Invitation to a Discussion

In this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle, David Henry Hwang, whose most recent play, Yellow Face, is making its Bay Area premier, talks about race and multiculturalism. Here is a bit of what he had to say:

Whenever we talk about race or culture in this country, the discussion usually immediately becomes quite rigid, and people go to their established positions and become entrenched there. When that happens, there’s no real room for exchange, for dialogue, for really opening one’s mind to other perspectives. And humor, it seems to me, does allow for that possibility. It allows for people to relax, to open their minds, because when you’re laughing at something, then you wonder, well why am I laughing at it, it gives you an opportunity to rethink some assumptions.

The Asian Art Museum has recently been at the receiving end of some biting humor. An anonymous person (or persons), concealing identity through a privacy service, has created an imitation of the Asian Art Museum website, giving it the domain name and calling it a parody.

While the fake website is humorous in tone, it has a serious intent. It amounts to a critique of the museum’s Lords of the Samurai exhibition, which it suggests romanticizes the samurai and glamorizes militarism. The site details various negative aspects of Japan’s warrior rule, which it says the museum downplays or fails to address. It also makes the more general accusation that the museum panders to orientalist fantasies and stereotypes in order to profit from them monetarily (we are a nonprofit organization).

Mr. Hwang was making a point about humor as a vehicle to open dialogue. Unfortunately, because of their anonymity, we can’t directly engage the authors of the fake website. So let’s use this blog post to discuss issues of stereotyping and orientalizing. We would especially be interested to hear the viewpoints of those who have visited the samurai exhibition. We are always eager to improve. Perhaps in this way we can, in Mr. Hwang’s words, provide “room for exchange, for dialogue, for really opening one’s mind to other perspectives.”

Image: Francis Jue and Hoon Lee in David Henry Hwang’s
Yellow Face, detail of a photo by Joan Marcus.

22 Responses to “Invitation to a Discussion”

  1. sfmike  on August 27th, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    I think the pointed, political parody website is totally brilliant. Though I love your museum, I also agree with a lot of the criticism. Your current show, for instance, would probably be more accurately billed as “Treasures of the Hosokawa Family Dynasty,” but that wouldn’t bring in the crowds of people fascinated by samurai mythology. Are the marketing and special events promoting militarism? Well, yes.

    I don’t agree with everything on the site (there’s been a lot more Asian American art in special exhibits than they realize), but their imitation of your website is one of the most skillful graphic parodies I’ve ever seen. You should feel sincerely flattered.

    By the way, thanks for pointing the way to the site, and you might as well go all the way and put in an easy link within this post.

  2. nico  on August 27th, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    I feel as though I have to keep reminding people that there are those of us on staff who have read Said; who have a pretty good working knowledge of history, both of the oppressors and the oppressed; who may have read a whole lot more “marginalized” literature than you have.
    If you get me on a good day I’ll entertain you with the politics of empire, the Great Game and 19th century Central Asia (I know, I’m way fun at parties).

    This still doesn’t mean that I or anyone else working for an “institution” wants to silence dissenting voices.
    But I would like to know: have you been to the museum and read the didactics?

    I can only default to Wilde, since the only thing worse than being web-pranked is not being web-pranked? Except that it’s kinda…I don’t know. Seems like low-hanging fruit–what’s planned for the next exhibition?

