Sad news again from the kabuki world. Frankly, I’m still a little bit in shock, and finding it hard to believe.

A friend just posted on my Facebook wall a few hours ago a link to the New York Times obituary for Nakamura Kanzaburô, who passed away this past December. Looking at her post, I got to thinking about when, at some point in the future, Danjûrô would pass away as well. I never suspected it would be so soon. Not even five minutes later, I scrolled down to see a post from Kabuki scholar Matsuba Ryoko, linking to a Mainichi Shinbun article stating that Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjûrô had succumbed to pneumonia, and died earlier today, Feb 3rd. Here is the article from the English-language version of the Mainichi.

Danjûrô was, pretty much by definition, the most prominent actor in the kabuki world. His passing, especially combined with that of Kanzaburô, marks the end of an era. I feel terribly privileged to have gotten to see them both perform, to have met Danjûrô, and to have gotten his autograph, and to think that, some years down the road, when it is a new Kabuki-za that everyone has grown familiar with, and a new Danjûrô and a new Kanzaburô who grace its stage, I’ll be able to think of myself as someone who has been a fan since the previous generation – someone who remembers the previous Kabuki-za, the previous Kanzaburô, and the previous Danjûrô.

Of course, none of this is about me, or really about the art, the theatre; though the kabuki world and its fans have of course lost a legend today, my heart goes out too to his family – his son, prominent actor Ichikawa Ebizô who has just lost his father, and all of Danjûrô’s other close and extended family and friends.

You will be dearly missed, sir.

I expect we will be seeing more from the Japanese media in coming days. This truly marks the beginning of a new era of Kabuki.

My good friend Brigid and myself, with Danjûrô, outside the Kabuki-za in January 2008.

EDIT: Additional articles and links:
*Obituary/Article at Kabuki-bito.jp, the Shôchiku official website

Fixing Higher Education

There are a plethora of articles out there on different ideas about what’s wrong with higher education, and how to fix it, and if I read even a decent percentage of them, I’d be here all day, every day, reading them and responding to them. Which is part of why I don’t generally go out of my way to read such things, or to respond to them. But, then, sometimes, something comes to your plate, e.g. when it is shared by a friend directly on her blog, and so you end up reading it, and then having thoughts that you feel you need to get out.

I don’t in any way presume to have all the answers; these are very complicated matters, and I have not yet worked out my views or positions entirely. But, here are my thoughts at the moment, in response to a blogpost entitled “The Inability of Poor Students to Navigate College is Not the Problem, College is the Problem,” posted on the blog Peer-Reviewed by my Neurons.

In his blog post, Mike Horowitz presents the problem in a wonderfully cogent manner:

Nobody questions a system that’s supposed to be the key American vehicle for social mobility, but which often has a sticker price of $150,000. If I told you a poor African country had a system that allowed impoverished villagers to have a middle class life in the city, but that it cost $20,000 to take part in it, you would immediately say it’s perverse. Yet that’s essentially what we have in America.

Yes, well, when you put it that way. The cost of education in this country is ridiculous. I was fortunate to be born into a relatively well-to-do family, in the top bracket of the family income question on every application. But that doesn’t mean that my family, on an income of over $100,000/year, would have been able to pay upwards of $30-40,000 on my tuition and fees every year, out-of-pocket. The idea that $100,000/year places you in the top bracket, and thus rather ineligible for need-based financial aid, when your family still absolutely can’t afford it out-of-pocket, and when there are plenty of other families out there with much, much higher incomes, still seems an absurdity to me, but that’s a subject for another time. Returning to the point, yes, in a society where we expect, or should I say demand, that everyone go through college (at least) if they want a solid, middle-class life, we are charging way too much for school, and putting far too much financial pressure on families, and on students, to pay for it.

Horowitz offers four points towards a solution. Frankly, (spoilers), I find these quite problematic. But, let’s go through them.

