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What did you expect old boy? This is the Tate Britain!

by Ali Nobil Ahmad
7 Jul 2008 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Review

William Allan, 'The Slave Market, Constantinople', 1838
William Allan, The Slave Market, Constantinople, 1838, National Gallery of Scotland

Around about the time when digital torture porn from Abu Ghraib established racialised sadism and hardcore sexual violence as the aesthetic co-ordinates of contemporary western imperialism, someone in charge of programming at the Tate decided it would be a good idea to stage an exhibition celebrating British Orientalism. Provocatively entitled The Lure of the East, the timing of Tate Britain’s present attempt to bring to prominence over a 100 colonial travel paintings by British artists might well raise eyebrows: it takes place in the aftermath of the most spectacular act of symbolic and material violence by Britain against the Orient since Suez: the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

How to interpret this remarkably bold statement? As a jaw-droppingly insensitive celebration of imperial triumphantism? Or is it a stroke of political and intellectual genius – a timely re-examination of imperial hubris launched at just the right moment, before events spiral out of control and Iran gets added to the War on Terror’s growing list of tragedies? Much to the probable relief of the Tate and the wider art establishment, The Lure of the East, which opened earlier this month and was marked by a symposium last week, manages to avoid being either of these things. The curators appear to have successfully walked the tightrope of ‘neutrality’: the exhibition demonstrates itself to have developed not in response to the contemporary political issues that must surely shape our response to it, but miraculously, in an apolitical parallel universe, where art gets discussed for art’s sake. It tells a story of direct relevance to the events raging around us, but manages to do so in a way that only an institution like the Tate could – without making anything that could possibly be described as an intervention in this drama.

How is this delicate balancing act achieved?

Ostensibly political starting points and strands give the endeavour just enough legitimacy for it to be seen as engaged by those of a critical bent. Unusually for an art exhibition, a single academic text (Orientalism) is cited as its starting point in the very first caption. This statement, together with the inclusion of some genuinely insightful essays in the catalogue, a symposium on Said’s influence upon art history and a scattering of acutely observed comments from academics and commentators with suitably ‘correct’ political credentials, the visitor is provided with ample evidence that the curators are well aware of the polemics and controversies surrounding this art. Indeed, the exhibition presents itself as an explicit attempt to work through the vexatious issues raised by Said’s argument.

At the same time, one gets the distinct impression that these issues are being raised precisely so that they can be dismissed as an outmoded academic problem, which in turn allows for the treatment of power’s relation to aesthetics in the world today as an irrelevance. A series of twin statements are made about the importance of Orientalism as a text: praise for generating interest in travel painting on the one hand, and critique for its uselessness as an approach to art history on the other. The two cancel each other out, pressing upon the visitor the distinct message that the discussion should now be moved on to art historical pastures greener.

If Said’s classic text is cited in the first caption of the exhibition, its ghost has been thoroughly exorcised by the final room (the Orient ‘in perspective’), which talks us through a seemingly benign selection of landscapes. The concluding painting – in many ways the most chillingly relevant to Said’s thesis of the entire bunch (Richard Carline’s 1919 aerial cityscape of Damascus) is presented without any comment whatsoever on its contemporary political resonances. And herein lies the problem: if the curators make a sound empirical case for not regarding the paintings on display as Orientalist in an overly generalised, pejorative sense, their implicit call for an evacuation of politics altogether falls down when they ask us to view a (pretty mediocre) rendering of a Middle Eastern city by an RAF pilot from 10,000 feet as just another a landscape painting. Is it really possible (or desirable) to look at this image without thinking of the repeated aerial bombardments of Baghdad and countless other densely populated ‘Oriental’ urban spaces since the first Gulf war of 1991?

The symposium was marked by an even clearer sense of this underlying desire to expunge the political and with it the real importance of Said’s work. The rabble would have been kept out by the 35 quid tariff. Most of the invited speakers had too much of a stake in institutionalised art history to voice concern about the agenda being advanced. Kamran Rastegar, whose article promoting the exhibition in ‘History Today’ is being sold in the Tate bookshop, maintained polite silence. Charles Small spent so long thanking the organisers for being invited to speak that his propagandistic and hysterical prophecies about an impending holocaust in Middle East ran well over his allotted time. We would do well to consider why an outlandishly extreme rant casting the Muslim Middle East as homogenously mired in bigotry was the only explicitly political statement about contemporary global affairs voiced all day. Small’s repeated calls for action ‘before it’s too late’ to prevent ‘a holocaust’ in Iran stopped short of demanding military intervention, but only just.

It was left to Zia Sardaar in the final panel discussion to ask why the exhibition had been called The Lure of the East when its purported objective is to demonstrate that the works in question rise above the kinds of crude exotica we have come to associate with colonial travel art. Christine Riding’s perplexing justification (‘It took us two years to come up with that name!’) merely underlined the gap between the art establishment and anyone this exhibition might offend. Like a supermarket that solicits local community groups’ feedback after it bull dozes the local playground, this discussion was an exercise in ‘consultation’ that should have taken place before the important decisions had were made.

Even so, it eventually laid bare the impulses behind the project when Sardaar asked the unthinkable: ‘Was there a nationalist agenda behind this exhibition?’ Once more, Riding took us straight to the heart of the matter, unwittingly undermining the angry denial of curator Nicholas Tromans with an honest response to complaints of exceptionalism: ‘This is the Tate Britain!’ The mask, with this admission, slipped. There we all were, blowing hot air about the Middle East and Islam when the principle Other being constructed here was France. What’s more, we were being told that questioning the value of this project was somehow naïve; that art historical nationalism should be seen as axiomatic: whatever else did you expect old boy? (‘This is the Tate Britain’).

