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The Relevance of Historical Depictions of the Middle Eastern Body, Essay Example

Pages: 2

Words: 454

Essay

The art of Picasso and Delacroix has been categorized as examples of primitivism, a term which says much about the relationship between the Western artist and his subject matter.  In Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), several of the nude female subjects have dark markings on their face, thereby rendering them as Other in the eyes of Western viewers.  Although the women in Picasso’s painting stare directly at the viewer, the nude women in Delacroix’s “Women of Algiers” (1834) affect a more demure persona.  The manner in which they turn away from the audience’s gaze while revealing much of their physical bodies demonstrates the “uneven exchange” (Said) of power that takes place between painter, subject, and viewer.  As a subject, the Middle East acted as a canvas on which artists could project their own personal fantasies while also depicting it as a land of mystery that defied penetration.

Middle Eastern culture continues to be defined by its differences to Western culture rather than any similarities.  There are still very defined ways in which Western eyes are trained to view the Middle East.  In his discussion of Orientalism, Edward Said describes the Western understanding of the Middle East as “an accepted grid for filtering through the Orient into Western consciousness” (Said).  By definition, grids allow some things (or ideas or images) to pass through a barrier while keeping others out.  The depictions of Middle Eastern people in modern popular culture continues the tradition of Orientalism that was begun by artists, explorers, and writers of the 19th Century.  For example, television programs such as 24 and news networks such as CNN and FOX continue to regurgitate the stereotypical portrayal of Middle Eastern man as terrorist and Middle Eastern woman as a figure shrouded in mystery.  This latter is especially interesting when juxtaposed against the work of Picasso and Delacroix given that modern depictions of Middle Eastern women are greatly concerned with hiding the feminine body beneath the practical and symbolic accoutrements of Middle Eastern culture, namely Hijabs and Burkas.  At the same time, there is little critical investigation within popular culture of the women who exist beneath the veils.

The reasons that underlie examples of Orientalism in Western culture speak to the “exchange with power political…[and] power moral” (Said) that are currently unfolding in North America and Europe.  If all Middle Easterners are portrayed as either deadly threats or oppressed subjects of the dominant patriarchy, then it becomes much easier to justify destructive foreign policies in the so-called ‘War on Terror’.  Limiting our depictions of Middle Eastern bodies to simplistic stereotypes allows for both governments and mass media outlets to depict individual people and intricate cultures as something Other which defies understanding.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Press, 1979.

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