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NHK reported yesterday that a survey by the Bunkachô (Agency for Cultural Affairs) has confirmed the locations of over 10,000 Important Cultural Properties, but in the process discovered that at least one National Treasure and at least 108 Important Cultural Properties have gone missing. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stolen, or truly “lost” to the ages, but simply that at the moment, the Agency does not know their location. Some of these may in fact have been stolen, while others may have been sold; in some cases, the private individual owner simply moved to another house, or another city, and in other cases, the owner has passed away, and the Agency simply was not (apparently) keeping up with what happened to the objects in these cases.

The NHK report tells us that the Agency’s survey of the 10,524 National Treasures + Important Cultural Properties continues. A pamphlet the Agency has available online lists 866 National Treasures + 10,430 Important Cultural Properties that are not buildings or structures, so I’m not sure exactly how the numbers add up to 10,524, but, I just thought I’d share that number, put it out there anyway. The report does say that there are 238 objects remaining to be surveyed (including 12 National Treasures). If anyone knows how to make these numbers work out together, or notices a mistake in my understanding of what’s being said here, please let me know.

In any case, the National Treasure which has gone missing is a tanto, a short sword, forged by the swordsmith Kunimitsu. The Tokyo man who owned the sword passed away 18 years ago, and it is unclear what happened to the sword at that time. The survey tells of 24 other cases where the owner passed away, and his or her property was dispersed in some way. Thirty-three Important Cultural Properties seem to have been stolen. The agency lost track of 31 other objects when the owners moved, while another three objects have been sold, and the situation of another 17 objects remains unclear.

The Agency is sending out information to art dealers in the hopes of learning the whereabouts of the missing objects, and is also from next year asking owners of Important Cultural Properties and National Treasures to report back to the Agency once a year (by way of postage-paid postcards) on the whereabouts of their collections. Local Boards of Education will also be requested to perform surveys, once every four years, of the registered objects in their local districts.

Link to the NHK report, with video.

Hyperallergic has a short but inciteful blog post today about the inclusion and absence of Asian-American artists in the Whitney Biennial. Since it is so short, I’ll just cite a few of the more biting quotes, and leave you to read the rest on Hyperallergic.

John Yau writes, “When the ubiquitous term “people of color” is used, does the speaker or writer also mean Asian Americans – … Or should Asian Americans simply check the box labeled “Other” and quietly and politely go – like all well-behaved Asian Americans – into the room marked INVISIBLE,” and further,

… if you are part of the art world, you live in a segregated society full of little ghettoes, with one of them being “people of color who make abstract art” and another being “Asian-American women who deal with identity.” … Is it true that if you are a person of color (black, brown, yellow or red), the only way to get into the Biennial is to make work that deals with racial identity in a way that is acceptable? Who determines that agenda? If you go by the Whitney’s curatorial choices, the answer is obvious. You have to do what white curators want or you are going to remain invisible.

I guess I’m guilty of it too, as I always have a particular fondness for Asian-American art that deals with identity, or otherwise with explicitly Asian themes… Not really sure, what’s the way out? All curators have their tastes, their preferences, the themes or styles they want to show – that’s what it means to curate. Maybe we just need to get more different curators in there, with more different interests, including more Asian-American curators.

“Come Play With Us + the War Scene” (2011), Wai Fu Lui (Kenny), BFA University of Hawaii; charcoal, pastel, plastic toy army men, hot glue on paper.

I’ve been interested for quite some time now in the canon, how it is formed, how it evolves and changes, and its impacts upon our world. I think it comes, in large part, from studying Japan, and Okinawa (and, increasingly in the last few months, Hawaii and the Pacific), and developing a sort of anti-Eurocentric perspective, or even agenda – and thus learning to question the Western canon, and the supposedly universal value assessments upon which it is based. There is a widespread popular belief, I think, that the most famous works, the most well-known works, have achieved that status because they deserve it – because they are genuinely, inherently, of superior quality in some way. And that may well be true for many of these pieces, in one way or another. An art historian expert in the Western canon could likely explain in quite some detail just what it is about Michelangelo’s David, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers that make them just so worth elevating. But what the art historian recognizes that I think the average person on the street never questions, is that these works came to be appreciated in this way, for these reasons, at a particular time. Just because something is a classic today does not mean it was always a classic – someone made that decision, that distinction, at a given time, and pushed it forward, pushing it into the canon through exhibition display, critical publication, emulation of style, referencing, or by other means.

