Eurocentrisim and It's Impact on The Other World
Art via Anonymous Vintage Poster
Written by Deepanshi Narula
“The idea of culture, of intelligence, of great works, has for us a very ancient connection with the idea of Europe,” wrote the renowned French poet Paul Valery in his essay Crisis of the Mind (1919). He discussed the fragility of civilizations and the decline of Europe in this essay yet he never doubted the greatness of the continent, which for him was “the elect portion of the terrestrial globe, the pearl of the sphere, the brain of a vast body.” Since the 16th century, Europe has been looked upon as the pinnacle of modern civilization; a land associated with the finer arts and a higher intellect. To understand where this belief in the pre-eminence of European culture stems from, one must trace the history of Eurocentrism.
Eurocentrism is a view that sees Europe- or the West in a broader sense- as the center of the world. This view, often seen as an ‘ideological deformation’ by critics, has extensively impacted the way we conceive and study things- from art, literature, and philosophy to history and geography. The contributions of the “rest of the world”, as the non-Western countries are patronizingly called, in these fields have been largely understated owing to the Eurocentric view of things.
Eurocentrism finds its roots in colonialism, the process by which the European powers reached positions of economic, cultural, and political hegemony in various Asian and African countries. This ideology is thus a discursive residue of the centuries of imperialism that allowed Europe (and the US) to gain supremacy over other countries through conquest. A crucial element in this narrative is the idea of European discoveries. ‘Discovery’ as a historical phenomenon, as an ethnocentered social construct of European power to discover the world- has been a key motif in establishing the concept of Europe as the center of the world.
The grand narrative of the superiority and the centrality of Europe has been crucial in constructing Eurocentrism. The idea that history, geography and civilization of other lands began from the time they were ‘discovered’ by Europe or brought into being by European navigators is central to this discourse. These territories physically and culturally existed independently- with their own native people, their own indigenous languages and civilizations- but the European conquest is deemed as the defining moment of their existence. Thus, not only areas of human study are perceived from the Eurocentric point of view; the world itself is constructed from the European perspective through the geopolitical structures of time and space.
Eurocentrism In History
The way history and geography are taught in the Western world intensifies the Eurocentric belief. For example, Christopher Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of America is widely known. But a major number of Americans are unaware of the reason behind the native people being called Indians- Columbus’ crucial error of declaring that he had arrived in India (East Indies) when in actuality he had landed in the Caribbean Islands. It led to the erroneous naming of the natives as Indians, a pejorative colonial term which is now rejected by these people.
Even after Columbus’ failed attempt, the quest for a route to India continued. India was then the most sought-after destination with its advanced trade culture, its precious metals, and spices. Vasco da Gama of Portugal is credited with being the first European navigator to make a transoceanic journey around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa in 1498, arriving at the port of Calicut in South India. His discovery of a route to India is a celebrated event of history but of course with its Eurocentric description, it overlooks the real story of slavery and massacre. Da Gama’s first expedition in 1497 failed because of a lack of navigational knowledge and he returned to Portugal without success. On a second voyage in 1498, he forcefully took along African and Arab slaves from Mozambique and Mombassa, one of whom, ibn Majid, actually guided him to India because of his former experiences and knowledge.
He made another journey to India in 1500 in which he savagely broke the Arab trade control with India, killing Muslims, Arabs, and Africans in massacres on the coast of Africa and India to take over the trade monopoly of spices and silks. During this expedition, terrible atrocities were committed at da Gama’s orders. Over 400 people were locked on board and burned alive over a period of four days. These parts of history are conveniently erased from textbooks and memory because they do not favour the Oriental image. This goes on to prove that history is in fact always written by the rulers.
Eurocentrism In Geography
The lack of navigation ability of the European cartographers influenced geography in favour of the West too. Cartographers tend to make projections of maps of the world that privilege certain lands over others by glorifying areas according to their resources. This tends to show the Western hemisphere in a better light. The best example for this is the most popular and standard version of the map of the world, called the Mercator’s Projection of 1569. It represents Europe and the western hemisphere much larger than it actually is on the globe. This constructs a powerful psychological imprint of the superiority and importance of the west on the mind of the viewer. To undo this, efforts are now being made to popularize the Gall–Peters projection that maps all areas such that they have the correct sizes relative to each other.
Eurocentrism In Art
Art history, just like cartography, has been narrativized in a way that it privileges certain locations of art over others. Eurocentric history sees Europe, alone and unaided, as the primum mobile for progressive change in the arts. “A single, local perspective has been presented as 'central' and 'universal,' while the productions of 'the rest of the world,' are assumed to be pale copies of European originals, aesthetically inferior and chronologically posterior, mere latter-day echoes of pioneering European gestures,” note Robert Stam and Ella Shohat.
Eurocentrism in art is evident through the major art movements which are all based in Europe. European art is considered to be an umbrella which absorbs art from all over the world and ‘refines’ it to bring it up to the standards set by the continent itself. This view prolongs the colonial trope which saw the colonies as a mere source of raw material to be advanced into more worthy essentials by the intelligence of the colonizers. They did this while not only denying the contributions of non-European cultures but also forgetting the longstanding interconnected between the arts of Europe and those outside it. The lesser celebration of art from the Occidental countries is thus a persistent sign of the inherent belief in the superiority of European art.
Through these few fields of study, we can understand the impact of colonialism on global culture. To expand our view beyond the Eurocentric standards, we must look for a new multicultural trajectory; one that does not believe in the superiority of one race over the other. In the postcolonial world, it is essential that we understand the shared histories of cultures and continents and unlearn the one-sided knowledge that is so subtly engrained in our minds.
Burney, Shehla. “CHAPTER SIX: Erasing Eurocentrism: ‘Using the Other as the Supplement of Knowledge.’” Counterpoints, vol. 417, 2012, pp. 143–172.
Shohat, Ella and Stam, Robert. “Narrativizing Visual Culture: Towards a Polycentric Aesthetics,” Introductory Essay to The Visual Culture Reader, Nicholas Mirzoeff, ed. Routledge, 1998, pp. 27-49