Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Monet, and La Japonaise
July 7, 2015 10:54 AM   Subscribe

A program at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts inviting visitors to don a replica kimono from a Monet work has sparked protests over appropriation. Boston Art blog Big, Red & Shiny also has a write-up.

An outline of Japonisme from the Met's Timeline of Art History

Other Japonisme works include Whistler's Princess from the Land of Porcelain, which stands in the Peacock Room now located in the Freer and Sackler Galleries, and Mary Cassat

Previously
posted by PussKillian (80 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
“Try on the kimono [and] learn what it's like to be a racist imperialist today!"

Japanese history does have some rather striking instances of racist imperialism, but let's not force that all onto the kimono!
posted by Winnemac at 11:08 AM on July 7, 2015 [15 favorites]


"...commenter Kāpena wrote that the image was “one of the most vilely racist things I've ever seen"

It must be very nice to have lived such a sheltered and racism-free life.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:18 AM on July 7, 2015 [36 favorites]


i know there's a "hands-on" trend in museum exhibits these days.
at the local musuem, there was an exhibition of original art from children's books. there were a lot of interactive displays, including dressing up like characters from the book.

i feel like if this was part of a larger "try on clothes from this period in time" part of the exhibit, it might not be sparking the outrage.

maybe the exhibit could have some more context for why the trend came about so people can see it as more than just "oooh that's a pretty piece of fabric". which is generally waht most people think when they see a kimono.

however, knowing what i have now just learned about the context of that painting, i see it in an entirely different light.

i don't think i would feel comfortable trying on a kimono, no matter how pretty, that was associated with that painting.
posted by sio42 at 11:24 AM on July 7, 2015


How do you refute charges of cultural appropriation and orientalism while simultaneously saying, “flirt with the exotic?"
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:24 AM on July 7, 2015 [7 favorites]


How the fuck can a program like this make it through so many people without at least one saying "Gee, let's not invite people to do an Orientalism right in our museum"?
posted by beefetish at 11:25 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


And there are other ways where interaction could be utilized and a sense of dignity and respect could still be achieved:

1. A table set up with samples of material where patrons are invited to touch or observe up close.
2. A professional wardrobe/costume/historian/designer that discusses the process of making contemporary Kimonos or the way in which the modern world has been influenced by such designs in art, history, & fashion.
3. Anything but what they proposed.
posted by Fizz at 11:31 AM on July 7, 2015 [7 favorites]


i mean, i'd love an exhibit that was all about kimonos. i have this book that talks about them, shows them how the insides were painted, and had these pics of neat old "catalogs" that salesmen would carry around to show the various pattern available, from like the 1400s. just amazing. oh and how kimonos and the obi (sp? the sash) were cut from a single piece of cloth.

i'd love an exhibit all about how kimonos are made, the variety and art, and then actually trying some on along with traditional footwear to get an idea of how hard or easy it was to move, how long it took to put on, if you would be able to do it yourself, what people wore when they weren't wearing a fancy kimono, all that sort of stuff.

there's got to be a way to do all of this as a learning experience and not a "gawk at the foreign stuff". i'd love an exhbit that let you try on food and clothes of varying social classes from pretty much any time period. probably not cavepeople tho.
posted by sio42 at 11:34 AM on July 7, 2015 [6 favorites]


what fizz said.
posted by sio42 at 11:34 AM on July 7, 2015


It seems like a thing that would be more appropriate (with other paintings, of course) for kids - dressing up as a painting seems like a fun way to get children engaged with art. I feel like it probably got a pass from the museum staff because of the way that museums are supposed to make themselves "fun" and "interactive" now - it probably seemed so kicky to have guests dress up in replica kimono and photograph themselves that nothing else was considered.

The whole "material culture" angle would have made a lot more sense if it had been "dress up in period corset, wig and kimono, try to understand the physical constraints on the model's body imposed by the underpinnings and how this impacted the actual act of modeling, and how this related to gender" - it can't have been overwhelmingly comfortable to hold that pose for long. The blond wig worn by Monet's wife is also interesting - even she wasn't white enough for the painting's kicky amusing "look a white lady in a kimono" thing.

I feel like it's actually a weirdly complicated painting, despite how Monet apparently viewed it as a throwaway, and interacting with it in this manner is as if designed to elide anything interesting about it. Which is part of my objection to a lot of the "museums are So Fun, Adults!!!" stuff that we seem to have now.

(Also, Impressionism today, total kitsch tomorrow - as an adult, my instinctive response to Monet, Degas and Renoir paintings I've never seen before is that they're kitsch fifties or sixties prints.)
posted by Frowner at 11:36 AM on July 7, 2015 [12 favorites]


How the fuck can a program like this make it through so many people without at least one saying "Gee, let's not invite people to do an Orientalism right in our museum"?

Japonisme hasn't gone through the same examination as other forms of appropriation. I think this mainly has to do with its place as "high/classical" art where racial/feminist/cultural critiques seem to have less impact. It's when we get into commercial and kitsch art where these kinds of criticisms are really effective. You won't see a sambo figure (low art) in an art museum without proper context, but you will probably see an equally problematic (high art) painting from the colonial period.
posted by Think_Long at 11:37 AM on July 7, 2015 [17 favorites]


(I mean, not that I would suggest having people dress up in corset/wig/kimono, but at least that would involve taking the idea of dressing up seriously as an educational thing)
posted by Frowner at 11:39 AM on July 7, 2015


Set up a table with some crayons and a colouring book of the images. Seriously, there are so many other ways to educate and still make this exhibit interactive.
posted by Fizz at 11:41 AM on July 7, 2015


"i mean, i'd love an exhibit that was all about kimonos."

