of a concubine).

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814, Oil on canvas, 36″ x 63″ (91 x 162 cm), (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

In the painting, done by a French artist, a women sits nude with her back to the audience. She is surrounded by relics from the East; a hookah pipe, bangle bracelets, a head scarf. Although the women does not appear to be from the East herself, her environment suggests that she belongs to the western conception of the orient.

This painting was likely created for several reasons. For on, Europe’s newfound exploration into the middle east and northern Africa sparked an interest in these cultures that were seen as new and “exotic.” But the arguably more prevalent reason why this piece was created, or rather how is was created, was because orientalism served as an excuse for sexual themes in art.

For hundreds of years in European art history, various excuses had been made for including suggestive female nudes in master art works. Most commonly, people referred to the nude figures in their paintings as “Venuses.” This titled referred back to the greek goddess of love and beauty. So while is was frowned upon to have images of naked women for the sake of having images of naked women, if theme images were put in the context of ancient greece, they were no longer promiscuous, rather they were academic. The sexual nature of the piece could be cast off by the pagan environment it was set in. In fact, the piece that most heavily influence La Grande Odalisque was in fact Venus of Urbino which depicted one of these venus figures.

La Grande Odalisque has a similar idea only instead of using greek mythology to cloak sexual content, orientalism was the cloak. At the time of the paintings creation, France had just exited their revolution and while social change was stirring, people remained highly conservative in their beliefs. In order to get away with a painting of a nude female, Inges cast the figure as a part of an Eastern harem, or, Odalisque. It was a widely held notion to westerns at the time that people in the East often engaged in immodest sexual practices and multiple marriages. As such, setting this peice in the environment of the oriental allowed the artist and the patron to conceal the sexual themes as an interest in the eastern world and its culture (that is, its percieved culture).

The Male Gaze in Lear

“Woman, then, stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”

This is an excerpt from film critic Laura Mulvey’s paper Visual Pleasure and the Cinema in which she establishes the idea of the Male Gaze. In essence, Mulvey argues that in film, women’s role in film is to develop the character of the male protagonist through their (often romantic or sexual) relationship. The female character alone experiences no character development and is characterized solely by the relationship she maintains with her male counterparts.

This theory has gained traction in recent years due to its applications in modern film and the general western canon of the arts. Examples of the male gaze can be viewed in everything from the James Bond movies where the female character functions as a sexualized damsel in distress for Bond to save, or in classical artworks from the Rococo movement where women were frivolously depicted for the sake of their male viewers (see the Swing by Fragonard). Recent conversations about the Male Gaze center upon the theory that because the majority of the western canon, whether it be Disney or Shakespeare, maintains elements of the male gaze, it subliminally reinforces misogyny throughout modern culture. This portrayal may lead to self esteem issues and internalized misogyny on the end of young female viewers. As Objectification Theory asserts, if women grow up engaging with media that presents other women solely as objects, they in turn will see themselves solely as objects. As it relates to the Male Gaze, if women see other women being valued only for their relationships with men, then women will only value themselves for their relationships with men.

While I do believe Male Gaze is deeply embedded into our culture and media, I don’t think we should ignore works that are emblematic of this theory. Instead, the Male Gaze must be factored into our understanding of the peice.

While there are many interesting feminist theories and ideas that can be used as a framework for unpacking the female characters in King Lear, the Male Gaze seems to rear its head in each of the female protagonist.

For one, each of the female characters is defined by her relationship with men. Most obviously, the three sisters are each characterized as good or evil based on their treatment of their father whom deems them good and evil. While I’m not arguing that Goneril and Regan were moral uncorrupt, there protrayals as power hungry monsters rested solely on their father’s view of them. Cordelia, conversely, was characterized as innocent due to her submission to her father. Additionally, Goneril and Regan are further portrayed and lustful objects in the wake of Edmunds rise to power. Rather than focus on the effects of the immense power they have acquired, Shakespeare choose to focus their characters (in the second half of the play) on their quest for Edmund’s love.

It is also wort noting that none of the female character show any dynamism throughout the play. Gonerial and Regan remain villainous and in the pursuit of power and sex until they die (might I add that they die due to the relationships they had with a man). Similarly, Cordelia remains submissive and uncorrupted until she dies (again due to the relationship she had with a man). Where characters like Lear and Gloucester are constantly changing and growing throughout the play, the women stay the same. None of them come to any revelations or experience any hardships apart from their relationships with male counterparts. These portrayals altogether lead to the idea that women are little outside of their interaction with men.

The Toxicity of Dependence

The song “Paul” was released in 2016 as a part of Big Thief’s album Masterpiece. The song follows the speaker’s reminiscence of a previous relationship. As the narrative unfolds the sentiment of the speaker becomes more clear: healthy relationships can not flourish when one of the individuals is not healthy themselves. 

This overarching theme is established in many ways, the most notable of which is a consistent allusion to alcoholism. Throughout the song, the speaker includes mentions of drinking in a manner that suggests that her position in her former relationship was similar to that of an alcoholic. In the first verse, the speaker chastises herself, having almost “let him in ” again. While ruminating over this regret she remembers, 

“Then he pulled the bottle out, And then he showed me what love was.” 

