#NotJustSAE What do a Racist Frat Party and the Asian Art Museum have in common?

10 03 2015
Culture as Costume cutouts

Culture as Costume Cutouts!

Above left is from a racist “Border Patrol” fraternity party in Texas last month; above right is from the opening for the SEDUCTION show at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, also last month.

From the Daily Texan:  Guests wear ponchos, sombreros and construction gear at 'border patrol' fraternity party, February 9, 2015.

From the Daily Texan: Guests wear ponchos, sombreros and construction gear at ‘border patrol’ fraternity party, February 9, 2015 (click for Daily Texan article).

You might expect this from a fraternity, but . . .

You might expect this kind of cultural appropriation from a fraternity, but . . .

. . . at a public museum in a city home to one of the largest Asian populations in the United States?

. . . at a public museum serving one of the largest Asian populations in the US?

Ponchos and sombreros at racist "Border Patrol" part at UT Austin last month (Photo: Julia Brouillette/The Daily Texan)

Culture as Frat Party Costume:  Ponchos and sombreros at racist “Border Patrol” part at Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at UT Austin last month, via SFgate (Photo: Julia Brouillette/The Daily Texan).

Culture as Costume as ongoing practice:  Screengrab from Asian Art Museum's flickr album of Maharaja Family Fun Day in 2011 (click for more).

Culture as Costume as ongoing practice: Screengrab of families playing “dress up” with Asian culture (pixellated here to protect the innocent), from Asian Art Museum’s flickr album of Maharaja Family Fun Day back in 2011 (click for more).

Orientalism is structural racism. Structural racism is racial bias that operates across institutions and society to produce systemic inequality.  It is maintained through a culture that normalizes and replicates everyday racism.  Whether at a frat house or a public museum, racial ideology is propagated through popular ideas and myths that perpetuate racial hierarchies.

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6 responses

15 03 2015
Travis

In answer to your question, what do these things have in common, the answer is, not much.

These “stick your head in the hole” things are dreadfully corny and stupid no matter what’s painted on the front, but a cultural stereotype invented and cobbled together (because all Mexicans clearly wear sombreros and giant mustaches and woven ponchos) based on racist stereotypes is /not/ the same as the actual historical images or clothing. The pictures used at the Asian Art Museum opening are not of imagined, invented American stereotypes of “Orientals” – they’re images of Japanese, by Japanese, authentically produced in 18th century Japan. Now, that doesn’t necessarily make it 100% unquestionably OK, but, there’s nuance and complexity here that, as usual, you’re choosing to just ignore entirely.

15 03 2015
asiansart

Ouch! Indeed, not our subtlest work, but this one was more about topicality, and apparently still adequate to provoke a response. Similarly, while we are not very savvy with social media, a tweet we posted based on this did get retweeted by folks with followers cumulatively numbering in the range of 40,000, via the hashtag.

That said, while the source image for the #TheFloatingWorld “stick your head in the hole” thing might have been scanned from, as you say, an “authentic” 18th century source, there’s nothing authentically 18th century Japanese about the thing itself (the original image has been cropped, scale changed, and most importantly, holes punctured where faces were depicted, and then of course, there’s the medium/form itself). In the context of the other “play dress-up with Asian visual culture” activities at this and prior events at the museum, it arguably does participate in a pattern of appropriation structured by a racial hierarchy that is informed by a history of imperialism.

Where else do we see this playing dress up with the others’ cultures in contemporary society? (And here we emphasize the act of cultural “taking” going on that differentiates this from, say, a booth at a Tet Festival). In the past week’s news, one obvious parallel was the racist frat party.

Why is it okay (or seen as natural) for a museum to do this, when it is clearly racist at a frat party?

If it is normal and natural, why do we only see this at the Asian Art Museum, and not at other museums who have exhibited the very same John C. Weber Collection?

15 03 2015
Travis

Where else do we see this “stick your head in the hole” dress up with other cultures? At tourist sites all over the country, and I’d wager in many other parts of the world as well. I’ve seen old Spanish Missions here in California where you can stick your face into a cut-out of a Spanish friar. In the town of Solvang, they have cut-outs with caricatures of Danish types. And on the Main Street of another small town, just outside of a Ben & Jerry’s, I saw a cut-out where you could take your photo with a picture of Tina Fey.