LACMA has a whole building of Japanese art, including extensive kimono and scroll paintings.
posted by klangklangston at 11:42 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Something that complicates this for me is that the kimonos were made by a Japanese broadcaster for exhibits of this painting in Japan — they had the "try on the kimono" in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nagoya, according to the BMA response. I don't see that addressed in any of the complaints about this, and it's something that makes me hesitate when making a judgment about it.
posted by klangklangston at 11:45 AM on July 7, 2015 [36 favorites]


(Also, Impressionism today, total kitsch tomorrow - as an adult, my instinctive response to Monet, Degas and Renoir paintings I've never seen before is that they're kitsch fifties or sixties prints.)
Frowner

It's funny, because when the Impressionists began their style it was considered junk by the establishment and "adults" then too. The term "Impressionism" itself was originally an insult used by a prominent critic to mock the style that the artists eventually embraced.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:46 AM on July 7, 2015


I dunno man, I'm probably going to take a lot of flack for this sentiment, but I don't see what all the outrage is about. I mean, I'm one of the leftiest leftists that's ever lefted, and I identify strongly with my middle eastern heritage...and the middle east (Silk Road) was the primary font of Orientalism for artists of the period, Japanese Orientalism was a very small coterie of artists in a tiny window of time. I adore and collect Orientalist art (middle eastern primarily) of that period. Were a museum to do an exhibit where one could dress up like the Women of Algiers, would that spark the same outrage? I doubt it. (And I, for one, would go play with all the silks, yes I would.) Is it because Monet made his Japanese wife wear a blonde wig? I don't see how this is cultural appropriation, or "vilely racist", or a that the Met is taking a position that is pro-imperialism. That America and the Europeans *were* imperialists during that period is hardly a newsflash, yeah? That museums are trying to find any way to get people to think about and interact with art that would otherwise be off their radar is a good thing.

I don't see what all the outrage is about, I really don't. It seems to me, and I could be wrong, that some people just have to be offended about something, or their day isn't complete.
posted by dejah420 at 11:47 AM on July 7, 2015 [40 favorites]


Also, nthing the dislike for this hands on crap at museums that seems popular now. It invariably involves making everything dumber.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:48 AM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


I can't even bring myself to get worked up about this stuff past an eyeroll anymore, but I think it's important to note that it's largely Asian Americans who tend to drive protests against this and similar incidents, and thus discussion of Japanese racism or what the Japanese think of this isn't super relevant. I've never known a Japanese person to be bothered by a foreigner dressing in kimono. It's not threatening to them; how could it be?

I'm not personally bothered by it (although I do think it's stupid), but I respect the right of other Asian Americans to dislike and even protest it. We are the ones who have to live as minorities in a culture where people get their ideas about who we are from stuff like this.
posted by sunset in snow country at 11:50 AM on July 7, 2015 [12 favorites]


Is it because Monet made his Japanese wife wear a blonde wig?

Monet's wife wasn't Japanese. She was Camille Doncieux, a French woman. She wore a blonde wig in the painting to emphasize her "Europeaness".
posted by Sangermaine at 11:51 AM on July 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


The Japanese American Museum in LA in 2010 had a free henna tattoo workshop for kids. Were they wrong?
In Osaka, anyone can try on kimono at the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living. Same at Kaga Yuzenkan, where for a fee (!) anyone can try on kimono and wander the streets.
Is it okay there but not here? Seems silly.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:52 AM on July 7, 2015 [7 favorites]


1. A table set up with samples of material where patrons are invited to touch or observe up close.
2. A professional wardrobe/costume/historian/designer that discusses the process of making contemporary Kimonos or the way in which the modern world has been influenced by such designs in art, history, & fashion.
3. Anything but what they proposed.


I don't have much sympathy with all this "hey, looking at boring paintings can actually be fun if you turn it into an opportunity for inane social media buzz!" stuff that museums are engaging in nowadays, but this particular story, frankly, seems quite a beat-up. It isn't as if the kimono is a sacred religious emblem or something. It's clothing. Yes, it's clothing with a fabulous design-history (and, ironically, is based originally on Chinese designs--omg cultural appropriation!!!!), but it's still just clothing. Looking at a kimono and saying "hey, that looks like a cool outfit" is no more inherently "racist" than any of the acts of "hey, look at that neat thing from that culture which is not mine" which all of you (and me) perform every single day. They're not encouraging people to "pretend they're Japanese" or engage in some kind of yellow-face playacting. They're saying "see if you can pose like that (European) lady in that painting over there who is wearing a kimono like this one."

If a museum is asking you to try on a replica of the kimono in Monet's painting it is no more their necessary responsibility to teach you everything about the history of kimono than if they had you pose with a reproduction of a milk jug in a Vermeer it would be their responsibility to teach you everything about the history of clay containers. That's certainly an interesting history to learn, but you can't teach everybody everything about even the simplest imaginable image.

(As a footnote, the late C19th artistic fascination with things Japanese is actually a great example of how conceptually thin most critiques of "appropriation" are. As Kirk Varnedoe points out in A Fine Disregard, the Japanese woodblock prints which the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were so struck by were themselves the result of Japanese artists absorbing Western artistic ideas of pictorial perspective etc. So it's actually a story of two-way dialogue, not simply the eeeeevil appropriating Westerners "stealing" autochthonous "authentic" art.)
posted by yoink at 11:56 AM on July 7, 2015 [68 favorites]


yoink, damnit!?! Forcing me to examine my own commentary and think critically and re-examine my own point of view.

Hmm....
posted by Fizz at 12:02 PM on July 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


Japanese history does have some rather striking instances of racist imperialism, but let's not force that all onto the kimono!

Arguably they did pick up some of those ideas from the British Empire though.

Is it okay there but not here? Seems silly.