In his new book The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, Michael Emmerich argues that this is what happened with the Tale of Genji. People today, both in Japan and around the world, count the Genji among the greatest works of Japanese literature, and at least insofar as it is oft-claimed as the world’s very first novel (and written by a woman, no less!), has gained a place in the canons of world literature, being often touched upon, if however briefly, in survey courses and survey textbooks of world history, global art history, and world literature. It would be easy to believe that the Genji has always held this status, at least within Japan; I have no doubt that a great many people do believe so. And, the great numbers of paintings, poems, and other visual and literary artworks throughout Japanese history that make reference to the Genji would seem to support this. Emmerich, however, argues that the Genji – though perhaps relatively well-known among elites – was not popularly well-known or well-read among the masses until as late as the early 19th century. Where scholars have been for years and years describing the Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji (“A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji”), an illustrated book published in 1829-1842, as a “parody” of the Genji, making humorous references to the Genji and presenting amusing twists on the interpretation of characters and events in the original text, Emmerich suggests that in fact, for the majority of readers, this was not a twist on a well-known classic, but something brand-new, introducing them to an ancient story of which they were previous unaware – in short, Emmerich claims it was the Inaka Genji, and its popularity, that led to the “original” Tale of Genji attaining the canonical position it holds today.

This, of course, is a radical enough claim already, questioning and asserting a new understanding of the most canonical classical text in the Japanese literary canon. But what I find particularly fascinating are the various concepts he introduces in the process of addressing this subject.

An early 17th century painting of a scene from the “Ivy” (Yadorigi) chapter of the Genji. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He points out the way we all come to experience, understand, relate to, engage with a given literary or theatrical work differently, because our experiences are mediated by – among other things – different versions, translations, or performances of the work. It’s not mentioned explicitly in the interview, but I am pretty sure that no original manuscripts of the Genji survive today – that means that everyone who has read the Genji in any form in the last few hundred years (or, perhaps, even going back as far as seven, eight, or even nine hundred years ago) has only ever read, at best, a later re-copying. Far more likely, they read some kind of translation or adaptation. Even putting aside manga, anime, TV, and movie forms of the story, which we would all immediately recognize as not being the real thing, relative to those, in comparison to those, we tend to think of whatever translation of it we’ve read – by Royall Tyler, or Arthur Waley, or whomever – as having truly read the Genji. Or, if you’re Japanese (or a reader of Japanese literature), maybe you’ve read it in translation into modern Japanese – Emmerich gets into this, as to how this too is a translation – or maybe you’ve even read it in a modern movable-type transcription of the original phrasing. I’ve actually read one chapter – “Yugao” – in the original grammar. Probably the toughest thing I’ve ever read.

The Genji, as represented on the back of the 2000 yen bill.

But, not only are we experiencing the work through different forms, we’re experiencing it in relation to, in connection to, in reflection of, numerous other impressions we have of the work, based on other media, and on things we’ve heard or read or learned about it. The Genji was everywhere in premodern Japanese art – paintings, poetry, woodblock prints – and today, at least, people learn about it in school, and one can practically guarantee that just about every Japanese knows at least something of the story. Now, I don’t know how much the average Japanese person on the street might be familiar with any of this at all, but speaking for myself, as someone who has never really studied literature at all, I know the Genji through paintings, and through woodblock prints, and through “historical” sites I’ve come across in Kyoto, and this most definitely has impacted my impressions of the Genji. So, in a sense, the work is alive, dynamic, existing in countless variant forms, and ever-evolving; if there can be said to be a true, genuine, original version of the Genji, it is not the only one, and all these others are, in their own way, no less real, for these, and not the original, are the many Genjis that readers (and non-readers) know.

It’s for that reason that Emmerich writes, “The global community of Genji’s readership, and of its non-readership, is ultimately linked – translingually, transnationally, transhistorically – by something its members do not hold in common: Genji.” All of these people – people who have read or are otherwise familiar with the Genji – are by the very definition of the category linked by their association with the Genji; but, each is familiar with a different Genji.

A mural in the underground shopping arcade at Kyoto City Hall subway station.

