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The Boston Museum of Fine Arts recently cancelled an event they had called “Kimono Wednesdays,” that, according to the museum, sought to engage people by arranging enhanced encounters with works of art. The function was organized around the display of Claude Monet’s “La Japonaise” (1876) a painting of the artist’s wife, surrounded by fans, wearing a blond wig and a bright red kimono. When the program began visitors were given the opportunity to put on a kimono similar to the one depicted in the painting, and were encouraged to pose for photographs and share those images on social media using the tag “#mfaBoston!” The New York Observer, speaking with the MFA’s Deputy Director Katie Getchell, reported that, “The idea was to give visitors a ‘tactile experience’ with the kimonos made in Japan ‘to understand and experience the painting in a new way’.”
However, many visitors regarded the event as typecasting and exoticizing Asian Americans. The first night of the promotion a small protest took place, and during the second occurrence three protesters confronted the museum, placing themselves near the exhibit, displaying signs such as “Try on the kimono, learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist !!!today!!!” Some of the protesters within the Boston community organized a Facebook Page, “Stand Against Yellow Face,” and the MFA’s own Facebook page was inundated with posts denouncing the museum for creating an event that some characterized as blatantly racist. After initially defending the program, the museum backed down, only allowing subsequent visitors to touch the garment, issued an apology, and promised to create more presentations led by museum educators.
There is a great deal to unpack here, so let’s begin with the claims. These are principally that at worst the museum produced a racist event, or at the least one that was culturally insensitive and exploitive. These accusations are grounded in the conviction that the propagation of racial stereotypes and the encouragement of cultural appropriation are part and parcel of what is in essence a Western imperialist project that seeks to colonize the cultures of non-European people. The “Stand Against Yellow Face” page displays the imperative: “Stop Orientalism.” Orientalism, a conceptual framework for understanding historical representations of the “Orient” created by Edward Said in his book of the same name, is the key idea underpinning the protests. Briefly, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Orientalism influenced the academic discipline of postcolonial studies, which is concerned with “practices of representation that reproduce a logic of subordination that endures even after former colonies gain independence.” Basically, according to Stanford’s encyclopedia, Said demonstrated that “‘knowing the Orient,’ was part of the project of dominating it.” On the face of it, the protesters have a valid argument.
— Amber Ying (@diabola) July 15, 2015
However, on examination complications emerge. We might conclude that the museum was actively disseminating racial stereotypes, but “La Japonaise,” according to the Boston Globe, is believed by art historians to be representative of Monet poking fun at the late 19th century movement known as Japonisme (English version: Japonism). Unfortunately the Globe leaves these historians unnamed so these waters remain rather muddy. Still, we do know that the movement consisted of a brief European obsession with Japanese art following on the decision by the Tokugawa Shogunate to commence international trade with the West. If indeed Monet was poking fun at practices of cultural appropriation then his own meta-critique of that exoticizing of Japanese art and culture is lost in the protest maelstrom that presumes no such awareness. More simply trying on the Kimono does not seem to me to cross the threshold into appropriation. It is a more intimate way to engage with the garment, its materiality, its weight and feel. However the museum left itself bare to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune when it encouraged visitors to take photos while wearing the kimono. Creating an image of a seeming act of costuming does suggest that visitors can pretend to be someone who might have traditionally worn a kimono. This is cultural consumption on the cheap. This is problematic. It is especially so if, as the protesters claim, this event took place in the absence of information on the garment’s origin, historical significance, or uses.
— Amber Ying (@diabola) July 15, 2015
However, protesters have been too quick to use the term “racist” to describe this program. To suggest, as one commenter has, that this event is akin to visitors attending museums to see people from Africa in cages, is a mistake. To be racist is to employ or advance the rhetoric and (economic, social and political) practices of reducing another human being to a set of signs (within a certain pre-existing hierarchy) that are primarily physical features, and thereby dehumanize him or her. I do not see that happening here, particularly because the woman being mimicked is Camille Monet, who is signifying a type of ridiculous European posture vis-à-vis fascination with Japanese art.
More, there is a kind of megalomania at work here with protesters conflating Japonisme with stereotyped images of Asian-Americans. The Japanese are not the same as, nor should they be confused with Chinese, Korean, Laotian, Vietnamese or Thai. The Japanese were a colonial power. In the late 19th century they willfully provided their art for Western consumption and consciously contributed to its circulation in markets fueled by exoticized fascination with the East. It is shoddy and scattershot thinking to imagine that the stereotype of the Chinese Dragon Lady is somehow being evoked by the donning of a kimono. It is telling that similar events offered in Japanese museums — The Setagaya in Tokyo, The Kyoto Municapal Museum, and The Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts — while “La Japonaise” was on loan there were a smashing success, not to mention that the kimono itself was commissioned by a Japanese television broadcaster (original source). This success is part of the reason the MFA adopted a similar program. Indeed all the people who identified as Japanese in the comments to the NY Times article about the brouhaha expressed confusion and perplexity at the protests. This is to say that our kind of American racialized thinking is not universal and may not be needed by the people who are ostensibly being protected from exploitive practices.
For me, the worst aspect of this debacle is that it feeds the notion that culture is a kind of precious object that may only be doled out to those outside the specific culture by those designated as appropriate cultural handlers. I do believe that culture is a precious resource. However in the view propagated by the Boston protesters, the emphasis for non-Westerners should be on guarding and regulating the representation of culture, instead of making it available in ways that are productive to a more profound understanding. I do not want to be cultural cop. That’s not work I need to be doing. We would benefit more from critical thinkers rather than gatekeepers. We are merely opportunistic and short-sighted when we close down conversations on the basis of sloppy thinking fueled by indignation.
The museum responded to the social media messages and the protesters, initially defensively, but then just retreated. This was an opportunity to really engage the museum in a conversation around cultural appropriation and useful types of enhanced interaction and Japonisme. This chance seemingly has fled because of fear and the protesters mistaking umbrage for insight. We need to allow people to play with charged cultural symbols. This is how we learn. Museum visitors should not be learning the lessons of fearing an engagement with cultures not their own, even if they don’t get it right the first time.