Not only was I impressed with the Brooklyn Museum’s American/modern/contemporary showings, but furthermore, their African exhibit was, at least in some small but very key ways, truly excellent. I can’t say I exactly picked it apart for every single aspect of how there might be problems, or room for improvement, but at least I will say that a few things really stood out at me.

First and foremost, the exhibit is entitled African Innovations, so right from the outset, they’re combatting the stereotype that Africa is somehow backwards, behind, not creative, not innovative. Identical introductory panels which bookend the exhibit (you can enter at either end, or in fact from anywhere in the middle) state that the museum’s collection “includes objects of transcendent beauty and sophistication, but many of these works were valued for more than aesthetic reasons. They were created to solve important creative, social, political, and cosmological problems.” Personally, I would have said “purposes,” not “problems,” and I do find that strange, but putting that aside, here they unequivocally state that these objects are beautiful and sophisticated, but also that they serve powerful and important culturally specific purposes. We should try to learn and understand and appreciate those particular cultural contexts; these objects do not exist purely for our (or anyone’s) aesthetic appreciation or inspiration.

Left: “Skipping Girl,” Yinka Shonibare, 2009.
Further down on the same panel, it states “The phrase ‘African art’ might suggest a continent-wide form of visual expression that is unitary and timeless, but nothing could be further from the truth. … For the first time, the Museum’s African galleries are arranged chronologically, to emphasize the continent’s long record of creativity, adaptation, and artistic achievement.” It is sad, in a way, that we are still fighting this battle, that people don’t already know, appreciate, just how large and diverse Africa is, and also that its many peoples are not stuck in the past, not unchanging, but are in fact dynamic and actively engaged with the modern world. The chronological organization of the exhibit, and in particular the final section panel, “Crossroads Africa – Today,” along with a piece by Yinka Shonibare and a handful of other very contemporary art works, help illuminate this story, highlighting that Lagos, Dakar, Nairobi, and Johannesburg are truly global cities, that African artists in these and other urban centers have actively engaged with changes and developments, addressing a wide variety of questions and concerns (including “What is Africa?” and “Who is African?”), and experimenting with a wide variety of media and forms “to express these new realities.”

Admittedly, on the individual objects’ gallery labels, many of the historical/traditional objects in the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit are described pretty much as I’d expected them to be, with descriptions of their usage and meaning within the cultural context; nothing really stood out to me as particularly exciting or innovative in terms of the narrative or discourses, but neither did anything stand out as particularly problematic. Still, the emphasis on these cultures as possessing history, as being living dynamic traditional cultures, and as simultaneously being actively engaged in a globally connected, modern and cosmopolitan world, is I think of great importance and very well put forward here. And perhaps this should come as no surprise, given that the introductory panel informs us that the Brooklyn Museum was the first in the country to display African objects as works of art. Bravo!


By contrast, the Metropolitan Museum makes little or no overt effort to combat standard narratives in its Arts of Africa galleries. You won’t find any prominent discussion here of African innovation, of Africa’s modernity, the great size of its cities, or the dynamic and decidedly active ways in which Africans negotiate and engage with societal change and cultural challenges. You will find mention of Africa’s great size and diversity, but only in the most plain vanilla manner, by way of simply introducing the topic of African Art and describing the continent & its people.

That said, though, it is not as if the Metropolitan is being blatantly Orientalist, essentialist, or the like, let alone (god forbid) outright racist in their representation of the diverse cultures of the African continent. They’re simply taking a more conservative, standard, discursive approach. Yet, it is precisely because that approach is so standard that it makes it difficult to see through it, so to speak, to know whether or not to criticize it, and for what.