  3. Nancy  on August 27th, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    It is a clever parody and does raise issues that I thought about when I saw the show. One of my uncles died on the Bataan Death march and another spent the war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. So I am very well aware of Japan’s behavior during WW II and her ruthless behavior toward China, Southeast Asia and the Philippines. But then, we can’t point fingers at “them” without also pointing back at ourselves. When I saw the show, I wasn’t as fascinated by the swords and armor as I was by the calligraphy, botanical work of one of the samurai and the tea bowls and utensils. I also knew that the “Pottery Wars” decimated Korea and that one of the shoguns had forced the most famous tea master to commit suicide. Anybody who studies history – East or West – knows that we are (or can be) a very dangerous species. Yet, what is the responsibility of the Asian when presenting art work that is the property of another country or, in this case, another family. Would presenting the dark side of Japanese militarism or the inequality in their society prevent this show from being seen at the Asian? Is it the responsibility of the Asian that popular culture is fascinated by sharp swords, pointy objects and things that slice and dice and leave pools of blood here, there and everywhere? What is more important – criticizing a society’s actions (some of which occurred 500 years ago) or being able to appreciate that culture, and, hopefully explore it more in depth?
    I don’t have answers. I just have questions. But perhaps the Asian could consider giving lectures that deal with the difficult issues in Japanese society under the Shoguns – including the oppression of the peasants, the treatment of the Koreans who are still considered outsiders in Japan, the cost of the violence and militarism and the inferior position of women.
    I also want to emphasize that I don’t think problems in another society (or another time) give us a free pass.

  4. xensen  on August 28th, 2009 at 8:04 am

    Thank you for these thoughtful comments.

    Mike, I do not link to the fake website because I cannot endorse it; I felt that I was being generous in providing the url. The reason for this is not the critique of the museum that it offers — we are more than willing to make that an issue for discussion — but the confusion that it is causing. We have received complaints, especially from people of Japanese descent, about the use of the image of the atom bomb on the fake website and its related printed materials. Some of these people may not have realized that those materials were not created by the museum. It is this confusion that is most problematic for us.

  5. howard junker  on August 28th, 2009 at 9:18 am

    “Treasures of the Hosokawa Family Dynasty” was certainly not the blockbuster I had hoped to see.

    it was skimpy, diffuse, and poorly structured. filled with bric-a-brac. lacking a point of view.

    it was also deficient in addressing the ideology of the samurai, as the so-called “fake website” pointed out.

    to call a brilliant parody—and trenchant critique—a “fake website” (and to refuse to supply the link because you don’t “endorse” it) is pathetic.

    don’t be so defensive of a mediocre show. which was confused from its conception.

    please smile wanly and fall on your sword as if you were a Roman.

    which reminds me: i think the show would have benefited from a clip of Mishima’s seppuku.

  6. xensen  on August 28th, 2009 at 9:36 am

    Howard, you should be a more careful reader. Nowhere in my comment did I defend the show. I was only addressing the issue of confusing AAM materials with those produced by others.

    I might add that even if I feel that some aspects of the critique are valid, as a webmaster I simply cannot in good conscience provide a link to people who appropriate copyrighted materials (and run photos of children without their families’ consent), even though permission in all likelihood would have been granted if it had been requested.

  7. tuscanycat  on August 28th, 2009 at 11:54 am

    I love a good parody just like anybody else and like you said SFMike, we should be flattered that somebody has the time to imitate our site but jeez, get it exactly right and not half-baked! After all, you wouldn’t eat half-cooked chicken would you? Trust me I know, because I designed and built it from the ground up with content provided by a web team. I wouldn’t exactly call it “the most skillful graphic parody I’ve ever seen” because it’s so easy to download an entire website (html, images, links, etc), change the content, then upload it to your host provider and voila, you have a parody. However, I don’t see anybody creating a parody of SFMOMA because, well, it’s western. And Howard, if you think you can curate a better show than our Japanese curator with our limited and challenging exhibition space, by all means feel free to contact our director. Hail Caesar!

  8. otomeki5  on August 28th, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    i thought the parody website was cleverly done. the artist surely put a lot of time into it. it did bring up some interesting points, although its nothing i havent seen or heard before. there are certainly some good points about our institution, but it offers no step forward. nothing beyond the usual criticism. but im glad that it sparked this dialogue here.

    in fact, when i was asked to wear a samurai costume and film a promotional video at various sf locales, my honest initial reaction was, “*sigh* of course you have to ask me. i am the perfect little nipponese guy…” i cant tell you how many times in my life people have said to me “wow ken, you have the face of a samurai! i love those eyebrows!” but i know its all with the best intentions and i roll with it. why not enjoy it? its very flattering to have people romanticize me.

