Magazine | August 24, 2015, Issue

The Kimono Kerfuffle

La Japonaise, by Claude Monet
In Boston, a Monet painting reveals the Balkanized American mind

The work of re-educators is never done. Too much is at stake — power, jobs, research grants, the thrill of the chase, the drama of victimhood — for the process to be brought to any sort of close. So microaggression, an abomination so new that spellcheck can only heckle, becomes a thing, like all those new things — such as “privilege” as a verb, cis and that and all the rest — designed not to encourage people to think harder and wider, but to impose one narrow script, inventive only in the various ways it finds to deliver the same message about an oppressive, unregenerate America where old monsters still roam.

And that brings me to the kimono kerfuffle that erupted over an exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) earlier this summer. Naturally, it all began with a Dead White Male, in this case Claude Monet and his 1876 painting La Japonaise. The opening up of the hermit empire in the middle of the 19th century had sent Japanese art to the West. France was entranced, swept up in a phenomenon — Japonisme — that Monet both embraced and, in the ironically entitled La Japonaise, mocked. His subject was his wife Camille, sinuous and giddy in an elaborate — and authentic — red kimono, fluttering a fan in a room where paper fans not only line the walls but, playthings of just minutes before, lie scattered across the floor that is itself covered by (of course!) a tatami mat. Both underlining and subverting the dress-up, the dark-haired Camille is wearing a blonde wig, no Japanese she.

La Japonaise was restored in 2013 in a project partly funded by NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster. NHK also arranged for the making of two replicas of Camille’s kimono in which museum-goers could pose alongside the painting when it traveled to Japan last year. In a neat nod to the twists in Monet’s original pantomime, blonde wigs were sometimes available. When La Japonaise returned to Boston, the reproduction kimonos came along too, donated by NHK, so that Americans could also play Camille playing Japanese (and learn a bit too about the weight and feel of a kimono of the type — uchikake — that she wore).

But when the MFA invited visitors to the museum to “channel [their] inner Camille Monet” and try on the kimonos, there were protests from some Asian Americans. These puzzled Japan’s deputy consul general in Boston (“We actually do not quite understand what their point of protest is”), but perhaps he had not read the list of demands presented by Decolonize Our Museums. This extract gives a flavor: “This exhibit activity reaffirms the notion that Asian-identified folk are the Other, that they do not exist here, and that their cultures’ histories with oppressive imperialist practices are mere entertainment fodder. Rather than interrogating these notions of cultural appropriation and Orientalism, the MFA has allowed its visitors to participate in a horrific display of minstrelsy.”

Then again, perhaps he had read it.

That the Japanese had backed the event both in the U.S. and in Japan made no difference. The poor foreign fools could not, apparently, be expected to understand how things are over here, you see. Oblivious to the irony, Decolonize Our Museums thought it knew better, and with toxic talk of “cultural appropriation” in the air, the MFA pretended to (partly) agree. Educational context of, presumably, the right kind was added to the talk that went along with the exhibit. As for the kimonos, they could still be touched, but they could no longer be put on.

Cultural appropriation, the inappropriate/problematic (take your pick) borrowing from another culture, is not the latest piece of equipment in the thought policeman’s toolbox, but it’s one that has lately been coming into its own. Inquisitors looking to find it have focused on fashion and music, magpie worlds with a conveniently high profile and little grasp of tact: Controversy can attract headlines and headlines can be used to teach a lesson or, as the patronizing phrase goes, spark a “national conversation,” a conversation with room for only one point of view.

Prominent offenders include notorious twerker Miley Cyrus, for cashing in on an African-American dance style; Katy Perry, for dressing up as some sort of geisha; and Selena Gomez, for sporting a South Asian–style bindi. Then, of course, there’s another infamous bindi-bearer, Madonna, a shameless recidivist with a rap sheet that includes rap and stretches back at least to complaints that her “Vogue” (1990) plundered gay black and Latino dance culture. As for the fashionistas, model Karlie Kloss, in a version of a Plains Indian war bonnet (complemented by vaguely “tribal” underwear, turquoise jewelry, and high-heeled “moccasins”) for Victoria’s Secret, is a tempting place to start, but in an era when novelty is at a premium and the “exotic” is chic, there’s been plenty to grumble about, much of it less crass than Kloss.