The speaker is nodding to the idea that her and Paul’s love was similar to a bottle of alcohol – she knows havoc will ensue from indulging and yet she continues too because of an addiction. This idea come up again in lines like,

“I’ll be your real tough cookie with the whiskey breathe,”

And,

“We were just two moonshiners on the cusp of a breathe,”

And,

“I’ve been burning for you baby since the minute I left.”

All of these lines fit into the analogy of alcoholism which establishes the idea that this relationship was one of dependency and irresponsibility, rather than stability.

In addition to this analogy, the speaker uses a self effacing tone to establish her volatility in her relationship with Paul. This tone is first sparked in the chorus, 

“I’ll be the killer and the thriller and the cause of our death.”

At first, this self deprecation is taken as playful in the context of the height of their relationship, but as the song goes on and the audience is guided through the course of their love, it becomes more clear that the speaker’s instability will be their demise. The speaker goes on to except her self doubts,

“As I realized there was no one who could kiss away my shit.”

This self-hating tone is once again sparked in the final moments of their relationship,

“I couldn’t stay, I’d only bring you pain.”

Taken altogether, the speaker’s self awareness creates a tone of progressing self loathing which helps the audience understand that the reason the two ultimately couldn’t stay together was because of the speaker’s unreliability. In conjunction with the analogy about alcoholism, it is established that the speaker learned from her relationship with Paul that she will never truly be content with another before she is content with herself.

The Old Woman From Palo Alto

Reading the ending of Exit West, one scene in particular stood out to me. Starting on page 207, Hamid opens a narrative about an old woman who has lived in the same house in Palo Alto nearly all her life. Hamid puts forth effort into ensure that the reader establishes an emotional connection with this women. A tone of melancholy and lonesomeness is created through descriptions of the old women only maintaining contact with a single granddaughter (208).

But what makes this character so interesting is that she represents, in some sense, the collective push back on migration. Hamid creates a whole novel dedicated to the idea that migration is inevitable and should be met with open arms. The old women, albeit somewhat subtly, shows disdain for those around her, “All sorts of strange people were around, people who looked more at home than she was.” Although she is not an extremist, the old woman provides insight into the mind of the native. From her point of view the collective migration has left her feeling displaced and somewhat uncomfortable and though she doesn’t act on these feelings, they are a muted version of the sentiment of the native who confront the migrants.

I liked how Hamid waiting until the end of the novel to put us in the shoes of the native. The concluding line of this short narrative was, “We are all migrants through time” (209). This impactful, for me, echoed back to a brief conversation that happened in the book were Saeed reflects on the idea that those who claimed to be native of the united states and that the true natives were scarce.

Art and Existentialism

When reading into existentialism, I found an article titled, “Why Creativity is the Cure for Nihilistic Despair,” though the title is somewhat misleading. The article delved into how and why many existentialist turn to art. The general argument made by the author is that, for existentialist, we are not born with any inherent meaning nor is there a overarching meaning in life. In order to exist alongside a lack of meaning (absurdity), we must develop our own sense of meaning. This is where the author argues that for many art creates this personal meaning.

In the modern world, there is a sense of heroism that is synonymous with having an eternal spirit. We all fear death and in order to maintain sanity we concoct narratives that help deconstruct the terror of death. For some, this manifests as religion or spirituality. The idea of heroism is that we go out of our way to take on an active role in society, through carriers, relationships, etc., because we feel that these roles will prevent us from being forgotten after death; they are your mark on the world that makes you somewhat eternal despite inevitable death.

The existentialist thought suggests that heroism is not genuine and by participating in it you are feeding into the “myth of significance of human life” (Ernest Becker). Instead, the way to live is by first accepting absurdity, meaning you accept that there is no ultimate purpose. Once you acknowledge absurdity, it is up to you to live your most genuine truth which does not originate from the social construction around you, rather it is a product of you mind alone. This is the concept of rebellion.

The author of the article I read argues that the artist is the ultimate rebel. The artist remains conscious about the absurdity of life and uses that lucidity to formulate art. That art is there genuine truth and meaning and prevents them from sliding off the edge of existentialism into nihilism. Ernest Becker articulates tis concept well, “the most anyone of us can seem to do is to fashion something — an object or ourselves — and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.”

Salamano and His Companion

Throughout the progression of part one of The Stranger, it becomes clear that the protagonist Meursault does not experience human in emotions in the same way they are typically presented.

This trend become particular clear when Meursault is repeatedly asked by his partner Marie whether or not he loves her. This question it met by a response of, “it [love] didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t love her.” This conversation that surfaces twice in the first part of the story illustrates Meursault’s indifference towards human emotion. While he doesn’t explicitly expression a distain from love, he clearly demonstrates that, for him, love is insignificant.

What I find most interesting about the book so far is how the relationships Meursault observes reflects his own view on intimacy. This dynamic is most prevalent in Salamano relationship with his dog. When the two are first introduced in the story, it is clear that they share a tumultuous relationship which most outsiders view as abusive. When Celeste voice that he finds the relationship, “pitiful,” Meursault internally disagrees and voices passive indifference. Later in the story, when Salamano is emotion distress after losing his dog, he reaches out to Meursault asking whether he believes his dog will be returned to him. Rather then comfort the old man, Meursault’s response is clear and calculate, expressing that ponds only, “kept the dogs for three days, then after that they did with them what they saw fit.” Both of the instances illustrate that Meursault view on emotional relationships is detached from any sort of empathy. He therefor places very little regard on his own relationships, resigning himself to little emotional intimacy.