Here’s one of the more ludicrous recent protests against “cultural appropriation”, one that actually succeeded in cowing a famous museum last year: the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was a harbinger of the “cultural appropriation wars” that are now raging on college campuses, in which, for example, improperly prepared General Tso’s chicken is deemed a cultural offense by Asian students (the dish is actually Asian-American, unknown in China).
The BMFA had scheduled what they call “Kimono Wednesdays,” in which visitors would be able to try on a kimono in front of Monet’s picture “La Japonaise,” a portrait of his wife Camille dressed in a kimono. The painting:
As the BBC and Boston Globe reported in July of last year, as part of a celebration for the departing director of the Museum, visitors were encouraged to pose in front of the painting wearing a replica of the kimono worn by Camille Monet, to wit:
There was also a Museum lecture, originally called “Claude Monet: Flirting With the Exotic.” (I do think that title is patronizing!) But this ignited protests that the kimono-wearing and touting of the “exotic” constituted “cultural appropriation and racist ‘exotification’ of Asian culture”. The title of the talk was changed to “Claude Monet: ‘La Japonaise,”, and they stopped letting visitors wear the kimono, though it remained on display. But the protests continued.
Some [protestors] stood with signs next to visitors who tried on the kimono.
“It’s not racist if you looks cute & exotic in it besides the MFA supports this!” one sign read.
Amnes Siyuan, one of the protest’s organisers, said: “A bunch of people tried to prove that they were not racist. That was not the point. We wanted to talk about why this event is cultural appropriation.”
Christiana Wang, another protester, said Asian Americans tend to be underrepresented and are forced into certain categories, such as the geisha or the quiet student.
Wang’s notion is one I don’t understand: are Asian-American women really forced into the category of “geisha”? If so, how? As for “quiet student”, if Asian-Americans retain a cultural tradition of not being loud or brash, surely that doesn’t force them to behave that way, and plenty of them don’t.
As the Boston Globe reported on July 19:
The furor reached new heights on Wednesday as about two dozen protesters and half as many counterprotesters filled the MFA’s Impressionist gallery.
On one side, a group of mostly young Asian-American and white women gathered to protest “Kimono Wednesdays,” demanding additional context for the event and questioning views of Asians as “the other” in American culture.
They held signs with messages like “Not your Asian fetish” and “I have been assaulted, raped, harassed + stalked, denied my humanity repeatedly & you don’t want to think about me because I am just another Japanese woman.”
. . . Displaying a sign reading “Decolonize our museums,” a woman who gave her name only as Pampi, 36, spoke about the need to trace artworks to their first acquisitions, which she said were often violent, and charged the MFA with shirking its responsibility to curate the event for a diverse American audience.
I seriously doubt that the Monet was acquired or borrowed “violently”!
But, as the Globe reported, there were Japanese who supported the exhibit as well:
Stepping into the dispute this week were several counterprotesters wearing kimonos, including some older Japanese women, who advocated for the museum to return to its initial “Kimono Wednesdays” programming. One held a sign saying “I am not offended by people wearing kimono in front of French paintings.” Another sign read, in part, “I welcome museum exhibits that share Japanese culture with the community.”
Etsuko Yashiro, 53, of Concord, who helps organize Boston’s Japan Festival, said she was there to share the beauty of kimonos with an American audience. Ikuko Burns, 79, who was born in Tokyo and has lived in Boston for 53 years, explained how she used to bring kimonos to local schools as a consultant for the Children’s Museum to teach introductory lessons on Japan.
“I’m a little bit disappointed by the other side,” she said, questioning what the protest had to do with Monet’s painting and chalking it up to the participants’ youth.
Here are some women, two in kimonos, confronting the protestors:
And another defender:
Even the Japanese consul in Boston was puzzled:
“We actually do not quite understand what their point of protest is,” said Jiro Usui, the Deputy Consul General of Japan in Boston. “We tried to listen to those people who are protesting, but we think together with the MFA we should encourage that Japanese culture be appreciated in a positive way.”
But, as AsAm News reports, the Museum caved under the protest:
“We heard concerns from some members of our community, and as a result we’ve decided to change our programming,” a museum statement read. “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. This allows the MFA to continue to achieve the program’s goal of offering an interactive experience with the kimonos—understanding their weight and size, and appreciating the embroidery, material, and narrative composition.”
And, as a further concession to the protests, the Museum held a two-hour discussion about whether the exhibit constituted cultural appropriation. Listen to the discussion below if you must; I’ve heard only snippets. (The discussion includes both supporters and objectors to the exhibit.) Some of the participants get quite exercised.
My own opinion? This was neither racist nor cultural “appropriation” (except in the sense that non-Japanese wore a kimono), but a celebration of a beautiful garment. Now if the subjects had made their eyes slanted as a way to mock the Japanese, that would have been rank bigotry. That aside (it didn’t happen), how often does anyone get to wear a kimono?I can imagine why some women would like to try (I would were I a woman!)
I can see the point of protesting the title of the original talk, “Flirting with the exotic,” for kimonos, at least in the past, were not “exotic” in Japan. But the protests went way beyond that. It became unacceptable for Westerners to simply don a kimono. And if that’s the case, then it’s surely cultural appropriation for Japanese to wear Levis, as many do. As we know, Western dress has become the norm in Japan.
This reminds me of the protests against Halloween costumes on the same grounds. But there’s a difference between wearing costumes to mock a culture, to celebrate a culture, or simply to dress up as a character for Halloween. The BMFA display seems to me to fall on the “celebration” side, while the protestors largely fall into the class of Special Snowflakes looking for any excuse to be offended.
Certainly the U.S. has treated Asians poorly in the past: think of the Japanese first- and second-generation immigrants who, despite having become American citizens, were still put in camps in the Western U.S. during World War II under the suspicion that they might be spies. That was insupportable, for at that very same time soldiers of Japanese descent were fighting for the U.S. against Germany. But this exhibit doesn’t come close to that form of discrimination.
It’s curious that at 6 minutes into the discussion, an organizer invites the audience to a reception with “tea and other refreshments”. Isn’t tea a cultural appropriation from the Japanese (and Indians)?
I try to be sensible of real discrimination against groups of people (of course I don’t always succeed), but after long cogitation I can’t see anything in these protests beyond a desire of some young people to be offended by anything. If wearing a kimono is racist, then am I racist when I wear my Indian kurta and dhoti when I visit India? Or even in the U.S.? Is a woman who wears a sari to an Indian music concert engaging in unacceptable cultural appropriation, or even racism?
I don’t think so, nor do I think we must always cave in to those who demand that we not adopt parts of their culture that we like. Surely we can hear them out, but their demands needn’t always be met.
I can dimly discern a bit of a rationale for the protests in the title of the original lecture: Japanese-Americans are not “exotic,” but just another ethnic group that has joined and contributed to the melting pot. But people need to learn that there’s a difference between celebrating a culture and denigrating it. I really do fear what this country will look like in 50 years if the trend of decrying “cultural appropriation” continues.