That whole kimono thing last month really kind of exhausted me. Dominated my attention, and my time, and so I certainly wasn’t going to go see the Metropolitan’s blockbuster exhibit China: Through the Looking Glass explicitly in order to seek out potentially problematic shit to talk about. No, I went to see the exhibit because visiting the Met is what I always do when I’m in New York. And I found the Met’s biggest blockbuster show of the year, a show of (mostly) European fashion inspired by China. It’s a beautiful, impressive, extensive show, and has received much critical acclaim, as well as criticism from at least some Internet commenters, attacking the Met on accusations of perpetrating and perpetuating Orientalism. And, as I walked through the exhibit, hoo boy, there sure were moments where I agreed wholeheartedly with the critiques. What the hell were the curators thinking? But then there were also times where the curators explained themselves, in gallery labels, and did a rather good job of it, I thought.
I took pages and pages of notes while in the exhibit, and went back and forth on this quite a few times. But, let’s see if we can break it down. What is China: Through the Looking Glass? What did the museum do right, where did they go wrong, and what could they have done better?
The show spans numerous galleries on three levels, and as a visitor one is able to start wherever one chooses – several different places serve as effective entrances or introductions to the show.
I’m not sure how the exhibit was coordinated, whether some curators controlled some parts, and other curators other parts. In some places, I felt the gallery labels defended their conceptual approach, their creative choices, quite well. The labels in the main hallway on the second floor (seen below) were excellent. But, in other places, they did not do such a great job of it; the labels in the basement did not show sufficiently nuanced, informed, attitudes, in my opinion, and were pretty problematic as a result.
To begin, one thing the curators did right was to acknowledge Said – thank god. And I feel they showed thorough understanding and appreciation of the problems of Orientalism.1 Curators aren’t idiots, and they aren’t bigots. They know what they’re doing; most have PhDs, and are well read in cross-cultural Theory and so forth. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, that especially at a top-ranking place like the Met, they should be regarded as proper experts and professionals. It’s just a question of the choices made based on that knowledge and expertise – whether they choose to push certain boundaries, or not.
Interestingly, the curators seem to have chosen in this exhibit to push boundaries by not pushing boundaries at all – by going back to old defenses of Orientalism & cultural appropriation, revived, perhaps, as new ones. I honestly can’t be sure whether this is a step forward, or back. In the Washington Post, curator Andrew Bolton is quoted as saying
‘What I wanted to do was take another look at Orientalism… When you posit the East is authentic, and the West is unreal, there’s no dialogue to be had. … China’s export art has colluded in its own myth-making,’ … The country itself has added to the ‘misperceptions that have shaped Western ideas.’
Similarly, on the gallery labels at the entrance to the basement portion of the exhibit, the curators clearly demonstrate their familiarity with Said’s theory, and their intention to move past it, or simply to explore a different side of things:
The China mirrored in the fashions in this exhibition is wrapped in invention and imagination. Stylistically, they belong to the practice of Orientalism, which since the publication of Edward Said’s seminal treatise on the subject in 1978 has taken on negative connotations of Western supremacy and segregation. At its core, Said interprets Orientalism as a Eurocentric worldview that essentializes Eastern peoples and cultures as a monolithic other.
While neither discounting nor discrediting the issue of the representation of ‘subordinated otherness’ outlined by Said, this exhibition attempts to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity. … It presents a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East. The ensuing dialogues are not only mutually enlivening and enlightening, but they also encourage new aesthetic interpretations and broader cultural understandings.
“Mirroring” was indeed a major theme throughout the exhibit, as mirrors were used to reflect scenes from “The Last Emperor” onto the clothes. This certainly ties the two together, conceptually, showing how these works of European fashion were inspired by Qing China – or, to be more accurate, were inspired by European imaginings of Qing China. While “The Last Emperor” looks amazing in terms of its production quality and so forth, and so far as I know (I haven’t actually seen the film) it may be quite historically accurate, but, still, it’s a European film. I wonder what the curators’ intentions were in choosing this over a Chinese film. In any case, this was a very clever and effective way of tying the two together, to show the influence, and to cast a red & yellow Imperial tint over the whole exhibit, which might be seen as Orientalizing, or as merely helping to set the mood & tone, however one wishes to take it. The mirrors also served a practical purpose, allowing visitors to see all sides of each garment on display.
