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May 21, 2015 7:50 AM   Subscribe

The Asians Art Museum is a parody site bringing a cirtical lens to orientalist tropes in art museums, prompted particularly by rhetorical choices of the San Francisco Art Museum's 2009 Lords of the Samurai exhibition [audio]. It highlights the tendency for museums showing Asian art to present their shows as a"a harmless trip to a fantasyland of romanticized premodern Otherness, a place where dreams of Manifest Destiny never have to die?"

It's from 2009, but I'm not sure we're at a new place yet. The Asian Art Museum recently held an opening party for its Seduction exhibiton, called Courtesans, Cooks, Samurai and Servants: the Seduction Opening Party (Facebook).
posted by Miko (24 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Meant to add this: 8 Questions blog post about the founders of the Asians Art Museum.
posted by Miko at 7:51 AM on May 21, 2015


I think this is the right link for "Lords of the Samurai"; the current one seems to be a duplicate of one later in the OP. Nice radio interview about the museum in an .mp3 link on the right on that page.
posted by XMLicious at 8:15 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


If it makes anyone feel any better medieval artifacts get the same sort of hackneyed tropes, so dreams of manifest destiny may never have to die, but they definitely had a date of birth.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:19 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


[Fixed that link error.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:40 AM on May 21, 2015


The Asian Art Museum recently held an opening party for its Seduction exhibiton, called Courtesans, Cooks, Samurai and Servants

This Collector's Weekly article pays some attention to the other side of the glitzy oiran in ukiyo-e.
But, of course, by and large, this free-floating sensation belonged to men. Allen suggests that we, as viewers, resist indulging in the fantasies of Yoshiwara prostitutes presented in the artworks, and instead, consider the real lives of the women portrayed. Unfortunately, no true records of the Edo-Period prostitutes’ personal thoughts and experiences exists—and with good reason. Publicizing the dark side of the pleasure district would have been bad for business.

“Don’t take these paintings at face value,” Allen says. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, yes, it’s a picture of a beautiful woman, wearing beautiful clothing.’ But it’s not a photograph. It’s some artist’s rendition, made to promote this particular world, which was driven by economics. The profiteers urged the production of more paintings, which continued to feed the frenzy for the Yoshiwara.
There's a nifty manga by Moyoco Anno turned also into a movie called Sakuran about a prostitute's life. Both manga and movie (with Anna Tsuchiya as the protagonist! Here's the trailer) are pretty good.
posted by sukeban at 8:44 AM on May 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think the real question is, "Is Japan part of Asia"? Japanese people don't often think so. I'm not terribly familiar with other Asian countries, so it would be interesting to see if people in Korea or mainland China identified as "Asian" for example.

Bushidō spirit lives on today in karōshi (death from overwork), social acceptance of suicide (nearly 100/day in June 2009), and entrenched patriarchy.

While karoshi may be uniquely Japanese, Japan's suicide rate isn't the highest in the OECD (Finland and South Korea have higher rates) and patriarchy ain't limited to Japan or "bushido".

It would be nice if people who discussed Orientalism were actually familiar with the subject that is being critiqued.
posted by Nevin at 8:49 AM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Just to be super clear, the link XMLicious posted is a link to a parody of the exhibit. I'm pretty sure the actual Asian Art Museum did not promote an exhibition with the tag line "Myth + Militarism + Man-Boy Love".

I actually checked out the seduction exhibition a few weeks ago, and I can see that it's definitely walking a fine line. It is displaying a bunch of works in various media. Many of these works are for the purpose of promoting the brothel district. They are the equivalent of the "get laid now" ads that run on porn sites, playing up the fantasy of easily accessible sex. The signage that went along with many of these works took pains to explain that the women were kept basically as slaves, that the whole idea of the "Refined Geisha Courtesan" was basically a scam to bilk high-profile customers out of huge sums.

I can see that it's definitely a challenge to present an exhibit on a problematic topic, where much of the work is itself a product of those Problems, without yourself inadvertently acting as a promoter or perpetuator of the Problems. I'm not really a great judge of these things, so I can't really say whether the museum succeeded in handling the topic well. But, I can say that the exhibition was not a total promotion of Orientalist Fantasy.
posted by rustcrumb at 9:06 AM on May 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Some of what this "museum" is pushing is really strange, like the idea that the promotion of the samurai warrior myth is a soft-power push by the United States to promote re-militarization in Japan. I'd like to see some actual evidence for this claim, because from what I know they have it exactly backwards: the Japanese government likes to play up the samurai myth as a part of Japan's soft-power strategy.

Their focus on and presentation of shudō also kind of comes across uncomfortably as "LOL samurai were actually fags".

On top of that, their focus seems muddled, especially their anti-militarism focus. The idealizing of the atrocities of past warriors isn't something at all unique to Japan or Asia and isn't really related to Orientalism. Europe idealizes medieval knights as chivalrous romantic heroes, the US does the same with gunfighters of the Old West, everyone in the West seems to do with the ancient Romans, etc. People everywhere seem to be happy to push aside the realities of war and romanticize the past.