The poaching is not confined to catwalk or couture. It can be found anywhere: in the spectacle of hipsters in American Indian headdresses at music festivals (as is characteristic of our proscriptive age, dress codes are now being introduced to stop it), in the wild eclecticism of street fashion, and even in the wrong sort of hairdo. Biracial Hunger Games starlet Amandla Stenberg recently attacked those in showbiz who would “cash crop her cornrows” and followed up with a tweet knocking a cornrow-wearing member of the Kardashian/Jenner clan — proof, if any more is needed, that cultural appropriation is having its moment. Previously obscure academic ideas can, if they prove useful to enough people, have consequences.

It’s not easy to identify precisely when the modern notion of cultural appropriation was first dreamed up, but there came a point in the final quarter of the 20th century when the focus on artifacts stolen or bought — Elgin Marbles and all the rest — broadened to include takings of a subtler type. In no small part, this was provoked by the plight of North America’s indigenous people. Having weathered (barely) invasion, massacre, dispossession, and a sustained attempt to dismantle their language and culture, they tend, understandably enough, to be fiercely protective of what remains. Travelers to, say, Taos Pueblo, N.M., quickly learn that certain events are off-limits to visitors, a custom reinforced by American Indian dismay at what outsiders have made of their traditions in the past. Meanwhile, in downtown Taos, vendors sell clothes, jewelry, art, and artifacts inspired by a vision of the region’s indigenous people and past that bears only slightly more connection to reality than does the widely peddled “Native American spirituality,” a ragbag of platitude and superstition that does not even have the virtue of authenticity.

In this case, the dispute is both cultural and economic: Not only are American Indians not benefiting financially as much as they should — or so the argument runs — from others’ interest in their culture, but they are also seeing that culture turned into a caricature of itself, which may be admiring (this isn’t an instance of minstrelsy) but risks drowning out the original. To take another well-known (if not quite so straightforward as sometimes claimed) example, something similar is said about the black contribution to American music, much of it borrowed, blanched, and turned into a cash crop infinitely more profitable than any hairstyle. It was Elvis who made it to Graceland.

As Fordham’s Susan Scafidi, a prominent theorist of cultural appropriation, explained in an interview with Jezebel, the key to the offense is the absence of consent, the “unauthorized” use of the essence of another culture — its “dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” — in a borrowing that “is most likely to be harmful” when it is from “a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways,” or when it involves something “particularly sensitive.” This last often has to do with the sacred — and has therefore proved an especially powerful complaint in a self-loathing Western world inclined to pay exaggerated, if generally uncomprehending, respect to any religious tradition other than its own.

We can expect much more of the same: Combining multiculturalism with mass immigration has multiplied the chances that someone somewhere in a nation that is ever more pluribus and ever less unum might be offended by an act of cultural appropriation that would be better shrugged off. Sometimes the taking of offense is genuine; sometimes the complainants are expressing a feeling they have been taught that they should feel; and sometimes it’s an opportunity too good not to take, one that creates excitement in lives that, like most lives, are pretty dull. It can be a drama in which the offended can imagine him- or herself not only as a victim, but also as a hero and a righter of wrongs — a drama that, exploited by the politically savvy, will use “offense” to push an agenda against which it is “not okay” to argue back: Check your privilege, mister.

Beyond the by-the-numbers anti-Westernism of this agenda, there is something still more damaging at play. Whether it’s Karl Lagerfeld’s “Chanel Indians” or (white) Australian Iggy Azalea’s rapping (fair enough) in a “blaccent” (not so much), it is undeniable that some cultures are still sometimes mined in a way that ought to leave anyone with a shred of empathy queasy. But the conceit that individual creativity should be corralled by race, culture, or history is something worse still. Creativity is a messy, mongrel process — a mix of this and that, a borrowing from here and there. To try to police it with a kind of intellectual apartheid is not only an affront to free expression; it is also a fast track to stagnation.

And it’s asking for trouble. Stretched beyond reason, as they were in Boston and as they are increasingly elsewhere (step away from that Filipino food: “food adventuring” has been added to the list of the problematic), the dogmas of cultural appropriation are a symptom of a growing national fragmentation that they will in their own way make worse. Rather than justice, they offer support to the construction of a rancorous, censorious Balkanized America of feigned “respect,” eggshell sensitivities, and deadening self-censorship.

In the unlikely event that Boston’s MFA ever wants to offer another Japanese hands-on experience, hara-kiri might be an option. The way things are going, it might find some takers.

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