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Which New York cultural institution is currently offering the biggest shocker in the city? No, I don’t mean the beleaguered Jewish Museum, with its show of mostly mediocre, Nazi-inspired art. It’s the Museum of the City of New York, which recently opened “Community of Many Worlds,” a show that celebrates the history of Arab-Americans in New York. In the main, it’s a relatively straightforward documentary affair, full of photographs and cultural artifacts. It opens with an immigration time-line, from which we learn that Arabs began arriving in New York in the late 1800s, rather like the Jews. There are also many photographs of local notables, like the politician Donna Shalala, the art dealer Mary Boone, and the cultural critic Edward Said.
It was Said’s 1978 book, of course, that first made the point that Europe’s 19th-century colonization of the Middle East had also come to define it, frequently with demeaning stereotypes. Though the book’s focus is literature, the show’s “Arab Image” section smartly pinpoints some modern-day caricatures by using American toys, including an “I Dream of Jeannie” Barbie, a black-veiled Madame Alexander doll from the 1960s, and “Abduhl,” one of five “Terrorist” action figures manufactured in the 1980s. Yet the same section is unexpectedly positive about something one might expect it to abhor: 19th-century Orientalist fine art—the visual component of the phenomenon Said deplored.
The most surprising entry comes in the section called “Objects From Home.” Here, amid modest immigrant paraphernalia such as Egyptian glass cups, Iranian rugs, and Turkish coffee pots, hang four lithographs of the Sea of Galilee by the Scottish painter David Roberts, one of the first 19th-century European artists to seek inspiration in the Middle East. Widespread interest in the genre began soon after Napoleon’s abortive 1798 foray into Egypt and really started to boom some 40 years later, courtesy of the burgeoning railway lines and the relaxation of the Ottoman Empire’s travel and trade restrictions. Some artists worked from sketches made on the spot. But as the genre became increasingly popular, others were able to make Orientalist work without ever leaving home: They simply used reference books and local models dressed in imported costumes and posed with imported props.
Typical subjects included the horse fair, the slave market, the mosque (picturesquely ruined and otherwise), the Holy Land landscape, and studies of caliphs, muezzins, Nubian slaves, and soldiers. Another favored subject, of course, was the harem, preferably one filled with scantily clad odalisques. All this was painted in the intensely detailed, super-realistic style known as “academic,” which ruled Europe for several centuries until Impressionism arrived on the scene. By the end of the 19th century, academic “pictures,” as they were sometimes called, were as wildly popular with the public as movies are today—and as their popularity intensified, their realism grew more photographic and their imagery grew similarly idealized and clichéd.
By 1910, Orientalism had virtually disappeared from view in the West—not because of its subject matter, but because of its style. Throughout most of the 20th century, all academic art—good or bad, treacly or sober—was dismissed as so tasteless and kitschy that you could barely give the stuff away. But starting in the mid-1970s—ironically enough, around the publication date of Said’s Orientalism—it began creeping back into vogue. Only this time many of its buyers hailed from the Middle East. Between 1972 and the late 1980s, prices escalated from $3,000 to half a million dollars for top-quality work.
The most commonly cited reason for this phenomenon (which has sometimes been referred to as “post-colonial” collecting or “repatriation”) is the 1973 oil boom. Though it initially began in places like North Africa and Turkey and among Middle Eastern expats in Europe, by the 1980s many of the most prominent Middle Eastern collectors had links to the Persian Gulf—surprising when one considers that Islam was once chary of depictions of human beings. The Sultan of Oman, several Saudi executives, and the State of Qatar reportedly have major Orientalist collections. Many of Qatar’s royals also collect privately—including the current emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who founded that font of modern-day Middle Eastern figurative imagery, the 24-hour news station Al Jazeera.
But why should such collectors choose Orientalism, a genre that presumably demeans and distorts the Arab world? Some of it isn’t ipso facto distortive at all: Many artists, like Roberts, placed a high value on topographical exactitude. And even pictures of idealized people can be full of precisely limned detail, architectural and otherwise. Many collectors simply seem to want a gloriously painted, relatively accurate rendition of a familiar scene, looking as it might have done in the halcyon past. Because the concept of painting daily life didn’t arrive in the Middle East until the late 19th century, a work by a European artist is often one of the few options going. In addition, Arab collectors, especially those from the gulf, also seem to be drawn to the super-realist painting style itself, and many of the most lauded academicians specialized in the Orientalist genre.
Besides, for gulf collectors, Orientalist painting may be a less loaded issue, because it generally doesn’t depict them. Throughout the 19th century, Arabia and the Persian Gulf remained largely closed to Europeans—unlike the Levant (the countries along the Eastern Mediterranean, from Turkey to Egypt), most of which was colonized. Just as an East Coast collector might not be offended by a painting of a Santa Monica surfer wearing a Silicon Valley T-shirt, standing on the Oregon Coast with Seattle’s Space Needle in the background, a gulf collector probably has a higher tolerance for an invented Levantine scene, as long as the surfer’s posture is correct and the lettering on the T-shirt makes sense. In fact, some critics have suggested that Orientalist art satisfies a desire among such collectors to see universalized Arab scenes that commingle objects from many lands—just as the curators of the “Community” show did in the “Objects From Home” section.
Meanwhile, in the Levant, there is something of a historical precedent for collecting this work. Academic and Orientalist art both had second lives there, long after they were dead in Europe, with pockets of collectors in Beirut and Cairo continuing to buy it and artists adopting the style.
And of course, even with the most egregious stuff, some age-old art market adages may apply—one of which is that it’s usually easy to sell a picture of a pretty girl. Muslim collectors are said to eschew those steamy, lubricious harem scenes, and logic would dictate that any collector who cared about accuracy, at the very least, would too. (No male European painter ever saw a harem in life—though many clearly fantasized about them.) Yet a quick look at many auction catalogs says this ain’t necessarily so. When the estate of the Saudi-based Syrian arms-dealer Akram Ojjeh went on the block at Christie’s in 1999, it turned out to be full of odalisque paintings.
In many respects, Orientalism has had a harder row to hoe in America, where it is still frequently despised as being too old-fashioned, too sentimental, too European, and politically incorrect, to boot. American collectors didn’t enter the market in a big way until about 1995, at which point they drove prices so high that Middle Eastern collectors began to hold back. (The auction record for an Orientalist painting now stands at just under $3.2 million, achieved at Christie’s in 1999 for an 1892 painting of an armor-clad Nubian guard by the artist Ludwig Deutsch.)
Since 9/11, though, the Orientalist picture here has looked decidedly less rosy. Last October, just seven weeks after the World Trade Center attack, Christie’s held its first high-profile Orientalist sale in New York: 19 superb pictures that had been off the market for over 30 years. The sale was a major disaster: Only five pictures sold, and the take was less than $2.4 million—far shy of the original $14 million plus high-end estimate.
Experts say that the real problem was overly aggressive pricing. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that the images themselves didn’t help. All of them depicted men, and some had militaristic settings: Bedouin warriors riding through the desert, men praying in mosques, a turbaned chieftain cradling an armful of guns and daggers—all creepily reminiscent of what we were seeing on our TV screens.
Indeed, a few days after this abortive event, Sotheby’s did somewhat more respectably with a group of less splendiferous, more modestly priced Orientalist paintings, which were heavy on the harem scenes, with nary a burqa in sight. This time, 54 percent of the work sold and one of the buyers, it’s rumored, was the emir of Qatar.