There's definitely an exoticism in context such that this seems tasteless. Well I don't even really get the point - like Frowner says it seems like something you'd do for kids. But at the same time Japan in the 19th century was not India in the 19th century and there is something about the (seemingly) one-size-fits-all application of a postcolonial perspective that I too find... naggingly ahistorical.
posted by atoxyl at 12:04 PM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Doesn't "appropriation" in this sense tend to typically indicate taking from an oppressed people? And who are the oppressed here? This particular era of orientalism, focused as it was on Japan, kind of made sense, as it was during the opening of Meiji Japan, a wildly oppressive feudal nation that was finally opening itself to interaction with outside cultures. This was a culture foreign in influence and time, to Euro-American sensibilities. They shut the door to the rest of the world for ages, which accentuated the "foreignness" of Japan when it re-emerged. Most other countries had very little context with which to understand Japan and its culture, so often they first glommed onto superficial aesthetics and the most singular societal elements. Monet was painting during that period. He represented what he saw but had little likelihood of comprehending fully.
Now, here's a superficial way to "experience" a superficial understanding of a historical era. I find it offensive in the "dumbing down of museums" context, but I think the cries of "orientalism" are way overwrought responses.
posted by pt68 at 12:10 PM on July 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


I guess, I find myself reacting so negatively to this on a gut level because as a visible minority, I've experienced first hand how people will take culture and use it in ways that are insulting or rude. It hits you hard when you see people trivialize something that you were taught to have respect for.

But yoink had some very good points about how we all sort of participate in these kinds of cultural exchanges. If I think hard enough, I'm sure I could find many examples where I've "taken" from another culture and not really thought anything about it.

I'm glad this conversation is happening though. Especially because, this also happened today on twitter. [via: HuffPo]
posted by Fizz at 12:14 PM on July 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


You're right, dejah420. And according to this Universal Hub article, the main protester is kind of a nutcase.
posted by Melismata at 12:17 PM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


We are the ones who have to live as minorities in a culture where people get their ideas about who we are from stuff like this.

This is also fair though - regardless of the historical context it exists in a different context now.

Doesn't "appropriation" in this sense tend to typically indicate taking from an oppressed people? And who are the oppressed here?

This is sort of where I was going - that I don't know if the relationship between France and Japan in the 19th century fits into this framework. But then I think sunset in snow county has a point which is that it's actually the subsequent relationship between the country in which this is being exhibited and its residents of Japanese descent that (re)frames things.
posted by atoxyl at 12:17 PM on July 7, 2015


Doesn't "appropriation" in this sense tend to typically indicate taking from an oppressed people? And who are the oppressed here?

The appropriation in this context would be the current and historic tendency of the predominant white culture to exoticize other minority cultures. Whether or not that's what's happening in this case is a fair question. I'm a white dude in the midwest, so I'm not sure if I need to have an opinion here.
posted by Think_Long at 12:26 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm still pondering this, as an Asian-American, but do just want to point out:

but it's still just clothing

This itself isn't a valid rebuttal; that would be like saying "blackface is just face paint".

I'm not saying that the kimono-wearing is offensive; I'm saying that reducing a historically situated act to the material it's physically made out of is not always a good way to describe or explain something.
posted by suedehead at 12:31 PM on July 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


We are the ones who have to live as minorities in a culture where people get their ideas about who we are from stuff like this.

To me this is critical, because - while no museum is going to be able to keep from ever offending or upsetting anyone ever, ever, ever - basically if this exhibit seems likely to be read as "oh look, people are dressing up in yellowface/exoticizing people of my background", that's basically saying "this museum experience is designed to actively discomfit a percentage of totally blameless patrons to no benefit, and that's okay because they're just a small percentage".

Obviously this is a complicated situation that doesn't neatly fit into our standard model of cultural appropriation (which is mostly based, IMO, on how Native images and objects are treated, and that doesn't always generalize real well). But to me it's never going to be reasonable to say "[X] percent of museum guests are going to feel really awkward and othered in the interests of providing selfies for the majority". I feel like there has to be some really compelling benefit - more than just 'this looks cool' or 'I should be able to do anything that isn't actually illegal' - for a museum to set up an exhibit that is going to alienate a group along the axis of their marginalization.
posted by Frowner at 12:44 PM on July 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't think it's the same as saying "blackface is just face paint". A kimono is "just clothing", in that, as the poster you quote said, it's not some sacred garment or symbol. It's an item of clothing commonly worn at the time by women in Japan.

I think to some extent fetishizing kimonos as this exotic object to be treated with utmost reverence is itself Orientalist. Just because it's non-Western doesn't mean it's this bizarre curiosity.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:45 PM on July 7, 2015 [13 favorites]


I’m Japanese-American, and I’ve complained here in the past about orientalism. But I agree with most of the other comments here that this is not appropriation, and that offering a hands-on experience with a replica kimono is a reasonable thing for a museum to do.

On the other hand, if this complaint from the protestors is accurate, then it does seem like, at best, a missed opportunity:
“There is no education from curators or staff on the painting itself, nor the ‘orientalism’ that was occurring at the time, nor is there any sort of education on the kimono itself.”
posted by mbrubeck at 12:45 PM on July 7, 2015 [14 favorites]


I should add that, like sunset in snow country, I'm not personally offended by this but I understand that other people are.
posted by mbrubeck at 12:52 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


This itself isn't a valid rebuttal; that would be like saying "blackface is just face paint".

You're misreading the thrust of my comment. My point is that the kimono is not a religious icon or a ritual object or what have you. That is, my point is not "clothing is clothing; what's the big deal?"; it is that there is clothing which would be inherently problematic to use as "dress-up" in this way (having people dress up as the Pope, or as a shaman, or inviting people to draw a Maori moko on their face in imitation of a C19th painting of a Maori chief), but that the kimono is not of this sort. Kimonos are not (per se) ritual clothes or sacred clothes; they're just clothes.
posted by yoink at 1:14 PM on July 7, 2015 [6 favorites]


"They're not encouraging people to "pretend they're Japanese" or engage in some kind of yellow-face playacting. They're saying "see if you can pose like that (European) lady in that painting over there who is wearing a kimono like this one.""

It seems odd to allege "yellowface" when part of the point of the painting (the yellow wig) was that Camille was not attempting to pass for Japanese, but rather emphasizing her distance from it. Maybe I'm just blinkered by white privilege, but that seems weaker than the general claims of cultural appropriation and Orientalism. It's definitely using Japanese clothing to exoticize and removing it from the cultural context and traditions that ground the kimono in Japan.

