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Art and life in ancient Egypt
Art and life in ancient Egypt

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3 West versus East

The culture and art of ancient Egypt had an immediate and lasting impact in Europe. As already mentioned, the influence extended from clothing, furniture and jewellery all the way through to architecture. In the twentieth century this influence carried on in film.

In the area of the so-called ‘fine arts’, the influence of Egypt was felt in two broad ways. Artists working in the academic tradition in both England and France (indeed in continental Europe as a whole) tended to work within the discourse of ‘Orientalism’. According to the twentieth-century writer and critic, Edward Said, this was an image of ‘the East’, constructed by the West as its ‘Other’. This image was composed of both positive and negative aspects (luxury, sensuality, indolence, unchangingness, for example), the sum of which was to confirm a Western sense of superiority and progress.

As critics and historians towards the end of the twentieth century became concerned to redescribe the relation of the Western canon of art to the art of other cultures, the early nineteenth-century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel came in for frequent criticism. Many, including the historian of Chinese art Craig Clunas and the modern artist Rasheed Araeen, have identified him as the fountainhead of the assumption, in Clunas’ words, of ‘the absolute contrast between a dynamic forward-moving “West” and a static unchanging “East”’.

There is undoubtedly something to be said for this. But we would do equally well to realise how radically, and how quickly, Hegel was seeking to open up the classical canon that preceded him. Hegel gave his lectures in the 1820s, in effect at the very moment when Egyptian art and the Egyptian language were being brought within the purview of European scholarship. Hegel’s innovation in spreading his net to include an aesthetics for Egypt, India and elsewhere, as well as Greece, deserves at least as much praise as the terms in which he constructed his account have laid him open to subsequent criticism.

Perhaps it would be fairer to acknowledge that Hegel was part of a Eurocentric discourse on the ‘Orient’ rather than its main progenitor. Hegel was in part responding to, and not merely formulating, a widespread cluster of conceptions about other cultures that were themselves symptomatic of the dawning age of Empire (with roots, of course, going back into the Renaissance, if not before: the ‘Pharaoh’ of the Bible itself is a sort of prototype of the ‘oriental despot’).

The next section contains an activity on some views of the nineteenth-century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel.