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!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Paris, the Pleistocene, and finding the grit to grapple with climate change

The U.N.F.C.C.C.'s 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris concluded last week with an agreement among 195 countries that climate change is a problem and that it must be solved. Parties to the agreement agreed they might agree in a future meeting to commit sufficiently to the problem's solution to actually solve it, but they aren't committing themselves yet. The 195 nations agree that the solutions they've been discussing aren't adequate to the existential vastness of the problem, but that they'll try harder. In the future.

I believe the Paris agreement (of which the above tongue-in-cheek summary is only that) is about as good as anyone with their feet on the ground could have expected. After all, this was a negotiation that could only succeed by satisfying representatives of nearly two hundred sovereign nations.

Depending on who else you ask, the Paris agreement is universal and ambitious (Al Gore in The Guardian: may have signaled an end to the fossil fuel era); the beginning of the beginning (the NY Times editorial board: Now comes the hard part); a fraud (James Hansen in The Guardian: no action, just promises); or a vast left-wing conspiracy (blowhard and outlier Cal Thomas of Fox News: In my opinion, belief in "climate change" is on a par with childhood faith in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy).

During the COP21 conference in Paris, I stayed put here in California and read a slim volume of what you might call speculative non-fiction: In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: Global Warming, the Origins of the First Americans, and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene. The book was written by Doug Peacock, the indomitable author of Grizzly Years and the late Edward Abbey's real-life model for George Washington Hayduke III of The Monkey Wrench Gang.

In this latest of his calls from the wild, Peacock considers evidence of the multiple routes that might have opened the unglaciated heart of North America to humans some 12-14,000 years ago, during a prior period of titanic climate shifts ... a period in which "35 genera of mostly-large animals suddenly disappear from the earth." Filling out the thin material evidence of human culture from this pre-historical period, the author and "renegade naturalist" calls on his own decades of experience in wilderness environments, and encounters with wild predators on both sides of the Bering Strait, to imagine human life during a time of massive shifts in climate, terrain, food resources, and bioscape.

Why this exercise, and why now? In Peacock's own words:
We sense big changes are coming but for now life is good. Yet the threat is real. The precise problem seems to be that modern humans have difficulty perceiving their own true long-term self-interests; we don't quite see the evolving threat to our survival as a civilization or a species. There's no Pleistocene lion lurking in the gulch. But beyond the false invulnerability of our clever technology and the insulation of our material comfort, here prowls the beast of our time.

[...] The central issue of my generation is the human perpetrated wound we have inflicted against the life-support systems of the earth, whose collective injuries are increasingly visible today as climate change. Should humans push through another population bottleneck, we will drag down much of the wild earth and almost all the large animals with us. And that's the rub: not that it's unfair, which it is, but whether people can thrive without the habitats in which our human intelligence evolved, that gave rise to that bend of mind we call consciousness?
Homo sapiens evolved in wilderness landscapes that are in part still with us; can we hope to endure when that homeland vanishes?
The argument laid out by In the Shadow of the Sabertooth... supposes that it's already too late, that humans have acted and will act too slowly and tentatively to throttle back the effects of the Anthropocene sufficiently to save human civilization as we know it; and considers how humankind might survive a radically unwelcome reconfiguration of our planet.
It has been my purpose in exploring the earliest colonization of the Americas -- a story constructed of interpreted scientific investigations and reconstructed tales of adventure -- to ask questions that appear relevant to the 21st century -- an effort to draw the Pleistocene past into the present day climate change at every appropriate twist in the trail.

I believe in the value of wilderness and it is that wildness which bridges these two worlds. The greatest wilderness ever glimpsed by humans was the uninhabited Americas at the time of first entry into the New World. We are all children of the Pleistocene: Will we dare face the hot future with the ballast of those pilgrims who charged out of the Ice Age?
Peacock projects a future that, should it come to pass, will validate James Hansen's furious disappointment with the recently-concluded talks in Paris. I am temperamentally inclined to foresee that dark future myself. But at the same time I would like to believe -- and I think there is still some ground for believing -- that we remain, today, on a cusp that might yet tip Earth toward a less-decimated future.

And I believe that while there's hope, there's obligation to act to realize it.

