Socio-political • June 2016
Exotism and creation



Exoticism is a concept created in France in the 19th century. Associated with colonialism and its incarnations, including tourism, exoticism has raised, in the late 20th century, a different kind of interest, in the light of historians” analyses of colonialism and the destruction it caused, and in the way artists and philosophers have responded to the past by using exoticism as a material and as evidence. Creating without denying history, notably by transforming exoticism, as Segalen tried to do, into something else than a condescending vision of other cultures, is a way of progressing in the critical exploration of the sources of the Western vision of countries that are now evolving and becoming significant economic players. International artists travel across old worlds and those that are emerging, they make their own worlds, they make light of exoticism, but with a new parameter in the creative process: new technology, which has dramatically changed our approach to space, time and contemporary worlds. The objective of this article is to use the value of the turmoil that represents exoticism, from the European viewpoint and more specifically in relation to French history, as a basis for an aesthetic reflection on otherworldliness. But, because one can always seem “exotic” to those who one meets here or there, exoticism is now, more than ever, a priority of study.

Article's keywords

Elsewhere, comparative anthropology, colonial, creolisation, aesthetics of the various, exotic, exoticism, imaginary, postcolonial, primitive, sensation, tourism, translation, travel.

Table of Contents

The Presence of Exoticism

Since the second half of the 19th century, the concept of exoticism has been associated with otherworldliness (Berthet, 2009; Le Clézio, 1995, 2011; Blanchard et al., 2011). Exoticism is also linked to the “foreign”, in a more or less artistic dimension, to the “primitive” in the artistic sense (Laude, 2006; Rubin, 1987; Dagen, 1998), to the colonial conquest and to anthropology in their various public and private manifestations (L’Estoile, 2007; Blanchard et al., 2011).

The term exoticism (Moura, 1998) has often had a negative value since the 1960s, at the time of the wars of independence, but also before, when the Surrealists criticized the Colonial exhibition held in Paris in 1931. The concept of exoticism was updated in the early 20th century, when Victor Segalen rejected colonial exoticism to invent his “aesthetics of diversity.” This Western exoticism seems to have received the critical contribution of artists (Partages d’exotismes, 2000). After the digital revolution of the late 20th century, it was totally overturned, but without forgetting its visual and textual legacy. But the philosophy of relationships, creolization and the All-World (Glissant, 2009) remain to this day the greatest progress made to escape the trap of colonial exoticism, which still exists in tourism and in the relationship between the five French overseas departments (DOM, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Mayotte, Reunion), the three overseas collectivities (ex-TOM, French Polynesia, French Southern and Antarctic Lands, Wallis and Futuna) and mainland France. In fact, exoticism embodies the historical and economic relationships of domination and their evolution. One might even think that the history of the genre (Fausto-Sterling, 2012) would provide useful insights to the challenges of creating the exoticism of yesterday and today.

The “end of exoticism,” in terms of critical anthropology, is a necessity. According to anthropologist Alban Bensa: “It is more than time to put an end to the downward slide which, by maintaining a kind of fascination with Otherness, tends to transform anthropology into a dream bank […] to stop derealizing the social, to resolutely consider it as a world altogether historical.” (Bensa, 2006, p.17). If derealizing approaches still persist, artistic and anthropological objects and testimonies, rooted in history, represent actual evidence and facts (i.e. “La mort n’en saura rien. Reliques d’Europe et d’Océanie,” 1999).

The Creative process and Exoticism

When exploring significant aspects of exoticism – without pretending to be exhaustive – when it claims to be artistic or is considered as such by experts and novices, its links with the concept of the creative process appear. For exoticism works on forms, space and time. It can derealize the world. But if one follows Segalen’s attempt to redefine exoticism, then diversity would outweigh the Western domination on so-called primitive and/or non-Western peoples, at the time of colonial empires and after independence was obtained. From the creation of exoticism in Europe until today in the so-called Western world (Bessis, 2003; Corm, 2012), one must examine the relationship between exoticism and diversity, specifically in the field of art and photography (D’un regard l’Autre, 2006; Rusty 2005; Frizot, 2001), cinema and documentary making (notably the work of Jean Rouch), form the viewpoint of various primitivist approaches.