    but ive also been villified for being so japanese looking as well. understandably, many people who suffered horribly at the hands of japanese militarism might have a lot to say to someone who looks like me (especially if im wearing a samurai costume). my grandmother once told me to be careful because some people might hate me just because im japanese. so i try to be modest, humble, and understanding.

    last night’s matcha event was titled ‘the way of the sword’ and featured demontstations by master iaidoka. in iaido and other japanese sword martial arts there is a saying, “saya no uchi de katsu” it means, ‘victory is inside the scabbard’. my interpretation is that supreme mastery means a sword need never be drawn. the sword is simply a tool for self-cultivation, for learning conflict resolution. in this way its no different from a cup of tea or a paintbrush.

    yes, this is a romanticized ideal. yes, it ignores the bloody history of japan and on one level glorifies militarism, absolutely. but if you really look closely, it is this subtle concept of “saya no uchi de katsu” which is at the very heart of the lords of the samurai show. cynics can call my hope naivete, or declare my idealism unrealistic, and there is certainly always more that we can do to educate the public, but i hope that at least some people picked up on the hopeful and idealistic desire for peace and understanding between all peoples that the museum stands for.

  9. sfmike  on August 28th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    @howard: I just saw Part 2 of the show last night and it’s almost an entirely new set of objects, so I wouldn’t call this exhibit skimpy in the least. Also, Mishima’s seppuku video really isn’t really complete unless you show it side by side with his cameo in the 1968 camp classic “Black Lizard” movie, which he also wrote.

    @xensen and tuscanycat: I can understand your concerns about brand confusion, and people thinking it’s actually your site (since the address is one letter off). And I’d love to see somebody do a parody site half this good of SFMOMA. They are certainly a riper target than your museum, which does intelligently go out of its way to teach the world about different cultures in a completely non-patronizing way. I think the parody site’s most basic beef is with your marketing of “Oriental” cliches in your traveling shows. I don’t have any problem with it, but somebody obviously does.

    @otomeki5: That’s a beautiful essay. So did you go out in costume all around town?

  10. bittermelon  on August 28th, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    @otomeki5 For the record, as the person who worked closely with you on those promo videos, I detest your eyebrows and never thought you’re the perfect little nipponese guy. Rather, I always thought you were a perfectly wonderful all around guy who never fails to contribute by chiming in with his personal, poignant, and pertinent perspective. :)

    As for everyone else, I do love and appreciate stimulating discourse that demonstrates critical thinking and open-mindedness. Nothing is ever simply black and white, and good diverse dialogue will always point back to that. Thanks for everyone’s comments!

    Please keep them coming!

  11. otomeki5  on August 28th, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    thanks for the compliments. it was a pleasure to play a samurai in the promo video. the best was riding the cable car!

    i have to echo bittermelon’s comment on the stimulating discourse. already ive had really profound and thought-provoking conversations with colleagues on theories of art history, cultural relativism, post-colonialism, and even treading into quantum physics, theology, and ontology!

    whatever our individual gripes and issues, i have nothing but love for the power of art and artists to expand people’s minds. much respect to the artists behind the parody website.

  12. Sarah  on August 28th, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    I do understand the critique, and agree with certain points. I first would like to state that I was very impressed with your permanent collection and your museum overall. I should probably state that we visited the museum primarily to see the permanent collection.

    We did in fact attend the exhibit during our visit. The exhibit did not focus on the atrocities or brutality of the samurai, that is true. I assumed though, firstly, that a Samurai exhibit would perhaps appeal to those who do not normally frequent art museums. The average person would have been exposed to the militaristic aspect through Pop Culture and film. (And, certainly, that representation is in itself a glorification of brutality. But, my point is, the average viewer does know a Samurai is a warrior, at the very least.) It was my conclusion though that the curators chose to go a different direction in the actual exhibit, to show a perhaps less widely known aspect of the Samurai. The title of the exhibit is Lords of the Samurai, Lords an indication of an emphasis of the aristocratic, more refined aspects of the Samurai. In the exhibit’s attempt to highlight this, it has in turn neglected other aspects, slavery, militarism, etc.

