The late Edward Said in his book Orientalism harshly criticized the “Orientalists,” people from the West who were artists or scholars who, he claimed, had described or depicted people from the Muslim world in patronizing terms, thus helping to justify colonialism. The artists who were part of the Orientalist movement in the late nineteenth century were overshadowed by the impressionists and then by other movements, and of course with the rise of postmodernism they have been vilified.
But now they are experiencing a bit of a comeback. According to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal, the prices fetched by their works is rising, the auction house Sotheby’s has had an annual sale of Orientalist art since 2012 (the next one being Tuesday), and a couple museums are having exhibitions or at least bringing out their Orientalist works from storage. The article quotes the curators, who speak rather disparagingly of the art.
The slap-in-the-face for these curators and for all the post-modernists and Islamophiles is that the revival of these artists is not being fueled by Islamophobes here in the West, but by collectors from the Muslim world. This shouldn’t be happening, according to their narrative, yet it is happening. One such collector is described in the article as saying he thinks of their works as chronicles of the culture of the Middle East before the rise of mass media.
In retrospect, it is hard to believe that so many intelligent people from the West formed their opinion on this subject on the basis of what one person from the Middle-Eastern said about it, without considering that perhaps other people from the Middle East took a different view. In checking their biographical information, I found that all of these artists had actually traveled to the Middle East. It wasn’t as though they were simply making things up. They painted what they saw.
All this suggests a way we can needle the Islamophiles: buy the art of the Orientalists. Praise them whenever possible. Buy posters of their art and post it on your office wall. Etc. And if you get challenged, you can insist that you were inspired by the collectors from the Middle East, who have been buying up their stuff.