I am a big fan of Japanese design. I like traditional Japanese clothing and home interiors. I love the clean, austere lines combined with graceful decorative elements that, for me, define the Japanese style. I often wear a Japanese garment called a ‘hippari’ (in fact I’m wearing one now as I write this), which was the working person’s short kimono, worn over pants. I make these for myself using a pattern by a company called Folkwear, which specializes in traditional clothing from around the world.
One of the traditional Japanese dyeing techniques is Shibori, which you can think of as a formal form of tie-dye. Just this last weekend I had the opportunity to take a class in this decorative technique. I was thrilled at the chance to improve my hipparis by adding traditional design elements.
|pieces made in the class by various members|
The morning of the class I read an article in the Washington Post about a new form of political correctness: a concept called ‘cultural appropriation.’ The article describes a “war” in the art world in which it has become common to attack “any artist or artwork that incorporates ideas from another culture, no matter how thoughtfully or positively. A work can reinvent the material or even serve as a tribute, but no matter. If artists dabble outside their own cultural experiences, they’ve committed a creative sin.”
I told the people in my Shibori class that we were all guilty of a terrible crime: we were racist imperialists plagiarizing another culture. We all laughed and continued on with the lesson. If that sounds absurd to you, it is, but here’s an example from the article where the attacks had a real-world impact:
This summer, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has been dogged by charges of cultural insensitivity and racism for its “Kimono Wednesdays.” At the event, visitors were invited to try on a replica of the kimono worn by Claude Monet’s wife, Camille, in the painting “La Japonaise.” The historically accurate kimonos were made in Japan for this very purpose. Still, Asian American activists and their supporters besieged the exhibit with signs like “Try on the kimono: Learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist today!” Others railed against “Yellow-Face @ the MFA” on Facebook. The museum eventually apologized and changed the program so that the kimonos were available for viewing only. Still, activists complained that the display invited a “creepy Orientalist gaze”…
It is far from clear that the appropriation police speak for the people and communities whose cultural honor they claim to defend. The kimono protest, for instance, found little support from Japanese Americans living in the Boston area; indeed, many actively backed the museum’s exhibit, as did the Japanese consulate.
Art, not to mention culture itself, is a living expression of human beings as they interact with the world. Cultures have always assimilated elements from their neighbors and become more dynamic and interesting as a result. The Europeans who came to North America and interacted with Native Americans assimilated many of the values of the native peoples. It has been argued that the iconic American—the cowboy—is a fusion of European and Native American cultures.
And to continue with the Japanese theme, much of what we think of as Japanese, including their clothing and their language, were ‘appropriated’ from China many centuries ago.
Yes there were examples in the past when oppressed cultures’ artistic expressions were stolen. But. as with so many movements, some proponents take it to the extreme.
Isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?