One of only two non-British European works included, the inclusion of Gérôme’s 1871 carefully selected lascivious depiction of a Cairo slave market underlines what we are being asked to believe is a fundamental moral and aesthetic difference between French (bad) and British (good) Orientalism. We have heard this kind of argument before, of course, in discussions of colonial history, where apologists of British colonialism contrast violent decolonisation in Algeria with the British quietly packing their bags and leaving India (while remaining silent on key examples and equivalents that undermine this argument).

Parallel claims about the differences in British and French Orientalist painting may have more validity. But they cannot be assessed on the basis of the apples and orange-like comparison we are presented with here: the misleading classification of portraits of Orientalist travellers as ‘Orientalist portraits’ (together with their prominent display in the first room) urges the visitor to view the works that follow in isolation from their European equivalents, creating a national category that seems in considerable measure imposed by the curators.

In so far as they do appear to establish stylistic and substantial differences in British and French depictions of the East, it is far from obvious that highlighting these will have the desired national-ego boosting effect: comparison is anything but flattering. Whatever insights it undoubtedly contains into the formation of a certain kind of bourgeois Victorian traveller’s identity, and whatever (minimal) technical innovations and thematic developments Orientalism may have helped usher into to wider art practice, much of that which is on display here is simply dull when one considers what else was going on in terms of artistic production in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries: tedious portraits of travellers; yawnsome religious art and mediocre landscapes.

There are some impressive and interesting paintings on show here, as one would expect from so large a collection of works. A handful of the ethnographic or ‘realist’ paintings are technically superb in their representation of daily life and architecture – John Fredrick Lewis’ vibrant and detailed renderings of Cairo bazaars and buildings, for example. William Homan Hunt’s imagining of a Lantern-maker’s Courtship is unexpectedly playful. Melville’s 1881 watercolour cockfight (in which the central drama is not portrayed) openly repudiates objective description: the observers’ blurred faces and forms are evidence of a more critical, modernist mistrust towards truth claims in painting.

Most British Orientalism, however, looks like holiday snaps next to its French romantic and academic equivalents. The curators have done William Allan’s pathetic, insipid and moralising 1838 depiction of an Oriental slave market no favours by hanging it next to Gérôme’s gorgeously lurid projection, which, whatever its politics, will evoke more arousal and anger than anything else on display here. The fact that galleries such as the Metropolitan have sold off a large number of their Orientalist paintings in recent years (mostly to private Middle Eastern buyers) would seem to suggest that the art world itself recognises the limited interest of this genre. To understand this is not to suggest that this art should be confined to the dustbin of history by virtue of its unfashionable status – the point is, rather, that excavations of this sort need to be done in imaginative and engaged ways if they are to command our attention.

Might it not have been more progressive, Professor Zeynep Celik asked at the symposium, to have looked at indigenous photographic appropriations of, and responses to western Orientalism? Would it not have been useful for visitors to have been presented with a wider array of visual media (films or video clips) to broaden our understanding of how these paintings fit into the history of travel, tourism and multi-directional interactions and artistic processes between and across societies? The Tate’s own magazine this month contains a rich account of Orientalism since 1960s. Its author, Brooks Adams, identifies interesting relationships between the hippy trail and contemporary avant-garde art and photography: Sigmar Polke’s 1974 manipulated trippy photo of an Afghan bear fight, reproduced alongside the article, cries out to be discussed alongside Melville’s cockfight. But it can’t be within The Lure of the East’s dominant narrative – a Whiggish plea to celebrate British representations of ‘the East’ in isolation from its European equivalents.

The erudition and diligence of the curators, who will no doubt claim they were constrained by the Tate’s ‘British’ remit, should not be doubted. But the inconsistent manner in which this increasingly nebulous ‘national’ framework gets applied suggests there was more room for manoeuvre than they cared to exploit. The unmistakeable existence of an atavistic agenda is too palpable for a kinder assessment of The Lure of the East. The exhibition’s title is just one example of a series of glaring hypocrisies at its heart, making clear that for all its apparent awareness of the debates surrounding Orientalism, it wants to cash in greedily on the very exoticism it purports to be complicating. Why else does the audio accompaniment to Lewis’ Bezestein Bazaar (1872) include a cheesy burst of ‘atmospheric’ Arabic music, complete with racy extract from the 1001 Arabian Knights about a sexy Oriental woman removing her veil, read by a bloke with a contrived foreign accent?

As I walked around the exhibition, I wondered whether the largely upper class, pallid, greying, English visitorship of the TB was enjoying being transported to the Victorian imaginary East, divorced from contemporary political concerns about the way in which British society and state conceives of (and continues to intervene militarily) in the Muslim world. Then, casting my mind back to the extremely well received Peter Doig retrospective earlier this year, which offered an altogether more interesting and meaningful experience of travel, it struck me that these are the people this exhibition patronises most. If the guardians of British art suffer an inferiority complex, British art lovers themselves will understand that parochial exceptionalism can offer no solace. This country may not boast a great tradition of Orientalist painting, but at least we have some good galleries. I reckon the upper class, pallid, greying, English visitorship of the TB knows its art pretty well, and understands when it is being manipulated. I like to think the people standing next to me looking at Lewis’ Bezestein Bazaar were thinking just what I was: This is the Tate Britain old boy. I expect a little more.

This piece was originally written for Untold London

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