The Met’s African galleries are certainly extensive, well-lit, and well-maintained. This is not some forgotten, ill-maintained, back corner of the museum. It’s not the most dynamic or original mode of display, but neither is it too blatantly archaic. That Africa is given so much space is certainly something, and in terms of its location within the museum, it’s not located in some distant back corner, a basement, or some other lesser or lower position. The Africa galleries are immediately next to the Greco-Roman galleries, which makes them very accessible, but as for whether it is a positive association, connecting it to the “great” ancient civilizations, or a negative one, placing it somehow in contrast to, or prior to, those civilizations, as “primitive” art, I don’t know; I suppose it could be both, or neither. That they are located alongside the Arts of the Pacific and of the Pre-Columbian Americas is certainly evocative of the outdated and highly problematic categorization of “Primitive Art,” but those discourses are not prominently visible here at all, and all in all I’m not really decided on how I feel about this grouping – after all, admittedly, it’s not a very straightforward geographical grouping, as placing Chinese art next to Japanese, or Greek next to Roman, may be, but at the same time, everything has to go next to something, and every pairing or grouping can be said to imply all sorts of implications… Whether this grouping is problematic, I leave open, but at the very least, there is no single overarching categorical title, such as “primitive art,” and each of these broad geographic areas is very much given its own separate space. Though, that said, the three are grouped into a single category on the museum website’s list of galleries.

The African exhibits are organized by region, and by culture, with labels that describe individual cultures, culturally and historically, from an anthropological sort of point of view, discussing how each type of object was used, or worn, in its original “traditional” cultural context, and often includes photos of the objects in use. This is certainly a step up from exhibits which might ignore the meaning of an object, its purpose and the ways in which it was appreciated or valued in its original culture, in favor of viewing the objects solely or primarily through a Western aesthetic lens. But it is still awfully standard, categorizing and describing people rather than giving the impression of having them speak at all. The culture is a single thing, to be analyzed, examined, understood, and then described, rather than as something lived and experienced, as something dynamic and changing, as something with interiority, the members/practitioners of which question their traditions and engage or negotiate with continuation versus change.

One thing that occurred to me as I read these labels, and thought about what I was going to say in this blog post, is the question, whether it is better in gallery labels to describe a culture in the present tense by their traditions – thus denying them history, change, and modernity – or in the past tense, implying their belonging only to the past, erasing their contemporaneity, implying their non-existence in the present, and their belonging to the past as primitive, less-advanced, or otherwise non-modern?

These exhibits further make little mention of the history of colonialism, mentioning its impact chiefly in terms of the tragic consequences for the destruction, corruption, or diminishing of these essentialized cultures. The “traditional” culture, in some romanticized imagined pure form, is placed on a pedestal, elevating it, and its loss bemoaned. Now, don’t get me wrong, I mourn the loss of traditional cultural practices too, but, here it is presented almost as a matter of fact. There is no anti-colonialist or post-colonialist activist bent to these exhibits, no post-colonial critique, no intermingling of contemporary works, just a real focus on the art itself, aesthetically and in terms of craftsmanship, as well as anthropologically.

In the end, I am conflicted. On the one hand, the Met’s displays of Pacific and African art are not grossly, boldly, clearly problematic, but neither are they progressive at all. The legacy of anthropological and “primitive art” approaches is evident in the over-abundance of Papua New Guinea objects, and more to the point by the absence of any historical discussion of political or societal change over time, of histories of interaction or exchange, and thus of development of the artforms being discussed. Works are described by culture, without any individual people, events, or developments discussed. We would never describe ukiyo-e woodblock prints as simply being objects representative of traditional Japanese culture, as if there were a singular traditional Japanese culture – rather, we talk about historical periods, in the case of ukiyo-e the Edo period, under the Tokugawa shoguns, a period of particular cultural and societal developments, and of considerable shifts and changes in the development of ukiyo-e, stylistically and otherwise. So, why describe the arts of the Bamara or Ibo peoples in such a categorizing, ahistorical manner?