As for the rest, I invite you to read the Interview with Michael Emmerich on Critical Margins, and Emmerich’s actual book, The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, which itself already has begun to exist in multiple forms – the book itself, as it exists on the page, versus the book as it exists in the minds of those who have some (pre)conception of it based on this blog post, or on the interview linked to.

All photos my own.

Even as a historian and avid museumgoer, I have a difficult time with history exhibits.

HOW DO WE DO A HISTORY EXHIBITION THAT ISN’T BORING?

How do we do one that’s as interesting and dynamic as an art exhibit?

One of the main wall displays in “Common Ground,” the main permanent exhibit at the Japanese-American National Museum.

The great number of photos, labels of text, and objects all gathered together in the Japanese-American National Museum’s permanent exhibit, like a scrapbook, overwhelms and exhausts. One grows tired and bored of the black-and-white, and of the text, very quickly, finding the experience decidedly un-dynamic. Some of these images, objects, or the events/phenomena described in the text, may be actually quite interesting, or powerful, but they fail to catch or keep the eye, as they fail to pop out, to stand out, and are instead glanced over as part of a confusing whole – rather than as an individual, compelling/captivating, item.

In order for history to be interesting, engaging, captivating, and not boring, tiring, or overwhelming, it must (perhaps?) rely upon individual captivating, eye-catching objects or images of particular historical significance or visual interest. An object must be memorable, and able to represent, suggest, or embody the broader historical themes you want your audience to understand.

Ironically, or counter-intuitively, I do think that a single image can actually be more powerful, more compelling, than a whole array of images. I think of the exhibit at JANM, and I feel bored, tired, just thinking of trying to “read” all those many images, all jumbled together, trying to digest the whole complex narrative. But then I think of just a single image – an image of Japanese-Americans being rounded up, or an image of them standing loyally ready to serve in the US army; a single image of just a house with a sign on it saying “this is a white neighborhood – no Japs welcome”; or a single image of a smoking battleship at Pearl Harbor; and that one image stands in for the whole rest of the mythos. Not that I’m saying we should necessarily encourage mythos, or avoid telling a fuller, more nuanced, more complex, story. It’s good for people to think about, and know about, a more complex, more nuanced, and thus more “true” or “accurate” understanding of history, rather than a mythologized notion of it. But… the more objects you have, the more each of them fades into the collective whole of the display, and ceases to command attention or to speak for itself. Even just looking at the wall over my desk, where I’ve placed a few tens of postcards and the like, they create together a single visual form, such that when I look up I see not any one image, but rather a collection of images, such that I have not in quite some time considered any one of them in isolation in the way that I would if they were framed and displayed, let’s just say, as if in an art museum, as individual objects/images unto themselves, each with an accompanying label, each with a separate story to tell.

Above: Sadly, not the greatest photo of the exhibit, but hopefully it gives some sense. You won’t get label fatigue in this exhibit. Right: The table on which the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed.

I wonder if the “Becoming LA” exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles suggests a start towards one possible solution – by making the space as open and airy as possible, with interesting and exciting artifacts that catch the eye, a dynamic and varied direction/path of movement, and lots of transparent cases, rather than ones that block vision. And, through a simple and sleek aesthetic, very much uncluttered.

Objects are presented prominently, alone or in small numbers, allowing them to attract attention, and to stand as representative of broader themes. Years are placed in giant numerals on the walls, framing the experience as one moves chronologically through the space. Titles are placed on cases often on the glass itself, in varied positions which create a sense of dynamism (some on the front of the glass, some on the back of the case, and some even on the top, being read in the shadow it throws), and textual labels, while certainly present and descriptive, are not overwhelmingly or exhaustingly lengthy or numerous.

I’ve never curated a show myself before, and so who knows what can actually be done, how much one can experiment with various display methods and still feel that one is conveying the narrative one wishes to – and with sufficient detail and nuance. But, it’s definitely something to think about.

This is all terribly tentative, and is just based on immediate thoughts and reactions upon visiting these two museums last weekend. … But it really did strike me. Is there a problem with history exhibits? And how can we approach them differently, in order to address and possibly solve this problem?

All photos my own, May 2014.

