Assessing The Orientalism And Occidentalism Cultural Studies Essay

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The subject that this essay covers is the issue of Orientalism and Occidentalism and how the two are perceived by one another. It will focus mainly on how the Occident has developed a stereotypical perception of the Orient and all things 'Eastern' by being subjected to a very narrow view for many years. It began in the colonial years when 'Westerners' travelled to the Far East and other Oriental countries with the mindset that these countries were inferior to the more cultured West. They enforced their own culture onto these people, whose culture was just as sophisticated and indeed more so than that which was being imposed. Painters and scholars travelled to observe this undiscovered land and dutifully brought back evidence of their perception of the Orient in all its savagery, lust and decadence. These texts, paintings and even political views all helped to conjure the western attitude of perceived views of the Orient when the work of individuals who grossly exaggerated the orient became mainstream in Western society. They created an illusion of the 'exotic' east where men sat smoking opium pipes while women were sexual fantasies.

This essay will focus on the work of Edward Said who redefined what being an Orientalist meant in today's society and the prejudice associated with it. Said focused on the division of the world into what he called 'two spheres' of East versus West and Western perception of the East. How have his views helped change the stereotype of the East? Western art of the Orient also played a vital role in how it was both interpreted and thereby influenced Western culture. Art was key for two things, it was a 'picture book' of the orient and its culture to the general public, and was also inspiration for many Eastern influences in Western society such as Architecture and interior design. These will be examined to see how the Orient has influenced Western culture and society.

What is the Orient? It is a question that the general public would give varying answers to. The reason for this is the vast array of Western stereotypes regarding the Orient and even what constitutes being 'Oriental'. Orientalism has been likened to being 'almost a European intervention' by Edward Said (pg 1, 1978) who goes on to define it as style of thought based on epistemological distinction between the two cultures (pg2, 1978). He is correct in suggesting that the division of the world came about by Westerners who felt it necessary to define areas of 'culture' to other lands who were different, and thereby in their view, not capable of western status.

But what is the Orient and how did this division of the world come about? In 'Orientalism' Said (1978) distinguishes the world as being split into worlds: the West and the Rest. Said continues (1978, pg 122) by attributing Napoleons invasion of Egypt as defining era in the formulation of Western opinion regarding the Orient. It was during this invasion that Napoleon formulated his 'Description de Egypt' as a case study into the history and culture of the country. This text was extensively studied by many larger European cultures and became the foundation on which future texts were to be written. This lead to a period where many countries were 'written up' and it was from these texts that the public generated their opinions of the Orient. The texts themselves became increasing fanaticised and moved further from reality thereby fuelling the public's perception of the Orient being a mystical land. Said determines this as the point in which the Orient was defined most incorrectly and speaks in order to rule a country you must do so by knowledge (The last interview, 2004). Instead it was becoming more commonplace to copy literary texts and thereby maintaining the front of an exotic Orient rather than continually updating the perception of the Orient by more frequent, up to date writings.

Said highlights the current division in the world between the Occident and the Orient. This division can be associated as beginning with the Greeks who conquered their surrounding land and thereby started the 'spread of the West' by dividing their world between themselves and the Barbarians. This in turn developed in religion being cause for division, with spiritual thinking creating a divide between Christianity in the West and the rest of the world. Over the years this has led to many wars and crusades between the Occident's and the Orients. Finally culture can be seen as a dividing factor with the East and West having distinctly different cultures that were not accepted as being equal, rather they were seen as being different and scorned as being wrong (Mandahar, 2010).

However this division of the world developed further to leave the current world in an ambiguous mismatch of East and West. Various wars over the last century have sculpted the world into the First world, Second world, Third world and even a Fourth World. These originated with America and its allies being viewed as the first world, Russia and its allies as the second, and neutral countries as the third. These divisions have since been warped to distinguish between class and wealth to mould the world to its current standing today. This has made the term 'Oriental' and 'Eastern' difficult to define with Australia being a good example, although located in the East, it is viewed as being a Western country. This clarifies the difficulty in plainly distinguishing between what the West and East actually means in today's society (Mandahar, 2010).

This confusion can lead to a lack of a sense of identity for many Oriental people, or perhaps confusion as to a sense of belonging is a better phrase. One such example which symbolises the difficulty in both sense of identity and distinguishing geographically between the Orient and Occident is Anzaldua's 'Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza' (1987, pg 7) where she describes a woman living on the border between America and Mexico. This woman is caught between two cultures, feeling 'alien' in her own land describing it as 'uncomfortable' to live in. This is a perfect example of how difficult it is to define Orientalism. Geographically Mexico is located in the West, and is technically a western country even though it is not perceived as such, yet it is classed as 'Eastern' and even can be defined under the umbrella of 'Oriental'. Said himself was born into a Protestant family in Palestine with an American father and a Lebanese mother. Forced out during the war his family moved to Cairo where he spent his education at an English school until being sent to a boarding school in America. It is here that Said identifies his feeling of 'not belonging' , even his name led to a lack of definitive identity by coupling a traditional English name 'Edward' with the Arabic 'Said' (A memoir, pp xvi, 3-4, 1999).

So how did these texts and artwork taken from the Orient affect Occidental society? Western art from the 19th and 20th centuries was a means of conveying the Orient to those who had not been to see for themselves. Paintings we're used as in the same way a modern day camera might be used to depict a holiday. They conveyed everything from the appearance of Oriental buildings to the sexual habits of the indigenous people. It is important to note here that while they depicted these things they were rarely a true representation of what the Orient actually was like, and harks back to the common problem of western perception of the Orient rather than the reality.

They did not affect society in a physical way like the influence of architecture, rather they influenced and often fuelled the illusion of how the Occident perceived the Orient. Most were painted when photography was yet to be invented and were therefore the only source of information regarding the orient, some artists never visited the east while others travelled extensively (MacKenzie, 1995, pg 44). Consequently these paintings played a significant role in the influencing the Occidental interpretation of a land most people would not encounter first hand. One of the more famous Oriental paintings is the 'Death of Sardanapalous' by Delacroix. Painted in 1827 the image depicts the fall of Sardanapalous after suffering a military defeat, who has ordered the destruction of all his possessions including his servant women, one of whom is begging him for mercy on the bed. This painting could be described as the ultimate rendering of perceived Arab decadence (A review of contemporary media, 2007). One of the key delusions represented in Western interpretation of the Orient shown via paintings is the sexual interpretation of Oriental women. They are more often than Fig 1: The Death of Sardanapalous

not depicted in a sexual nature with little or

in this case no clothing and are always subservient to the men. It perceives female sexuality as being openly flaunted and alludes to a land of sexual 'fantasies' , most unlike Occidental culture where the women were 'reserved' and 'cultured'. A noteworthy point is how Delacroix has painted the women to look Occidental rather than Oriental- thus affirming their figure as appealing in appearance, unlike the men who tend to be darker skinned and less physically attractive. Attention is drawn to the women primarily as their pale skin is brightly contrasted with the dark red of the lavish bed on which Sardanapalous calmly lies. The violence of the image cannot be overlooked, the savagery of Sardanapalous shows the Orient as a brutal, boorish race- the polar opposite of Occidental interpretation of their own culture. The image of the female servant in the bottom right having her throat cut by a man with a dagger is particularly powerful as it combines the sexual allure of the Orient with the cruel and violence of men that is so often portrayed. It demeans the Orient as a race indifferent to life, Sardanapalous has decided that if he must die then all his servants, possessions and animals must die too. It fuels the perception of a savage race that needs to be ruled as they are incompetent of doing so on their own.

However not all the painters perceived this fantasy land, some painted more representational artwork that show the Orient in better taste, Ludwig Deutsch was one such artist. A German by birth, Deutsch travelled frequently to the East and in particular Cairo where he studied mainly religious scenes, one such painting by him is 'The Scribe'. This painting depicts a learned man sitting in a chair with a document on his knee on which he is clearly writing. This is interesting as it shows the Orient as a scholarly race and draws a sharp contrast to the savage race shown in Delacroix's paintings. The scribe himself is Fig. 2: 'The Scribe'

dressed in typical clothing and has a noble appearance as he sits comfortably in his lavish chair with decorated surroundings. The bright colours of the surrounding tiles and the ornate doorframe and furniture show how Orientalist architecture in the Occident was influenced by such paintings. Again the surroundings are a contrast to Delacroix's observation that Oriental construction comprised a tent with some pillows, Deutsch shows an elaborate solid construction that is highly decorated and would require a high level of craftsmanship. Some reviews believe the crumbling structure around the doorway is representative of a degenerate civilisation, which is often represented in Oriental paintings, however in this case it is more likely to have been what the artist actually saw.