Perhaps there is an argument to be made for different museums taking different approaches, and evincing different priorities in their treatments of cultural objects. After all, what the Brooklyn Museum does is still but one narrative, one interpretation, one version of the story. That approach, though we might see it as wonderfully progressive, also presents a limited and biased perspective, and if every museum did the same as the Brooklyn Museum does, it would create a clear sense that there are other approaches, other narratives, other interpretations that are being silenced, and which need to be heard. And there may indeed be considerable aspects to the Met’s approach which constitute such an equally valid, equally valuable, narrative or approach, alternative and thus complementary to the Brooklyn Museum’s approach. But, even so, even while the Met’s approach is not as baldly grossly problematic as it might have once been – even while the Met has clearly made changes and made progress – I think that many problems still remain.

Art Deco Hawaii

I posted a couple years back about a great show of Japanese Art Deco held at Japan Society in New York; that show has since traveled to a number of other institutions, introducing museumgoers in a number of major US cities to a Japan, and a more global, non-Western-inclusive Art Deco movement, they likely knew nothing about before. Last weekend, I had the joy of seeing a similar exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art, entitled “Art Deco Hawaii.”

While there were few pieces that really struck me as looking or feeling very Art Deco, and so the overall impact of the show was not really one of expanding my feeling of a more global sense of how Art Deco took place around the world, the show was brilliant nevertheless, including many truly gorgeous works, introducing us to a number of great artists who are widely unknown and woefully under-appreciated outside the niche field of Hawaiian art, and, further, introducing to visitors a somewhat nuanced and complex look at the functioning of exoticism, etc., in the art of that time, with tourism marketing materials and people’s more general conceptions of the islands, between the two of them, building up a certain set of images and understandings of the islands that was purely constructed, imagined, and which continues to have great influence today. As David A.M. Goldberg puts it in his biting review of the show in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “most works were commissioned by corporations such as Matson and Dole, which were either trying to sell the islands’ products, or the islands themselves as product,” through promotion of the islands’ natural charms – both scenic (land, sea, sky, flora and fauna) and human. Goldberg’s review, entitled “Art deco examples distort Hawaiian culture, history,” is far more bold and upfront about the Orientalizing impact of these works than I think the exhibit itself was, and makes for interesting reading.

“The Discovery” (1928), one of a number of works in the show by Arman Tateos Manookian, an Armenian-American artist who tragically committed suicide at the age of 27, in 1931. I find his pieces stunningly beautiful in their bold colors, and distinctive style, with broad blocks of color in place of finer-grained detail.

Still, regarding the Orientalizing/exoticizing discourses to which these works contributed, I was quite pleased to see how the curators described this phenomenon to visitors; ideas of Orientalist discourse, of media discourse theory, and the like, are generally not so widely discussed, or widely known, I think, outside of academia (and certain other fields), and it shows a certain keenly critical, and post-colonialist political, approach to bring this to the general public, by way of the museumgoer. The exhibit does not focus on these works as being simply beautiful, or expertly executed, and to a large extent does not work to reify (reinforce) these exoticizing discourses, but instead really points them out and asks visitors to come away with a more nuanced and complex understanding of the history of the construction of ideas of Hawaii. It also situates “Art Deco Hawaii” in the historical contexts of both the Art Deco movement and of Honolulu/Hawaiian history, presenting the topic in a serious and academic way, but in a way which I hope, I imagine, wasn’t too inaccessible to the average museumgoer. In this, actually, I think it may have done a better job than the Art Deco Japan show – since I could not take photos in that show, I don’t have any record of exactly what was and was not said in the gallery labels there, but my blog post on the exhibit does indicate that I felt the show did not provide enough discussion of how this fit into the history of the Art Deco movement, or of the urban culture of Japan at that time.