Are those equally problematic simply because they bear formal resemblance to the ukiyo-e cut out at the Asian Art Museum? Are they totally unproblematic because the cultures being represented are not non-white? Are all things that are in any way representative of “a pattern of appropriation structured by a racial hierarchy that is informed by a history of imperialism” equally problematic, to be painted with a broad brush? I would genuinely be interested to see your more nuanced thoughts on these matters – how precisely are these two things the same, and how are they different, and how would you do things differently if you were the events manager?

As for the question of why we don’t see other museums doing the same thing, I think there are a number of different possible explanations. For the most part, I think it’s because many are too attached to old, staid, tropes of how to present Asian art, purely as art, purely for aesthetic appreciation, in discourses of connoisseurship, romanticizing the past and distancing it, or Othering it, particularly in the case of Asia, from thinking of it as a real human society, filled with real people. And many of the older, larger, more well-established museums are also less progressive than the Asian (or than SF communities more broadly) in engaging with modern/contemporary/fusion performance art, and so forth, let alone anything having to do with queerness.

16 03 2015
asiansart

Ben & Jerry’s, really?

We are of the belief that positionality and historical context matter when it comes to the politics of cultural appropriation.

How does the museum’s position in society differ from that of the ice cream shop or the tourist stop? It enjoys the status of knowledge-based institution, endowed with unparalleled public trust and respect, and the power to shape public perception that comes with that.

The museum is also a major civic institution with a duty to serve the cultural well-being of its communities in ways that enable, rather than limit, full participation in civil society.

Historically speaking, how has orientalism functioned in museums? What has been the role of the Western museum in the colonial project, versus Ben & Jerry’s? To borrow from Edward Said, the museum has been “a potent mechanism in the construction and visualization of power relationships between colonizer and colonized. Oriental art is grouped together apart from the mainstream, Otherness is emphasized through isolation and exoticization, and objects are presented for the consumption and fascination of the modern Western museum audience.”

With this positionality and historical context in mind, when a museum repackages a collection of premodern art objects exhibited elsewhere as “Arts of Japan” instead as “SEDUCTION,” how does this hypersexualization of Asian as Other help us to better understand Japan, as you put it, as “a real human society, filled with real people?”

This report from EU National Museums, “National Museums Making Histories in a Diverse Europe,” details exactly how museal misrepresentation can disenfranchise populations and limit citizenship. (see p. 47 of this pdf) http://liu.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:573632/FULLTEXT01.pdf

So while it might sell tickets, and event managers might get rewarded for it, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves into thinking that, from a racial equity perspective, this is at all progressive. And in a racialized context such as this, neither is queerness, when it fails to acknowledge and address racial privilege, necessarily politically progressive either.

The very orientalist tropes you claim to decry have historically been the bread and butter of this museum, something we had fun with previously: http://www.asiansart.org/about.html
If a museum that by its very name is implicated in the production of identity —self-described as “The Asian”—wants to play a formative role in thinking of Asia as “a real human society, filled with real people,” it cannot persist in its attachment to these Orientalist tropes and the accompanying denial of centuries of diaspora and transnational movements.

As of 2009, based on the exhibition history listed on the AAM’s website, out of more than 160 exhibitions since its opening in 1967, fewer than 10% of their exhibitions had featured the work of living artists, and only one dealt with Asians in the US. This is a problem of how Asia is consistently misconceived in time and space by this museum: literally as the Orient—frozen in time and eternally foreign; diametrically opposed to the real living human society on whose behalf you claim to speak.

Incredibly, the AAM does this even when it exhibits contemporary art. In 2013-2014, the AAM took what could have been a bold progressive move in choosing to exhibit the work of local contemporary artists. But instead, for an exhibit themed “What is Asia?,” in the first installment of a three part series, six out of the seven artists were white, a number of whom had never even been to Asia—shades of Asian Studies pioneer Ruth Benedict, but this was 2013, not 1946!

