Sunday, August 30, 2015

Shibori and Appropriation

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?

Friday, August 7, 2015

One Fear to Rule Them All

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the beginning of an era of nuclear fears that dominated the childhoods of people of my generation. We were raised in fear. I can remember civil defense drills when we marched single-file out of our classroom and stood against the lockers in the hallways; training for what to do when the bomb dropped. My husband Arthur, who was born six weeks after the bombs dropped on Japan, remembers marching from the school to a train depot; he never knew where they’d have been taken if war had started. Our parents were just as terrified by the nuclear brinkmanship our leaders were engaged in.

I was reminded of this when I read a column by Fareed Zakaria in today’s Washington Post, about the opposition to President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Zakaria paints Obama as an optimist resisting a sea of pessimists. As an example of a pessimist he quotes John McCain saying, last year, that the world is “in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime” (which includes World War II and the Cold War).

Zakaria then goes on to show how a pessimistic attitude has been a common American reaction to events for decades now:
In an essay in 1989, Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington noted that the United States was experiencing its fifth wave of that kind of pessimism since the 1950s.
First, he explained, Sputnik shocked the United States, and by the early 1960s, the country was convinced that the Soviet Union was on a path to overtake it economically, technologically and militarily. When the oil shocks of the 1970s hit, people saw the Middle East’s petro states as the world’s new power brokers. By the end of the 1970s, with the Soviet Union modernizing its nuclear arsenal and on the march — from Afghanistan to Central America — scores of commentators prophesied that Moscow was winning the Cold War. And when Huntington wrote his essay, conventional wisdom was that an invincible Japan would soon become the world’s No. 1 economic power.
None of these came to pass. The pessimists were wrong. The optimists, who saw the unique power and vitality of America as strengths that would enable us to overcome obstacles, were right.

Nowadays the pessimists are warning about a nuclear Iran being an existential threat to the United States. That’s as absurd as George W. Bush’s warnings about Iraq in 2003, and yet people still believe it. Just as absurd is the belief that ‘The Terrorists’ are an existential threat, yet our country’s policies are built around the need to overcome this ‘threat’ at all costs.

Yesterday I talked with two people, in completely separate conversations, who are both convinced that the economy is about to go into free-fall and the dollar will soon be worthless. “The only thing left of value will be gold,” they both nervously told me. Needless to say, they were both extremely pessimistic about the future of this country.

There’s power in fear. Fear makes people passive. They are less likely to challenge their leaders. Fear causes people to shrink their expectations of life so that all that matters is survival. When a citizenry is afraid, they will only ask their government for protection. They won’t ask for a decent life, educational opportunities, good roads, decent health care, etc. When there is an existential threat, these priorities pale in comparison to the importance of survival. Spending half of the federal budget on defense looks like a bargain, not a theft.