That's the theme at the core of my own recently-published novel, Consequence, which I am honored to report made Doug Peacock's reading list earlier this year. I was further honored to hear from the author of In the Shadow of the Sabertooth that, in his judgment, we are writing on the same page, as it were. Doug Peacock on Consequence, circa last month:
Here is a carefully crafted book about the necessity, and danger, of taking personal action in the 21st century. “History,” writes Chris Kalman, the protagonist of Consequence, “will be determined by those who act,” and that war today is for nothing less than Life on Earth—an ambitious undertaking. 
The book’s own cast live in an activist collective—a rarity these days except perhaps, as set, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Steve Masover’s characters ooze humanity; their daily conversations are filled with Dostoyevskian struggles, often wrapped around the morality of civil disobedience and violence. Yet these portraits are finely drawn, never caricature. Consequence swims in an abundance of precise technical detail—much like Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. This thriller is not nearly as esoteric as it might sound: what keeps you turning pages is Masover’s decency toward his characters and their story. The communal life is neither precious nor romanticized. 
The villain of Consequence happens to be genetic engineering but it could have been any current social or environmental issue. The premise, absolutely believable today, is that life on the planet is threatened and that battle waged by this novel’s characters will make a difference. And why not? Our world can snap on a single violent moment folded into the approaching horrors of global warming. 
This is a human story shot in the ass with ideas. 
“If  we allow life on Earth to be destroyed by human negligence,” writes Kalman, “morally the human race will have failed.”
This month's climate agreement is a shot over the bow of the twenty-first century. If Paris was anything real -- anything more than a conclave of yammering, impotent diplomats -- it is the beginning of a monumentally difficult journey, dwarfed only by the draconian horror humankind will face should we fail to embark upon and complete it. As the Editorial Board of the NY Times put it:
The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, described the agreement as a “historical turning point.” Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, called it a “monumental success for the planet and its people.” Whether it turns out to be either of those things depends largely on what the individual signatories are willing to put into it. This is an agreement built firmly on science, but also on the hope that the enthusiasm generated in Paris will translate into concrete measures across the globe that will, in fact, prevent the worst consequences of climate change.

Let's keep life on Earth from being destroyed by human negligence, shall we?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Northern California mobilizes for climate action as Paris talks near
Pope Francis' environmental encyclical in four core themes
Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit
The fossil fuel industry and the free sump that is our atmosphere: Zing!

Thanks to John Englart (Takver) for his image Shoes in Place de la Republique - Climate of Peace #climat2paix, via Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Suffragette: a film in which the gloves should have come off, but didn't

I saw the film Suffragette over the long weekend, drawn in by its billing as a story about the rank and file of women who struggled for the right to vote in early 20th century England.

Though a great deal more was at stake and actively contested by women in that period, I anticipated the film would focus narrowly on women's suffrage. When I bought my ticket I thought I'd be okay with that. After all, one movie can only illuminate so much history.

What I didn't anticipate was the opacity of the protagonist's shift from resigned (one can't say "satisfied") laundress to radicalized suffragette. As the film was written/released, Maud Watts (played with sympathy and subtlety by Carey Mulligan) seemed to be carried along by accidents of circumstance as she became first a witness to Parliament, then a mailbox-bomber, and then unwillingly separated from her child. These accidents of circumstance do seem to add up to her motivation to radicalize, but only when glued together by the viewer's inference and projection. There's little to indicate what sense Maud Watts made of her own world, or why she made the choices -- hard choices -- she did.

I would have liked the film to delve deeper than accidents of circumstance. On reflection, I think that it was precisely the narrowness of political focus that prevented a deeper portrayal of the film's protagonist.

So what else was at stake for women in the 1910s besides the vote?

