Edward Said’s term, outlined in the eponymous 1978 book, is one of the most widely-quoted in cultural theory. Describing the representational system through which the Euro-American West imagines and defines its Other, (a term we’ll come to later!) Orientalism functions as a useful device for the West to come to know itself by virtue of what it is not.
Whilst Orientalism is commonly discussed in the political sphere, especially in relation to the ‘War on Terror’, Said, a literary critic by training, formulated his argument through readings and critical analysis of art and fiction. His attentive readings traced the representation of the imagined Orient through European creative and representational traditions and used these to build the contours of an ideological lens through which to re-interpret these representations. In museums and art galleries in particular, these kinds of imaginings of the Orient are often uncritically interpreted, and end up reproducing the exotifying and stereotypical imaginings that Said sought to critique.