Saturday, December 26, 2015

Looking East at the SF Asian Art Museum: cultural appropriation or radical empathy?

If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area and looking for a great museum visit over the holidays, you won't do better than to visit the Asian Art Museum's current main-floor exhibition: Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh, and Other Western Artists. I visited the weekend before Christmas and found the art beautiful, the influences between East and West thought-provoking, and the curator's notes enlightening without being overbearing.

Entering the exhibit, the first piece a visitor encounters is a simple and iconic emblem of Japanese painting and culture: a vase blooming with cherry blossoms.

Looking closer, the piece is even finer that it seems at first glance: the blossoms are not all of one type, in fact they are a veritable botanical catalog, with the names of the different flowers inscribed in fine calligraphy, like delicate, semantically rich insects resting on exemplary petals:

Perhaps the clearest correspondence laid out by the curators between Japanese influence and European painting was a series of woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige and corresponding copies painted by Vincent Van Gogh. Here's one such pair, the Japanese original on the left:

Depicting stylistic influence was the real treasure of the show (as opposed to 'mere evidence' of engagement implicit in copied or reworked images). A recurring trope was European works that echoed Japanese wood block styles, such as this woodblock depiction of an eagle by Isoda Koryusai and Otto Eckmann's woodcut of three herons:

Influence traveled eastward and westward in the work of Yoshida Hiroshi. According to the curator's note on a print depicting El Capitan in California's Yosemite National Park: "Yoshida's composition is somewhat Western in feel, in its suggestion of a straightforward recession in to space through the valley leading to the enormous rock face; but the use of pure colors and the lack of modeling lend the print an equally Japanese sensibility."

My favorite piece in the show was a painting by Camille Pissaro, Morning sunlight on the snow, in which (according to the curator's note) "artistic devices and Pissaro's overall sensitivity to seasonal effects may have been informed by his decades-long exposure to Japanese prints." My less-educated opinion: gorgeous. My crude photograph doesn't begin to do Pissaro justice.

You can't think long on this show wihtout acknowledging that the influence Japanese art exerted on late-nineteenth century European artists (Japonisme) could be critiqued as cultural appropriation. Perhaps it's only because I've lived for a long time with the idea that European impressionists developed their aesthetics in light of exposure to Japanese culture and cultural artifacts, but I found it difficult to discern, in the Looking East show, malevolence or disrespect on the part of the European artists represented in the exhibition. To me it looked as though the Europeans were excited and moved by modes of representation that were then new to them.

I was primed to be thinking of the show I'd just seen at the Asian Art Museum when I attended a literary event two days later -- Starhawk's launch party for her new novel, City of Refuge. In response to a question about how she works out issues of cultural appropriation in the richly imagined, multicultural future of The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge (its sequel, available starting next week), Starhawk gave an answer I liked a great deal -- though I can only paraphrase it roughly here:

In populating the California she imagines in her speculatively fictional future, Starhawk was unequivocal in her wish to immerse herself and her readers in a world broader than the categories in which she herself fits (white, Jewish, Wiccan, middle-aged, female). She wanted to write a world with people of color in it, and men, and people of diverse ages and sexualities. That is the world she inhabits today here in the Bay Area, and to narrow it would have rendered her fictional world dull (a goal to which very, very few writers cling). Moreover, Starhawk explained the care she takes when she writes about people who live in categories she doesn't: she shows her work to readers whose actual lives are refracted through her diverse characters, in order to receive early, honest, and corrective feedback should she slip into inappropriately narrow, flat, confining, or stereotypical depiction of those characters.

The author who asked Starhawk about cultural appropriation the other night was Kate Raphael (whose Murder Under the Bridge was released last month). I corresponded with Kate in early November when she was preparing to post on the topic of  writing characters unlike one's self (her resultant piece: Writing Down: Cultural Appropriation and the Fiction Writer's Dilemma). What I had to say last month in our correspondence on the topic (a bit of which Kate quoted in her post on the Killzone Blog) was that writing about anyone other than one’s self is an act of radical empathy. I would say that presuming to have a sufficient grasp of anyone else’s inner life to portray it in fiction is wondrously empathetic. How else to explain an author's portrayal of a mind outside her or his own? Yes, people do categorize experience in buckets labeled “sex” and “race” and “nationality” and “religion.” And, yes, those categorizations do hold water to a degree. Nonetheless. The entire edifice of writing, communication, and even relationships is built on a presumption that empathy happens, and can bridge the gulf between one lived experience and another.

Ideas, metaphor, behavior, language -- and constellations of ideas, metaphor, behavior, and language that we call "culture" -- has never been static. Humans have always evolved in the cradle (sometimes in the crucible) of relationships between individuals and groups. This does not deny the truth that regard of another culture can be shallow (even to the point of kitsch), or that shallow regard of culture can be a demeaning element of an asymmetrical, power-based relationship -- such as a colonial relationship. But to proceed irrevocably from that possibility to the assumption that all intercultural regard and exchange is transactional and oppressive is, at bottom, an argument for solipsism.

To my way of thinking and seeing, the European painters on display in the exhibition I visited last week, deeply influenced by their Japanese peers in the late 19th century, were not appropriating culture so much as engaging in acts of empathy. Work that emerged from that cross-pollination remains vibrant and exciting well over a century later.

Looking East is on exhibit at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum until 7 February 2016.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The Berkeley Art Museum is Dead - Long Live the Berkeley Art Museum!
Teju Cole's Open City: protagonist as open book or guarded guide?
Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity and novels that show what it is to be alive
The Mauritshuis visits San Francisco
Eureka! Boy led horse to San Francisco's de Young Museum!

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