1. Unbundle the bachelor’s degree. Horowitz argues, as many others have, that we should allow career-minded folks, especially those in the STEM fields, to be able to focus on just those fields, just those requirements, and that general ed / distribution requirements are an unnecessary burden, making it much more difficult, and more expensive, for students to get through school. He writes that “knowing a foreign language appeals to our elitist notion of a liberal arts education,” but while I have no problem admitting to being an elitist, I think there’s a lot more to it than simply appealing to some elitist ideal.

What is the purpose of college? Is the purpose of college job-training and professional qualifications? A lot of people, a lot of departments/universities, seem to be going that way. But I stand by the idea that education is not purely for the purposes of providing qualifications for a career – it’s about producing a more educated and capable citizenry. It’s about teaching critical thinking skills, the ability to form an argument, and an expanded understanding of civics, economics, history, politics, and social issues beyond the minimum they teach in high school, thus allowing you to go out there and be an informed voter, a racially/culturally/gender-sensitive member of society, who is capable of managing their own finances, of understanding political issues, of drafting reports, etc. etc. This isn’t about some elitist ideal that everyone should be well-versed in the elite cultural classics simply for the sake of cultural elitism. It’s about very practical concerns towards producing a better citizenry, a better society, in which every member is less racist, less sexist, less imperialist/ultra-nationalistic, and more capable of making informed, intelligent decisions in everything they do, from the political positions they support and the way they vote, to the products they buy. When I look at my STEM-major students who, in their fourth year of college, have never analyzed a document, have never written a college paper, I seriously wonder how these people are going to interpret the news with a critical eye and make informed political decisions, and how they are going to draft reports, in quality English, in whatever science/tech/engineering career they end up pursuing.

2. End College Admissions & 3. Make Classes Free.

End college admissions? I’m not so sure what I think about this one. It’s all in all far too complex an issue, and I just don’t know what to say, or where I stand. It involves far too many questions and far too drastic/dramatic a logistical change for me to even begin to think about how it would shake out.

As for free classes, yes. Absolutely. Public universities should be free, as they once were. Or, at the very least, there should be some free option. Charge for Columbia and NYU, but not for CUNY, as was the case not so long ago. My grandparents, Holocaust survivors who came to this country with basically nothing after X years in a series of concentration camps, followed by X years in refugee camps, struggled the entire rest of their lives just to put food on the table. And yet, they were able to put their sons through college because Brooklyn College (part of the public City University of New York / CUNY system, and a pretty decent school) was free at that time, as public school should be. As an article on democratic socialism I quite like explains (emphasis added),

Unfortunately, in America, the public education system ends with high school. Most of Europe now provides low cost or free college education for their citizens. This is because their citizens understand that an educated society is a safer, more productive and more prosperous society. Living in such a society, everyone benefits from public education.

EXAMPLE European style social program for college: Your college classes are paid for through government taxes. When you graduate from that college and begin your career, you also start paying an extra tax for fellow citizens to attend college.

Question – You might be thinking how is that fair? If you’re no longer attending college, why would you want to help everyone else pay for their college degree?

Answer – Every working citizen pays a tax that is equivalent to say, $20 monthly. If you work for 40 years and then retire, you will have paid $9,600 into the Social college program. So you could say that your degree ends up costing only $9,600. When everyone pools their money together and the program is non-profit, the price goes down tremendously. This allows you to keep more of your hard earned cash!

4. Charge Money For Acquiring the Credential, Not For the Learning.

In his last point, Horowitz suggests that education itself should be free, and the monetary charge should come into play only when seeking to acquire the official credentials that prove that you’ve earned those qualifications.

I can appreciate the sentiment – people are paying enough, in terms of time, effort, opportunity cost, to take these classes, and shouldn’t information/education be free, anyway? On some level, I sympathize. I really do.

