La Japonaise

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has recently come under fire for inviting patrons to “Channel your inner Camille Monet and try on a replica of the kimono she’s wearing in La Japonaise.”

It’s worth taking a moment to look at the image they used to promote the opportunity: A white American woman pretending to be a white French woman pretending to be Japanese. There’s a lot going on there.

After several complaints from Boston’s Asian American community, the MFA has decided to remove the dress up portion of the activity, instead inviting guests to “touch and engage with” the kimonos, but “not to try on.”

I’ve seen this story pop up on my newsfeed the last few days, but it really caught my attention with the morning news announced the change from the MFA.

The (white) news anchors said that the MFA received “a small number of complaints” from a “handful of activists.” They added that the MFA initially responded that it would continue with the demonstrations, but eventually shifted their position after the complaints “went viral.”

The news anchors expressed general confusion as to why anyone was offended by the exhibit, and appeared disheartened that the MFA had changed it’s policy in response what they saw as a small number of protestors. They called it a case of “political correctness going to far.”

That got my attention.

Now. I do appreciate a general concern about the dangers of political correctness. The last thing that serves a productive conversation about race is an atmosphere in which people feel shut down from expressing themselves – where they’d rather say nothing than run the risk of saying the wrong thing. This is the approach that led to the fallacy of a “color blind” society – as if denying our problems would make them go away.

But “political correctness gone to far” is also a conveniently safe out for people who don’t see – or don’t want to see – a problem.

Frankly, when you have a group of Asian Americans saying they find an exhibit of Kimono dress-up offensive, I think you have to stop and try to understand why they feel that way. It doesn’t matter whether you don’t find it offensive – it’s about not thoughtlessly discrediting someone with a different view from you.

Blogger Evan Smith has a great post explaining why the “be Camille Monet” activity is problematic:

The painting in question, a work from 1876, is a singular example of Orientalism, a tradition in Western art that broadly caricatures regions as disparate as North Africa and East Asia with the aim of cultivating a Romantic visual language around Western cultural imperialism. Japonisme, the particular subset of Orientalism that Monet’s canvas depicts, is a loose interpretation of Japanese culture by French aesthetes marked by ornamentation, hyper-femininity and a sense of escapism bordering on pure fantasy. In La Japonaise the artificiality of the genre is underscored by the blonde wig Camille donned when posing for the painting in order to emphasize her whiteness, contrasting her body to the Otherness of her garments and surroundings.

That’s not to say we need to dismiss the artwork all together, but neither should we celebrate the Orientalism it embodies.

The painting took place less than 30 years after Commodore Perry’s “opening of Japan.” It was a time when Europeans were fascinated by the “topsy turvey” world of Japanese culture – seen as both civilized and barbaric.

In fairness, the Japanese were equally intrigued by European culture – seen as both civilized and barbaric. And there is some great Japanese art that depicts the ape-ishness of Europeans, just as European art captured the beauty and brutality they saw in Japan.

Orientalism was an important movement in European culture, and it seems reasonable that Western society should study it, seek to understand it, and possibly even celebrate the art that came out of it.

But we shouldn’t seek to recreate it.

We should seek to appreciate and understand other cultures, not seek to appropriate them. We shouldn’t celebrate their seeming exoticism, but seek to truly understand them.

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