I mean, the site says:

It's not hard to come up with other examples of military cultures that were also highly aestheticized. But it's unthinkable that a museum today would choose to showcase the weaponry and uniforms of, say for example, the Nazi Wehrmacht, without putting them in the historical context of what they were actually used for.

Why does the samurai get a pass? And why now to celebrate a culture of violence?


But this is ridiculous. Walk into the Met in NYC and you will see exactly that, the Hall of Arms and Armor showcasing European knightly weapons and armor with zero commentary of the reality of medieval life and warfare, and that's true of every museum showing war gear from the past everywhere in the world.

They seem to be cramming all kinds of things together that don't really belong.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:14 AM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


The problem is that they're conflating orientalism (= Western gaze of Japan) with Japan's romanticizing of their own history a la Inazo Nitobe.
posted by sukeban at 9:19 AM on May 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


As for shudo, I notice that they don't mention that apart from samurai, it was associated in popular culture with Buddhist clergy a lot. No, really, lots. Damn cute bishie novices they had back then.
posted by sukeban at 9:24 AM on May 21, 2015


I wonder if part of the issue is identifying the museum as an "art" museum, as if art and history aren't intertwined. (On the other hand, having an "Asian Museum" seems problematic for a lot of different reasons.) Though now I'm thinking that the big art museums I've visited that focus on Western art haven't had a ton of historical contextualizing, either. Is there more of a burden on presentations of non-Western/non-mainstream/non-majority art to provide the historical context for viewers?

(Which is not at all to say that even absent that burden, using racialized stereotypes for exhibit names and marketing is ok.)
posted by jaguar at 9:27 AM on May 21, 2015


We're talking about a time period in which kabuki was developed by a woman, then women were forbidden from acting because the authorities thought they were prostituting themselves on the side (they were), then young boys played women's roles, then young boys were forbidden from acting because they were also prostituting themselves on the side, then adult men would play women's roles, but actors would also have enjo-kosai-ish liaisons, at which point the Tokugawas said fine, whatever, I quit.
posted by sukeban at 9:30 AM on May 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


Some of what this "museum" is pushing is really strange, like the idea that the promotion of the samurai warrior myth is a soft-power push by the United States to promote re-militarization in Japan.

This isn't strange at all. The US has been pushing Japan for years to take an active military role (as proxy a for the US of course) in East Asia, rather than one legally proscribed by "self-defense."
posted by ennui.bz at 9:36 AM on May 21, 2015


So, look, I love my younger brother. But he is absolutely one of those exasperating white dudes who bought a "samurai" sword on the internet and rambles on about how samurai had honor! And they could never be defeated! And all the weird stuff that comes out of orientalist tropes, video games, and plenty of terrible movies.

I think that is part of what this project is deconstructing. (For example, all the listed news stories about idiots hurting themselves and other people with samurai swords.) The people who say they believe in ~the way of the samurai~ have no idea what samurais were actually like, and they don't want to know what they were actually like. They don't want a true historical vision, because the mystical cartoon version is so much more useful for their fantasies and internet arguments.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:38 AM on May 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


This isn't strange at all. The US has been pushing Japan for years to take an active military role (as proxy a for the US of course) in East Asia, rather than one legally proscribed by "self-defense."
ennui.bz

Right, but you're not reading what I wrote.

The US has certainly been pushing Japan to take a more active military role. What I question is this site's specific assertion that the promotion of the "samurai myth" in the US is part of a soft-power strategy of the US in service of that aim. I think that's wrong for the reasons stated above, and would like to see some evidence of this assertion.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:43 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Though now I'm thinking that the big art museums I've visited that focus on Western art haven't had a ton of historical contextualizing, either.

From my point of view, this is equally problematic. Lack of explanation and context for Western art stems from a couple-century-old tradition of starting from the presumption that art (and museums) were primarily to serve the elite and educated. Needing to be told information about work was a sign of lower socioeconomic status; if you didn't already know art, history, and art history, you didn't belong in the museum in the first place. This is one reason docent-led tours developed around 1910: there was a Progressive-era interest in sharing museums with the great unwashed, but there were few explanatory labels or useful guides, so you needed people to walk through with you and shed some light.

At the same time, this is also the reason non-Western stuff was traditionally more heavily interpreted. That stuff was Other and needed more context and framing in order for people in the dominant culture to understand it.

And I don't think the problem of comparing lack of mention of violence in Medieval culture is an example of why they're wrong. It's a problem in Western armor displays, too. It's just a general problem to present displays informed by romance and fantasy.

They seem to be cramming all kinds of things together that don't really belong.

Probably true, but they're not actually trying to be an alternative place to learn about Asian art, they're trying to provoke reflection on very common tropes of display. It's best to think of this as an Occupy-like incursion into museum discourse, meant to provoke thinking. I learned about it a recent museum conference where it was used to help further discussion about framing cultures in museum interpretation. As they say in the 8 Questions interview, "Our intention is to intervene in cultural discourse by raising awareness and promoting dialogue, not just inside the museum, but in the greater public around what we see as problematic practices and what may lie behind them."
posted by Miko at 10:30 AM on May 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


I think the real question is, "Is Japan part of Asia"? Japanese people don't often think so. I'm not terribly familiar with other Asian countries, so it would be interesting to see if people in Korea or mainland China identified as "Asian" for example.