    In my opinion, the main problem is that the marketing material and the exhibition’s theme are not in harmony. The marketing materials portray an exhibit of the Samurai as warrior. The colors, graphics, and image shown all lend to that feeling. The exhibit itself though is not really about Samurai as warrior. So, the viewer may end up feeling the topic has been “glossed over” or romanticized. The marketing while it did definitely attract attention, did not accurately convey the intent of the exhibit. This may be intentional, a juxtaposition or a strategy to attract those who many not visit the museum otherwise. If a juxtaposition was intentional though, then the exhibit it would seem should address that fact in a more direct way.

  13. xensen  on August 28th, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Sarah, that strikes me as a thoughtful and helpful comment. Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed your visit.

  14. Tracy  on August 30th, 2009 at 10:16 am

    I looked at the “parody” and it feels like someone was hurt by racism at some point and they have turned that damage into a large amount of reverse racism. There are constant references to “whites” specifically in their blog posts and is a common theme. It’s truly sad.

    I did not see the pointed commentary, just someone who hates the military and apparently whites.

  15. Tracy  on August 30th, 2009 at 10:23 am

    Ah yes, one more point. It is an ART museum, not a history museum.

    The art of the tea ceremony, the accoutrement, armor and weaponry as well as poetry and painting. These are all the remaining visible arts of the time and culture. Why should the negative aspects be considered relevant to the display?

    Another great case of San Francisco having too many idle intellectuals. Maybe they could spend the energy solving actual problems. Well, not this week, because it’s burning man, but next week maybe?

  16. Julie Vognar  on August 31st, 2009 at 8:23 am

    “Never talk about anything you’re not looking at.”
    This leaves me free to say that a Phoenix Crown would buy 150,000 pounds of rice, that a lacquer plate made toward the end of the Ming would pay the wages of a full=-time household servant for one and a half years.

    And I do.

    But also things like: an entire county in China paid for this Buddhist stele in 549; that when Tibetans in exile protested our Tibet exhibit in front of the museum–because we had to deal with China to get them, the Dalai Lama said: what does it matter whose things they are now? They represent our tradition, and the way we adorn holy objects–and the protests stopped; that a high Chinese official, visiting Korea in the 12th century declared Korean celadons to be “first under heaven,”–and how hard it is to be humble if you;’re China; that a geisha doesn’t get to be a geisha by twiddling her thumbs!

    A little history, positive and negative, is always welcome.

    And when the rose’s thorn is more painful than the rose is beautiful…I tend to remember that.

    Editor’s note: The author is a volunteer art and architecture guide at the museum.

  17. Able Dart  on September 14th, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    I fail to see the utility of handwringing over what is essentially a rigidly one-dimensional joke site. They have a right to their opinions and their humor. We also have a right to criticize it where it falls short or becomes self-serving.

    For instance, pederasty was common among all privileged classes in Japan during this time, not only the samurai. It was most prevalent among bhuddist clergy, and during the Edo period, also practiced by the chonin. Compare this with Classical Greece, where most males who entered public or at least privileged life went through a similar process.

    The “Nose Mound”, or more properly; “Ear Mound” is a product of Kato Kiyomasa, one of the main generals of Hideyoshi’s Korean campaigns. Kato was a Nichiren Bhuddist. Nichiren Bhuddism is associated in modern times with peace activism, but even today has some non-mainstream connotations in Japan. They are Japan’s equivalent to American Evangelicals. They have a history of xenophobia, and Kato spent much of his time in Korea undermining one of his co-generals who was Catholic. Kato’s collection of ear trophies is the foundation of similar stories in modern Asian warfare, including the Vietnam conflict. The collection of ears, noses, and indeed scalps, as war trophies is certainly not unique to Japan or Asia.