" I adore and collect Orientalist art (middle eastern primarily) of that period. Were a museum to do an exhibit where one could dress up like the Women of Algiers, would that spark the same outrage? I doubt it. "

When I read that, I had a moment of dissonance thinking you meant Les Femmes d'Alger.

I'll also say that one of the more interesting exhibits I've seen was one with a bunch of Cubist — Picasso in particular — work alongside a bunch of the African masks that he pulled motifs from.
posted by klangklangston at 1:17 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Eeeehn. I remember going as a kid to the local museum dressed in makeshift peplums and togas to learn about the time when [hometown] was a Roman colony. Which isn't the same because the Romans were *our* imperial masters. Literally.

This exposition is especially ham-handed because instead of giving a social context of the kimono in the painting (an uchikake which is a kimono worn loose and trailing on top of everything else, from a kabuki theater's stores), it's just playing dressup like Mme Monet. Then again, this goes with the japonisme theme. They were clueless Westerners frolicking in the decontextualized costumes of another culture, too.

Monet and his eventual haystacks isn't the worst of the japonists when it comes to schlock, anyway. The one I detest (Van Gogh's squiggles passing for Japanese writing aside) is Tissot and his crass orientalist exploitation (last link has a female nude).
posted by sukeban at 1:23 PM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


What with the South Carolina Confederate Flag and this kerfluffle, somewhere, someone who has an intersecting interest in textiles/fabric and race/class, is busy taking notes for her thesis/dissertation. BTW for me personally as an Asian American, on the outrage scale this rates a -1.
posted by olopua at 1:23 PM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


That resumption of trade, of course, was not a neutral event. It was the result of American imperial expansion, and came only after Commodore Matthew Perry threatened to burn Japan's capital to the ground.

Could he BE more imperialist?
posted by w0mbat at 1:29 PM on July 7, 2015 [7 favorites]


You're misreading the thrust of my comment. My point is that the kimono is not a religious icon or a ritual object or what have you. That is, my point is not "clothing is clothing; what's the big deal?"; it is that there is clothing which would be inherently problematic to use as "dress-up" in this way (having people dress up as the Pope, or as a shaman, or inviting people to draw a Maori moko on their face in imitation of a C19th painting of a Maori chief), but that the kimono is not of this sort. Kimonos are not (per se) ritual clothes or sacred clothes; they're just clothes.

And I'd argue that it doesn't matter; what does matter is how a piece of clothing, or face paint, or body gesture, or anything is historically situated. Where do ritual clothes come from? In the end, they're "just clothes" too, but ones that many people over a duration of time have a shared understanding of. There is no strict division of "sacred clothing" and "normal clothing"; furthermore, "normal clothing" doesn't make it any more acceptable to do something offensive with it because we have decided that 'only defiling sacred clothing is bad'.

For example - you're right, the kimono is not a sacred piece of clothing. But it does have a history of being exoticized/sexualized in a pretty gross way, from the historically inaccurate white male fantasy of 'Memoirs of a Geisha', to the term "open kimono" as disgusting piece of business lingo, meaning 'being totally honest', as in 'going naked'.

My point is - there are ways in which "dressing like another culture" can be offensive or cringeworthy, even if the dress in question is not particularly cherished or important in the culture. This is because offensiveness can come not just from "using what is really important to another culture" but also "participating in continuing offensive narratives or stories or images".
posted by suedehead at 1:39 PM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


[A few comments deleted. This is already a touchy topic, and people are engaging it with reasonable care -- so either engage with the conversation already in progress as if you want to be here, or if you think this is all silly and not worth discussing, just skip the thread.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 1:41 PM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


This exposition is especially ham-handed because instead of giving a social context of the kimono in the painting (an uchikake which is a kimono worn loose and trailing on top of everything else, from a kabuki theater's stores), it's just playing dressup like Mme Monet.

But surely that's the whole point, no? Monet isn't saying "look at my painting of an echt Japanese woman in her colorful native garb!" He's saying "look at a typical fashionable Western lady playing dress-up in some Japanese luxury-goods she's bought from the market." Yes, there's all kinds of specific cultural knowledge that one could tease out about that object if you wished--but that's not the subject of Monet's painting.

It would seem an impossible (and absurd) moral precept to suggest that no artist may paint any object unless they're capable of providing a complete cultural history of the objects origins, cultural uses etc. To the extent that he shows Mme Manet clearly holding a theatrical pose he is recognizing and reminding his audience that the costume and fans are fantasy objects which are not integral elements of his own cultural milieux. It's exactly the opposite of something like Tissot's "La Japonaise Au Bain" which is objectionable precisely because it's offering up the fantasy that this is a private glimpse into the exotic reality of some "oriental maiden."
posted by yoink at 1:42 PM on July 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


Japonisme hasn't gone through the same examination as other forms of appropriation.

Where does "Westernisme" fit in here? I'm fascinated by Japonisme and Chinoiserie, but I'm even more fascinated by early 20th century Japan's appropriation of Western Deco motifs. What's interesting about Japonisme/late 19th century European art is that it isn't just a story of appropriation by one side, but of appropriation and counter-appropriation and counter-counter-appropriation over a half century or more. That's a story that rarely gets told. And it should be. But, as usual, it's easier to simply spit the word "appropriation" like an epithet.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:43 PM on July 7, 2015 [13 favorites]


Monet isn't saying "look at my painting of an echt Japanese woman in her colorful native garb!" He's saying "look at a typical fashionable Western lady playing dress-up in some Japanese luxury-goods she's bought from the market."

He's also posing Mme Monet as a courtesan from a Keisai Eisen woodblock that was reproduced a lot. There are several layers on this painting, and the funniest one is that Monet didn't realise that the samurai in the uchikake was charging towards Mme Monet's genitals until his friends pointed it out to him. I am not making this up.
posted by sukeban at 1:47 PM on July 7, 2015 [9 favorites]


In the end, they're "just clothes" too,

No, that's silly. There are are obviously clothes (and a host of other cultural items) which are held to be sacred or significant in themselves and others which are not. No Westerner is ever going to be "offended" by the sight of someone from a non-Western culture in a suit, say. Suits--for all the rich cultural associations around them--are not taboo items. You can cut them up, spill paint on them, wear them inside out or whatever and nobody is going to be shocked or offended unless it's at the waste of a particularly nicely made suit. That is not true of, say, an American flag or a Plains Indian war bonnet or what have you. All cultures make a distinction between sacred and profane; all cultures have items they regard as purely utilitarian and other items which they regard as imbued with profound symbolic significance. It is obviously a very different matter to play around with another culture's sacred items than it is to play around with those which are not sacred (presuming you know the difference). The one is a deliberate act of disrespect and even insult, the other is just, well, play.
posted by yoink at 1:50 PM on July 7, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'm fascinated by Japonisme and Chinoiserie, but I'm even more fascinated by early 20th century Japan's appropriation of Western Deco motifs.

Psst. Follow this tumblr .

posted by sukeban at 1:56 PM on July 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Sangermaine: A kimono is "just clothing", in that, as the poster you quote said, it's not some sacred garment or symbol. It's an item of clothing commonly worn at the time by women in Japan.

I think to some extent fetishizing kimonos as this exotic object to be treated with utmost reverence is itself Orientalist. Just because it's non-Western doesn't mean it's this bizarre curiosity.


This discussion reminds me of Northern Europeans using their oh-so-typical Spanish fans like they're oh so special and then going to Valencia, doing the same, and getting odd looks from the locals because it's what grandmas do and not every single day which above 30°C.

This also kind of reminds me of the Pope saying he absolutely has to chew coca leaves while visiting La Paz; the gringos* from the US and Europe wearing colorful ponchos at University (huh? seriously? you feel cool and fashionable, really?); my mom going to Bolivia and buying tons of textiles to decorate our home while my Bolivian aunt (and every single Bolivian I know) sticks to sober, European influences in their living room decor.

*neutrally or positively charged, we call any "white person" gringo over here.
posted by ipsative at 1:58 PM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


There are definitely some skeevy parts of the discovery of Asia which are problematic when they persist today— e.g. horrible racist makeup used in Mikado productions.

But I also think the whole notion of "cultural appropriation" is patronizing. It's applying a theory of Western colonialism to every cultural interaction. Sometimes that's reasonable, sometimes it's a stretch.

And Japan is where the theory really breaks down. Less than twenty years after this painting was painted, Japan went to war with China and stole a large swath of territory; ten years after that it defeated Russia. Japan was an imperialist power. Declaring that Japanese culture needs special protection seems to relegate Japan forever to an inferior status based on skin color and an ignorance of its history.

Besides, if you're worried about exoticism, making something uncommon and forbidden is going to keep it exotic, much more than embracing and playing with it (as was done e.g. with manga).

On a more subtle note, Japanese and Western fashion influenced each other; as Liza Dalby notes in Kimono, there was a near-convergence in women's clothing in the 1920s. The simple drapery and boyish silhouettes of flapper dresses were influenced by kimono; and geisha sometimes wore Western dresses— since geisha were known then for adopting the latest fashions.

There's always much more to learn, so the museum could definitely have done more education here. Dressing up in the clothes from a number of paintings could be interesting; so could learning more about kimono (a vast subject in itself).
posted by zompist at 2:03 PM on July 7, 2015 [14 favorites]


This discussion reminds me of Northern Europeans using their oh-so-typical Spanish fans like they're oh so special and then going to Valencia, doing the same, and getting odd looks from the locals because it's what grandmas do and not every single day which above 30°C.

It's a granny thing but it's been a two-week heatwave in most of Spain so everyone's forgotten about stylish. I've got two abanicos in a 30-cm radius from my typing hands right now because it's like 30ºC inside the house and hotter in the outside and it's 23h in the evening. YMMV.

(edit: of course, we appropriated sensu from Japan four or five centuries ago)
posted by sukeban at 2:04 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Where does "Westernisme" fit in here? I'm fascinated by Japonisme and Chinoiserie, but I'm even more fascinated by early 20th century Japan's appropriation of Western Deco motifs.

Well, quite. I'm always surprised at the fact that those crying "appropriation!!" don't seem to see the profound racism that underlies the idea that the only culture(s) in the world that can't be "appropriated" from are the Western ones. It's an idea that grows straight out of the old eurocentric notion that "we" are just "people"--it's only those weird "others" out there that have "cultures." So Beethoven and Shakespeare simply (and uncomplicatedly) belong to the world because, you know, a European genius is just a "human" genius--a "universal" genius. Kurosawa wants to do Shakespeare? Great--no problem. Shakespeare belongs to humanity! But should an American director want to do Murasaki's Tale of Genji? Well, you can bet there'd be an awful lot of murmuring about "appropriation" and inevitable cultural misunderstanding and so on and so forth.

It just seems absurd to me. Look back long enough and deep enough and there's no art form in the world that isn't a result of cultural exchange and cross-influence. That's one of the great ways in which new artistic ideas arise and develop. The idea that everybody has to stick firmly to their "own" little playpens and nobody's allowed to look at what anyone else is up to just seems like a recipe for stagnant ethnocentrism.
posted by yoink at 2:06 PM on July 7, 2015 [23 favorites]


as Liza Dalby notes in Kimono, there was a near-convergence in women's clothing in the 1920s

This apropos illustration passed through my tumblr dashboard a few hours ago, to back zompist's point.
posted by sukeban at 2:09 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


It just seems absurd to me. Look back long enough and deep enough and there's no art form in the world that isn't a result of cultural exchange and cross-influence.

But the fact that these cross-influences lead to important art does not negate that it may come with a cost to some people as minorities in this environment. Madame Butterfy is important, but I'm not going to pretend that it didn't cause problems. It can be both things.