The white male curator-for-hire cited as his inspiration a French novel of the colonial period, Impressions of Africa, known for its paternalist exoticization of Africa and Africans.
https://asiansart.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/what-is-whiteness-zimmerman-asiana-and-what-is-asia-at-the-asian-art-museum/
In other words, the show was conceived of as textbook orientalism: a concept of “Asia” as an imagined, distant, dreamlike “somewhere else.”

That’s not an Othering of the past; it’s an Othering of the here and now, unapologetically centered in whiteness, in a place that’s home to one of the largest Asian populations in the US.

17 03 2015
Travis

Okay. Let’s try this again. Historically, how has orientalism functioned in museums?

As I am sure you are well aware, since you are clearly so well-read, the first exhibits of Asian art in the United States were of ceramics, and only ceramics. There was a belief that one could understand an entire culture from just its porcelains, and there was little or no interest whatsoever in understanding the actual lives, the actual culture and society, of the actual people who lived in China, Korea, and Japan at that time. Exhibits such as those essentialized the East by attributing generalized, stereotyped, and romanticized characteristics to an imagined East, imagined purely through the porcelains. And in so doing, they distanced the art from the history, the art from the culture, the art from the people. No one took any real interest in what Japan was really like.

So, today, when other museums continue to do basically the exact same thing, emphasizing porcelains and ceramics over the myriad other aspects of Japanese society, hiding or ignoring the gritty reality of folk and urban culture under a guise of the aestheticized and romanticized, when museums today perpetuate the exact same discourses about ukiyo-e that Western museums have been saying for a century, you say that’s the way to go?

And when a museum tries to humanize Japan, by taking ukiyo-e down off its lofty perch and engaging with it as the popular urban culture thing that it was – truly, indeed, more closely related to drag shows than not… when a museum tries to show that the Japanese people of the past were not so different from people of today, you call that Othering, and Orientalist?

Unless you think the museum should simply ignore and not discuss the Yoshiwara, or geisha, or samurai, at all, in any way whatsoever because they’re too embarrassing, or too stereotypical – that would be one thing. But if we are to discuss them, if we are to show these beautiful works of art that do represent a genuine and major part of Japanese history and tradition, then I don’t think that showing erotic works of art as erotic is “Orientalist hypersexualizing.” Shunga is already about as hypersexualized as could be – it was sexualized by the Japanese artists who produced it, and the Japanese people who consumed it, in the 17-19th centuries. That the Yoshiwara was a brothel district, that these courtesans were prostitutes, that the entire thing is all about sex is /not/ a Western invention. Showing Japanese culture as it really was, and celebrating it for what it really was without denigrating it for being contrary to modern/Western mores is, hardly, I think, a perpetuation of Orientalist tropes.

As for the issue of not showing enough contemporary artists, and the issue of the “Asian Art Museum” not being the “Asian-American Art Museum” you seem to want it to be, I’m afraid I really don’t understand your opposition to celebrating, exploring, and teaching about history and traditional heritage. Were the Korean government, the Korea Foundation, and the Korea National Museum perpetuating Orientalist stereotypes when they agreed to have numerous Korean National Treasures shown at the Asian Art Museum in the “In Grand Style” exhibit? This, too, was a show that did not represent Korea purely by its artworks, as if porcelain can tell us everything we need to know about the masterful aesthetic sense of a people, but was instead a show that spoke of real historical events, showing how Korean rulers conveyed their impressiveness and power to their people, how they celebrated birthdays and successions, and how they mourned deaths. And yet I suppose you thought that show was Orientalist, too, in some way?

Highlighting historical and traditional art does not perpetuate the idea that East Asian peoples are lacking in history. Quite the contrary. It’s showing that the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people /do/ have history, just like Europeans do, and here it is. It’s showing that they have a vibrant, complex, colorful, intricate, beautiful set of traditions and histories, which inform the present, and which contribute to making contemporary Asian and Asian-American life the vibrant, complex, challenging, happy, sad, /human/ thing that it is.