“A God Appears” (1940), one of a series of six murals by Eugene Savage, all on display in the show, commissioned by the passenger steamship liner company Matson. Where Manookian’s works, for better or for worse, are more subtle (and, arguably, perhaps, that much more insidious?) in their romanticizing of Hawaiian history and culture, Savage’s works boldly represent Hawaii as a place of continuous eternal celebration, extending even to events such as the encounter with Captain Cook, and the overthrow of the kingdom, events which are today considered hardly worth celebrating. The Orientalist tropes here are so blatant, they’re almost laughable – or they would be, if not for their very real and insidious impacts.

In the Art Deco Hawaii show, we are told that “Art Deco proved ideal for conjuring the islands’ natural beauty and fabled past for a public that was aspirationally contemporary yet nostalgic at heart,” and we also see the curators pulling no punches, not talking down to visitors, but instead boldly going ahead with a somewhat more complex explanation of the topic, saying that

A regional form of modernism centered on the islands’ singular sense of place. Art Deco entered the visual arts in Hawai’i as a fusion of modernist visual formulas with localized motifs. … Hawai’i’s Art Deco was an interwar elaboration of visual codes that had been developing in Western art since the early 19th century to construct and evoke the atmosphere and allure considered unique to the islands: the beauty of their landscape, the perceived exoticism of their people and customs, and the imagined narrative of their history.

Right: “Surfer Girl” by Gene Pressler (c. 1930s), one of the only pieces in the show that really felt “art deco” to me, though as I’m not so clear on the defining stylistic characteristics of the movement, that may be off-target. For some reason, though I can’t quite put my finger on it, this feels like a painting that would look right at home at Aloha Tower, or the Chrysler Building, though I couldn’t really say just why.

Thanks so much to the Honolulu Museum of Art for allowing photos in this exhibition, of so many works which are so beautiful, so stunning, and so historically, culturally, discursively, interesting. This also allows me to capture the curators’ wording/phrasing on the labels, as quoted above, without having to bother taking the time to copy it out by hand, with notebook and pencil, there in the gallery. Now, admittedly, I could just buy the catalog. But, then, if I bought the catalog for every exhibit I saw, instead of just taking photos, how much space would that take up on my shelf, not to mention the damage to my wallet. (Incidentally, the catalog is beautifully well-done, and available at the museum for the relatively reasonable price of $30, though strangely for some reason I can’t seem to find it on Amazon or otherwise available online anywhere)

I do not know if this exhibit is going to be traveling to any other museums, but I really hope it would. I think people would very much enjoy it, if only for the truly beautiful works by so many artists who are all but unknown outside of Hawaii (or, for that matter, even in Hawaii, unless you’re one who pays particular attention to art). And, beyond that, it is really far too infrequent that we see anything about Hawaii (not to mention a whole bunch of other parts of the world) in the vast majority of US mainland museums. Just as the Art Deco Japan show was eye-opening and much appreciated by many visitors with a particular interest in Art Deco, but who did not have any particular background or interest in Japan, I think the same would go for this Hawaii show – it’s truly great to have such wonderful shows accessible to the local community, to learn something more about their own history, in this, the most remote archipelago in the world, but I think there is great value too in sharing that with the broader American and world community – and, especially for an exhibit like this, I think there would be great interest, appreciation, and enjoyment too.

Art Deco Hawaii is up at the Honolulu Museum of Art through January 11, 2015.

I had not been to the Brooklyn Museum in a long time. I generally tend(ed) to just not think of it; I come into town, and I think, okay, what’s going on at the Met? What’s going on at Asia Society? What’s going on at the Rubin? What’s going on at Japan Society? But for whatever reason, I rarely ever even think about the Brooklyn Museum. But, boy was I wrong. Even with the entire China/Japan/Korea section closed for renovations until (projected) fall 2015, today’s visit was absolutely worth it.

Hearing that they were doing some kind of Ai Weiwei show, I figured I would go to check that out, and then just kind of poke around the rest of the museum. Turns out that Ai Weiwei show is a major retrospective, covering significant portions of two floors of the museum, and including many of his most famous works. But even so, that turned out to not be the stand-out highlight of the visit, since everything else was equally exciting and impressive.

