Re: China: Through the Looking Glass – An Open Letter
I write to you largely because I was in direct and indirect ways, asked to by professionals in the arts and curatorial fields, people who are close to my field, the cross over arts of Asia and the West – artists who I call Asian American, and close to your institution, the Metropolitan Museum of the Arts. The subject is an exhibition you currently have on view, China: Through the Looking Glass. However, its similarity to other museum’s activities clarifies and expands the basis for this letter – Kimono Wednesdays at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston that was recently cancelled, and past exhibitions with similar public programs at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco entitled Geisha in 2004 and Samurai in 2009. (see http://asianart.com/exhibitions/samurai/index.html
These events exhibited refined traditional Asian clothing as the Mets exhibition does, however they went a step further inviting visitors to the museum to try on selected garments or come dressed in traditional Asian clothing as part of a socializing event. Demonstrations of protest by members of the Asian American community were able to bring about the cancellation of the Boston Museum’s event. We’ve yet to see if contrary demonstrations are able to bring back Kimono Wednesdays. Demonstrations and oppositional art works/happenings in San Francisco since 2005 have evolved a network of scholars and community activists who have established social media sites and thoughtful papers critiquing the museum’s curatorial direction.
Your exhibition materials state:
Through the looking glass of fashion, designers conjoin disparate stylistic references into a pastiche of Chinese aesthetic and cultural traditions. High fashion is juxtaposed with Chinese costumes, paintings, porcelains, and other art, including films, to reveal enchanting reflections of Chinese imagery… infused at every turn with romance, nostalgia, and make-believe. Fashion designers such as Paul Poiret and Yves Saint Laurent are mentioned.
If the Met were a department store, or a movie theatre I think the public would understand that this is a commercial venture designed to entertain and promote, featuring stunning garments created out of the fashion industry’s illustrious past and present inspired by the mystery and inscrutability of China’s distant past. Your disclaimer that this is not related to any commercial intentions and has a legitimate theme of re-evaluating Edward Said’s ideas of Orientalism is clearly an excuse to affirm the acceptability and dominance of the Western market and its reliance on Orientalist notions. That films from China and of Anna May Wong participate in these fantasies of China does not support your claims of overlapping creative complexity, rather they affirm the power of the dominance of Western Orientalist commitments to define the Other as they see fit.
Neither Anna May Wong nor even many in China’s creative community can succeed in the marketplace without meeting audiences expectations of China’s serenity as aesthetic make-believe. This aside from abiding by Beijing’s regulations of never depicting reality. Audiences are dazzled, they are entertained. And why not. This has been established as the norm, easily imaginable as a reality in a high class interior design magazine. Mao’s jacket (Tseng Kwong Chi’s spectacular politically infused humor) and Vivienne Tan’s dress based on Zhang Hongtu’s art (recognized as the initiator of art ridiculing Mao) on the first floor, become gris for your mill, a contrary aesthetic left in the dust of a long flight of stairs to a higher plateau of really classy stuff.
The question is then, has the Met become a department store? Has its role held in the public trust been compromised by the fashion industry’s largess, to authenticate and sanction a long term ‘fashion’ a cultural direction that will reap years of profit? Are you doing this in line with other museums, like the Boston Museum of Fine Arts or the San Francisco Asian Art Museum? Are you testing a national cultural policy obviating the presence of Asian Americans and preferring to further entrench a fantasy about China, about Chinese and Chineseness?
Has the scholarly role of the museum been forgotten such that in the beautifully installed displays historically important art pieces play second fiddle to well dressed dummies? If a museum goer seeks to discover what is true about a culture and a people, how do you think they will feel to see that put aside by the fashion musings of those who take as their birthright to dream up fantasies of whatever turns them on? Or should I say, whatever works in the marketplace. This exhibition demonstrates how your mission and the public trust that have been given to you, can be given a vacation, perhaps not just in this instance, but more often than your public would like to think. Your willingness to affirm and sanction the continued exotification of Asia is blatant, It is a disservice not only to the Asian American community, but to the American public and their hopes to move beyond racial stereotypes.
But wait, perhaps I am being too harsh. After all, cultural appropriation takes place all the time, everywhere. We live in an era of cultural borrowings, of false starts that nevertheless hang on and sustain a profit, of artistic re-inventions that die and those that catch on and flourish, of great controversial creations that walk the line between who your willing to offend and who your not. The marketplace does not care for what you stand for or what you believe, or whether every shred of reality dissolves into fantasy. It only cares about whether it sells. Does the name ‘Opium’ enhance a perfume’s capacity to sell more? Does a natural gas company have the right to destroy sacred land of Native Americans? Does the Redskins football team have the right to call themselves Redskins? Does a museum have the right to occasionally become a department store?
I happened to meet the curator of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum whose role it was to mount three contemporary exhibitions a year. Oddly his PhD was not in contemporary art, rather it was in the Chinese Bronzes, the formative era of Chinese civilization over 4,000 years ago. I was curious because my mentor had written his tome and become an authority on the bronzes of the Late Chou Dynasty. I do have some sympathetic leanings for a contemporary cultural direction of this sort. As one art/history buff to another we do know that the affinity between Asia and the West goes much further back to Europe’s Migration Peoples as evidenced by the fibula pins you have in one of your display cabinets. We do know also that Christopher Columbus emerged from the psychic confrontations of that period and that he was originally looking for Asia, not just for its wealth but for its wisdom, its philosophy. I admit, there is some validity for the theme of your exhibition. I even have a confession – my organization, Asian American Arts Centre, at an outdoor Asian American Heritage Festival, did have a prized Kimono and Samurai costume and did allow the public to try them on and take pictures, all with the blessings of one of our dancers who was from Japan – these precious garments belonged to her.
Am I guilty, is the Asian American Arts Centre guilty of exactly what I am charging the Met, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and the Boston Fine Arts Museum of? AAAC is part of an Asian ethnic immigrant community struggling to survive gentrification, to retain its traditions as hundreds of its creative artists struggle mightily to wrest from the city, its detritus and its media pounding through their beings, snatches of meaning that somehow can be made into the stuff of what America is, to be recognized for their innovative art signifiers inclusive of the appropriations they knew necessary. In my view the difference does not lie in my right or your right to use these art garments, these distorted cultural signifiers, as well as these emerging potentially potent new art signifiers waiting interminably to be seen, heard, & felt, the difference does not lie in our willingness to appropriate what each of us wants to signify to bring forth a true audience.
The difference lies in power, the power to create and sanction a fashion trend, the power to instill in the public romanticised notions of what China and Chineseness is and do this for profit, the power to destroy sacred land regardless of the people for whom the land is sacred given as a minority their beliefs can be disregarded. Your institution is entitled, entitled to choose, to determine value, to manipulate the cultural signifiers of others as you wish, to retain the right of the more powerful to consume and profit without guilt.
Do the Redskins football team have the right to wear their Redskins helmet? When I think of this I am reminded of Donald Trump. Not him but his son, in Africa, killing elephants. I think of the trophies he will take home and place on his wall, the heads of animals he will have won. How important, even essential for him to have such trophies, for without them what does he have?
I also think of the archeological dig into Machu Picchu, that after the written language had been deciphered recently, the servants and native workers supporting the archeological team, rose up to claim the artifacts that is their ancestral culture. The people are learning to take ownership of their own culture, not leaving it to those who claim to mean well.
Though my head is filled with art works of young artists who I’ve supported, (they’re older now but I still think of them as young, in fact two of them are on the first floor of your exhibit) my thoughts turn to a film my daughter was spellbound by when she was three years old. I offer this to you in gratitude for that one moment in your exhibition when the moon and its reflection spoke volumes. It was On Golden Pond in 1981, with Kathryn Hepburn, Henry Fonda, and Jane Fonda, and the sound of the Loons as dusk fell echoing across the lake. Jane was having marital problems and had to leave her two small children with these old timers who just wanted a restful time on their old lake cottage. Henry Fonda could tilt and put the cast and viewers on alert of an impending fall, perhaps due to the upheaval scurrying children can cause.
Its was at this stage of life that Kathryn, in a private moment alone, as she passed through a tiny clearing midst the foliage surrounding the cottage, that she was moved to do a little dance, a sorta powwow jig, softly murmuring a child’s rhyme, quickly interrupted by the arrival of one member of the family or the other. It was an interlude that just happened, unplanned, a quiet celebration, a marking of these normal moments of daily living on the wing, utterly primal. That jig, that dance, it just happens. Whether it happens in an artist studio or on the streets of our cities, or in the hearts of children, of seniors, of people of color, always serendipitously, spontaneously. Thats where our faith is, our art, our trust, of where our country, our culture is going. It is not accessible to us by way of a trophy. It can not be programmed, structured, planned or marketed. It will never arrive to us as a trophy.
My mission my commitment is to a community, to a family of artists, who are part of a larger family. Yes, I too am concerned about how Asia and its muliplicity of forms will take root on this soil, in recognizable or reinvented, unrecognizable forms. We can only witness and encourage, we cant let capital seek to control where it goes. May I suggest, from my humble abode to yours, that reflecting on what formed your institution and its way of addressing a public is a good thing. If you must take a hiatus from your mission please do so in a space where the art works under your custodianship are not present.
And may I ask one last thing, that the Met invite an Asian American audience to an evening where there is a discussion about the role of a museum and its relation to an Asian American audience (and secondarily to the broader American public.) The diversity that defines the future of this nation – your obligation to this diversity, not to separate out any one group as foreign, as exotic, needs to be clearly expressed. Our culture and institutions will change as the color of Americans change. Are you in tune with them, are you preparing for change?
With Kind Regards,
Asian American Arts Centre