Last week, following a lively discussion in one of my seminars about how media outlets all too often overlook historians as consultants, op-ed writers, or sources for better historical context – or, to put it the other way around, that historians and our perspectives are not seen enough in the media – I found a friend had shared on Facebook a fantastic recent Asahi Shimbun interview with Prof. Carol Gluck (Columbia U). In it, she offers not only very interesting assessments of ongoing issues in Japan today, but also a few juicy quotes pointing precisely to this issue – the problems that result when journalists do not consult historians, or do not themselves take a sufficiently historical perspective in their work.

Since these quotes are just so good, I’ll let them speak for themselves, and try to avoid offering too much commentary myself.

To begin, in response to a question about the “recent” rightward swing in Japanese politics:

News about Japan in the global media often appears in extreme terms. During the economic surge of the 1980s Japan was going to take over the world. During the recession of the 1990s, Japan was finished. After that for a while Japan disappeared from the front pages. As a historian I know that history doesn’t work this way. It doesn’t careen from extreme to extreme. History is not a sprinter, either.

I am no expert on contemporary politics, and so I am essentially in the dark on this issue, relying on the media to provide me relatively accurate and informed information on the subject – I remain unclear as to whether this rightward swing is in fact recent, and if so how recent, and just how, in what ways, and for how long things have been building up toward it. Is it recent, or is it only recently on the radar of the journalism crowd?

Next, in response to a question about “breaking away from the postwar regime”:

People have been talking about breaking away from the sengo taisei (“postwar structure”) for decades. It is a fact that no other country involved in World War II still talks today about being in, or breaking away from, the “postwar.” Most countries stopped being “postwar” sometime during the 1950s, so this suggests something particular to the stability of Japan’s postwar. One reason for this is the role of the United States, which froze Japanese memory of the war and the origins of the postwar Japanese system in an immediately postwar shape in 1945-47. Many Japanese found this shape comfortable, accepting the emperor is a symbol and Japan as a peaceful, democratic country.

I’m not sure so much on the details of this – surely there have been changes over the years that have left things changed, not “frozen” in a 1945-1947 shape; beginning with the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, the 1952 end of the Occupation, the institution of the so-called 1955 System, the 1972 return of Okinawa, the Nixon Shocks, the incredible rise, the bubble burst, the so-called Lost Decades… but, nevertheless, I think the fundamental point is valid and important. Namely, take a historical view. Understand the past context. Of course we shouldn’t suggest that structural forces determine everything – people do make choices, and things do change, and so recent developments are relevant. But the most recent of developments are not all that’s relevant – it’s a failure, or a refusal, to understand the particularities of Japan’s situation that leads to all too many major US news outlets speaking of Japanese politics as wacky, irrational, bizarre. I certainly think there are lots of things they could and should do differently, but I recognize that if one were to study it further, as political reporters professionally should, things would not seem so bizarre.

I think that’s all I want to say on that. But, if you’re interested, please do check out the fuller excerpted interview at Asahi Shimbun Asia & Japan Watch.

Back in January, I finally got around to watching the film Princess Kaʻiulani. It really got me thinking, as I expected it would, and I wrote most of what follows as I watched, pausing for stretches to write. … I think my thoughts have changed somewhat since writing this originally, but it represents therefore my continual process of consideration, exploration, and hopefully growth or progress.

I find it so difficult, since returning to the mainland, to feel like I am sufficiently sympathetic, sufficiently, I don’t know what the word is… politically aligned, I suppose. When I lived in Hawaiʻi, it was so easy to feel like I was on the right side, to feel like I was engaging with these issues every day, and learning from them, and growing. As someone doing Okinawan Studies in Hawaiʻi, it was so easy to feel that I could count myself as an anti-colonialist, anti-Orientalist ally, or whatever the right term may be. I felt I could consider myself fairly well-informed/enlightened, and on the right side of thinking about these things, even if not actively activist. One can certainly be a feminist without being a particularly actively activist – a descriptor of your positions, not of your activity – but is there an equivalent word for being anti-Orientalist, pro-indigenous, and such?

Today, of course, I still feel terribly sympathetic, and I feel I want to be more so. I want to believe that I can truly count myself as thinking, knowing, believing correctly on these issues. But ever since returning to the mainland, I find it much more difficult to do so.