According to Segalen, the aesthetics of diversity, another name for exoticism, is opposed to exotic and colonial tourism. Exoticism has become international, it expresses differences and hierarchies, it still amounts to the same thing, despite Segalen’s efforts, while constantly reinventing itself (Soutif, 1994).

The different facets of exoticism, notably “relational” exoticism, resulting from Segalen’s reflections – referring here to relational aesthetics (1998) and the “radicant” concept (2009) of N. Bourriaud – that would break the process of domination; include creative processes in relation to diverse forms, places and behaviours, to new exchanges.

From the illustrated travel stories of major journals dating from two centuries ago (Le Magasin pittoresque, Le Journal des Voyages, Le Tour du monde, L’Illustration in France) to contemporary events (international contemporary art fairs, museums, exhibitions), in a world criss-crossed by networks and flux, it seems that exoticism has become a material. It is more or less de-politicized or, on the contrary, very political and historical. It is also an object of pleasure, boredom, disgust and indifference, favourable to intermittent artistic interpretations. As a historical material, exoticism becomes a critical material (Africa Remix, 2005).

The paths that define this recycled exoticism, an object of consumption and fashion, can allow us to examine how the creative process starts and takes place over time, when a unique encounter between the artist and the fortunes of travel occurs and produces ephemeral or perennial works, at the top, middle or bottom in the scale of aesthetic values ​​(Désirs d’ailleurs, 1998). And it is the intense proximity between the near and the far (Enwezor et al., 2012) that one needs to navigate in order to continue to explore the vast corpus of archives and memory. Significant instances of the creative process (Gauguin vs. Loti; Amselle, 2005) enlighten current forms of exoticism in comparison with those of the past (Chen Zhen, 2003; Enwezor et al, 2012.). And the encounter between different creative fields appears as a condition for the sensitive and critical experience, where translation, transmission and sharing are at work (GNS, 2003).

What is exoticism? From the exotic to exoticism, from the individual to the universal: the colonial “patch-up job”

Sunday, 20th February. Sitting by the fireplace, Flaubert tells us about his first love. He was going to Corsica (this was therefore taking place in September or October 1840, during the trip he made to the Pyrenees and Corsica with Dr. Jules Cloquet, a reward as he had just passed his baccalaureate). He had only just lost his virginity with his mother’s chamber maid. He arrived in a small hotel in Marseille, where women who were coming back from Lima had returned with 16th-century pieces of furniture, in ebony inlaid with mother of pearl, which enchanted the passers-by. Three women in silk dressing gowns down to their heels; and a negro boy, dressed in nankeen and slippers. For a young man from Normandy, who had only travelled from Normandy to Champagne and from Champagne to Normandy, all this was of a very enticing exoticism (added in 1887: it was of such exoticism…). And a patio full of exotic flowers, where, in the middle, a fountain was tinkling.” (Goncourt, 1860)

French definitions

François Rabelais (Quart Livre, 1548) is at the origin of the adjective “exotic.” But the creation of the noun “exoticism” still remains unclear to this day, maybe due to some dictionary errors. Was it 1845? In his Dictionnaire historique de la langue française published in 1993, Alain Rey quotes Bescherelle. A reference also quoted by H. Mitterrand, A. Dauzats and J. Dubois, in their Dictionnaire étymologique et historique du français, published in 1964 and then in 1993 by Larousse. Perhaps it is an edition of Bescherelle after 1845? Was it 1860 (in his Dictionnaire culturel en langue française published in 2005, A. Rey quotes the Goncourt brothers but no longer quotes Bescherelle, but the mention of “exoticism” by the Goncourt’s was added in 1887 and therefore did not exist in 1860)? The date of 1866 seems the most plausible (a famous quote by Charles Asselineau in the supplement of the Dictionnaire de la langue française by Emile Littré in 1883, quoted by Bescherelle 1887, indeed appears to be the first occurrence of the word “exoticism”, meaning “characteristic of what is exotic, strange,” – and goes as follows: “The name Shakuntala must have scared the average reader like a threat of exoticism and erudition,” p.122 in his Mélanges…). Finally, the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française simply indicates the 19th century as the time when this term was created. Applied to art, after the fashion of “chinoiserie” of 18th century Europe, exoticism was linked to the incarnations of Orientalism, Japonism and the emergence of “art nègre” (literally “negro art”) (Africa, Oceania, Americas). From exotic plants to the taste for foreign manners and customs at the time of Western colonial empires then to foreign art, the path is long, winding, but relatively clear, however.