It's true that suffragists from Susan B. Anthony to Alice Paul to Emmeline Pankhurst had been fighting for women’s right to vote since the mid-nineteenth century. In that time there was also Margaret Sanger and the many women who insisted as Sanger did that women must determine for themselves whether and when to bear children. Elizabeth Gurley FlynnLucy Parsons, and "Mother" Jones organized the radical Industrial Workers of the World alongside Big Bill HaywoodEugene Debs, and others. Flynn went on to help found the American Civil Liberties Union in a period when antiwar protesters and other critics of the U.S. government were being muzzled, beaten, arrested, and -- in the case of anarchist icon Emma Goldman -- deported. Birth control, labor's struggle with capital, realization and preservation of political/civil liberties, the savage willingness of power and industry to engage in an arms race and slaughter millions in WWI (in order to further enrich and empower themselves): all these were boiling up or boiling over in the period in which Suffragette was set.

Here's Emma Goldman railing against the insufficiency of universal suffrage -- indeed against the insufficiency of government -- to truly liberate either women or men. In Anarchism and Other Essays (1917), the essay “Woman Suffrage” concluded:
She [woman] can give suffrage or the ballot no new quality, nor can she receive anything from it that will enhance her own quality. Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. [...] That is, by trying to learn the meaning and substance of life in all its complexities, by freeing herself from the fear of public opinion and public condemnation.  Only that, and not the ballot, will set woman free, will make her a force hitherto unknown in the world, a force for real love, for peace, for harmony; a force of divine fire, of life giving; a creator of free men and women.
By quoting Goldman I am not suggesting that the right of women to vote is beside the point. It is not at all beside the point, and in the early 20th century it meant at least as much as an emblem of women's full and free participation in all matters social and political as it did vis-à-vis electing school boards, mayors, governors, MPs, congresspersons, presidents, and all their varied ilk. The heart of Goldman's point was that voting would not of itself make women free, no more than voting had freed men from the power of capital, state violence, and repressive social constraints.

What I found missing from Suffragette was a context that placed women in the thick of social and political struggles beyond universal suffrage. The film did little to show domestic and labor relations as political issues in their own right, related to but distinct from a right to vote in elections. Yes, the protagonist in Suffragette was clearly and vividly constrained and oppressed at home, in her workplace, by police in the course of peaceful protest, and in the way her grievances were dismissed by the British government. The sole focus of political organizing, consciousness-raising, and demand in the film was, however, the right to vote. Yes, Suffragette gave an indirect nod to broader and deeper context when Maud Watts voiced her realization and then her insistence that "there's another way of living this life." But that nod neither traced nor animated the development of the protagonist's consciousness or participation in the suffragist movement within the context of a broad spectrum of political grievances or demands that were relevant to Maud and to all women in her period and circumstances.

When Maud spoke that line -- "there's another way of living this life" -- I immediately recalled one spoken by Laura Whitehorn in Sam Green's 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary film The Weather Underground. I had no trouble recalling the line because it takes on a key significance in my own recently-published novel, Consequence. Whitehorn was a member of Weather Underground and is currently a writer and activist in New York. Her lifelong work addressed or addresses Black and Puerto Rican liberation struggles, the Vietnam War, feminism, and AIDS/HIV. In Green's documentary, Whitehorn says:
"I definitely think that people never stop struggling, and never stop waiting for the moment when they can change the things that make their lives unlivable."
It's worth noticing that radical women have long stood at the forefront of struggle to change what makes life unlivable, to find "another way of living this life." There's not just one reason for that. There's a broad spectrum of reasons.

Today, as we witness the toxic waste dump identified in the media as the pool of 2016 G.O.P. candidates for U.S. President spew hateful lies in a reactionary bid to undermine women's independence and health, goading heavily-armed scumbags to heinous acts of terroristic violence -- well, it's crystal-clear that the broad spectrum of reasons women and their allies have to struggle for "another way of living this life" remains in play.

I'd say the film Suffragette's narrow focus on voting rights inhibits a viewer from fully understanding or empathizing with the range of issues, social relations, and constraints that led its fictional protagonist, Maud Watts, along the only path that would permit her to realize full humanity in the historical context to which she was born: that is, along a path of radicalized political engagement with a government and patriarchy that sought to deny her inalienable human rights.

Suffragette is worth seeing. I'm glad I saw it. But I wish the filmmakers had taken off their gloves, as I hope women and women's allies will do en masse today.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Activist fiction: it's about engagement, not about The Issue
CONSEQUENCE has arrived
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the public domain image of Emma Goldman addressing a rally in Union Square (New York), 1916.