I watch a movie like this one, and of course I’m terribly sympathetic for Hawaiʻi’s plight, and wholly opposed to the actions of the Americans. But I cannot help but worry if my sympathy is too superficial, too weak. And to worry if I am, in fact, still a colonialist/imperialist at heart, an Orientalist, or, worse. I want so much to change, or to feel that I have changed, and while I was in Hawaiʻi, I felt that I had. But I fear that I am, simply by being removed from it, sliding backwards. Even as I edit this post right now, rewriting what I wrote a few months ago, I feel much more hesitant to call myself a “champion” or “advocate” for anything… after all, who the hell am I, and what do I know? I lived in Hawaiʻi for only three years, and though surrounded by certain issues and discourses and whatever everyday, actually took very few real courses or seminars explicitly discussing Hawaiian history or indigenous issues.

I hear the drums and the chants in the film, and see the hula dances, and smile; I feel a jolt of happiness in my heart. But is this the happiness of an Orientalist, who loves it simply for being exotic? As much as I might wish otherwise, it is not, it cannot be, the happiness of a Hawaiian local, much less that of a Native Hawaiian, who can rightfully claim some sense of belonging, growing up within that culture. On the plus side, though, I’ve certainly come to have a negative gut reaction, too, when seeing performances that are Orientalist and potentially offensive… so, that’s something. And, though I hesitate to feel too proud of myself or anything, since it was just last week, but after reading Adrienne Kaeppler’s survey of Polynesian & Micronesian art last week, I do feel that I’ve gained a better understanding and a new appreciation for certain core elements of Pacific cultural attitudes – e.g. about the sacredness of objects. I’ve been terribly busy this quarter, but hopefully I’ll get around to posting thoughts about that book more fully in a separate post sometime soon.

When I was in Hawaiʻi, I felt okay about claiming some association; I may be a haole, and I may not have grown up there, but by virtue of living in Hawaiʻi, and being so warmly accepted by so many people and communities there, it felt only natural to feel some rightfulness in considering myself a member of a community… for months after I left, I felt like I still belonged. I felt like I still had a community, that I had changed and learned and grown in Hawaiʻi, and that I could rightfully consider myself associated with the islands. But, as the months have gone by, I find myself questioning more and more what right do I have to say anything, what right to consider myself a supporter, or an activist, or whatever the word should be. What right do I have to call myself a supporter when I feel so inadequate both intellectually, and emotionally, in understanding these issues, in feeling that passion, and most importantly, so inadequate in articulating the core, fundamental notions of indigenous rights and post-colonial activism? I follow quite a few feminist blogs, for example, which are so brilliantly written… and I don’t feel that I can speak so eloquently, so appropriately, to Hawaiian issues. I fear that in any attempt to say anything, I will say something wrong, or not say enough. I will leave out some crucial aspect, or I will not go far enough in expressing my support. Even just using words like “support” here, I feel like it’s too weak. There surely is a stronger word, but it doesn’t come to mind.

On an intellectual level, I tell myself that Hawaiʻi, just like Ryūkyū or Japan or Korea, just like England or France, was a noble, rightful, proper kingdom unto itself, with its own history and traditions and should not be in any way regarded as lesser. So, I’ve got that. But, I see people all around me, who come from all over the world, calling one another “brother” and “sister” and sharing a connection, some kind of “fellow non-whites” connection, that I simply do not truly feel in my heart, much as I wish I did.

Statue of King Kamehameha I (r. 1782-1819) in front of Aliʻiōlani Hale, across the street from the ʻIolani Palace.

I can go forward, taking courses and reading books, and hopefully someday teaching my own courses and writing my own books, speaking of the nobility of the Ryukyuan and Hawaiian peoples, and decrying the wrongs done to them; I can teach my students that the US is, and was, an imperialist power, and that our government has indeed inflicted great injustices around the world. But, as of right now, at least, there is still a piece missing. If I hang a postcard of a Hawaiian flag upside down on my wall, I feel like a poser, or like I have no proper right to consider myself an ally, a supporter, on these issues. I feel like it’s too easy, like I’m not doing enough, like someone else is going to turn around and tell me I have no right, because I don’t appreciate well enough, or feel strongly enough… And, it’s certainly true that I have marched in no protests, written no diatribes, shouted no slogans.