That said, accusations of appropriation sometimes seem to suspiciously coincide with artists that people just generally hate, if I'm remembering the Vampire Weekend/ African music debate from a few years ago.
posted by Think_Long at 2:22 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


The conditions under which Monet produced the painting-- a history of cultural exchange, appropriation by Europe of Japanese culture and appropriation by Japan of other Asian cultures, a fad for Orientalism and a skeptical reaction to it-- are one part of the context here. But another part of the context is where and when this exhibit is taking place. Camille Monet donning the kimono means one thing (or several); white Americans at the MFA putting it on and taking snapshots means something else. Given the history of oppression of Asian Americans in the U.S., yellowface, and attempts to playact their cultures while claiming it to be harmless fun, I'm not surprised some folks are bothered by this.
posted by thetortoise at 2:24 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


I occasionally make nihonto style blades -- sashimi, katana, tanto -- and if someone accused me of stealing culture inappropriately, I'd have to point out that the craftsmen I exchange email with on the subject in Japan are mostly old men who say there are very few in Japan interested in such information, and are happy to pass along at least some of what they know to even Stinky Gaijin who will use and preserve it. I hear the same is true of many other traditional crafts in Japan, including kimono making. Perhaps their attention should be focused on helping those preserving those traditions and skills no matter where the interest lies, rather than claiming cultural theft, or taking up the crafts themselves.
posted by Blackanvil at 2:38 PM on July 7, 2015 [9 favorites]


White Americans at the MFA putting it on and taking snapshots means something else.
I'm reluctant to put that on the museum, though, or to center my reaction on what white people might do or think. What about all the other patrons of the museum? What if I want to take my (Japanese-American) daughter to a museum where she can dress up in historic or artistic clothes? Should she be limited to European costumes, because a kimono would be "yellow face"?
posted by mbrubeck at 3:09 PM on July 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


Blackanvil, that sounds pretty different from the situation described in the OP. That kind of craft sounds like it takes a pretty high level of commitment and knowledge; it's not the same thing as walking into a museum and putting on a costume.

Also, I realize I'm about to pull the Asian version of Godwinning the thread here, but during World War 2, practitioners of ikebana and Japanese calligraphy were looked upon with suspicion in the US; I can't imagine how blade work would have gone over. To say Japanese Americans should practice the Japanese cultural arts themselves rather than complain about appropriation is to ignore a lot of baggage.
posted by sunset in snow country at 3:10 PM on July 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


I adore and collect Orientalist art (middle eastern primarily) of that period. Were a museum to do an exhibit where one could dress up like the Women of Algiers, would that spark the same outrage?



I'd kind of say that it would be more problematic- the seraglio painting represents a fascination on the part of Delacroix and other painters with an imaginary, exoticized North Africa at a time when France and several other European nations were actively trying to conquer parts of it. Paintings of this sort completely erase the context in which the work was created, and replace it with a fantasy.

In the case of the Monet painting, however problematic, it describes a particular sort of European encounter with Japanese material culture- in fact, it is an interesting document of a sort of appropriation. I'm not sure having people pose in the kimono was the best idea, but if work had been done to place it in the context of fin de siècle Japonisme, it might have added a provocative element to the exhibit.

Ironically, the kimono itself is of a style that would have been worn by a high-ranking Oiran, or courtesan, in procession, or possibly by a kabuki actor portraying one.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:52 PM on July 7, 2015


For reference, here is Bando Tamasaburo portraying a courtesan wearing a similar style of uchikake kimono.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:59 PM on July 7, 2015


> there's got to be a way to do all of this as a learning experience and not a "gawk at the foreign stuff". i'd love an exhbit that let you try on food and clothes of varying social classes from pretty much any time period.

"Gawk at the foreign stuff" is always going to be a quality of any exhibition of stuff that isn't domestic, especially in a world where a privileged person cannot travel far enough, long enough, or submerge oneself deep enough (or, quite frankly, at all) in a foreign land or culture to satisfy the demands of the cultural puritans.

> probably not cavepeople tho.

That would be Neanderthal appropriation.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:38 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is strange to me, as someone who has practiced the art of bonsai for 30 years. I started as someone who liked plants; I end as someone who has learned Japanese history, art, literature, music and food. My life has been tremendously enriched by my exposure to Japanese culture.

Once I met a man selling bonsai at the side of the road. He told me he was a soldier sent to occupied Japan. While there, he found a master for martial arts who was willing to teach him. That master insisted that, along with the martial arts, that he learn bonsai for patience. When I met him he must have been in his late 70s and he said "I got old and couldn't do martial arts any more, but I'm still doing bonsai". [I bought a tree from him and still have it]
posted by acrasis at 5:02 PM on July 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


Thanks all for the very interesting discussion.

Something that complicates this for me is that the kimonos were made by a Japanese broadcaster for exhibits of this painting in Japan — they had the "try on the kimono" in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nagoya, according to the BMA response.

I think the hand-out that says stuff like "flirt with the exotic" is crappy and unprofessional, but if the kimono was produced in Japan and intended to be tried on in conjunction with the painting, I feel okay about that. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts should up their game with the education and interpretation associated with the painting, and create a new hand-out that isn't so blerpy.
posted by Squeak Attack at 6:07 PM on July 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


I mean the biggest thing that strikes me (admittedly a white dude) as kind of... racially biased/unfair is the fact that they have a try on the kimono thing with the Western guy's painting and not with any of the actual Japanese artwork with kimonos in them.

Also the 'Flirt with the exotic!' bit... yeah.

I dunno. The term 'cultural appropriation' really bothers me because it lumps together a bunch of behaviours that have radically different moral weight. Also, it seems rather xenophobic in effect. Making cultural exchanges to an imperialist power suspect seems to only enhance the idea that culture should be flowing outward from them. That it is best for their culture to dominate others without being influenced itself.
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:41 PM on July 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


This just in: the MFA today banned kimono wearing.

Also see this take (set aside a few minutes) by a Japanese-American woman who lives in Boston.
posted by adamg at 6:49 PM on July 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


The kimonos will now be on display in the Impressionist gallery every Wednesday evening in July for visitors to touch and engage with, but not to try on.

