An artist speaks out against neo-orientalism

orientalismIn 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)?

2 thoughts on “An artist speaks out against neo-orientalism

  1. This just in from Andrew Werby.

    Okay, what have we got here, (besides a typo in the original header)? Orientalism seems to have been the original sin. When Delacroix and Ingres indulged themselves in the romantic imagery of the then-exotic East, they were being bad, bad bad – taking on an attitude of Western technological superiority (or a nostalgia for simpler times) and glorifying it implicitly by painting scenes of mounted Bedouin, or women in a harem, which seem to have excited their artistic imaginations more than, say, painting pictures of factories and railway stations. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Now some collectors and auctioneers share collective guilt for the same crime – now called “Neo-Orientalism” – indulging themselves in stereo-typical thinking about the “otherness” of artists from the East, or the Middle East, despite said artists indulging themselves in art-historical tropes which would seem to invite this sort of categorization. Mr Kamrooz Aram himself, who lifts motifs from the traditions of Persian miniatures and Chinese embroidery, deplores it when a collector is so bold as to purchase a work of his from a gallery show – purposely, he says, to include it in one of these auctions that seek to trade on the mystique of the East, which seems to be against his business plan, if not the trend of his work. (The piece in question didn’t sell, so maybe he’s right about that.)

    In an era that relentlessly categorizes artists by gender, sexual orientation, racial identification (the “one-drop” rule lives on), mental health status (If I take lots of drugs can I be an Outsider too?) despite the actual subject matter of their art, it’s hardly surprising that enterprising marketers should hit on the idea of bundling up various artists of Middle-Eastern extraction, particularly those who deal with Oriental themes, and try to peddle their work to oil-rich Arabs, who seem to have an appetite for this sort of thing. Does Mr. Aram protest too much? He says he plunders art history in order to challenge “condescending categories of identity” but it seems he wants to have it both ways – to enjoy privileged access to the artistic traditions he mines in his work, while indulging in the familiar pose of post-modern ironical detachment that allows him to use them any way he sees fit, while bashing as “opportunistic” those other artists who allow their art to be categorized in any way.

    Some groups, such as Egyptians and Native Americans, have become quite protective of the images that make up what they see as their cultural property, even proposing new extensions of copyright law to protect things that have long been considered in the Public Domain. If they push this through, I wonder how art like Mr. Aram’s might fare. Will the use of these protected symbols and images be licensed to projects that “challenge” the belief-systems that brought them about, or restricted to those who agree to work within the constraints of the forms? Will one have to prove ones membership in the ethnic group responsible for originating an artform like a pyramid or totem-pole, or will everyone have equal access? If Mr. Aram really thinks that the “otherness” of the Middle-East is nothing but a neo-liberal Western “fetish”, I’m looking forward to seeing his new series on the Life of Muhammad…

  2. This Comment in from Debby Luzia in Tel-Aviv.

    Kamrooz Aram presents the classic paradox of the periphery – one I am very much aware of, living in Israel. This paradox has accompanied the story of Israeli art from it’s beginning and is basically – do we distinct ourselves culturally or do we aim to copy the West by submitting to universal issues – claiming that where one lives in the world is irrelevant to the art one makes.

    The great art boom we experienced for the last 7 years brought attention to the periphery in search for new art at reasonable prices. There seemed to be a race – who will be first to discover a new frontier which can produce nice profits for western dealers and collectors. Let us not be hypocritical here – the Middle Eastern artists benefited from that and Mouna Hatoum, Gada Amar, Shirin Neshat and other now well known artists with exotic names prove it. Sotheby’s and Christie’s do not accept any artist and for Aram to appear in a Sothebys catalogue is more than most artists can dream of. Of course it would have been far better if the work sold but the name will be remembered.

    In my opinion, the interesting thing about these artists art is exactly the cultural mixture of East and West and the west today, being such a trans-national, trans-cultural place – is open to new juxtapositions.

    This is the important issue – much more so than marketing techniques of auction houses that need a title for their sales and have these categories that help their clients navigate among their various sales. There is a willingness for new art, for different art – out of curiosity – not from Said’s point of view of western supremacy. There is a momentum that should be taken advantage of here – an open door to step through.

    Saatchi’s exhibitions mentioned in the post annoyed me. The Chinese works were 90% dialogue with American culture and imagery. I don’t need to see a Chinese Mickey Mouse or Marylyn Monroe. What is Chinese about that? And what happened to Israel in the Middle East exhibition? Did we fall off the map?
    One must bear in mind that the Saatchi gallery is a private gallery and not a public museum with obligations to the public. Saatchi will show whatever is in his interest to do so. So he doesn’t need to be taken so seriously.

    Of course identity is a major issue for an artist – whether he lives in his country of origin or not – even if he was born in the west to eastern parents he will still have eastern values that will have some influence on his being – as we see in the work of Kamrooz Aram. So why be upset if you are called orientalist ? Why not celebrate it?

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