|The town hall in which the director of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and a number of prominent figures in the Asian-American community discussed the problematic nature of the exhibit.|
|Claude Monet's La Japonaise|
|A promotional Picture for Kimono Wednesdays.|
|A group of protesters denouncing the exhibit.|
When this incident was playing out back in the summer, I was all over it. I read article after article, followed the tumblr page, trying to make sense of what was going on. I had been to the MFA some years ago and was impressed. Initially I braced myself to be angry as well when I saw that, extremely orientalist painting of Camille Monet. I was getting ready to launch into one of my usual socially-charged tirades about how shitty racism and cultural appropriation are. I was going to condemn the MFA for being ignorant and short-sighted and angering all these already marginalized people.
|One of the counter-protesters advocating the return of Kimono Wednesdays.|
"Uwwhaaaat!? But Alex, this exhibit is heinous in how it propagates the white colonial gaze, the fetishization of Asian culture and totally ignores the history of marginalization and outright discrimination of the Asian diaspora in the United States! It's racist! I thought you were an ally!"
|A protester with a strong message. But, is the white couple wearing kimono really guilty of all that?|
The the dubious painting is an example of Japonisme, a somewhat odd aesthetic phenomenon that was en-vogue in France in the 1870's. It resulted in all kinds of odd behaviour such as installing "Japanese rooms" full of faux Japanese motifs, complete with tatami-mats. In such rooms French people would play with tea sets in kimono-esque clothing, essentially pretending to be Japanese. Now, by today's standards, a bunch of white French people pretending to be Japanese people by appropriating a bunch of material culture is pretty messed up and would fall under the cultural appropriation umbrella to be sure (I think nowadays, we would call them weeaboos). However, and as I'm sure most of you can guess, in the 1870's there wasn't exactly an abundance of reliable information about Japan available in French -- I'd wager that you could count the amount of textbooks on one hand. There also wasn't a significantly large population of Japanese nationals or immigrants living in France at the time that one could attempt to associate with. Therefore, the means to meaningfully engage with Japan and the Japanese simply was not available to most people in that space, at that time as a one-way trip to Japan, meant a costly, potentially risky, months-long voyage.
Japonisme is cultural appropriation in the purest sense -- it is quite literally the appropriation of one people's material culture by another. However, I believe that the conditions of France in 1870's make it impossible to classify Japonisme as cultural appropriation insofar as the term is used today, especially in the space of the United States. Now I understand that the definition of cultural appropriation is in constant contention, but I have seen a definition, the use of which seems to be very wide-spread in relation to U.S. geo-politics at present. It is that cultural appropriation happens when a dominant cultural majority elevates and subsequently co-opts elements from a marginalized minority while continuing to marginalize the minority they've co-opted from. Therefore, for cultural appropriation to occur in all it's heinousness, the presence of a marginalized minority would need to be present to appropriate from. In France, in the 1870's this was not the case, there was no significantly large, permanent and marginalized Japanese population in France in the 1870's. Japanese people did travel to France for education and "cultural experience" but many stayed no more than a few years after which they returned home.
The lack of ability to engage with Japan would have rendered Japan as an exotic place to most French people at the time by the very definition of the word -- something strange, unusual or different, not native. Beyond that however, exotic also denotes a kind of mysteriousness or a lack of ability for something to be understandable. It's my understanding that the reason why the word "exotic" is so problematic at present is because we now have a wealth of information on places, previously thought exotic. If you want to learn about China, for example, you can just read a book, you can watch a video in which actual Chinese people introduce aspects of their own country, you can attend a seminar or a class, you can talk to Chinese people (I mean people who are culturally Chinese -- not merely ethnically) about their experiences, it's easy. Ignorance is now a choice, so being content to sit back and refer to something as merely exotic can be seen as laziness at best or self-induced ignorance at worst. The word is not only inappropriate but the information age has rendered "exotic" somewhat of a misnomer. How can something be exotic if the tools for understanding it are constantly at your fingertips? That being said, to Claude Monet in the 1870's and indeed to many of his contemporaries, Japan would surely have been exotic for lack of information and wearing a kimono or drinking green tea, would likely have been thought of as "flirting with the exotic" to some degree. Therefore, the seemingly problematic title of the accompanying talk actually makes sense within context of the exhibit. I mean context is everything . . . isn't it?