Er, ok.
posted by Melismata at 8:07 PM on July 7, 2015


From adamg's link: rilakkuma.
posted by betweenthebars at 8:58 PM on July 7, 2015


Well, quite. I'm always surprised at the fact that those crying "appropriation!!" don't seem to see the profound racism that underlies the idea that the only culture(s) in the world that can't be "appropriated" from are the Western ones. ... It just seems absurd to me. Look back long enough and deep enough and there's no art form in the world that isn't a result of cultural exchange and cross-influence. That's one of the great ways in which new artistic ideas arise and develop. The idea that everybody has to stick firmly to their "own" little playpens and nobody's allowed to look at what anyone else is up to just seems like a recipe for stagnant ethnocentrism.

So - I agree with you that cultural exchange and cross-influence is basically the way in which almost all of the world's cultures has formed.

But I think you're deeply misunderstanding why misappropriation can be offensive; it's not about promoting the ghettoization of cultures and an essentializing ethnocentrism, it's that appropriation has often happened hand-in-hand with exocitization. Which, I hope we would agree, is something pretty harmful indeed.

Two other comments:

1) The idea that I should be able to try on anyone else's culture, because it's just a piece of clothing, is itself a very particular mindset. What is so off-putting about the idea that you might not be 'allowed' to wear someone else's clothes, or might not be 'allowed' to have an experience? I mean, it's very off-putting to me -- but why? Isn't there this assumption of a right or a desire to try things, to be free or unfettered by cultural practices? That "as long as I'm a human being, I, and anyone else, should be able to try on all the different cultural practices that others do, too?"

I'm not saying that this impulse is wrong; I have it, too. But I realize that my own desire to "experience many different kind of things" is grounded in an assumption that, to some extent, I have the right and ability to try out these different experiences, because I believe that my nature as a human being trumps my citizenship status, or my race, or class, etc. It's a humanism-over-distinction argument, and in some way a desire to understand humanity as a unified whole, rather than a series of disparate, shifting pieces. I'd argue that this sentiment often exactly happens with people who think that "we" are just "people", that all experiences can be shared, or generalized.

2) I'm 1.5 gen Korean-American, grew up in Korea, and visited Japan when I was in elementary school. In Tokyo, my family went to a temple. There was a saisen donation box, in which tourists were going up, bowing, and throwing small yen coins in; it felt altogether friendly, not necessarily ritualistic, somewhat playful.

I thought, 'oh, how fun!', and stepped in line to participate as well. Right as I was getting to the box, I felt an arm pull me back -- it was my mother. With a gravely serious face, she told me that under Japan's (violence-filled) rule of Korea, Koreans were forced to pray to Japanese shrines, and so that I should understand that history before I pray to a Japanese shrine as well.

I wasn't disrespecting the temple. I wasn't going against a religion I had, or hurting someone directly. I was, however, about to participate in an act that had immense echoes of historical precedent. And I found that I couldn't go ahead without thinking about it, because I was blithely about to perform an act that many before me had been forced to do under highly oppressive conditions.

This is why I brought up the blackface example; The response to someone who dresses up and paints their face and says "but this has nothing to do with minstrel shows; it's just dark face paint!" is not "oh well, your intentions are good, so it's okay." Just saying "well, it's just makeup" isn't an answer either. The answer is: "Your actions are not necessarily simply valued by the intent contained within them; you have to understand that your actions, and their repercussions, are historically situated, perceived by others, in ways outside of your control."

So. If we say:
"Logically speaking - why not just go ahead and bow to Japanese temples? I wasn't personally oppressed by Japan - what do I care? Just because I'm painting my face black doesn't mean I'm copying minstrel shows -- in fact, I'm definitely against racism -- so why shouldn't I be able to paint my face black? It's just a kimono and a piece of everyday clothing - why can't I just wear it? Shouldn't I be able to participate in whatever culture I want? Can't I "appropriate" and be able to experience others' culture fully?"

My answer is: Experiencing many different cultures is wonderful, but history is complex. Being against "appropriation" doesn't always come out of a "profound racism" that divides 'people' from 'others'. It can also come out of a wariness of exoticism that eventually objectifies the culture at hand and drains its actors of their agency, as well as an understanding of history, and the ways in which actions can be perceived by others.
posted by suedehead at 10:43 PM on July 7, 2015 [17 favorites]


"Where does "Westernisme" fit in here? I'm fascinated by Japonisme and Chinoiserie, but I'm even more fascinated by early 20th century Japan's appropriation of Western Deco motifs."

Oh man, there was an exhibit of that stuff? I stumbled onto a bunch of PDFs while doing some research for a (cough) Facebook meme at my old job and was going to make an FPP about it, but the sources were kinda dubious and there weren't enough complete pieces to do it justice.

"Well, quite. I'm always surprised at the fact that those crying "appropriation!!" don't seem to see the profound racism that underlies the idea that the only culture(s) in the world that can't be "appropriated" from are the Western ones. It's an idea that grows straight out of the old eurocentric notion that "we" are just "people"--it's only those weird "others" out there that have "cultures." So Beethoven and Shakespeare simply (and uncomplicatedly) belong to the world because, you know, a European genius is just a "human" genius--a "universal" genius. Kurosawa wants to do Shakespeare? Great--no problem. Shakespeare belongs to humanity! But should an American director want to do Murasaki's Tale of Genji? Well, you can bet there'd be an awful lot of murmuring about "appropriation" and inevitable cultural misunderstanding and so on and so forth."

The concurrent danger is not distinguishing the idea that Western culture can't be appropriated from the idea that appropriation from the idea that cultural appropriation by Western cultures tends to be different from cultural appropriation by non-Western cultures, and that as a result of the hundreds of years of cultural caricature used to justify violence — which often translated into violence against local people identified with those caricature — appropriation by Western cultures of non-Western cultures is reasonably held to a higher standard because of a higher potential for harm. Asking how and whether Monet's cultural appropriation is harmful is legitimate, and something that reasonable people may disagree on.
posted by klangklangston at 10:49 PM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Dear AskMeFi: Should I tell my wife and all my friends here in Japan that they should stop wearing t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers because it is cultural appropriation, and demand that they all go out and buy kimono?
posted by Bugbread at 10:56 PM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


" cultural appropriation by Western cultures tends to be different from cultural appropriation by non-Western cultures, and that as a result of the hundreds of years of cultural caricature used to justify violence — which often translated into violence against local people identified with those caricature — appropriation by Western cultures of non-Western cultures is reasonably held to a higher standard because of a higher potential for harm."