Other less obvious means of portraying the Orient through art and media is the influence of movies on public perception. This is more clearly shown in Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People by Jack G. Shaheen . Here the director outlines how the Orient, specifically Arabs, are stereotyped ranging from physical appearance to perceived cultural habits. One example used by Shaheen (2001) is the film Aladdin. Here the main character Aladdin is an Arab who is shown to be thin, refined and nearly Western in physical appearance. Women are represented by the Princess who is depicted in a sexual nature, wearing the clothes of a belly dancer. The other characters especially the 'bad' characters are shown to have bushy moustaches, missing teeth and hooked noses. All of these are 'typical' features have been shown via art in past centuries by artists but have carried through to the modern day and made the transition into movies.

Aside from some countries on mainland Europe, Britain and the rest of the Western world had little interest or influence from the orient until the turn of the 19th century (MacKenzie, 1995, pg 73) and this is reflected in the Architecture. Improved communication and transport links shrunk the world and soon far off and exotic places such as 'the far east' was more accessible. The first Oriental influence was the inclusion of Chinese garden furniture in the late 18th century. These in turn lead to larger constructions such as pagodas like the one found at Kew Gardens. The pagoda was built by Sir William Chamber and was representative of his travels in the east, however like so many of Orientalist constructions it is only his interpretation of the Chinese style and is thereby not fully representative of Chinese architecture. Other more Fig. 3: Pagoda at Kew Gardens

public Oriental influences such as obelisks and pyramids became commonplace towards the late 18th century with Napoleons invasion of Egypt. MacKenzie (1995 pg 75) suggests that the inclusion of so many Egyptian constructions are a patriotic response to Napoleons conquests. This becomes a familiar theme where the orient is drawn into the spotlight, usually as the consequence of war. As a result there is an increased reaction in the western world and more eastern influences appear with many 'coming into and out of fashion' (MacKenzie,1995 pg 75). During the 19th century Architects began to look to orientalist architecture as a means of exploration and experimentation, particularly after the rigidity of the Victorian period. Soon exploration became the foundation of a new form of expression and freedom; a release from the intransigence of typical Victorian architecture and the control that neo-classic design demands. Mackenzie (1995, pg 72) describes how Orientalist architecture became the centre of expressing the shift in attitude that occurred, predominantly in the early 20th century.

One building heavily influenced by the orient is the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. This distinctive palace has been host to a number of monarchs since its construction and is currently a major tourist attraction offering information, tours and hosting ceremonies. Work began in 1787 by the architect Henry Holland who was commissioned by King George IV to refurbish and extend a farmhouse. The Fig. 4: The Royal Pavilion at Brighton

then Prince George was an avid collector

of different styles of art which may explain his interest in the chinoiserie style of decorating, so much so that he had the interior of the Pavilion furnished with in a Chinese style to include wallpapering and even bamboo furniture (Royal Pavilion, museums and libraries, 2009). However it was the Prince's love for horse riding that led to the Pavilion being constructed as it appears today. In 1808 William Porden constructed a massive stable, completely upstaging the small Marine Pavilion as it was known then. This turned the Prince's attention towards constructing a new, equally as grand 'Royal' Pavilion. Construction began in 1815 and was completed in 1822 by the Architect John Nash. He had proposed an Indian style construction based on the publication 'Oriental Scenery' which, given the Prince's love of the Chinoiserie style was sure to impress. The pavilion was described as 'progressive for its time' (Royal Pavilion, museums and libraries, 2009) and once completed featured many new and innovative features such as fully plumbed bathrooms amongst others.