The Taste for Exoticism

As shown in particular by Jean-Marc Moura (1998) and Tzvetan Todorov (1989) in literature, exoticism is not a matter of anthropology. It is a taste, a type of aesthetics deeply rooted in the era and the current fashion and morals of the time, as evidenced in the poetry of Baudelaire (Parfum exotique, 1857) and even Lautréamont. But is it necessary to travel the world to encounter the different expressions of exoticism? According to some, one must instead stay at home, by the fireplace, in one’s room, and physically or mentally create exotic worlds and a refined exoticism, from the salon to the studio (see Huymans À Rebours, 1884; or the home-studio and works of Gustave Moreau). In the 19th century, exoticism, linked to colonialism and international exhibitions, to the taste for collection, but also to the stories of travellers (Flaubert and Maxime Du Camp in 1849-1851) and anthropologists, takes several less and less exceptional disguises. Exoticism includes places, temporalities, peoples, objects, manners, customs and dreams interpreted by people in so-called “civilized” worlds; a slow process of recognition through exoticism brings objects of curiosity into the Western aesthetic pantheon (Laude, 2006; Paudrat, 1987; Dagen, 1998; Falguières, 2003). The issue of language then arises. However, not understanding what is said in another language may instead generate artistic forms, more or less beautiful and of more or less good taste.

All these “more or less” statements also ask the question of relativism (Todorov, 1989). The incomplete and misaligned encounter results from a process in which emerge the different stages of the appropriation, of which images, anthropological texts and objects are the evidence. They become art objects and heritage. Conquest, ownership, partial understanding, whether negative – see for example Segalen, who sees in ordinary exoticism colonialism in all its horror and mediocrity –, or positive – see Segalen again, who wishes to invent a form of exoticism that would respect the Other –: exoticism is indeed a panoramic receptacle where detail plays a major role.

Travels and Museums 

Undertaking a round-the-world trip (popularisation and expansion of the Grand Tour) means collecting significant material, curiosities and original art works. From private to public collections, from oral narratives to the illustrated press, adventure and romance novels, exoticism gives off its aromas, its sensuality. It highlights the need for an exchange between the known and the unknown, the moral and the immoral, the totems and the taboos of the different worlds that increasingly enter into a relationship or a war. Exoticism, like all words ending with –ism, more or less pejorative, brings together all forms of exoticism, that is to say all the ways to separate here from there, to collect evidence that proves the superiority of progress, coupled with erotic fantasies. But the term “exotic” can also refer to the person who uses it, leading to the same conclusion: the strange foreigner. In the 19th century in particular, the myth of the noble savage (and of the ape-like and pseudo-Darwinian primitive as a remains of prehistoric man) continues to exist alongside that of peoples threatened to be consigned to history and whose customs and cultural and religious traces must urgently be preserved. The universal museum is the place of exhibition where the transition to art is made at a visible and recognized scale, when objects feed the vision of artists, collectors and visitors. It basically feeds the imagination of art enthusiasts (those who love art), but also the creative process. Tinted with Orientalism and Japonism, which perpetuate the tradition of exchanging objects of all kinds since ancient times (Baltrusaitis, 1955), exoticism usually distinguishes the “arts of otherworldliness” (for the Western world) from Fine Arts, it produces images. But exoticism, as does anthropology of proximity today (Augé, 1989), can also be found in daily life and non-places. It reflects a more or less disturbing strangeness, a tamed strangeness. Remains, fragments, exotic objects and those related to exoticism, as the human zoos of the 19th century (Blanchard et al., 2011), travel, are recycled, abandoned, recreated and exhibited among others in the large stores of cultural consumption. Exoticism then means Western, European, originating from the great colonial empires.

Why does the museum remain exotic despite the modernity of the works it displays, which play a major role in the creative process and in guiding the reflection of the viewer (Musée cannibale, 2002)? The long history of museums and primitivism shows that education, enjoyment, value, identity, the accumulation of evidence and traces and the protection of the selected objects create worlds that echo those from which they come. Museums are also built on the absence in space and time, another facet of virtuality. Exoticism would then be a distant space mainly used as a mirror. The museum could be seen as the interface between a form of exoticism and the desire to understand how people live elsewhere, differently. One may wonder if the museum is egalitarian in its desire for universality or if it is just an imaginary museum whose order differs from that of books and the Internet.