What you're saying is that it wasn't the governments of the West that invaded other countries but the culture? And that they justified their invasion through "cultural caricature"? What is "cultural caricature"? And you're saying that non-Western cultures (whatever "Western culture" refers to) never did this?

Some explanations and citations are needed because this doesn't sound right to me at all.
posted by I-baLL at 3:03 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


As for the attitude of Japanese people towards Westerners wearing kimonos, I see that they've put up online a documentary I caught last week on NHK World. This promo video for Kawagoe publicizes renting a (non-formal, everyday wear, no yellowface makeup) kimono getup to walk around the old town area. There's also this Tokyo Eye program about wearing a kimono for sightseeing in Tokyo.

(To compare the kind of everyday wear kimono that the blonde model wears in the Kawagoe video with the luxury kimono that is used by geisha or for bridal fashions, NHK World has this Core Kyoto video on kyo-yuzen for a few days more)
posted by sukeban at 4:40 AM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


["Boston Museum of Fine Arts" name fixed in title and text. Just as a quick reminder: we aren't able to read every comment on the site, so if you are requesting a change, you need to flag your comment, or contact us to let us know. ]
posted by taz (staff) at 5:34 AM on July 8, 2015


"What you're saying is that it wasn't the governments of the West that invaded other countries but the culture? And that they justified their invasion through "cultural caricature"? What is "cultural caricature"? And you're saying that non-Western cultures (whatever "Western culture" refers to) never did this?

Some explanations and citations are needed because this doesn't sound right to me at all.
"

Some of that no doubt doesn't sound right because you wrongly interpreted it, but a lot of the rest seems to not sound right to you because you've never heard the phrase "cultural imperialism." I think if you google that, you'll find quite a few citations. If not, start with Said's Orientalism. It will enrich your understanding of many topics on MetaFilter.
posted by klangklangston at 7:07 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Mrs w0mbat is Japanese-American (all her parents and grandparents were interned in the USA during WWII). She said she could see nothing offensive about anyone trying on the kimono. I noticed at the Obon festival we went to last weekend that there were quite a few white people wearing happi coats, and nobody seemed to have any kind of problem with that either.
posted by w0mbat at 4:24 PM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


“Underneath the ‘Orientalist’ kimono,” Sophie Knight, The Japan Times, 18 July 2015
posted by ob1quixote at 8:34 AM on July 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


This whole thing comes off as...I can't remember the word for it, but that thing where some group takes offense on behalf of another group, even though that other group isn't actually offended.
posted by Bugbread at 3:33 PM on July 19, 2015


The Boston Globe: "Counter-protestors join kimono fray at MFA"
posted by Apocryphon at 7:05 PM on July 19, 2015 [4 favorites]




“Of kimono and cultural appropriation,” Shaun O'Dwyer, The Japan Times, 04 August 2015
So now the kimono industry is trying to innovate, to diversify beyond the formal, conventional styles that had been its mainstay, and to seek out overseas markets, much as it has done in the past. There is a genuine conversation to be had among non-Japanese about how to help preserve and respect this industry, but as we shall see, it can go terribly wrong.

As for the protesters, Said would have mocked the ressentiment of alienated middle class Americans wallowing in victim cosplay. Their denunciation of Kimono Wednesdays as “a clear dismissal of our country’s current struggles regarding race and racial violence” that “propagates … the Orientalist gaze, inherently white supremacist and misogynist” was a comic misconstrual of an event originally conceived by Japanese and American sponsors to celebrate cultural exchange.

If posing in an uchikake before Monet’s painting is “yellowface,” when is it not “yellowface” to wear a kimono? Now that Uniqlo is selling yukata, or casual kimono, in its foreign stores, this is not an academic question.

Japanese social media briefly lit up in exasperation and bewilderment. People were mystified that anyone could accuse a kimono try-on event of being racist or imperialist. Few comprehended the identity politics assumptions driving the protesters. Some right-wing nationalists assumed they were anti-Japanese Chinese and Korean agitators.

Perhaps for the mainstream Japanese media and for many fashion commentators such a controversy is of little concern, being just another inexplicable skirmish in America’s culture wars. But it is more than that; if casual yukata styles are to attract foreign consumers who are also sensitive to social justice issues, a clear message needs to be communicated to them by Japanese supporters of the industry.

That message, recently iterated to me by an employee at the Nishijin Textiles Center in Kyoto, is this: Anyone can appropriate and creatively modify kimono styles whenever and however they like.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:16 PM on August 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


ob1quixote: "Some right-wing nationalists assumed they were anti-Japanese Chinese and Korean agitators."

As a left-wing non-nationalist, I'm even curious if the male protester in the first photo, based on his protest sign, is protesting against yellowface or protesting against Japan.
posted by Bugbread at 12:05 AM on August 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Now that Uniqlo is selling yukata, or casual kimono, in its foreign stores, this is not an academic question.

I've seen social activists in Tumblr call Uniqlo sellouts for that, even if yukata aren't sacred cultural garments so much as roughly equivalent to tank top and daisy dukes, so.

FWIW, my favourite kimono brand, Nico @ntique, has lately been putting this message on their product page images. (Actually I own that cotton kimono in "Emerald", and what would help is if they shipped abroad instead of having to use a shopping service. ..)
posted by sukeban at 1:39 AM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


(The best part about the Uniqlo yukata is that they're inspired by the illustrations of Takehisa Yumeji, an artist in the early 20th century.)
posted by sukeban at 2:10 AM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


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