Well, I think part of the problem is that Asia is also just a huge place. My Korean relatives don't necessarily view themselves as "Asian", so much as Korean, and only when pushed will they use the term "동양", which is "Easterners", more or less, in relation to the Middle Kingdom--so they definitely don't think of themselves in the same group as SEAsians, let alone South or West Asians.
posted by qcubed at 11:05 AM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Race is not ethnicity. Race is a way to lump a whole bunch of ethnicities together based on general physical appearance so that people can be put in their place in the social hierarchy without having to think.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:23 AM on May 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


I visit the Asian Art Museum in S.F. pretty regularly, and, yes, some of the critiques are right in essential substance, if not in details. There is a tendency to glorify elements of Asian culture -- and especially Japanese culture -- at the expense of other cultures. Visit the museum without knowing what a map looked like, and you might be justifiably confused about the prominence of Japan and Korea in Asia, without really learning as much about Southeast Asia, the peoples of the Caucasus, Persia, the Silk Road, Islamic Asia (which spread all the way to the Philippines), Asian islanders in general, etc.

That's perhaps understandable, as a significant amount of their main collection was privately owned at one point, and tends towards certain regions... but if you're going to create an Asian Art Museum, you should at least try to make it representative. The Asian Art Museum doesn't do a good job of this.

...and the thing is, we, as a culture, are significantly to blame. They sell the public what sells, because they are a big museum, trying to stay afloat.

The thing is, the critics have a point... but press that point so hard that they aren't always fair. In the interview, they called museum attendees wealthy, for example. Lots of them are not. The museum has very generous policies on free museum days, for example.

I think they also don't accept some of the basic realities of running a museum. Too pointed criticism within their exhibits could discourage owners of exhibit materials from working with them.

"The Asian Art Museum recently held an opening party for its Seduction exhibiton, called Courtesans, Cooks, Samurai and Servants: the Seduction Opening Party"

I've interacted with Midori before, the person who emceed this. She's good friends with many people I know, and is a skilled presenter, but describing her as an artist overlooks the fact that she is best known as a former professional dominant, an expert on rope bondage, and a person who gives workshops on BDSM and safer sex. I also know her to be skilled at things such as the tea ceremony, and other traditional arts.... and as much as I generally like the sex-positive community to have visibility, this, to me, was basically the community being used to titillate, in ways that I personally find a bit uncomfortable and potentially counterproductive. Needless to say, I don't particularly care for it in my art museums either.
posted by markkraft at 11:59 AM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


This isn't strange at all. The US has been pushing Japan for years to take an active military role (as proxy a for the US of course) in East Asia, rather than one legally proscribed by "self-defense."
ennui.bz

The US has certainly been pushing Japan to take a more active military role. What I question is this site's specific assertion that the promotion of the "samurai myth" in the US is part of a soft-power strategy of the US in service of that aim. I think that's wrong for the reasons stated above, and would like to see some evidence of this assertion.


Personally, I think this sort of ultimately academic, intellectualized "radicalism" to be reflexive, almost unconscious masturbation on the part of the erstwhile radicals who are, by critical theory, beyond paltry things like evidence.

All, I'm saying is that it isn't a strange suggestion to make, given that the US wishes Japan were willing to engage with our enemies militarily. And, gIven the strong ties between the LIberal Democratic Party government of Japan and the US, that the LD's now advocate for a more militaristic Japan doesn't prove much...
posted by ennui.bz at 11:59 AM on May 21, 2015


In the interview, they called museum attendees wealthy

Where was that? I didn't notice that and it didn't come up in ctrl-f, but would be interested in how they characterize it. Research does show, though, on average, museum attendees are far more affluent than the general population.
posted by Miko at 12:48 PM on May 21, 2015


Oh you mean the radio interview. (plays on click)
posted by Miko at 12:49 PM on May 21, 2015


The problem is that they're conflating orientalism (= Western gaze of Japan) with Japan's romanticizing of their own history a la Inazo Nitobe.

I agree. And the funny thing about "the Japanese" (not to paint broad strokes here) is that for the most part they couldn't give a hoot about Orientalism. Only topics that rile them up are bombing the bombing of Hiroshima/Nagasaki and whaling.

I did not realize the site was a parody. Well played.
posted by Nevin at 2:38 PM on May 21, 2015


That site doesn't come off so much as an indictment of Orientalism as much as a massive hate-on for Japan.

Plus, this quote: "The power of US hegemony is such that it forced the removal of Japan's freely elected and highly approved Prime Minister from office."

Man...that quote. About Hatoyama. "Highly approved"? Oh, come on!!
posted by Bugbread at 3:35 PM on May 21, 2015


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