    It is most certainly true that Japanese militarists, empowered by the national policy of deficit spending which helped Japan avoid the Depression, used allusions to history to justify aggressive war and atrocities. Certainly they are not alone or unique in this regard. There is also some reticence on the part of Japanese political leadership to acknowledge this, although I suspect this will change now that the LDP is out of power. Compare this to the average American view of Manifest Destiny, or popular Chinese views of the unification of their country. It’s notable that the most vociferous critics of Japanese historical revisionism are often Chinese who themselves have hegemonic world views. It’s almost as if the Japanese never paid for what they did. Well, they did. We incinerated their cities (mainly with conventional incendiaries; the nuclear weapons were for show) and strangled their ports. We laid waste to their country. Would some people feel better about things if we had invited Chinese to board our bombers and drop the bombs?

    Additionally, the connections made between Japanese imperialism and postwar commercial culture are rather ludicrous. Compare the culture of the hard-drinking Salaryman with postwar American executives such as those portrayed in TV shows like “Mad Men” or movies like “Revolutionary Road.” Additionally the culture of suicide never was unique to the Samurai, seppuku was not even formalized until the Edo period.

    Much of the postwar romanticization of Samurai values are more like a collective tatemae, put together by protoconservative postwar writers like Mishima Yukio and Ishihara Shintaro. So is the idea of a monocultural Japan, which it could be argued never existed. These notions are essentially products of American occupation. Japan was originally settled by multiple Asian cultures, at least one of which “pollinated” with an indigenous non-Asian culture. The Koreans and Taiwanese brought back to Japan during expansionist periods further contributed to what is essentially a hybrid culture, as do the continuing presence of non-Asians in Japan today, whether certain people there like it or not.

    The exhibit is one of family heirlooms and should have been promoted as such, rather than attempting to use a single exhibition to describe all of classical/medieval Japan. That’s a result of parochialism, not necessarily “orientalism” or paternalistic racism. San Francisco is a very parochial city, despite its collective protestations to the contrary. Parochialism is catered to, as evidenced by the “New People” building in Japantown – instead of the prime cut of Japanese fashion and retail, like Beams, Tomorrowland, or even Uniqlo, we get a small sampler of the quaint (jika-tabi and handicrafts) and the freakish (“Gothic Lolita”). Why does no one protest this?

    Meanwhile, we get all hot and bothered over the admittedly polished product of an ethical nudnik, who uses the over-the-top indictment and re-recrimination of a cultre to promote a remarkably one-dimensional and unrealistic form of pacifism.

    It’s rather ridiculous.

  18. Yoo Hoo  on September 22nd, 2009 at 10:17 am

    When I saw the Samurai exhibit a couple of weeks ago, my companion and I left quite dissatisfied — there seemed to be no cultural context, no social locational analysis, no “meat on the bones.” But we looked at it from the perspective of two social scientists at an art museum. The parody website and this discussion has made the exhibit far more meaningful to me than it was after seeing it. The exhibit in isolation was a bunch of really really impressive, intricate, beautiful objects. The commentary accompanying the objects was (I’m afraid) really boring. But how does one do an adequate job of contextualizing objects? There is so much context to provide and so many perspectives from which to examine the exhibit. There is “official” history, various historical critques, political analysis from various perspectives, and curatorial issues of various kinds. Wouldn’t it be great to include some of those perspectives in the exhibit? Not all visitors to the exhibit would be interested, but it would be much more compelling to those of us with a more critical mindset. As the exhibit (and many other exhibits have the same flaw) was set up, the labels on the exhibit and the tours by the docents (“This sword is extremely important [move on to next item]” simplify things so much that they lose their interest — after awhile they revert to being just another bunch of “things.” I imagine that curators at their meetings discuss the ins and outs of these kinds of things, but as exhibit-goers, we would like to see much more complexifying [?] of the objects — much more fun that way!