I feel I wish I had people around me who could validate my attention to these issues, to tell me I do have the right to speak as a supporter of Hawaiian rights. Because it is far too easy, as a white American man from the mainland, as a student and an academic, to feel like I am simply giving lip-service, like I’m simply siding with the radical, liberal side as fashion or something, and not out of genuine feeling. Is that who I am? Sometimes I worry it is. It certainly is terribly easy to feel that one appears that way. … But, even to have a group to affirm that they see me as genuine, is that not itself self-serving, and selfish, and all too easy? And is that not flirting dangerously with problems of authenticity and the cliché of “I’m not racist – I have black friends”?

I’m not sure I’ve ever faced something like this in my life. I sometimes feel I cannot rightfully consider myself a supporter unless I go all the way. Truly all the way. To really immerse myself in cultural community, and to become truly active in political discussions and protests… To put aside all else and truly devote myself to activism in support of these issues – or elsewise, shut up and go home. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered or engaged with issues that have such strong feelings of ownership as Hawaiian issues (or Pacific Islander issues more broadly). I never needed anyone from Japan to confirm for me that how I felt about, or spoke about, Japan was “right,” or if I did, I got past that long ago, but with Hawaiian (and to a lesser extent, Okinawan) matters, there is such a strong pushback against anything perceived to be offensive, and so – quite understandably, with good reason – it makes it very difficult to ever feel I’ve adopted enough, incorporated enough, of the proper pro-Hawaiian, pro-indigenous, attitudes and understandings. Not that I mean to place the blame on others; I do not mean to say “they” make it difficult. It just is what it is, and I find it so hard to navigate. I hope that in reading more about Hawaiʻi, and in taking seminars on indigenous issues, I might come to feel more secure in my understandings, in my positions, and in feeling a right to speak. But can a few books and a few courses be enough? I certainly feel I have learned and grown and changed a lot from the few courses I have taken in Hawaiʻi, and from the few things I have read. But, perhaps it is a fuller immersion that is required. But when, and how, will I ever get the chance to live in Hawaiʻi again for any extended period? And even if I do, will it all fade and weaken once I leave the islands again, as it has this past year and a half?

Right: Honolulu, seen from the air.
I watch this film, Kaʻiulani, and I want to feel that I understand better, that I feel deeper, than the average filmgoer because of my connection to Hawaiʻi. But do I? Do I really? Can I claim that? I know the names, and the very basic outlines of the history, better than your average filmgoer for whom these events, and the names Kaʻiulani, Kalakaua, etc., are completely new and unfamiliar. And I recognize ʻIolani Palace and Queen Emma’s Palace, and know something, too, of their histories, where the average filmgoer might see these spaces as generic, not understanding the great accuracy with which the film portrays these places (were they filmed on location? Or was it reproduced?). But, so what? Is that enough?

Do I truly have any real connection to Hawaii, that’s more than just something petty, temporary, and tenuous? Is it okay, or is it inappropriate, to claim that? How, and when, if ever, can I feel confident enough to make these claims? And if I cannot, then what?

And, of course, all of these worries simply carry over into my pursuits in Okinawan Studies… I feel far fewer barriers in making these claims in Okinawa – I’ve certainly spoken with enough people in Hawaiʻi, both Okinawan & Okinawan-American students, as well as professors, and members of the local community, plus professors in Okinawa, and so I am able to feel much more comfortable and secure in allowing myself to claim some association with Okinawa, and to speak about Ryūkyū. But, the discourse of “authenticity” is powerful, and the doubts it inspires are powerful, and I simply do not know how to overcome them… though some have tried to reassure me that, at the very least, the fact that I’m thinking about these things, and worrying about them, rather than just striding in un-self-consciously, is an important start.


Some great blog posts today to reshare with you.

*Hyperallergic has a great post today on What Happens When Museums Return Antiquities?.

In summary, numerous museums in the US and around the world have now returned artifacts to origin countries, including Italy, Greece, Turkey, Afghanistan, Australia and Mexico. Many other demands are still ongoing. Through this blog post I learned that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston just purchased a number of beautiful bronzes in 2012 from a private collector, which Nigeria is now claiming were looted from the Benin Kingdom in 1897. The Benin Bronzes are easily among the most famous instances of the looting of antiquities in conjunction with colonial(ist) violence, but the focus has largely been on the British Museum. Well, whether the MFA does end up returning the bronzes or not, I do hope I manage to make it to Boston to see them first – some of them are really quite incredible examples of the art of these people, the Edo of Benin/Nigeria.