But, isn’t it true that every time you’ve had to pay some exorbitant amount for just a piece of paper, you’ve felt nickeled-and-dimed? Two hundred dollars for the SATs, $40 for the college application fee, $100 for the diploma, $15 for each copy of the transcript you want to request to have sent to your grad school… Never mind “nickel-and-dime,” this is costing me Benjamins!

And then you get into a situation where people know they have the knowledge, the skills, and that all that’s standing in their way is some bureaucratic technicality of the piece of paper, the official credential, that they either can’t afford, or don’t wish to pay for on principle (who likes paying tens or hundreds of dollars for some office worker to just hit “Print” on their computer?. This leads to either frustration when employers insist on the piece of paper – a piece of paper which, ultimately, represents nothing at all but that you have paid your forty bucks or whatever it may be – or, it leads to a total circumvention of the system, when employers take you based on your skills and knowledge, acquired through free classes, even without the formal credential.

If it were possible to have everyone’s college degrees paid for by government funding, and/or by grants and awards, such that no one had to take out loans or pay out of pocket for college, I think that would be a wonderful thing. Just like many of us enjoy for at least some portion of our graduate school careers. But I don’t think that charging money for pieces of paper is the answer.

It’s that time again. The open tabs have piled up, and it’s time to share some links while trying to not go overboard with lengthy comments.

*First today is Chinese Vernacular Architecture, a blog by UCSB Art History PhD student Wencheng Yan. He hasn’t updated in quite some time, but among his posts from a few years ago are some excellent ones about the Yuan Palace and efforts to save Suzhou’s vernacular architecture, among other topics.

*Meanwhile, in a piece cleverly titled “>Curator, Tear Down These Walls,” the New York Times’ Roberta Smith has presented an argument for American folk art to be considered right up there with academic art. The power of the canon can be very strong, and even today, even as we question ‘what is art?’ in our classrooms and galleries, even as we work to challenge the canon, we are still somewhat arbitrarily implicitly, or explicitly, elevating some types of art above others. I don’t know much about the intricacies of the politics of American art appreciation, but it reminds me of the way that late Ming Dynasty painter & art critic Dong Qichang, through his incredible influence, was able to shape Chinese tastes all the way down to the present, to appreciate literati art the most, and to disparage academic art. Only very recently have art historians and curators come back around to begin to examine Chinese academic art, and to regard it highly, once again.

*Archaeologists in Tokyo have reported the first-ever discovery of Jômon period human remains in the Kantô plain, outside of shell-mounds. I recently learned that the soil in most parts of Japan is rather acidic, and breaks down human remains – even bones – within just a few hundred years, making it especially rare to find remains outside of what are called “pot burials”, where the bones are placed within ceramic vessels. Actually, now that I think about it, if the soil is acidic enough to break down bones, why doesn’t it break down shell mounds?

And.. that’s all for now. More stuff to come.

The entire year of 2013 will be filled with Japan-related events in London, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the first official diplomatic exchanges between the Court of King James and the Tokugawa shogunate.

The first Englishman to ever travel to Japan was, of course, William Adams, the basis for James Clavell’s novel Shogun. Also known as Miura Anjin, Adams, the captain of a Dutch ship, was shipwrecked in Japan in 1600, and later became a retainer & advisor to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Right: One of two suits of samurai armor gifted to King James I by Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada in 1613, via EIC Captain John Saris. Held at the Tower of London since the 1660s.

I’ve never really thought about the date of the official beginning of diplomatic relations between Japan and Britain, but apparently it was in 1613. In that year, Captain John Saris arrived in Japan aboard a ship called the Clove, and exchanged gifts and formal letters with Ieyasu and Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada, on behalf of King James I, before establishing an East India Company factory at Hirado. Richard Cocks was the first head of that factory, which closed only ten years later. UK-Japan relations resumed in the 1850s, after the shogunate eased the “maritime restrictions” of the Tokugawa period. There were some rough bits in the relationship, and some very high points of quite close, positive relations, and then that brief period when Japan started conquering British colonies/outposts and everybody was at war, followed by the return of friendly relations from 1945 (or ’52, I guess), onwards through today.

