The Met's China Exhibit: Cultural Celebration or Appropriation?
May 4, 2015 6:55 PM   Subscribe

The Met's soon-to-open exhibit, titled "China: Through the Looking Glass," tackles the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion, and how Chinese culture has inspired fashionable imagination for hundreds of years. Juxtaposing high fashion with Chinese art, film, clothing, and artifacts, the exhibit looks to explore why Western culture is as enraptured with the East as it is.

The Cut's review of the exhibit sings its praises while simultaneously asking whether the items within the exhibit – as well as the exhibit itself – honor and celebrate Chinese culture or appropriate it.

"On the question of appropriation, I find myself thinking of the handy definition given by 16-year-old Amandla Stenberg, the Hunger Games actress whose video for a school project went viral. "Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist stereotypes or generalizations," she says, adding later, "The line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is always going to be blurred.”And the exhibit is a testament to that delicate balance, as well as that blurring."
posted by ourt (42 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
See also: Vogue's preview of the exhibit.
posted by ourt at 7:03 PM on May 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm going to let the Met off easy this time as I'm pretty sure they didn't invent Orientalism.

pop quiz: the different between oriented and orientated
posted by GuyZero at 9:10 PM on May 4, 2015


pop quiz: the different between oriented and orientated

Not much, as far as I can tell?

They both have come to mean, in a word, "alignment"; originally it meant more specifically alignment with the east/rising sun. "Orientate" is a back-formation of "orientation", which means "the act or process of orienting".

Or am I missing something?
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:20 PM on May 4, 2015


Excuse me pardon me is this the thread where we talk about Her Royal Highness Beyonce's dress because i am all about being here for that

see also: rihanna
posted by poffin boffin at 9:22 PM on May 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


I think it's US ("oriented") vs. UK ("orientated").
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:23 PM on May 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


are we going to have an in-depth conversation about the factually documented proof that she was an hour late tonight because she was taking shots for her own instagram because i have many important points of view on this subject which range all the way from guuuUUURL to YAAAAAAAAS
posted by poffin boffin at 9:24 PM on May 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


These are lovely. I'd love to see more pictures of the Roberto Cavalli dress.

Are you going to make me google the Beyonce and Rihanna dresses myself? Mean.
posted by MsDaniB at 9:27 PM on May 4, 2015


Wait, I take that back if I was just bad at looking at the slideshow. sry.
posted by MsDaniB at 9:29 PM on May 4, 2015




I think this is also where we talk about whether SJP's headdress is a clever, theme-appropriate homage to Han bridal headdresses, or a hideous, appropriative monstrosity.
posted by gingerest at 9:37 PM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


"I think this is also where we talk about whether SJP's headdress is a clever, theme-appropriate homage to Han bridal headdresses, or a hideous, appropriative monstrosity."

I'm gonna lean with the latter on that one.
posted by ourt at 9:40 PM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Thank you for pointing to the Rihanna dress especially. Looking through the previews, I was surprised that there weren't examples of modern Chinese couture that referenced imperial culture/different dynasties/Chinese minority cultures. Or is that not interesting? I'm glad they're pairing the newer art with its' probable inspiration, anyway.
posted by MsDaniB at 9:51 PM on May 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I keep banging on about Poe lately but there's something Poe's Law-ish about a show at a very esteemed US gallery trying to honor Chinese art by showing a Western perspective on it, AND having a gala complete with loads of rich famous white ladies in "exotic" "Oriental" outfits designed by other rich white people. It is doing my head right in, and that's before you get to things that don't quite work because they cross that line, so tricky with couture, between visually provocative and eye-searingly ugly.

Oops, guess I tipped my hand about how I feel about the headdress.
posted by gingerest at 9:55 PM on May 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Rihanna was wearing a Chinese designer to boot
posted by The Whelk at 9:59 PM on May 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


I keep banging on about Poe lately but there's something Poe's Law-ish about a show at a very esteemed US gallery trying to honor Chinese art by showing a Western perspective on it, AND having a gala complete with loads of rich famous white ladies in "exotic" "Oriental" outfits designed by other rich white people.

