Close encounters with far pavilions

Orientalism
November 24, 1995

The most striking feature of western colonial empires was their reliance not so much on naked force as on a triumphalist ideology that presented the western "civilising mission" as self-evidently good. Even Karl Marx, that archcritic of imperialism, unquestioningly accepted the universal validity of the (western) ideas of progress and rationality.

During the past two decades, Edward Said's Orientalism has been the boldest attack on this ideology of colonialism, generating one of the liveliest (and bitterest) academic controversies of recent times. It may be useful to recap briefly here Said's main thesis. He says that the western orientalists professed to speak authoritatively and objectively about the Orient. But their image of the Orient as backward, irrational and depraved was not a neutral one; it was a stereotype created by the orientalists, which enabled the colonial powers to maintain control over a vast, culturally heterogeneous region.

Orientalism appeared at a time when the intellectual dominance of the West was being challenged by marginal groups both within and without the metropolitan centre. It deeply divided academe, as such a hard-hitting book was bound to do. One group of scholars kept discovering orientalism in almost any and every field with equanimity, while others voiced their disquiet at the book's method and focus. John M. MacKenzie, a distinguished historian of imperialism, judges that the time is ripe to take stock of the whole reaction to Said's book. His is an ambitious and wide-ranging critique of Orientalism that no serious student of colonial rule can afford to ignore.

Orientalism, MacKenzie contends, has made us rethink the nature of colonial rule; but its chief weakness is that it oversimplifies the issues, which are more complex, diffuse and ambiguous than Said admits. Colonial discourse, MacKenzie points out, is both monolithic and anachronistic, being at odds with the actual historical process.

MacKenzie is especially severe on Said's followers, who, he complains, display an ignorance of history in their vague generalisations about the political and economic factors affecting imperialism. They condemn the orientalist images of different Asian peoples for being static, stereotyped and essentialist, ignoring the cultural diversity of the groups studied. And yet these postcolonialists and postmodernists go on to erect their own set of binary oppositions between the coloniser and the colonised, creating in effect another form of essentialism. Leading discourse theorists come in for censure: "Homi K. Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak make (few), if any, attempts to anchor their work in the empirical depths of the imperial experience, tending to generalise in strikingly airy ways." MacKenzie adds: "Some of the discourse theorists cloak themselves in an invented language, embroidered in lengthy sentences of great opacity, and indulge in tautology akin to a repeated abstract designIthey appear to use an esoteric argot in order to communicate essentially to each other. No wonder that the historian, secure in the conviction that the finest thought can be expressed in the simplest of language, has found it difficult to penetrate the often arcane cabalism of the discourse theorists."

Rejecting the idea of oriental passivity, MacKenzie holds that resistance took two forms: not only were the colonised selective in responding to westernisation, they turned the tables on the coloniser by recycling the orientalist stereotypes in the service of nationalism. The colonial encounter affected the coloniser as much as the colonised. Questioning Said's thesis of the relationship between Europe and Asia as simply one of "unchallenged dominance", MacKenzie seeks to understand imperialism through the heterogeneity of its forms and popular expressions. His view is that for a proper "counterhegemonic discourse" we need to turn from literary texts to the visual and performing arts, from elite assertions to popular expressions. His answer to Orientalism's charge of power and control is to trace the spread and extent of western indebtedness to eastern art.

MacKenzie is meticulous in tracking down the influences of oriental ideas and cultures on western arts, particularly in architecture, the decorative arts, theatre and music. In architecture, the oriental decorations of Brighton Pavilion, Sezincote and Melchet Park are well known. But with his specialist knowledge of popular culture, he throws valuable light on the presence of the East in the myriad details of the lesser architectural forms. He brings together published and unpublished material on bungalows, Indian pavilions in world fairs, interior designs of British theatres, cinema halls and other contemporary public buildings. He offers an eloquent description of oriental architectural details in the work of the Scottish architect, Alexander Thomson.

Likewise, he synthesises a plethora of information to give us fascinating and significant nuggets about a great many composers, many of them less known or unknown. Major composers like Cherubini treated Alessandro nell'Indie, Ali Baba and other oriental themes; Berlioz wrote cantatas, Le Cheval arabe, La Mort de Cleopatre and La Mort de Sardanapoule; and Massanet composed Le Roi de Lahore. Lesser composers, such as Maurice Delage, dabbled in oriental themes, and Felicien David composed Melodies Orientales, Les Minarets and Le Desert. In Britain, apart from Gustav Holst - well known for his interest in Sanskrit literature - the minor composers Granville Bantock and John Foulds treated oriental themes. MacKenzie's conclusion is that genuinely syncretic forms emerged from continuing engagements with the East; in the case of Debussy this seriously extended the language of western music.