As Connie Wang writes in probably the best review of the exhibit I have yet seen, “The Met’s New Exhibit is About Orientalism, Not China.” I think Wang picks up on much the same ambivalence, or confusion, that I do, but obviously from a different perspective, and writes about it in a far more concise, eloquent, and insightful manner than my ramblings. She writes that the exhibit is “thoughtful, respectful, and fairly thorough,” and begins in her essay seemingly to describe the Orientalist appropriations of these fashion designers as so distanced from politics, and from any real understanding of the culture, as to be hilariously incorrect, and thus perhaps, kind of, sort of, harmless. She quotes one of the gallery labels as saying that “Whether it was Fred Astaire playing a […] Chinese man, or Anna May Wong in one of her signature Dragon Lady roles, it is safe to say that both of those depictions were far from authentic.” And, she shares an Instagram post in which she, and the exhibit itself, poke fun at Dior for appropriating a work of calligraphy about a stomachache, simply because it looked pretty. (Though, actually, many of the most acclaimed works of Chinese calligraphy, acclaimed even among ancient Chinese scholars within the historical Chinese tradition, are letters about the most mundane things, even unpleasant things like stomachaches.) Yet, Wang then goes on to speak eloquently and compellingly about the celebration of Orientalism in this exhibit.
the East as decoration — fully illustrates the true nature of the exhibit. … At face value, it doesn’t seem like that bad a thing, but is ultimately a fabrication of very real places and people. Through Orientalism, a kimono, hanbok, ao dai, and qipao become one and the same; and the 45 million people killed under Mao Zedong’s leadership become a cute, army-green jacket and a pop-art Warhol print. (emphasis added)
(Though, of course, Westerners are not the only ones guilty of papering over the horrors of Mao’s regime, lionizing and commercializing what should be condemned – the Chinese do a fine job of it themselves.)
The show overall relies heavily on spectacle. Videos, music, helping to create an immersive environment. I’m not sure if I like this or not. It’s certainly engaging, but does it go over the top? Does it reinforce the Orientalism, or simply celebrate Chinese culture and history? Does it veer into the tacky, pandering to audiences and turning the whole thing into something more resembling commercial entertainment than a removed, distanced, scholarly museum show? Now that I’ve learned that Hong Kong film director Wong Kar Wai was among the lead exhibit designers, I am less surprised that films were used in this way, and that the whole show had this immersive and spectacular quality. Though, I am a little unsure as to what to think about Wong’s participation. On the one hand, the fact that this is being done, and agreed to, by a Chinese person, and not only white people really does mean something. If anyone should feel sensitively about how his country and his culture is being represented, it’s someone like Wong Kar Wai. Even if there are those who are offended, as they have a right to be, it’s Wong they’re pointing their fingers at, not a staff of clueless, Orientalist, whiteys. But, does Wong’s participation excuse it all? As we’ve seen with the kimono incident, Asians often tend to be a lot less concerned about Orientalism than Asian-Americans, for a variety of reasons, and often commit or construct things Asian-Americans might rail against as Orientalist – something that indeed seems to be going on here. I wonder if the fact that real Chinese people – award-winning expert filmmaker, expert in visual experiences and audience, Wong Kar Wai among them – were so involved in making the exhibit changes anyone’s feeling that the Museum is being Orientalist… Still, I suppose it’s more about the final product than about who was involved in doing it, and if the final product perpetuates stereotypes, then I guess it doesn’t matter who’s the organizer.
As I made my way through the show, the more I thought about this spectacle aspect – the mood music; the film projections; the yellow, red, and blue lighting in different sections – and then, especially when I saw a clip being played from the 1945 Ziegfield Follies without commentary, I really began to think that these elements – the “spectacle” aspect of the show as a whole – reenact and exemplify the Orientalism, rather than distancing us from it. At times, in certain sections of the exhibit, I could really imagine myself having timeslipped, the show being no different from what I can imagine the Met doing decades ago (and that’s a problem).
Some of the labels were quite on point. But others were conspicuously absent. I appreciate that the curators may have seen the movie clips (“The Last Emperor,” “House of Flying Daggers,” and the Ziegfeld Follies) as mere set-dressing and not as art objects on display, but, in terms of the viewer experience they were absolutely part of the show. And in terms of their contributions to Orientalist discourses (both within this show, and in general), I think all three could absolutely have merited their own gallery labels, explaining not just the title, year and director (which is pretty much all we got), but also something about their contributions to the exoticization of the East, and perpetuation of mistaken ideas. I think this same show can be done – these China-inspired fashion pieces can be shown, and without it being entirely a show about vilifying the designers as horribly racist Orientalists. But, the context of the critique of Orientalism has to be there, as it was for the Art Deco Hawaii show, which placed artists like Eugene Savage within their cultural and political (and commercial) context. You know what would have been really radical? Removing these fashion designers from the myth of being pure creative genius, and addressing more explicitly their place within a commercial fashion world, driven by the need to innovate, to interest, to surprise, to shock, and, going beyond that, what a thing it would have been if the Museum itself dared to be a little self-reflexive, looking at its own tendency towards blockbuster spectacular exhibits, such as this very one, and what the museum does in order to attract audiences.