Seems to me that everybody's talking about what the Black women wore.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:04 PM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty much only here for Rihanna, Bey, and Fan Bing Bing & co.
posted by kmz at 10:13 PM on May 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


I dunno. I looked through both slide shows and parts of it felt like a walk-through of Katy Perry's costume closet. The Warhol piece and Vivienne Tam dress I enjoyed-- they were playful, exploring iconography and possibly notions of propaganda. Many of the other pieces felt confusing to me, and they, in my opinion, do not really illustrate how Chinese culture influenced Western aesthetics, as the exhibit website touts.

(Aesthetic) "influence" isn't parody. The two overlap, perhaps, but they are the product of fundamentally different questions. Influence asks, "does [other artistic tradition] do something in a way that fits well with what we want to express?" Parody asks, "what is our take on [other artistic tradition]?" In practice, influence is having one or two borrowed aesthetic elements show up in the final product (e.g., the structured, broad strokes of the Fauves that were influenced by African sculpture), not "here's our version of the cheongsam!"

In other words, Fauvism embodied its own ideas, and certain elements that can be traced back to the aesthetics of African sculpture helped Fauvism unfold the way it did. That's influence. These couture cheongsams and dragons, on the other hand, are more the product of the question, "What is our take on the cheongsam / calligraphy / dragons?" than they are a product of the question, "What aspects of Chinese aesthetics might help us express our ideas if we were to use them in our own work?" (Being able to market exoticism to a wealthy clientele for an evening out doesn't count.)

I would be interested in reading the captions of the pieces in the exhibit to see how much historical context was given to each work, but based on how disjointed the preview felt I am not all that optimistic. The pieces in themselves are artistically interesting and certainly exhibit-worthy, but I wouldn't frame it as Chinese "influence." Based on the preview, I don't think it's a celebration of Chinese culture (is it even intended to be?). Rather, I would think of it as a retrospective on cultural appropriation.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 10:53 PM on May 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


"These couture cheongsams and dragons, on the other hand, are more the product of the question, 'What is our take on the cheongsam / calligraphy / dragons?' than they are a product of the question, 'What aspects of Chinese aesthetics might help us express our ideas if we were to use them in our own work?' (Being able to market exoticism to a wealthy clientele for an evening out doesn't count.)"

Exactly. I mean, that's what a lot of high fashion — or just fashion in general, to be quite frank — does. I had a class on Early American Culture last semester, where a lot of the focus was on cultural appropriation, especially that of colonial America's appropriating various Native American traditions and items.

Early American scholar Catharine Cangany's "Fashioning Moccasins: Detroit, the Manufacturing Frontier, and the Empire of Consumption, 1701–1835" details the cultural and societal implications of Detroit's manufacturing and distributing moccasins throughout the early-18th to mid-19th centuries.

There's a lot to be said about cultural appropriation in fashion. One could look at all the lawsuits filed against fashion labels like Urban Outfitters for their atrocious misrepresentation and disenfranchisement of Native American cultures.

Another good piece to refer to is "Please Don't Commodify My Culture."
posted by ourt at 11:09 PM on May 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Every time I start thinking I couldn't love Rihanna more, she's got to go and do something like this. *Of course* when she had to figure out what to wear to the gala, she started researching Chinese couture.

That dress is amazing. That top picture in the Vanity Fair link takes my breath away.

Speaking of Guo Pei, though, I think her blue porcelain dress is also in the exhibit -- but the only "blue porcelain"-looking dress I'm seeing in the preview pictures is Roberto Cavalli's. Which is a shame, because Guo Pei's beats his by a country mile (imo, anyway).

Excuse me pardon me is this the thread where we talk about Her Royal Highness Beyonce's dress because i am all about being here for that

What about it? I didn't like it, but eh. It looked too "ice skater"-y for me, like a really sophisticated, "evening" version of an Oksana Baiul costume. Also, the back was sexy, but the front was weirdly unflattering considering that I doubt anybody could pull off that dress *better* than Beyonce. But maybe I just didn't get what she was going for with it.
posted by rue72 at 11:48 PM on May 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Appropriation, at least in my world, requires a power imbalance. What white america did with the blues or rock and roll is appropriation. China is a world power that is easily able to speak for herself. A more appropriate word might be exotification.

"Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist stereotypes or generalizations,"

Nope. Something is happening when a style relies on racism but it's not appropriation. Something else is happening when art is encouraging racism but that's also not appropriation.