|Leon Francois Comerre's La Japonaise|
Yes and no. Broadly, you could argue it is insofar as colonialism is related to intercontinental trade and that the French had colonies in South East Asia and their dealings with Japan could be seen as part of their colonial legacy -- as the reason they had such a large presence in Asia in the first place. On the other hand the French never attempted to colonize Japan specifically. The influx of Japanese goods to France was mostly the result of the Meiji government opening the country and the formation of a bilateral agreement between the governments of both countries which had French military experts training Japan's armed forces in "modern warfare". It also might be worth mentioning that Japan itself was a colonial power for almost fifty-years, took over much of North and South East Asia and did all sorts of heinous things all while holding a seat at the League of Nations.
|Again, strong accusations launched at the MFA, but to what extent can Japonisme be linked to American imperialism? An interesting question to be sure.|
Is trying on a kimono in a museum cultural appropriation?
Fundamentally I don't think so, the exhibit was not barring certain patrons from trying on the kimono. Anyone could try it on and strike Camille's pose (or whatever) regardless of ethnicity. The event was ostensibly inclusive and the kimono itself was made by real Japanese artisans prior to the launch of the exhibit. Trying on a piece of clothing is not intrinsically a case of cultural appropriation, but striking a stereotypical pose with a paper fan with no real knowledge of the historical significance of the pose and clothing itself? Could be (more on that later). After all, people didn't take issue with Iggy Azalea merely because she was rapping. It was rapping with a black Houston accent while obviously not being black or from Houston while being unabashedly racist on her twitter feed, all while being celebrated by the mainstream American music industry that branded her problematic.
So then what's the problem with the exhibit?
If this exhibit is not about Japan or about Japanese-American experience but simply about Japonisme, this quirky, somewhat obscure, European French fad that probably didn't last much longer than a decade, what's the problem? Why do so many Asian-Americans insist on including this weird French thing into the broader global colonial narrative? Aren't they just overreacting? Isn't this just a knee-jerk reaction to a white woman in a kimono!? Aren't they the racist ones!?!?
|By today's standards Japonisme is very problematic, but it sort of still happens . . . Katie Perry at the 2013 AMA's.|
|There was once a time, when signs like these were fairly common and our governments enacted policies to make immigration very costly for East Asian peoples.|
The other thing that I must point out is that many of the protesters were not advocating closing the exhibit outright, but adding context to make it more obvious that Japonisme is this thing that is far removed from the reality of Japanese (or Japanese diasporic experience). Yes, Japonisme isn't so much about Japan (and even less about Asian-American experience) than it is about a quaint segment of the French upper-class, but if the MFA is not making this fact obvious, well then it makes sense sense for people to take issue with the exhibit. I'm still flabbergasted by the frequency with which I encounter North Americans (and not just white North Americans) who have this extremely orientalist and colonialist view that Asia is still this magical, alien, highly exploitable world, full of effeminate men and submissive women that prostrate themselves in the presence of whiteness that is backwards and in need of guidance of some sort (or something not far off). Many of these people have fantasies which they project onto Asia and Asian-people. Many also project them on to Asian-Americans as well, and if these views are incorrect and insulting in the East Asian context, then they are even more insulting to Americans whose parents or grandparents just so happen to have originated from those spaces.
|Racist graffiti from a case in San Francisco back in September. While not as common as it once was, the fact that this is still happening in any capacity is as awful as it is ridiculous.|
So there you have it. It's complicated and tragic and it should make you mad or should at least provoke some thought. We do, however, have the power to change this, and wouldn't that be nice if your children's children could go see an exhibit on Japonisme in the United States sans protesters and simply chuckle at this quaint obsession of the past? I think it would. But to do that we need to engage these problems instead of ignoring them. Thankfully that's not what happened here.