The exterior design heavily influenced by the Indian style, the dome and accompanying towers bear a striking resemblance to the Taj Mahal creating a 'romantic' feel. Internally the finishing is as lavish as the exterior suggests. The music room is decorated in reds and gold in accordance with the chinoiserie style, the 'Lotus' shaped chandeliers are typical of the standard and style of finish throughout the palace. The design is typically western in its approach, by marrying an Indian exterior to a Chinese interior the design could be described as showing contempt for Indian interior design. It is very clearly not western and provides a stark contrast when viewed within the context its neighbouring buildings and indeed Brighton as a whole. However this is not to say that Fig. 5: Inside the Royal Pavilion

The building is to be written off as an architectural faux pas,

its elegant columns and curvaceous domes are a stunning contrast to the typical classicism on which most palaces are styled and is worthy of Kings and Queens. Despite the creation of ornate and aesthetically pleasing structures such as the Brighton Pavilion Orientalism never developed as movement of architecture, however in spite of being largely rejected by architects it became embraced by interior designers (Mackenzie, 1995, pg 72). Interior design allowed for less obvious ways in which to express as it is internal and therefore became one of the most common forms of oriental design influences. Features such as internal decoration, fabrics, carpets, ceramics and metalwork were all commonplace but particularly in areas of leisure or relaxation such as theatres and baths. One such example is the Turkish baths at Harrowgate which were opened in 1867. The Oriental influence is apparent with the internal tiles representative of that shown in so many paintings depicting the east, along with alcoves with curved walkways all symbolic of a western interpretation of eastern design. Other leisurely constructions that lent themselves particularly well to oriental Fig 6: The Turkish baths at Harrowgate

influences were the seaside piers. These were commonplace in the Victorian era where relaxing began to take on a new meaning along with the ascendency of the middle classes who were able to afford to sample these pleasures all contributed to a rise in theatre, pier and ballroom production (Frampton, 2007, pg 12). The pier at Brighton, close to the Brighton Pavilion, is a perfect example of oriental influence. The pier shows many eastern features such as a gateway entrance and a series of kiosks along the pier. The nature of the pier also gave other features not seen internally such as ironwork of seating and even the structure itself a chance to express influence. With the most apparent oriental influences occurring in theatres, ballrooms, baths, piers and gardens it is easy to see how Orientalism in architecture was seen as an architecture for popular culture (MacKenzie, 1995, pg 72) and did not maintain its potential as a movement in western architecture.

Orientalism influences in architecture today are not as obvious as the Brighton Pavilion, rather influences are used in a more subtle manner. An example of current influence can be seen in Jean Nouvel's Arab institute which uses a wooden screen facade to reduce glare. These screens are commonplace in so many orientalist paintings from the 19th century and were clearly an inspirational factor for Nouvel. Possibly Orientalism's most telling contribution to architecture is being one of the inspirations behind the art deco movement, the bright colours and motifs laid the foundation for another form of Fig 7. Jean Nouvels Arab Institute

expression born out of orientalist influences.


The terms Orientalism and Occidentalism have long divided the world into the prosperous West and the poorer relative, the East. It is a human creation stemming from ignorance on behalf the early colonialists who chose to explore and settle in these lands, without treating them with the respect that they deserve. It is difficult for me to explain why the painters and writers felt the need to convey such negative images of the Oriental countries which they occupied, perhaps the only reason was to satisfy the Western public's appetite for the surreal, myth-like land that was the Orient. It is something that cannot be defended therefore I am inclined to agree with most if not all of Edward Said's theories and opinions when defining Orientalism. The division of the world can still be seen today however we are in transitional times with the rise of more 'Oriental' countries provides an interesting future, most definitely in the political arena. With China and India coming to the fore as potential superpowers, the political area in years to come will be very different- perhaps we could even see an ironic reversal of the way the Occident sees the Orient?

In regard to the influences on Architecture I find it surprising that the various Orientalist phases did not amount to more. Perhaps the reason for this was their interpretation as being seen as buildings of leisure than buildings of serious architectural merit. I do feel that the orientalist influences live on through the many buildings and interiors that survive. It was only by doing this module that I realised the extent of the influence the Orient has had on the architecture- perhaps because I was not looking for it before. I wish to conclude by saying I found this module very liberating in the manner in which was taught and helped to open my eyes to the Orient. I would count myself open to all opinions however having only been subjected to western influences it was a refreshing take on others from other cultures views.


Anzaldua, G. (1999) Borderlands/La Frontera: The new Mestiza, 2nd Edition, Aunt Lute Books.

Edward Said, The Last interview (2004) [Video]. Directed by Mike Dibb. London: ICA Projects

MacKenzie, J. (1995) Orientalism: History Theory and the Arts, Manchester: University Press, Manchester.

Said, E. (1978) Orientalism, USA: Vintage Books Edition.

Said, E. (1999) Out of Place: A memoir, United Kingdom: CPI bookmark