We're humans and we've been producing art for a long time. Re-purposing and recreating things is part of being human, inside or outside of the cultural context of the art's origin. The nasty bit that is appropriation is when a dominant culture replaces another's culture's artistic vision with it's perception of that culture's vision.
posted by rdr at 11:49 PM on May 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


"The nasty bit that is appropriation is when a dominant culture replaces another's culture's artistic vision with it's perception of that culture's vision."

That's the bit I'm trying to get at, though. Of course, not all appropriation is bad — most of it isn't, as far as I'm concerned. A majority of my favorite artworks are appropriations, in one way or another. I appropriate a lot of things within my own artwork already.

What distinguishes the good from the "nasty" is lack of the context or intention behind any given work. If there isn't any true message behind a work — if it plays into capitalistic values, or becomes culturally assimilated simply for the sake of "looking cool" and loses its meaning, is that still okay?

I think a lot of this is very ambiguous, and the line between cultural celebration/homage and appropriation is a very thin and blurry one. That's what The Cut's article was playing at.
posted by ourt at 11:59 PM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have a question about the way the NYT covered the fashion aspect -- on their roundup here, is there something I'm supposed to understand when they picture the celebrity without naming the designer of the outfit? Is it a snub on the designer, the celebrity, or just a lack of information on their part? Something about it seems pointed to me, but also pretty opaque.
posted by Rinku at 12:43 AM on May 5, 2015


Rinku, do you think it could just be poor reporting? In my experience, NYT's Fasion & Style section has pretty routinely been... not that great.
posted by ourt at 1:00 AM on May 5, 2015


Of course, not all appropriation is bad — most of it isn't, as far as I'm concerned. A majority of my favorite artworks are appropriations, in one way or another. I appropriate a lot of things within my own artwork already.

All's well then.

:|
posted by sukeban at 2:59 AM on May 5, 2015


Love how FKA Twigs seems to wearing the skins of her enemies.
posted by glasseyes at 4:33 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I love Beyonce, she remains my queen. But she looks like she rolled in glue and then walked through the craft aisle of a dollar store.

And she keeps wearing see-through dresses to this event every damn year. On the other hand, that is one hell of a way to ensure that no-one's talking about last year's Met Gala Solange Incident, so well played, Queen B.

In other news, Fan Bing Bing has won the evening, everyone else can go home.
posted by pseudonymph at 5:34 AM on May 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


i thought bey looked great - her dress was the best of the see through dresses, imo. although, i like solange's dress more...
posted by nadawi at 5:58 AM on May 5, 2015


oh, and just because i love looking at the dresses from the met gala - beyonce has worn sheer 3 times and non-sheer 3 times. here are her looks from '08, '11, '12, and '13 and here is last year. i honestly think that not only did she outshine the other sheers last night, she topped herself too (i really didn't like last year's dress, and the 2012 dress is pretty but this year's is better, i think).
posted by nadawi at 6:55 AM on May 5, 2015


rue72 - is this the Guo Pei porcelain dress you meant? Because . . . goddamn. That's stunning.

Rihanna and Fan Bing Bing for me, at the perfect cross section of on-theme and on-couture (and on-GORGEOUS). I found Beyonce's outfit boring. As noted, naked isn't really new for her, and it means that the jeweled parts have to congregate in, uh, predictable places.
posted by synapse at 7:34 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think my criticism at this point would be on how the media covered this -- for example, you could spend quite a lot of time and not know that the gala included

"the biggest gathering of Chinese talent and business leadership ever to assemble outside of Asia at this evening’s gala. Chinese supermodels including Liu Wen and Sun Fei Fei will join movie stars Fan Bing Bing, Carina Lau and Du Jan to name just a few. Jewelry designers Wan Bao Bao and Cindy Chao will be among a spectacular line up of Chinese artists and creators, many brought together beneath the umbrella of Iconix China, the Hong Kong based brand management company led by Veronica Chou, daughter of Silas Chou, who will also be present."

That said, the Vogue spread was...appalling...
posted by PandaMomentum at 10:00 AM on May 5, 2015 [6 favorites]


At first I used "appropriation" as a synonym for "borrowing" as in, eg., loanwords.

This led to some super awkward conversations with people who use the term to criticize, rather than describe.

I have worked out that the distinction is to do with the sorts of changes that occur to cultural artifacts when they move between cultures. The word is more likely to come up when the exchange in question is, at least, a marker of oppression, possibly making that oppression worse, and possibly even the source of some of it. But those distinctions tend not to be made explicit in conversations about appropriation--perhaps the term is of use precisely because of how vague it is?