I think the exhibit should have spoken more extensively and explicitly about how cultural “borrowing” or “inspiration” – or appropriation, if we want to call it what it is – perpetuates exoticization, stereotypes, and considerable mistaken beliefs and misunderstandings about Chinese culture, and that this is seriously harmful in real ways. The fact is, I understand how and why it seems harmless and innocent to continue to play in fantasy constructions of imagined versions of Oriental cultures, and I do understand the temptation or desire to focus on a direction of celebrating creativity. But, the construction and perpetuation of fantasy notions of the Orient are harmful and damaging in ways that have very real impacts. Asian-Americans continue to be seen as the perpetual foreigner, and they continue to be associated with particular stereotyped notions about their culture, rather than being seen as full and complex people, who are much more than their Asianness, and whose Asianness is in any case far more complex than whatever particular stereotypical cultural markers. As Said explains, to maintain a fantasy of the Orient means (a) that you’re blinding yourself to a truer understanding of the real and actual Orient, and (b) that you’re leaving it to the Orientalists to describe and define the Orient, ignoring the voices and perspectives of those who actually live it, and know best. Chanel, Givenchy, and so forth shouldn’t be our touchpoints for understanding what China is really like. China should be our source for understanding China.
They do acknowledge this in several places – in the introductory labels both in the basement (quoted above) and on the second floor, where they talk about Said and Orientalism, and also in the discussion of Yves St Laurent’s “Opium” line, which is described as controversial even at the time for its “trivialization of the mid-nineteenth century Opium Wars between China and Britain; and the objectification of women through its highly sexualized advertisement,” and yet which is still being sold today.
Those second floor labels state unabashedly (apologies for the blurry image):
Here is perhaps the most scholarly, most intelligent, discussion of the issue in the exhibit. And yet, I still don’t know what to think about it. Is this a step forward, or a step back? The curators advocate not simply taking Saidian criticisms and living by them, but rather continuing to question, and to explore other sides of things. In this sense, it certainly seems a step forward. But, then, is the language they’re using, and the arguments, all that different from simply defending, perpetuating, reviving, even celebrating precisely that which Said was criticizing? One has to be so careful about word choice and phrasing when discussing these sorts of issues, in order to navigate the inevitable criticisms, in order to demonstrate that you really do know what you’re talking about, that you are well familiar with the anti-Orientalist critique, and that you are deftly, informedly, and not ignorantly, proposing a new or different interpretation. I imagine that the curators did intend, did aim, to be as careful as could be in the wording. Whether they succeeded, though, and whether it is possible to ever succeed, whether it is possible to ever avoid any/all possible critique, are separate questions however. There must be some way to talk about these fashion trends, and to exhibit these beautiful pieces, without either devoting the whole exhibit to their demonization, yet also without sweeping Orientalist concerns under the rug in the name of celebrating cultural exchange and creativity. But if there is some totally different way of doing it, a different direction to take other than just walking a very tight line, I don’t know what it is.
The inclusion of Chinese artists, such as Guo Pei, was a smart choice, demonstrating that (a) Chinese artists made use of many of the very same motifs and styles, so it’s not as if the Western designers are doing it wrong, misrepresenting China, or mis-using Chinese cultural elements inappropriately, and (b) Chinese artists also borrow from other cultures – such is the post-modern world that we live in. This nuances the conversation in an important and much-needed way.
But, I think it still needed to have gone further. We need to talk about Chinese reactions to these European fashions. How did Chinese people, Chinese scholars, Chinese fashion designers, react to these Orientalist designs, and what do they think of them today? The topic could be even further nuanced by bringing in fashion designs by Chinese designers who appropriate aesthetic elements from China’s ethnic minorities, or from other cultures entirely. No one owns the culture entirely by themselves – to be the one whose permission is needed – and no one in the world, Western or non-Western, white or non-white, is innocent of appropriation. We need to talk too about how Western designers worked with Chinese designers, studied China, lived there, did it respectfully or at least tried to. I personally know nothing about St. Laurent, Givenchy, Chanel, how much any of these people really spent time in China. For all I (we) know, maybe they did. If there is vindication to be had, it would be found in discussing the extent to which these designers “did their homework,” so to speak, and the extent to which they have the support of Chinese artists and fashion designers.