MacKenzie's book is thus an impressive and scholarly exposition that makes the whole East-West encounter rich, enjoyable, and nonreductionist. But how convincing are his attempts to present the progressive accommodation of the West with eastern arts as an alternative to Orientalism? I shall tease out the complex strands of his argument.

But first I have to declare an interest. Mackenzie remarks that "although Partha Mitter has argued that a significant revaluation of the Indian fine arts only occurred in the 20th century, some bridging of the gulf between the highly regarded crafts of the subcontinent and Indian art began to take place in the final years of the 19th century." Again, "Mitter's notion of a Victorian 'interlude' in design ultimately followed by 20th century appreciation of the fine arts is too episodic." Expressing scepticism about what he calls the "commonplace to suggest that European attitudes to oriental art made a severe distinction between the applied and the fine arts", MacKenzie claims that this distinction was breaking down in the 19th century. In support, he traces European responses to Asian applied arts over a wide field. He details Bernard Leach's Japanese-inspired pottery and quotes Sir George Birdwood, the champion of Indian industrial art, who demonstrated his respect for Indian art. In general, MacKenzie furnishes convincing evidence for the prevalence of Indian decorative arts in Britain.

But there is no contradiction between appreciating the decorative arts and believing in the essential inferiority of Indian art. Indeed, not only did the fine/applied art distinction not break down in the late 19th century, in fact the new appreciation of Indian decoration paradoxically helped reinforce the accepted superiority of western painting and sculpture. As Birdwood succinctly put it: "The mythology of the (ancient Hindu) Puranas I lends itself happily enough to decorative art I The monstrous shapes of the Puranic deities are unsuitable for the higher forms of artistic representation; and this is possibly why sculpture and painting are unknown, as fine arts, in India."

To the Victorians, Indian miniatures, however beautiful, lacked the higher intellectual quality that informed western history painting, the pinnacle of art. The whole Victorian hierarchy of the arts was predicated on the dichotomy between fine arts as an intellectual activity and the decorative arts that required mere manual skill and low cunning. British women's art and nonwestern art, though excellent in their class, never rose beyond the decorative. This was precisely the feeling of writers like James Fergusson, the pioneering and influential authority on Indian art and architecture. MacKenzie insists that Fergusson respected Indian architecture. And yet, Fergusson pointed out what he saw as its two characteristics: it could only claim second rank in world art; and, unlike progressive western art, it was "written in decay". Birdwood's and Fergusson's patronising approval based on the western classical canon lends itself to an orientalist interpretation.

MacKenzie argues that it is in the domains of the popular and performing arts that one finds a substantive accommodation of western art with an exotic art such as that of India, and he does produce evidence of widespread use of oriental motifs. I agree that it is not sufficient to treat the western colonial response simply as an expression of political hegemony as represented by the elite, but the role of popular culture in colonialism can be overemphasised. In Britain, popular culture neither determined imperial values, nor did it seek to subvert them. As far as artistic taste was concerned, until very recently the status of the classical canon remained intact.

Furthermore, does artistic borrowing indicate greater appreciation of what is borrowed? Not necessarily. Indeed, it is a modern phenomenon that artists forage world art, snatching out of their cultural milieux an exotic motif here and an alien form there, in search of inspiration. The debate surrounding the "Primitivism in Modern Art" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1985 addressed precisely this question. In other words, western borrowing of nonwestern art need not be a celebration of that art but may be an extension of colonial power in which the coloniser takes with impunity from what it considers to be an inferior culture.

Both the strength and the limitations of the book lie in its approach. MacKenzie is right to criticise the ahistorical nature of much postmodernist writing. "Historians," he comments, "have the advantage over discourse theorists in never having been confident about the predictive I purposes of their discipline even if most of them have sensibly recognised the impossibility of escaping value-laden language." What MacKenzie does not address is the insight offered by the idea of a colonial discourse, namely that much imperialist history has hitherto presented colonial encounter as an unproblematic issue. The uncomfortable fact is that many historians continue to believe implicitly in a single global history that moves steadily forwards powered by progress - a teleological view that privileges the West over the rest. Discourse theorists reject grand narratives precisely because of such "objective" interpretations of imperialism. Also, by placing less importance on economic and social factors, they aim to go beyond Marx's rather mechanistic view of the imperial enterprise in order to probe its hegemonic nature.

In the final analysis, the dilemma facing the critic of colonialism is this: where does one draw the line between relativism that highlights the problematic nature of Enlightenment rationality, and a need to be sensitive to the historical process? In other words, how do we steer a precarious middle course between economic determinism and a textual deconstruction that lacks an engagement with the real human issue of exploitation? MacKenzie has made a powerful case against the excesses of postcolonialism but I am not sure that he has provided a convincing alternative.

Partha Mitter is reader in art history, University of Sussex, and author of Art and Nationalism in Colonial India: Occidental Orientations.

Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts

Author - John M. MacKenzie
ISBN - 0 7190 1861 7 and 4578 9
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
Pages - 232

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