Above: One of the Benin bronzes, at the Metropolitan Museum. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Hyperallergic’s post provides a nicely balanced treatment of the issue, noting that in many cases, when objects have been returned, they have not had any dramatically negative impact on the displays – in fact, in many cases, it has brought some great positives. Many objects returned to origin countries were in storage to begin with, and in many other cases, these objects leaving the galleries have created opportunities for other objects already in the collection to be seen. Most museums have no more than 10% of their collections on display at any given time (and that’s a high estimate), and so there’s no danger of empty cases. Plus, the goodwill created by returning objects has allowed museums to forge new relationships with the origin countries, creating greater opportunities for special loans and traveling exhibitions.

Of course, there is also the other side of the debate, and the debate does still continue. As James Cuno of the Getty Trust, and Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan, have argued, calls for repatriation are less about rightfulness, culture, or history, and more about contemporary domestic politics within the origin countries, and political ploys to drum up nationalism. They have also pointed out the arbitrariness of the question of how far back in history we go – if the Ottomans brought artifacts from Lebanon to Turkey during the time when all of that was part of the Ottoman Empire, before there was ever an independent state of Lebanon, does that count as looting? And is there any moral obligation to return the objects?

The whole thing is complicated by the fact that, under US law, if a buyer purchases stolen goods in good faith, not knowing they’re stolen, he does gain legal title to the objects (imagine if someone came to your house and told you that your couch, your TV, your iPhone, whatever, were stolen, and so you’re under a moral obligation to return them; and you’re thus screwed out of hundreds of dollars); meanwhile, the law in most European countries states that when something is stolen, the original owner retains legal ownership, and no goodfaith sale can change that.

As you know if you’ve read some of my previous posts, I still remain very much on the fence on this one. There are very compelling reasons on all sides, both in terms of morality or rightfulness, and also in terms of practical repercussions. Thanks to Hyperallergic for another wonderful post.

A brilliant artwork I saw at the Asian Contemporary Art Fair (ACAF) in NY in 2008. Sadly, I do not know the artist. If anyone knows, do let me know, so I can credit it properly, please.

*On a somewhat related note, another Hyperallergic post discusses a new proposed law in New York State which would protect art historians & authenticators from being sued if they incorrectly assess an artwork. As a closely related article on the Art Newspaper explains, scholars have increasingly been hesitant to say anything at all about an artwork, effectively being silenced by the looming potentiality of a lawsuit. So, this is interesting.

An interactive panel at the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, helping translate and interpret classical Chinese.

*Finally today, Lindsay Nelson of “Adventures in Gradland” offers her thoughts on academic writing responding to recent discussions in the New York Times and New Yorker about the style and accessibility of academic writing.

My thoughts on the subject, in brief, are simply this: some writers, especially some of the biggest-name writers – I’m looking at you, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieau – are unnecessarily difficult to read. They do not explain themselves well, they do not say clearly and directly what they mean to say. They obfuscate. And even once their main idea is explained to you, it’s impossible to go back and find a choice quotable citable spot where they actually say it. BUT, most academics do not write like that. Yes, granted, there are jargon words we use, like discourse and performativity, but if you ask me, these are by no means employed in order to obfuscate, but rather in order to be clear and specific in what we mean to say. Regular everyday words can have a multitude of meanings – what do we mean by “performance” or “ritual”? In everyday language, we use those to mean all kinds of things, and we each have very different understandings of what they mean. But by employing jargon words, we’re able to much more specifically point to specific ideas, specific meanings. And, in truth, I believe that more people need to be more educated in the basics of feminist/gender theory, (post)colonialist discourse, (anti-)Orientalism, and certain other concepts. If we all were given a more solid basic foundation in these things in college, the majority of us would find academic writing a lot more accessible.

Anyway, I certainly appreciate where these critiques are coming from. But, let’s look the other way – we do still have the New York Times, among other publications, and most especially the Economist, which are still quite properly informative, dense with information, which don’t talk down to their readers. But so many magazines are becoming more and more a form of entertainment. Yes, the Internet age has brought a great many very informative, very well-written, and very properly intellectual blogs, such as Hyperallergic, and I do not mean to dismiss those. But, the big-name newspapers and magazines, like TIME, need to go back to playing a role in our society of really properly informing our citizenry. They need to stop trying to be more entertaining, more accessible, and need to go back to expecting, or demanding, that readers be okay with *gasp* being educated.

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