Besides, showing historical pieces in gross disproportion to modern pieces is hardly something that museums do exclusively to non-Western cultures. I dare you to walk around the 90% of the Metropolitan Museum that’s not the Modern Art galleries, and tell me that by hanging so many pre-modern paintings, sculptures, and so forth they’re perpetuating a stereotype that Europeans and Americans have no history, no past. You can’t, because your argument is bullshit. Rather than simply throwing the same old quotes from the same old scholars at anything and everything it might stick to, take a moment and actually think about it yourself. Put aside all the rhetoric, all the academic discourse, and think about it. What precisely, in the details, does this exhibit do right, and wrong, and how might it be different? Which messages or lessons does it convey, and how so? Does celebrating and talking about the art, events, culture, and beliefs of the past, while also sometimes (even if only 10% of the time) talking about more contemporary lives and experiences, truly perpetuate ideas of the backwards, unchanging Orient?

History informs the present. It informs who we are today. Conserving the treasures of the past and showing them to the public, teaching people about the past, is what museums are for. It is one of the key ways in which they “serve the cultural well-being of its communities in ways that enable, rather than limit, full participation in civil society.” This is how we learn about ourselves, and about others. This is how we learn that others are not so different from ourselves. This is how we learn from the lessons of the past. You can’t learn about Asia from only the Asian-American experience, and you can’t learn about history, tradition, heritage only from the contemporary. And there are lots of people, Asians or Asian-Americans just as well-informed about Orientalism and appropriation, just as secure in their Asian identity as yourself, who see what the Asian Art Museum does as good, as appropriate, as progressive – maybe not 100% of the time, in 100% of what they do, but, in a general sense. Or do you honestly believe that every single Asian or Asian-American who had anything to do with this event is ignorant, or complicit, that not a single one of them understands the truth, and that only you see it for what it really is? Do none of their voices, their opinions, their perspectives, their values or experiences, matter?

Furthermore, the Asian Art Museum, in this very reception, did precisely what you are accusing them of not doing: they included Asian-American living, contemporary artists. You want to talk about featuring contemporary culture of “real” Asian-Americans, because apparently to your mind contemporary people are more real than those of the past, and Asian-Americans more real than the people of Asia? Here they are. Asian & Asian-American contemporary artists living in San Francisco and practicing and producing art, theatre, performance art – performing and practicing and demonstrating Asian-American identity and culture. So you really can’t say the museum isn’t engaging with the local As-Am community, or that they’re not highlighting contemporary artists.

17 03 2015
asiansart

p.s. The one last thing we’d like to add is that, by this point, we’ve been about as generous and straightforward as we can in laying out our ideas in response to the comments on this thread.

If you are still having difficulty appreciating where we are coming from, then we humbly suggest to you, as you did to us elsewhere on this blog, that you might benefit from learning some new things yourself—but outside of the fraught paradigm of US-based Asian Studies (aka area studies).

Not unlike art history, Asian Studies in the US is a field that has historically been hostile to the developments in theory that have radically transformed the rest of the humanities and social sciences.

Naoki Sakai writes (2012): “The most symbolic moment for the history of area studies came when Edward Said published Orientalism in 1978. Area studies as a field refused to engage Said’s scholarship for some time, but the book’s impact was nevertheless deep; since its publication, area specialists have been preoccupied with disavowing the impacts of Said’s analysis. More importantly, those who remained ignorant of Said’s critique gradually lost credibility. Although the substance of Said’s work subsequently formed the new field of postcolonial studies and became influential in other disciplines in the humanities outside area studies on East Asia, those who remained insensitive to Said’s critique began to look anachronistic even within area studies. One of the reasons for this was the wide acceptance of Said’s scholarship in East Asia, the population from whom US area specialists are supposedly separated.”

Just trying to help: If you are already in grad school, why not take advantage of your access to resources, such as postcolonial studies, cultural studies, American studies, ethnic studies, transnational feminist studies . . . anything that might enable seeing beyond the anachronistic “missionary positionality” of US-based area studies.

Maybe then we can engage in a more productive and mutually respectful dialogue.

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