Getting to the point, that 1613 date for Saris’ meeting with the Shogun makes this year, 2013, the 400th anniversary of Japanese-British relations. And, boy, does London have an events lineup planned. First of all, the list of people involved in organizing the “Japan400” events reads like a veritable who’s who of Japan-related people of the UK, from big-name scholars like Tim Screech, Leonard Blusse, Joe Earle, and Ian Nish, to numerous Sirs, at least one Viscount, and one Right Honorable Lord Mayor Alderman.

I just came upon the website a few days ago. Events began this week, in conjunction with the 470th anniversary of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s birth, and will continue through the end of the year. Closing ceremonies will be held on Dec 20, 2013, the 399th anniversary of the first ever art auction in Britain, in which John Saris sold the lacquerwares he obtained in Japan.

I can’t list every event on the schedule, but here are the highlights, those events I’d be most interested in, if I were able to attend any of them (which, sadly, I am not). You can find fuller lists of upcoming events at this page, and of events later in the year here. The schedule includes numerous lectures, workshops, symposia/conferences, exhibitions and festivals, including:

*29 January: Lecture by Prof. Timon Screech, “On the 400th Anniversary of the English East India Company in Japan: 1613–2013: A Forgotten Episode in Cultural History”, held at the Society of Antiquaries.
*31 January – 9 February: Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai, a new play by the Royal Shakespeare Company
*14-15 March: Lectures by Prof. Derek Massarella, on “Silver: The World’s First Global Commodity,” and on William Adams, respectively.
*April-May: An exhibition of “the art of the Japanese book”, at SOAS’ Brunei Gallery
*June: Conference on “Boundaries Across Edo and Meiji Period Japanese Culture, and the Role of Great Britain” at SOAS
*August: Exhibition of East India Company documents at the British Library
*September: The annual William Adams Festival in Kent will be even larger than usual.
*September: A conference on “1613 in Comparative Perspective”, held at SOAS.
*September: A conference on the history of international trade in weapons, held at the Royal Armouries.
*October: Tokugawa Ieyasu’s “red seal letter” (shuinjô) granting the British permission to reside and trade in Japan, will be put on display at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. The document is believed to have been in the collection since 1614.

RocketNews24, among numerous other news sources, are reporting that Tokugawa Yasuhisa, great-grandson of the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu (Keiki), has been appointed head priest of the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

Yasukuni, as you may know, is the chief Shinto shrine dedicated to the spirits of those Japanese who gave their lives – chiefly, in battle – for their country. As this includes a number of convicted and accused war criminals, and a great many men involved in the invasions and colonization of Korea, China, and elsewhere, and the various injustices and atrocities associated with those events, it is easy to see why the shrine is the center of considerable controversy, attracting great ire and protest in China and Korea every time a prominent Japanese politician makes a visit there. The shrine is, in any case, a genuine center of rightwing/militarist activity, and contains a majorly biased/skewed war history museum.

Thinking about it historically, in a late 19th through pre-WWII early 20th century context, the shrine is very much embedded in discourses of nationalism as connected to the post-Meiji Restoration creation of the concept of the “modern” “nation-state” of Japan, and thus to themes of Emperor worship and all that. Being that the Meiji Imperial institution was borne out of an anti-Tokugawa revolution, and being that much of the rhetoric of the Meiji state (up through WWII and possibly into the early post-war period) emphasized a conception of the Tokugawa period as a backwards, non-modern, dark ages of feudal repression during which Japan was “closed” to the world, and thus closed to new advancements and development, one would think that Yasukuni itself would also be closely tied up in that same pro-Imperial, pro-modernization, anti-Tokugawa discourse.