  19. idit  on September 23rd, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    This has been a refreshingly thoughtful discussion so far – exclusive of one somewhat puerile rant – and has been a pleasure to follow. The most useful comment above, to my mind, is the one (from Sarah) that addresses the rift between the way the exhibit was marketed to the public and the objects in the show, though I do think that the Samurai theme comes through more clearly in the multimedia presentations: the Secrets of the Samurai Sword documentary, as well as the terrific film series that ran in the Discovery Room and monthly in Samsung Hall. While these films surely glorify the militarism, they also represent an art form of interest to the public; however, perhaps the presentations would have benefited from some context or discussion.

    I especially appreciate Ken (otomeki5) having the guts to take controversy personally; though it’s not written on my forehead, there are those who can tell on first sight that I’m Israeli, and others find out when they ask where my name is “from”. I often feel that I have to follow the admission with “yes, I’m Israeli, but don’t worry – I promise I’m not a fascist.”

    We have to ask, what can we do, the inheritors of these legacies? How much Arabic do I have to learn, how many marches do I have to organize before the lives that my father and grandfathers have destroyed are no longer with me always, like sand caught in my teeth? So far, if I chance to meet someone who’s been affected by it in some way, one “La ilaha il Allah, wa Muhammad -ur-Rasul-Allah” ( seems to get me a tight-lipped smile and nod or (only once) a tearful hug, which is really just an acknowledgment of my efforts to confront (my own) ignorance, to confront that legacy – that I’m trying, really, but please, tell me what I can do? In the museum context, I am of course very interested to see how the newly-minted CJM chooses to respond, though I suspect the answer will be disappointing if not infuriating. Realistically, these are questions that everyone should ask themselves, since these legacies exist in every culture around the world, as is pointed out in more than one of the comments here; naturally though, it is most palpable for those for whom these events occurred (or are occurring) in more recent historical memory or are more often addressed in the West (our context), which Japanese militarism and colonialism is not, for the most part.

    The “parody” website accuses us of ignoring the issue, which feels unfair to many here, since these questions are addressed behind the scenes on a regular basis – but are doing enough publicly? I suppose then that the question is whether we must depend on our visitors to dig deeper while we concentrate on bringing art to the public, first and foremost, without muddying it with political affiliations, judgments, or caveats– in this instance, to bring an amazing group of objects from a museum in Japan that much of the public here will never have the chance to visit. I think that simply because we sit on the cusp of a cultural museum and an art museum (which is why SFMOMA for instance is less often the subject of this particular critique), everything we do will be inherently political, whether we make an effort to break down those categories or not.

    Personally I would love to have a lecture series available that addressed the cultural context of both special exhibitions and the permanent collection, a fantastic suggestion by Nancy, above – but it would take time, and no small amount of resources.

    In the meantime, Nicole (nico) and I will be downstairs, trying to make sure that even without a dedicated lecture series, we can make an effort to bring in a few books that might create a context or generate a discussion; certainly this is on our minds in preparation for Emerald Cities, and the inevitable focus on the controversy surrounding Burma/Myanmar in the coming months.

  20. Nancy  on September 24th, 2009 at 1:23 am

    You know, when Baker posted the article about the parody website in the Chron, I thought about the upcoming exhibit on Burma/Myamar and the inevitable controversies that will arise. Maybe we should just dig a trench now so that we can take cover later and be sure to supply it with a lot of good beer (do the Burmese make beer? I know that the Thai do.). OK, I’m joking as I often do. But I wish it were possible to educate more people about the realities in staging such an exhibit and the necessary accommodations that need to be made with the donors as well as all the work that goes into the “mechanics” of an exhibit as well as the finances.

  21. xensen  on September 24th, 2009 at 8:05 am

    Since the last couple of comments have referenced the issue, I will mention that there is a post about the Burma versus Myanmar controversy here.

  22. why-not  on September 27th, 2009 at 1:09 am

    if it exists, it must be real. even if you believe it to be fake-the does bring up issues that the japanophiles exhibit doesnt.

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