The Aesthetics of Diversity and its incarnations, the Invention of Diversity and the Unfinished Process

In the early 20th century, Segalen wanted to rid exoticism of its negative and destructive tourism-related definition. He somehow wanted to rid it of its entropy – i.e. the irreversible disorder produced by energy consumption in the industrial society – a disorder that could be extended, in reading Segalen, to the long-term disorder produced by colonial and postcolonial empires. How did his essay on exoticism (as opposed to a novel) written during his many travelling years, open a creative breach in the conformity of this concept, in the Eurocentric divide endorsed by colonial conquests and international exhibitions throughout the 19th century? The issue seems to be resolved, but in our era of globalization, it remains open. The exoticization process, which seems so eclectic, may only be a form of resistance to the standardization of the world. It can appear as a way not to reflect on historical heritage and its overcoming through criticism. On the contrary, the inclusion of exotic reality appears both critical and political.

Dynamics of the Unfinished and the Otherness

History is told through the unfinished process (Valéry, [1895]1957) and through the forms of poïesis tending to universality (myths, fiction, personal narratives) and that of its materials. How do context and media, selected materials and theory interlink, whether intentionally and non-intentionally, in the realisation of the work? Making this alchemy visible remains a juicy morsel for the amateur or the scholar, as the mystery of artistic creation appears in certain details, errors, petimenti… The process of exoticism, seen from the viewpoint of the tourist or of a colonial novel, only seems unambiguous and projective. Indeed, in this oriental- influenced context, the western traveller projects himself in the other, he sometimes wants to assimilate him, he desires, fears or demonizes him, as the cursed part of himself. The seductive and dangerous woman and the beautiful native are often the figures of this projection, in which the concept of race is present (Moura, 1998). By redefining exoticism as an aesthetic of diversity, Segalen attempted, through his own experience of diverse places and peoples, to reveal its necessary and even salutary otherness. Above all, not to try to merge with the other, keep one’s mystery; savour this mystery with all senses. Segalen’s exoticism maintains the distance, observes the escape and revels in it, even if with melancholy. Segalen’s creative process is reflected in the outline for the final book he never finished, in the fragments of his journal, in his descriptions, his entrenched positions, his judgments and fears. Travelling is a way of approaching diversity while keeping one’s distance. Segalen’s Bovarian approach also played a significant role (Buvik, 2006), that is to say the dissatisfaction indeed fuelling the desire to be another – inspired by the character of Emma Bovary created by Gustave Flaubert in 1857 and developed by Jules de Gaultier in 1892. This “Bovarism” is part of Victor Segalen’s creative process. And how frustrating it must have been for him to have arrived too late: Gauguin was dead when Segalen arrived in Polynesia.

Translations of the Experience of Diversity

This diversity, constantly reinterpreted, is related to linguistic, literary and artistic translation. Translating means getting closer without ever embracing, knowing that the more one is translating, the more life one gives to the text. The translation process, one of the figures of the unfinished, is a future comprising of different stages and approaches (Berman, 2008, regarding “The Task of the Translator” by W. Benjamin, 1917-1918). Segalen’s exoticism tries to destroy its old eroded meaning to charge it with energy, even if ephemeral.

“Segalen therefore first situates himself in the perspective of a double journey, towards something specific that must be seized, and towards something indefinitely distant that escapes the grasp” (Emmanuel, 1979, p.5). In the exotic process before Segalen, a true threshold, the objective was to decorate the world with maps, engravings (Théodore de Bry), invented images and stories, although based on mainly individual experiences, unpublished, quoted to more or less directly enact bellicose acts. After Segalen, the conditions of the anthropological and artistic encounter (Affergan, 1987) are viewed in a new light, when travel takes place according to other economies, other eras, especially the era of mass entertainment. Artists (Partages d’exotismes, 2000) look at the world and transmit their vision of the beauty of the world, of its horrors, its oddities, of life and death.

