Thursday, June 23, 2011

on the enduring appeal of exoticism

"Exoticism (from 'exotic') is a trend in art and design, influenced by some ethnic groups or civilizations since the late 19th-century... Like orientalist subjects in 19th century painting, exoticism in the decorative arts and interior decoration was associated with fantasies of opulence.

Exoticism, by definition, is "the charm of the unfamiliar." Scholar Alden Jones defines exoticism in art and literature as the representation of one culture for consumption by another.[1] An archetypical exoticist is the artist and writer Paul Gauguin, whose visual representations of Tahitian people and landscapes were targeted at a French audience."

Gauguin, so obvious (speaking of which, coming to SAM next year, ooh perhaps to get served!) But how about some less glaring, but still grating examples of exoticism?

  • Bands naming themselves something exotic just for fun/and/or to expand their notion of their identity beyond ("plain 'ole") whiteness: The Angry Samoans, Half Japanese, Beirut.
  • Suburban kids, like myself, really really liking hip-hop and gangsta rap.
  • That episode of Pete & Pete w/ a bowling ball that was given to Petes' grandpa by a "Tibetan magic man" (maybe not in so many words, but he was Tibetan).
I haven't quite got it yet, but I am trying to put my finger on what the fine line is that separates creepy/sexist/racist jerk-parading-as-enlightened exoticism (like Gauguin) vs. non-creepy/non-sexist/non-racist normal person exoticism (or perhaps it shouldn't be called exoticism at that point). Maybe it all depends on the direction of the power dynamic. Who is being exoticized by whom and to what end? Is it a sexual fetish (again Gauguin)? Is it devaluing the exotic culture by minimizing its degree of civilization ("the noble savage")? Is it overvaluing the exotic culture's oneness with nature or touted magical powers (Pete & Pete bowling ball episode)? Is it a completely random name-drop just for fun (bands listed above)? If so, I regret to inform you that you can't refer to real cultures casually from a mainstream p.o.v. (i.e. male, anglo saxon protestant american) AND not raise an eyebrow from this yellow lady.

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