Jason Thompson responded to a discussion of Orientalism and reverse-Orientalism in Moto Hagio’s Heart of Thomas with a long post about Orientalism and art. I’ve reprinted it below.

IMHO, it’s important and valuable that things such as Orientalism/reverse Orientalism/racism/sexism/etc. can be recognized and acknowledged for what they are.

However, honestly, I’m definitely not interested in the tedious process of using these labels as a truncheon to bludgeon work produced in another era. (“BAD art! Bad, BAD art!”) It’s an intellectual exercise for its own sake, a ritual of the university system that tends to end up with the critic denigrating the function of art itself, and only ‘allowing’ art which aspires to absolute social realism above all else. As an example, I’m reminded of the excellent-but-very-tedious-in-this-way book “Idols of Perversity” by my former college teacher Bram Djikstra, which examines and picks apart Victorian & Edwardian artwork for its degrading and demonizing images of women. The book’s fascinating. The examples are fascinating. The level of research, and the insight Djikstra gives into the times he’s writing about, is commendable. And, despite the fact that we’re supposed to look at it all as examples of sexism (which they certainly embody), the art is great. But in the end, the whole thesis of the book is “art sucks.” According to this attitude, art must only be a reflection of the (conscious or unconscious) neuroses and prejudices of its time, hence, f*ck it, unless it’s propaganda for ‘correct’ attitudes.

IMHO, in contrary, there is a “fantastical”, personal & psychological realism which is just as valid as social realism. Something can express the ‘true’ feelings and fantasies of the author/artist, or of their society (stereotypical or prejudiced as they may be), while not reflecting the actual social reality of the situation. The completeness and clarity with which personal views are expressed (and, hopefully, the originality with which they are expressed and combined) is valid in a separate sphere from analyzing whether their views bear any relation to social reality. I mean, really, it’s fun & illuminating to poke apart Hemingway’s sexism or Lovecraft’s racism, but who cares whether an artist smoked cigarettes, etc.

Anyway, with regards to “Orientalism”, all cultures exoticize or demonize other cultures, just as all human beings exoticize or demonize other human beings, whether based on outward characteristics or just the fact that they’re separate entities and we can’t read their minds. Such is life. The Other is The Other is The Other. It’s perfectly natural that any country’s media is (in general) going to look at other countries and cultures this way. Since Japan is a big media producing/consuming society it’s naturally going to be producing lots of images of The World Through Japanese People/Artists’ Eyes, just as the US does. Of course, when such attitudes in art can be traced to, and reflected in, actual real-world ABUSES OF POWER — US foreign policy as seen through Chuck Norris’ “Delta Force”, for example — then THAT’S important and those interconnections are very worthy of pointing out and criticizing. But Japanese people oohing and aahing over some idealized glowing romanticized European world doesn’t reflect itself in invasions or wars or perhaps really anything other than taking photos of blonde German tourists.

Anyway, forgive the rant. But basically, I find this line of thought very easy to take to an extreme which deprecates the function of art within society and denies the IMHO unavoidable subjective nature of the realities everyone carries around inside their heads. It’s been awhile since I’ve taken art classes or critical study so I don’t know what the counterargument is to the idea that this attitude, generally, is anti-art.

 

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