In the process of exoticism, disappearance is lurking, if only in the collections of photographic postcards that fix faces and landscapes in the frame that transports them to the archives. The weird, the kitsch and the camp are words associated with the notion of exoticism. They make its relationship with what it represents seem abstruse. When exoticism is unpleasant, it is primarily colonial; it refers to the cursed part (Bataille, [1949]2011) of any enterprise of power. If it is acceptable, it refers to mystery, to the power of the imaginary that André Malraux developed in his writings on art (the fascination of Western society for other cultures and civilizations, and vice versa, with the idea of ​​a universal art). It is also linked to the potlatch that raised the interest of readers such as Georges Bataille and the Surrealists. The potlatch described by Franz Boas in the 19th century and then by Marcel Mauss, is originally a regulating process. But for Western cultures (Europe, United States of America), it highlights the importance of power relations, in a given society, through the stories reporting its proceedings (Mauss, [1925]2007). This power relation is then more or less mutually taken responsibility of, when one takes the risk of incurring a reciprocal encounter, in a specific context, both political and social (Debord, 1996). Exoticism is then associated with discovery, sometimes disappointing, like Matisse in Tahiti in 1930, while the trip made before him to Morocco by the young Delacroix was more successful. Disappointment and constraint participate in the development of the work, in several stages (Bouvier, 2004). As such, Tristes Tropiques (1955) by Claude Lévi-Strauss remains a monument to the anti-exotic despite the acknowledgment of the inevitable change of scenery.

The Imaginary

Exoticism exposes itself to the moral judgment and different usages that make it an historical concept and a field of study, transforming its structures without denying the preliminary issues (Todorov, 1989). Basically, exoticism can become a critical medium for artistic creation, when it has a retentional function of memory, where the imaginary actually plays a complementary and active role. One goes from the universal model developed by André Malraux to the contemporary forms of navigation on the Web, often community-related, but which still tend towards the universal.

“The word imaginary has at least three meanings. It is first what is expected and what reality is responsible for verifying: the scientific imaginary indeed always plays a role in discovery and induction. It is also part of the pure game that the mind plays with itself, a mental world created by the mind without any reference to reality, a fantasy. The problem is to know whether it matches reality in any way, if it is a material or psychic form of reality, a kind of realization of the mind. Finally, one can also see the imaginary as the limit towards which the lucidity of attention pushes the mind in search of reality, this limit becoming, of course, indefinitely more distant. Hence the image of the Unicorn” – as a kind of absolute exoticism – “the image of the unspeakable, the unrepresentable, which leads the artist to constantly transform reality into a dream to better adjust reality. In this process of endless invention, the Imaginary illuminates Reality, opens up Reality, paves the way for Reality, projects Reality ahead of itself. Segalen questions creation, he questions the poet, in the strongest sense, i.e. the poet vs. the man of action. “Does the imaginary forfeit or is it reinforced when it is confronted to reality? Does not reality also have its own savour and joy?” Équipée and Segalen’s life itself were an attempt to answer this question.” (Emmanuel, 1979, p.14)

Spectacles of the world, colonialism and travel magazines, utopias

From modern conquests to 19th century colonialism, one can find drawings, colourful pictures then photographs of all sizes in the second half of the 19th century. These heritage objects generate complex and fragmented elements that drive the process of disseminating information and interpreted art forms.

One creates sustainable images of the near and distant otherness (La Fabrique des images, 2010); the role of history in exoticism or in creation (texts and images) is very important, and cannibalism, both literally and figuratively speaking, crossbreeding and hybridization, are powerful entities that create different forms of exoticism and syncretism, whenever there is an encounter, a culture shock, a conquest, possession, dispossession (Gruzinski 1999; Descola, 2005, 2010), an archive or a retentional function of memory. Malraux’s or Élie Faure’s visions of art history are in line with this, as they use new artistic associations and imaginary comparisons. One can for example refer to the project of art historian Aby Warburg (Warburg, 2013), when creating his Mnemosyne atlas in 1905 (unfinished at the time of his death in 1929). These comparative combinations are disturbing and may be reflected in the vast moving “tapestry” of the Web.

