The Lure of the East

June 8 2008

This exhibition of British orientalists, with a banal name, runs at Tate Britain until August 31. Such was the influence of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) that it might not have been staged ten years ago.

The blurb of Ibn Warraq’s sweeping rebuttal of Said, Defending the West (2007), tells us that “Said’s intellectual successors have succeeded in forcing thousands of first-class paintings into the storage rooms of major museums, some of which were in fact commissioned by Eastern sultans and kings who delighted in the portraits and landscapes captured by visiting Western artists”.

Roger Scruton is an ally of Warraq. He reminds us in What Ever Happened to Reason?, article in City Journal, spring 1999, online here, that Western culture has “continuously ventured into spiritual territory that has no place on the Christian map”.

Warraq: “[It] has done so with generosity, tolerance, affection, and a noble vision of universal humanity. Literature and music, as much as painting and architecture, has (sic) acknowledged other civilizations and other peoples, embraced them as equals [we need a ‘sometimes’ there], and sometimes treated them as superior souls from whom the West could learn.”

Scruton: “It is the very attempt to embrace other cultures – an attempt that has no parallel in the traditional art of Arabia, India, or Africa – that makes Western art a hostage to Said’s caviling strictures.”

Warraq: Said “taught an entire generation of Arabs the art of self-pity”.

Anyone interested in these polemical clashes should read Said first and then Warraq and then Scruton’s The West and the Rest (2002). I don’t see how they can end by entirely dismissing Said. Scruton’s academic marginalisation forces him, or so I’d like to think, to write in slightly suspect right-wing journals. An age less frightened of controversy would have him for the Reith Lectures.

Here is a not very good reproduction of the largest painting in the exhibition (I’m sure Judith Weingarten knows it), Gavin Hamilton’s not very good James Dawkins and Robert Wood Discovering the Ruins of Palmyra, of 1758.

L’italiano in Turchia

7 Responses to “The Lure of the East”

  1. Indeed, David, it is a huge painting … and has been aptly called ’12 square metres of inflated nonsense’.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    I’m doing another post in response.

  3. qunfuz Says:

    I’m writing about the exhibition too. I think it was a misreading of Said to think of the Orientalists as morally evil and legitimate candidates for censorship. He was pointing out a discourse, and its political uses. The problem, in my opinion, is worse now than it was a century ago.

    Warraq, in my opinion, is a charlatan. It’s very easy to make a career of being an idiotic ‘native informant’ if you’re an ex-Muslim in the West. Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji are the two most grotesque examples. (Sorry, Manji says she’s still a Muslim, which some people think excuses her ignorant racist ranting). Ed Hussein is still a Muslim too, and still as simple-minded as when he was involved in East London student Islamist politics, but now he’s simple minded in the opposite direction, so he’s set up for life in Britain as a wise and relevanr reforming moderate Muslim. My God.

  4. qunfuz Says:

    This is rubbish: Scruton: “It is the very attempt to embrace other cultures – an attempt that has no parallel in the traditional art of Arabia, India, or Africa.”

  5. davidderrick Says:

    Not sure if you finished the last comment. I am sure you are right about Warraq as charlatan. The name alone suggests so. (Scruton isn’t, whatever one thinks of him.) I called him learned in the second post with misgivings. I had naively quite liked Manji, but am sure that her understanding of the middle east is exactly zero. You are right: the Husseins and Manjis are comforting figures in the West.

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