So, what does it mean that a Tokugawa, the great-grandson of the very same shogun who was overthrown by the Meiji Restoration, is now the head priest of Yasukuni? On a discursive or symbolic level, I feel there’s something very odd about this juxtaposition… Though, obviously, the State, the Imperial Household, the shrine, and the Tokugawa family have no problems with it, so maybe I’m just imagining things.

It’s really kind of incredible to think how much stuff is still out there. Art treasures in private collections, historical documents in archives, that simply haven’t come to light in terms of broader, more widespread awareness. But even more than that, things hidden away, that perhaps even their owners don’t even know about. Every now and then, we hear some incredible stories about these sorts of finds and discoveries… In a way, it’s actually encouraging, in that whenever you think that a certain type of artifact or documentation might not exist anymore, there’s actually the possibility it just might still be out there.

Messy Nessy chic, a blog I hadn’t heard about until now but which looks like it has some pretty cool content, posted back in May (I was just pointed to the link the other day) about a Parisian apartment left untouched for 70 years and just recently re-opened.

The owner fled Paris just before World War II broke out, and never returned; somehow, the apartment remained unopened, untouched, for all this time. That is, until, following her death at the age of 91 a few years ago, her heirs finally opened up the apartment, and discovered what was inside. Beautiful now-quite-antique furniture, a Micky Mouse stuffed toy, a taxidermied emu or rhea or the like, and all sorts of other things, including a rather special painting.

The Messy Nessy Chic blog post has some incredible pictures of this time capsule of an upclass 1930s Paris apartment.

The Freer|Sackler, meanwhile, has posted a blog post about the apartment of art collector Dr. Paul Singer, which some members of the staff had the opportunity to visit way back in 1998.

Dr. Singer keeps more than five thousand objects, apparently, in his New Jersey apartment, a collection which we are told is one of the largest and most important private collections of Chinese objects in the United States.

I’m not sure there’s much to say here, except to invite you to click through to the F|S blog post, which has a nice photo of the apartment, and to say that I’ve been fortunate to visit the homes of an art collector or two, and that it’s always a fun and breathtaking experience. Some people have such beautiful homes, and such incredible collections; it’s something I look forward to doing more often in the future.

Last term, I TAed a course on Japanese History through Art & Literature, and while the course as it was taught that term focused much more heavily on the literature, it really got me thinking, how do we teach “history through art”? Or, to put it another way, how do we incorporate art into the teaching of history, without it becoming “art history”? I struggled to come up with a good answer. Sure, you could show images in your PowerPoint in lecture, but, so what? I was going to do that anyway. It’s about the angle, the approach, the way you use the images to help convey the historical themes.

This term, I am TAing a World History course. I found the textbook extremely frustrating almost from the very moment I began reading it, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. And then, today, as I was reading a bit discussing the Incas, and contrasting them with the Mayas and other groups of Mesoamerica, it hit me. It hit me that the visuals in this textbook are terrible. Not in resolution/printing quality. And not in quantity, either. In fact, the page layouts look about as busy as a typical webpage, with all sorts of extra infoboxes on the sides. Rather, it’s the selection of which images are included, and the way that they are used.

Visuals – specifically images of art, artifacts, and architecture – can serve as powerfully useful touchstones for a student’s, or a reader’s, understanding of a period or a culture, serving as mnemonic devices or flashcards, encompassing a whole range of concepts within a single, relatively easy to remember image.

Left: Lady Xok’s Vision of a Great Snake. Limestone, c. 720s. Maya. Chiapas, Mexico.
Right: Gold back flap from the tomb of the Lord of Sipan, Moche culture, Peru.