Round-the-world trips, globes, panoramas and international exhibitions, Japonism and Orientalism, all these adventures are recorded by photography (Frizot, 2001; Rouillé, 2005) and drawn and painted images, including maps, put at the service of the incarnations of anthropology (Affergan, 1987). Images from other worlds are invented, refined and popularized from a described, therefore interpreted, reality. From the Musée des Arts Africains and Océaniens to the Musée du Quai Branly, from human zoos to other ways of sharing exoticism, different routes are constantly redefining the boundaries, limits (Descamps, 1991) and passageways. These images also define the limits of the empty and the full, those of knowledge and, as 19th century journals said, still unknown. These often dangerous areas are blank spots on explorers’ maps. Is exoticism a constant, an unpleasant high point that still generates prejudices?

How can the change of scenery demanded by anthropology produce creative processes (Descola 2005; Balandier, 2009; Bailly, 2008, 2011)? By discovering other ways of living and other beliefs, the traveller, or the ‘exote’, to quote Segalen (i.e. the one who “feels” diversity and experiences it) can, even unwittingly, carry and convey new art forms and utopias belonging to other cultures. A process of reappropriation therefore occurs through the filter of displacement. Exoticism then becomes distant spaces and “distant arts”, to quote Félix Fénéon, which, precisely because they are distant, arouse wonder, emotion, pleasure and desire. They stimulate the creation and the experience.

Primitivism, sharing exoticism and the diverse magicians of art, exiles, topographies

From the creation of “negro art” to relational aesthetics, globalization and the study of archives and experiences partially reconfigure the encounter with the art of other cultures (Bourriaud, 2009).

The creative process as a renewal of sources in the re-formation of the artistic approach and of the senses is very intense at the beginning of negro art with Picasso, Matisse, Derain… (Dagen, 1998; Rubin, 1987)

One was then supposed to leave exoticism behind to reach the virtues of primitivism in a dynamic return to roots. This return is not necessarily melancholic. As, at the turn of the 21st century, all types of syncretism, beyond nature and culture (Descola, 2005), space and time, are at work. The creative process is becoming even more openly mixed, creolized, beyond the hybrid, whose French definition refers to the relation to the norm (“abnormal” interbreeding of two species).

African masks and the frescos of Italian primitives are on an equal footing in museums and even in the global art market, while the great walkers of Land Art build lines and monuments (Rubin, 1987) by exploring all forms of archaism: the vision that artists and experts have of the past, present and future worlds requires the appropriation of original myths, after the end of historical colonialism (Balandier, 2009).

Can limitative exoticism be overcome through various acts of artistic appropriation and reappropriation (Magiciens de la terre, 1989; Partage d’exotismes, 2000)? Indeed, the current forms of modernity transform the modern into a giant tapestry, a moving network, unstable and uncertain.

How does the Internet create and recreate inexhaustible networks within a limited and sometimes melancholic imaginary? How does the exoticism of the Web and its numerous incarnations redefine the figure of the artist, this traveller with multiple lives? Although sometimes conflicting, broadcast culture and creative process sometimes combine to lead to the perpetual erasure and reconstruction of the various forms of the Web. As shown by E. Saïd, the politics of domination have produced the art and the figures of exile created by an artist such as Chen Zhen (2003), who also disappeared at the turn of the new century. It is not a therapy, but a web of wisdom, mixes and risk taking.

The patching together of genres, values​​, images, structures and ideologies continues to act out history, an endless history, redesigning fractal topographies, as well as languages ​​(Bourriaud, 2009). The physical and virtual encounter as a creative process rooted in diversity and in the All-World to move elsewhere, here and there, according to unpredictable encounters, has for a result that the body becomes a metaphor of an unfinished anthropology, which includes the post-human on the colourful map of objects, shapes, places and the patching up of cultures.

The figure of the collector participates in these architectures of the empty and the full, where the impossible journey (Augé, 1997) of exoticism should give way to a theory of the encounter and a philosophy of the relationship in time and space (Affergan, 1987, Glissant, 2009).

Can one talk, like Alban Bensa, about the end of exoticism today? Or think that exoticism is still alive, in a still active post-colonial sense, a sort of tepid entropy (the one that horrified Segalen), a source of dangerous illusions? Finally, it may be reasonable to think that the work of Segalen, in its incompleteness and despite himself, is a source of hope.


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, Exotism and creation, published 19 June 2016


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