The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco has been targeted by an anonymous artistic and political intervention that parodies the current Lords of the Samurai exhibition with a well designed website and a series of pamphlets distributed in San Francisco. The website is worth exploring, and becomes particularly interesting when paired with an interview with the anonymous critics on the 8Asians website.
Many in the museum world will feel that the parody is entirely unfair. The museum is a non-profit organization dedicated to education, and museum staff include many of Asian heritage as well as many respected scholars who have advanced degrees in Asian art history. In addition, some recent exhibitions at the museum have attempted to deal (not always very explicitly) with the history of Orientalism, such as the recent one on photographs of Asia, particularly South Asia.
One might also respond that at present museum exhibitions are not subject to the same kinds of peer review and scholarly criticism that help improve other forms of educational production. Other than the occasional newspaper review of a blockbuster exhibition, and the odd blog post by a volunteer scholar/critic, exhibitions and their catalogs rarely receive the kind of critical attention that they deserve. I have long argued that museums are probably the most important scholarly site in the world we live in for mass education about other nations and cultures. (TV and films reach more people, but are usually less grounded in scholarship and have less of a veneer of objectivity and authenticity.) A good specialty academic monograph might sell a few thousand copies. Many copies will go to academic libraries, where they might be read by multiple generations of students (we hope!). A big museum exhibition, on the other hand, might draw in 10s or even 100s of thousands of visitors. The AAMSF’s 2007 exhibition “Yoshitoshi’s Strange Tales,” for example, attracted almost 80,000 visitors, or approximately 931 per day according to The Art Newspaper‘s “Exhibition Attendance Figures,” 189 (March 2008) . Bigger Asian art exhibitions, such as the Freer Gallery of Art’s exhibition “East of Eden: Gardens in Asian Art” brought in well more than 200,000 visitors.
Most museum professionals are entirely aware of the incredible responsibility they have in putting on exhibitions that often substitute for a nation’s entire history. Curators know that visitors might feel that having visited a show on the samurai, they have in effect visited Japan itself. This is the wonderful power and also the great danger of the museum; it reduces social and cultural complexity, not to mention historical variation and diversity, to a few beautiful objects.
Topics like the samurai and the geisha are certainly valid subjects for museum exhibitions, and in these difficult financial times, must be attractive themes as guarantees of significant visitor traffic. But why not call attention to the problematic mythologization of these figures, as the Pacific Asia Museum’s 2009 exhibition “The Samurai Re-Imagined: From Ukiyo-e to Anime” did? Why not, as the parody of AAMSF’s exhibition suggests, pay attention to less well known aspects of samurai culture and history, whether that be sexuality, the reality of war, Japanese aggression in Korea, or modern wartime appropriations of the samurai image? Or why not, as the interview suggestions, highlight the more nuanced scholarship of Tom Conlon or Hal Bolitho instead of the work of Thomas Cleary? These are valid and important questions, and the controversy illustrates the need for more scholarly and critical attention to the politics of display of Japanese art.
I’m absolutely blown away by the quality of the parody: it’s thoughtful, factual (in addition to Conlan and Bolitho, they cite Ikegami and critiques of Nitobe), beautifully done. It’s a bit over-the-top, but not to the point where it undermines their position. It’s an instant classic, as far as I’m concerned.
The one thing I might say in defense of the original exhibit, is that it’s an art museum, and the focus on artistic/esthetic aspects of culture isn’t inappropriate. There’s balance, and then there’s piling on.
Topics like the samurai and the geisha are certainly valid subjects for museum exhibitions, and in these difficult financial times, must be attractive themes as guarantees of significant visitor traffic.
I’ve done the samurai thing, and I’m teaching Japanese Women this semester. (Though I don’t actually assign anything on Geisha: I’d actually argue that it’s one of the most overblown, Orientalist subjects in the whole repetoire, and isn’t a valid subject for an exhbition at this point, except in a much broader context.) I don’t know that it’s done that much for my business volume.
“The one thing I might say in defense of the original exhibit, is that it’s an art museum, and the focus on artistic/esthetic aspects of culture isn’t inappropriate. There’s balance, and then there’s piling on.”
This statement has some traction to it, but the idea that it offers also has an important history behind it— including a history in which works that were not “art” in the modern Euro-American sense were transformed into Art, often within a process of imperial conquest and colonial appropriation. Moreover, part of the history of museums, especially in the 20th century, has been the tension between the museum as a space of looking and a space in which objects are contextually situated and explained (see the classic essays by Michael Baxandall and Svetlana Alpers in Lavine and Karp, ed. _Exhibiting Culture_).
The Asian Art Museum, SF has, if anything, through its very institutional boundary— “Asia”— established (in theory or in broad brush) a contextual framework for the art that it shows from its own collection and its loan exhibitions. If the museum’s goal and rhetoric were simply the aesthetic aspects of “art objects,” then it would find little reason to provide explanation about Buddhism, for instance, Buddhist iconography, ritual, and history.
What makes the present exhibition problematic, in part, is that it DOES provide considerable contextualization through didactic texts within the museum, public programming and educational materials/activities, and a profusion of external advertising and marketing materials and events. A contextualization that is woefully unaware of both history and the knowledge, concerns, and the concerns of multiple audiences.
Given that the museum has been challenged on three prior occasions— the “Geisha” and “Tibet” exhibition and the installation of a Japanese painting that provoked protest from the Korean-American community— I do wonder what the “learning curve” has been within the museum exhibition planning process. Not a learning curve that started from the uni-dimensional conclusion that the museum was entirely “wrong” or “blind,” but one that sought to deeply consider the criticisms, to conduct a self-reflexive review, to research how other museums have sought to address controversy (think of the Enola Gay exhibition) and to plan exhibitions toward greater historical sophistication and sensitivity, and so on.
I was impressed by the nuance of the parody and how well it exemplified Orientalist rhetoric without waxing (too) ridiculous. Do we know which team of graduates students is likely behind it?
I just got the dual pamphlets in the mail: Like the website, very nicely done.
Matthew, I get the impression from the blog that it’s not grad students — they mention their “uncredentialed” status.
Just heard a great interview on KPFA’s Hard Knock Radio with one of the “interventionists,” who has the wonderful nom de plume “Majime Sugiru.”
The interview begins at 6:40. Unfortunately the interview will only be available online for two weeks.
The KPFA Hard Knock Radio interview can be downloaded here:
Thanks for your interest and all of your thoughtful comments!
Now officially sanctioned by the academy:
Public Lecture at UC Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian Studies
Lord It’s the Samurai: Socially Engaged Art and the Cultural Production of Orientalist Hysteria
by Majime Sugiru, Communications Director, Asians Art Museum
Tuesday, March 9, 4-6pm
Sponsored by Center for Japanese Studies
More info at IEAS website:
Nine months later, the Los Angeles Times reports on how mention of this spoof still sends the Asian Art Museum’s director “simmering.”
Unfortunately, as reported in the article, the museum’s cultural practices show little improvement, despite the wealth of public embarrassment. Will they ever learn?
The samurai spoofers respond on their blog: