An artist speaks out against neo-orientalism
In the wake of the October auctions in London, Kamrooz Aram wrote a piece about the appendage of “Arab and Iranian” artists to Sotheby’s sale of Contemporary Art (full disclosure: I assisted Aram in the editing of his piece and ushered it up online). Aram rightly points out that this was of course not the first time an auction house or other outlets have used ethnicity as a means to promote a broad spectrum of art works which might otherwise bear no connection to one another; nevertheless, it was the first time that one of Aram’s works had been put up in such an auction and, as Aram notes, solely as a speculative move, given that the work had been purchased from his gallery only months earlier. What is more, the notes that accompanied the piece in the auction catalogue demonstrated the persistence of some orientalist perspectives at work in what we might as well call the ‘positioning’ of Aram’s work for sale.
One of the many implications of Aram’s piece is its challenge to the not altogether unfamiliar use of ‘identity’, both questioned and not, as a tool of the market. ‘Identity’ has been a major theme not only for contemporary art, but for contemporary literature and, indeed, politics itself; and it seems part and parcel of this thematic’s rise that it is, exactly, marketable. One of the questions then is this: are we witnessing a neo-orientalism in the marketplace? One that is interested to–as the Sotheby’s auction notes do–keep in play the divide between a modern west and primitive east? Or is what Aram identifies as neo-orientalism more like a single facet of what someone like Walter Benn Michaels would call neoliberalism in art in general–an art that is itself more interested in identity (i.e who belongs to this or that group) than in class (i.e. who has the money and who doesn’t)?