Orientalism arose as a concept between the XVIII and the XIX century as a result of colonialism and geographic discoveries, which allowed European countries to come in contact with the Orient (Asia, Indian and the Muslim countries) and learn about Their history and culture.
This contact created a fascination of the Western World for the Asian realities and a cultural appreciation that started in the Napoleonic times and never really faded.
The concept of Orientalism existed for a couple of centuries. But Palestinian anthropologist Edward Said first described it in his 1978 essay Orientalism.
Said theorised that Orientalism isn’t a knowledge of any actual Asian culture or history, or of any Asian nation with a specific geographic location. But it’s an ensemble of ideas, myths and exotic images that don’t describe what it’s ‘Asian’, but what it’s ‘not Western’.
Orientalism was, therefore, a way in which the Western World defined itself by describing Asia and the Asian culture as the opposite.
Like all stereotypes, Orientalism tends to lump together different cultures in the same concept: all of Islam, all of India, even all of the Asian countries. It then gives them consolidated characteristic – spirituality, irrationality, fanatism – which may exist in different cultures but that don’t mean anything when jammed together.
Although more often than not, Orientalism expresses a fascination in a positive way, the object of that fascination is, in fact, a fabrication. It’s a form of exoticism whose object doesn’t really exist.
Europe’s fascination with the Orient
Europe’s fascination with the Orient started in the 1700s when The One Hundred and One Nights was first translated and became extremely popular throughout Europe. This work was, of course, no realistic depiction of the Orient, but constituted the first step toward that fictitious creation that would become the European idea of the Orient.
In the 1800s, the arts became enamoured with Asian aesthetics, which Art Nouveau often integrated in its creations.
At the beginning of the 1900s, the first Japanese prints arrived in Europe and found Art Deco growing. The Japanese clean, stylised lines spoke the same language as the Art Deco, which soon incorporated that aesthetic in its work.
In all these examples, it was never a specific Asian reality that became known. Particular aspects, often taken away from their original context, were reinvented and redesigned. And so became something totally different.
Love to Know – Definition of Orientalism
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Pantheon Books, New York City, 1978