I think we do need to question and investigate, and not just assume, the experience and background of the artists. Craig Green (one of the artists featured in the exhibit) could be of Chinese descent, for all you know. All it says on the gallery labels is “British.” Or, even if he’s white, he could have been born and raised in Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Taiwan. I’ve met people purely of European descent who are native speakers of Mandarin, and I’m met people who could certainly pass for “white,” based on appearance, but who are in fact both by upbringing and by ancestry, part Chinese, part Indian, or part Okinawan or Japanese. You don’t know. Or, even if Mr. Green were from a rather mainstream white Western background, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have worked closely with traditional clothiers in China, who gave him their “permission” to share this art out in the world, and to adapt it in this way. Cultural permission is central to many people’s definition of cultural appropriation; how do we know these artists don’t have permission?
Evening Gown, 2007, by Guo Pei, Chinese fashion designer who agreed to be in this show, who borrows extensively from both Western & Chinese inspirations and motifs, and who likely works with, at least to some extent, European fashion designers and does not (so far as I know) openly oppose or denounce them as Orientalists.
BY WAY OF CONCLUSION
In the end, does this show do a good job of walking that line, critiquing Said’s argument, and yet without outright celebrating Orientalist appropriation? Or does it do a horrible job? You would think it would be clear which is the case. And yet, in the end, I remain uncertain.
As I’ve already said, there were definitely portions of this exhibit where I felt I had fallen back in time, where I felt I was seeing a show just as the Met would have done it decades ago, celebrating Yves St. Laurent for example with the only critique being a few lines on one gallery label on one wall. I think the curators, at times anyway, really did fail to distance themselves sufficiently. It’s one thing to show Orientalist creations by fashion designers, but it’s quite another to contribute to the Orientalism, to add to it. Dragon headdresses and the like, for example, added onto the mannequins were clearly intended to look haute couture and “fit in” in that respect, but these were blatantly Orientalist as well. Really, what the museum perhaps should have done is toned down the spectacle considerably, and then, even if not excoriating the designers in the gallery labels, at least then the Orientalism would be limited to the objects on display – objects not created by the museum – and would not be repeated, or extended, into the exhibit design itself.
The focus on China as fantasy is further destabilizing. One feels inclined to rail against the perpetuation of these fantasies. After all, at the core of Said’s argument is the allegation that our idea of the Orient, the vision of the Orient which is allowed to perpetuate within the popular consciousness, is one constructed by Westerners, denying Orientals (to use his own term) the power to define their own culture, their own history, their own existence. And yet, which is better, to juxtapose these fashions with fantasy, or with reality? In one gallery, garments are displayed alongside projections of kung fu films – these are not misrepresenting Chinese reality, because they were never meant to represent reality, but were consciously and intentionally drawing upon fantasy. In another gallery, dresses are juxtaposed with historical artifacts, which seem to have inspired their aesthetic design, though devoid of actual cultural/ historical context. And, in the basement, we have “The Last Emperor.” Whether that is fantasy or reality I guess depends on the designers’ intentions.
What I think is missing from all of these conversations – whether about the kimono thing at the MFA, or on dozens of other topics – is nuance and complexity. As I said in my post about the kimono, not all appropriation is the same. Is it better to be inspired by the fantasy of kung fu movies, rather than by actual history & culture, or worse? I don’t know, but they’re certainly different, right? They’re not all simply of a type, to be lumped together, right? People want it to be very starkly one way or another. If it’s racist, then it’s wholly racist, and in order to be not, it must be perfectly spotless, as according to a very standard set of criteria. But, nothing in the real world is in fact that simple. Is there any way to talk about the positive aspects of the beauty and creativity of these works, at all? Is there a way to get the audience to understand that we – as art historians, as curators, as a whole, as a field or discipline – genuinely truly do denounce the negative aspects of Orientalism, stereotyping, and appropriation, while still acknowledging the creativity, aesthetic beauty, and positive elements of cross-cultural exchange involved?