The distinctions that are made explicit tend to be the ones that support somebody's particular social theory. Is the exchange oppressive because of the type of harm done or because of the statuses of the cultures involved? Could be both, of course, but if you favor one view or the other you'll tend to define appropriation differently because of that.

I don't know how you'd avoid these problems with sociological terminology, but it makes the conversation intimidating to get into.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:43 AM on May 5, 2015


You know, cultures have influenced each others' cuisine, fashion, art, and music since the dawn of history. It's just something humans do.

Why is it some kind of secular sin now? I thought cultural exchange was a good thing. Are we supposed to adopt some kind of internalized xenophobia to avoid accidental cultural appropriation?

I don't get modern ideology.
posted by clarknova at 12:47 PM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


i really feel like amandla stenberg did a great job laying this all out. for me the discussion of appropriation or exchange can be summed up by this line :

what would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?

it's not that cultural exchange should stop or that it's always bad - it's that white people specifically tend to do this thing where we vacuum up all the cultural markers to impart some sort of coolness on ourselves while denying all the people who inhabit those cultures. this is on display in popular culture a lot - white celebrity gets dreads extentions she's edgy! trying a bold new style! black celebrity wears dreads, she's trashy, a pot head, dirty....black woman has traditionally black features, she's not mainstream enough, slutty, gross, a bad role model - white woman has traditionally black features, she's exotic, stunning, shapely, an inspiration. you also see things like hollywood taking asian stories, and replacing the cast with white people, saying that creative license demands it, but then everyone throws a hissy fit when some beloved character is changed into someone non-white/non-male.

when it's an exchange, it's not an issue - see rihanna wearing a dress by guo pei. when it's some outsider's random idea of "oriental" it becomes appropriation - see most of this fuckery.
posted by nadawi at 1:10 PM on May 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


To me most of these dresses aren't appropriation so much as they're just terrible costumes based on outdated themes. It's like showing up at the German Embassy for a dinner in lederhosen from The Costume Shoppe.

But that type of Western Orientalism is so old that it's practically a separate endangered culture of its own.

To me at least the Met Gala wasn't the same level of terribleness as, say, hipsters wearing headdresses. That's terrible. Although SJP's insane "hat" is definitely getting there. But again, to me it reads more as just caricatured costume rather than stolen. But then again, I'm not all that up on the traditions of millinery in Chinese culture. If that sort of headdress has a really specific meaning it might be different.
posted by GuyZero at 1:24 PM on May 5, 2015


I've been reading LaineyGossip on the Met Gala costumes and it's been pretty interesting to me because the woman who runs the site is a Canadian of Chinese ancestry. There are about 50 entries on various costumes and it's fascinating to me as a white woman to see what she likes/is okay with/is not okay with.
posted by immlass at 1:36 PM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


clarknova, if you really don't understand what people mean by "appropriation" or why they object to it, the wise thing to do would be to educate yourself about it rather than invent a strawman to attack.

no one says that cultural exchange is bad, and "cultural exchange is good" has never been a response that addresses people's concerns about appropriation. neither is "internalized xenophobia" a coherent reading of those concerns.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:20 PM on May 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


I've been reading LaineyGossip on the Met Gala costumes

This is like days of full time work. WHO DOES THIS?
posted by GuyZero at 3:50 PM on May 5, 2015


People who make a living writing about entertainment.
posted by gingerest at 7:36 PM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]




To complete the Pitcairn Island PST insufferable knowitall thing, I now react to native-born Britons who say "orientated" with one question:

"Oh. So, do you say 'documentated', too?"

Life of the party!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 12:02 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's often difficult to tell when and where racial and ethnic stereotypes arise, but one thing you can be sure of is that people need to use them in order for them to count for stereotypes at all. So I guess cultural appropriation could simply be the case where you use a stereotype in artwork or fashion or something, particularly when you create the stereotype in the process.

This definition really just shifts the problem onto what exactly to count as a stereotype, but I think that's a better problem. Easier to google for.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:22 PM on May 6, 2015


native-born Britons who say "orientated"

My first girlfriend was a Brit who taught me to say "oriented" instead of "orientated", because I grew up in these here Provinces. I like it though.
posted by sneebler at 5:44 PM on May 7, 2015


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