Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Collecting or Conquering? An Insatiable Appetite for the East

By Aisha Motlani
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It’s difficult for any exploration of the Oriental-inspired 19th-century Victorian interiors to remain entirely uncolored by the strident assertions of Edward Said on the subject. Even the mild-toned lecture which John Eastberg, the Pabst Mansion’s senior historian delivered on Tuesday began by framing the Victorian’s obsession with the East through the jaded lens of imperialism – offering up overstuffed, exotic parlors as evidence of the West extending reach into parts of North Africa, Asia and the middle east.

However, having acquitted himself of this duty early on in his lecture, Eastberg was free to devote the remainder of it to titillating his audience with images of quaint and extraordinary Victorian mansions in London, New York, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. It’s clear that to the contemporary eye these interiors appear just as exotic and incredible as images of Chinese pagodas or Turkish bazaars appeared to the Victorian eye.

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And this fascination that’s easy to understand. Just as those who turn to the aesthetic appeal of antiques to dull the harsh lines of modernity, Eastberg suggests the Victorians turned to images of the Orient to escape the suffocating demands of propriety that “civilized society” imposed – a way of loosening that tightly-corseted morality.

Yet there’s no escaping the darker side of this appropriation of culture. However heartily Edward Said’s Orientalism has been picked apart by his critics, and however flawed certain arguments might appear to be, the ideas he asserts are rather unassailable. There has always been, and continues to be, a fixed idea in the Western mind of the Eastern world, particularly the Arab world. And while the main expression of derision reserved for such cultures was their lack of “civilization,” today it’s their lack of “democracy.” The idea of collecting as another term for conquering was brought to the fore with the uncomfortable revelation that families like the Pabsts often imported a Japanese servant or two to augment the authenticity of their Asian interiors.

That said, apart from the idea of appropriating and therefore conquering a culture, one has to also look at these parlors stuffed with exotic oddities as part of the general interest in collecting rare objects that characterized that period, without which Western museums would lack some of their most fascinating collections. In a sense this taste for collecting upheld the idea of the house as a museum – a far more rich and inviting prospect than the idea of the house as a hospital or “a machine for living in” which were the watchwords of modern architecture.

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What’s more, the allure of ancient or foreign cultures has inveigled any number of our most celebrated artists and architects: Corbusier drawing inspiration from the architecture of the Maghreb, Picasso’s fascination with African masks and the influence of Japanese art and architecture on Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact a fascination with the East continues today even if it finds a somewhat cheapened, wholesale expression. Just think of the epidemic of “Asian-inspired” interiors cable home-dcor shows have spawned, with their self-consciously minimalist Target furniture and unobtrusive Ikea artwork.

The Pabst Mansion’s spring lecture series continues next Tuesday with a lecture by Craig Stone and Eli Rosenblatt on “The Collection of Artasia.” It takes place at 6:30 p.m. at the mansion; tickets cost $15.

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