If showing these works is so horrifically offensive, then I wonder what it was, for example, about the Asia Society’s show of Maoist propaganda art that made it so innocuous, that no one thought it was celebrating or promoting Communism, or excusing or condoning the horrible offenses of the Maoist regime, by virtue of showing these paintings and praising their aesthetics, skill, and so forth? It is possible, after all, is it not, for a museum to reject, to stand opposed to, or at least to not wholly support, the positions of the artists it shows? Whether the Met did this sufficiently I leave an open question, I suppose, but it has to be possible for a museum to engage with a phenomenon, to discuss it, and to show some appreciation for the beauty and creativity involved, while there still being some implicit understanding that “the views expressed [by the artists] are not necessarily those of the institution,” right? After all, problematic though the Orientalist / appropriationist aspects of this may be, these garments are still artworks. They are still beautiful, inspired, inspirational, expertly crafted, and they are still representative of particular cultural and artistic trends that genuinely exist – and they deserve to be shown in a museum, just as much as Maoist propaganda paintings, shunga prints, or any number of other kinds of works of visual and material culture do.
Art Deco Hawaii did a rather good job of this, I think, showing many beautiful objects and celebrating their beauty, while at the same time being very explicit in the gallery labels as to how all of this constructed and perpetuated fantasies explicitly for the benefit of the tourism industry, papering over the loss and tragedy experienced by the Hawaiian people, and eliding any accurate or earnest documentation of actual Hawaiian culture or history. Perhaps that is what was needed here – a more explicit, forefront, discussion of the problematic intentions and impacts of these fashions.
But, then, that wasn’t the curators’ intention… They explicitly expressed their desire to escape from having to always see Orientalism that same one way. And, as scholars, we should be questioning and pushing the boundaries, and encouraging the broader public to do the same – not giving in to the popular attitudes of the day. In one part of the exhibit, they talk about Manchu robes, and their design features, being taken out of context, and European designers explicitly breaking Chinese cultural rules… Should a museum have to be judgey, and expound on why this is problematic? Are museums supposed to be judgey? Or are they supposed to simply present things with a certain disinterested distance? Do museums judge Japanese art for its (occasional) sexual explicitness? Do we display Melanesian or African art just so we can talk about how horrible the culture was that created it? Certainly not. So, why should we do the same for our own culture, to do an Orientalism show just to tear it apart, tear it down? I think the point of scholarship, and museum exhibits, more so, is to highlight and examine from a certain scholarly distance, to acknowledge the complex and diverse phenomena of our world, and to attempt to understand them. Not necessarily to be judgey – or at least not in certain ways, or to certain extents. I think maybe the curators here expected or intended that distance, and didn’t execute it properly, giving the impression (mistaken or otherwise) that they agreed with all of the designers’ cultural decisions when, in fact, hopefully, presumably, they do not.
I’m still on the fence about all of this, despite having studied Orientalism, and East Asian history and culture fairly extensively. But, maybe that’s how it should be. Maybe we should all have some humility. Question our own assumptions. Consider the possibility of potentially seeing it a different way. Is this all about appropriation? Maybe very much so. But maybe not. Has the museum dealt with this subject in a way that would please everyone? No, of course not. That would be impossible. Have they demonstrated considerable cultural sensitivity, education, awareness in the relevant politics and problematics, and so forth? Maybe. Maybe not. Are these European fashion designers culturally ignorant, insensitive, appropriators? Maybe. Have they spent extensive time in China, more extensive perhaps than their critics, actually working with and learning from Chinese fashion designers? I don’t know. And neither do you. Would it make a difference if they had? Maybe it should.
Maybe, in this broader debate of Orientalism in museums, and in our society as a whole, let’s not rush to condemn – nor to vindicate or excuse – quite so quickly. Let’s think about it. Let’s talk about it. Let’s have a real discussion that’s not a shouting match. And through that discussion, let us all, on all sides of the debate, maybe learn something from one another.
“China: Through the Looking Glass” is still open for a couple more weeks, until Sept 7, at the Metropolitan Museum, in New York.
All photos my own.
(1) We should note that Edward Said spoke almost exclusively about what we call the Near East and the Middle East, and about British and French attitudes as expressed largely in literature. Said was in no way a China or Japan expert, and makes very little mention of East Asia in his book. So, while the core central argument of his book is extremely valuable, and this is where it all stems from, please just note that wherever I refer to “Said,” really I’m referring to the far more well-informed, and well-written, critiques that have emerged out of East Asian Studies, Asian-American Studies, and so forth, drawing upon his ideas.