Reading purely in text about how the Incas had more advanced metalworking technology than the Mayas seems abstract, seems hard to grasp, for me at least. It makes one think of a whole bunch of intricate, complex, economic and “history of technology” sort of factors that, for an undergrad I’m sure, and even for myself, can make one quickly feel lost or overwhelmed. It’s difficult to recognize the significance of this comment about metalworking, the implications, and it’s hard to remember. But then I thought of the golden backflaps, and myriad other golden artifacts that our art history textbook provided as representative examples of Incan objects, and immediately it all clicked into place. These standard examples of Inca art given in a survey art history textbook are, many of them, gold, while the standard examples of Mayan art are all stone-carvings. Picture these in your mind, remember the image of what these objects look like and which culture or period they belong you, and you’ve got in those images a touchstone for remembering the identity or character of each culture, and a jumping-off point for remembering and thinking about further details about that period or culture, and about comparisons/contrasts with other periods or cultures.

You don’t need to talk about artistic style, composition, the individual artist, or anything else exceedingly “art historical” to use images in this way. Just include examples of images, objects, from each culture, to serve as a visual example of the character of that culture, and you’ve created an anchor, a touchstone, for helping the students remember which culture, which period, is which, and what characterizes it. The World History textbook we are using this term could have benefited greatly from this, because instead of these sorts of touchstones, we find, for example, a 17th century line illustration of a particular Andean farming technique which, really, adds nothing to the reader’s (the student’s) understanding. Honestly, do you think this image is going to stand out in a student’s mind, and help them remember anything about the key characteristics of the Inca civilization?

Maybe I’m a visual learner. Maybe I’m biased because of my art history background. But I think that visuals can be used to much greater effect in “mainstream” History than they are (or seem to be). The field of Art History has been much too marginalized, when in fact it has a lot to offer, and many Historians seem far too intimidated by the idea of art history, not realizing how easily it can be employed. Admittedly, granted, as someone without much training or experience myself in deconstructing and analyzing literature, theatre, or music, I can appreciate that art, too, requires a certain set of techniques or approaches, but, we’re not talking about in-depth analysis here, just superficial visual, stylistic, material associations. Flashcard-style recognition.

St. Peter’s Basilica versus the Great Mosque at Kairouan in Tunisia (left) as symbolic of the differences in character, in flavor, between Roman Catholicism and Arab Islam, for example. Something for the student to latch onto, as a representative example, to spark the memory for all the various concepts and facts that he has memorized about Roman Catholicism, or Islam, or the politics of the Popes, or about the Islamic Conquests – whatever. For another example, a picture of a Minuteman, with his formal-looking coat, breeches, tricorner hat, and horse, as compared to one of Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt in a 20th-century men’s suit and tie, in a 1940s-style automobile, as compared to one of JFK riding in an early 1960s automobile, to provide an instant indication of the time period, the level of technology, and again, though I know it’s a vague sort of term to use, the “flavor and character” of the period.

I think the role played by visuals in this respect profoundly powerful and useful. Art brings something alive. It gives it texture and color, makes it tangible in a way that pure facts do not. If you can’t imagine what a person or place looks like, how can you feel you know it, understand it?


Postscript: As I worked to prepare this post, read more of the textbook, and continued to think about these issues, I realized it is quite possible that in their dearth of representation of cultural character, the authors were deliberately trying to combat Eurocentrism and Orientalist approaches. That would certainly make sense given the political/historiographical trends prominent in the field right now. An advocate of non-Eurocentric attitudes myself, I certainly cannot disagree with this as an admirable political aim.

By representing all societies as simply cases of different ways in which human beings organize themselves into societies, and different ways they engage in agriculture and trade, the authors level the playing field, and do, actually, a pretty incredible job of presenting a historical narrative that truly does not privilege Europe; this textbook neither devotes a disproportionate amount of space (pages) to Europe, nor does it speak of Europe as being better, more advanced, at least not in the chapters I have read so far (extending up to the 13th century or so). But, what it gains in a more global perspective, it loses in becoming oh so much drier. My apologies to those historians genuinely interested in modes of agricultural development, but for me what makes history colorful, fun, exciting, and interesting is the visual and material culture – the cultural flavor and character of the myriad of cultures that exist (and have existed) in this wonderfully diverse world of ours.


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