Firstly, an installation by the Brooklyn-based artist Swoon, entitled “Submerged Motherlands.” I’m not even sure what to say about it, except that it took me very much by surprise, at how impressive, beautiful, and intricate it was. I don’t want to take up too much space talking about it, because this post is long enough, and I want you, dear reader, to get to at least some of the other stuff before getting bored and turning away from this tab, so, with sincere apologies for giving it short shrift, let me just link to my photos of the installation, and encourage you, if interested, to go read up about Swoon more, or keep your eyes out for other stuff she does.


Getting into the meat of what I want to say, when I visit large encyclopedic museums, I generally put pretty low priority on the American and contemporary art sections. I know what I’m going to see there. More of the same. Very standard, canonical, mainstream stuff. But the Brooklyn Museum is different. Their modern/contemporary and American galleries highlight works relating to identity politics and different cultural perspectives in a way I don’t think I have ever seen at another museum. To see it here, I think, depicting America as a true, real, mix of cultures, and not through a singular mainstream narrative with everyone else on the peripheries, really throws into sharp relief just how little other museums do the same. Is our nation not, as Walt Whitman is quoted as saying on the walls of the Brooklyn Museum’s American galleries, a nation of nations? You shouldn’t have to be Brooklyn to do this; the Metropolitan represents New York, the United States, and the world, and yet it does not do this. The National Gallery and Museum of American Art, their occasional excellent special exhibits aside, do not, I don’t think, do this. And neither does LACMA, which likewise represents a very diverse, vibrant city, and yet which devotes its American/modern galleries chiefly to the likes of Rauschenburg, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rothko, Calder – the usual suspects. And lord knows, the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Santa Barbara, while they have shown some very different things, including some work by Chicano artists, etc., lord knows they’ve never done anything that excites me.

“Avarice,” by Fernando Mastrangelo. An Aztec calendar stone, remade entirely out of corn, commenting both on the central place of corn in Mexican culture & identity, but also on the exploitation of Mexico by US agribusiness.

By contrast, the Brooklyn Museum shows Isamu Noguchi, Fred Wilson, Kehinde Wiley, Teri Greeves, as American artists, as central members of the body of artists they are showing in their American modern/contemporary galleries, not tokenizing them or showing them off to one side among “minority artists,” or “other stories,” but as central elements of the central, main, story. These are Americans. This is American art. This is American history & culture. This. is. America.

“Blossom,” by Sanford Biggers, a work about the history of lynching in this country. What do Rauschenberg, Warhol, Pollock, and all the rest say about American life, American history, American culture and identity? What political social commentary do they offer?

This attitude is evident more or less throughout the museum, with a Kehinde Wiley painting displayed prominently in the entrance lobby (where I remember seeing it also years ago), and with the main first floor exhibit being one of “A World within Brooklyn / Crossing Cultures,” in which objects from many different cultures/places and time periods are juxtaposed, in order to suggest something about the similarities, comparisons, and differences across all cultures. How do different cultures represent their world (landscapes, maps)? How do different cultures represent the human body, and ideals of beauty? On a more practical level, how do different cultures make chairs, pitchers, and other practical objects, and what similarities and differences are there in the styles, motifs, etc.?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to say about Crossing Cultures. It’s a great introductory exhibit, as it includes objects from a wide range of cultures/places and time periods, representing the wide variety of the museum’s holdings without over-emphasizing any one period or culture. And it places them all on a more or less equal pedestal, inviting visitors to consider all these cultures merely as a diversity within a shared human experience, and not in a hierarchy of more or less primitive or advanced. The labels here invite the visitor to consider cross-cultural comparisons, but are rather unspecific as to more precisely what questions to ask, what comparisons to make, what conclusions to come to. I would be very curious what visitors get out of this exhibit. Because, on the one hand, it’s great to leave it open to the visitors; studies have shown that the vast majority of the time, the vast majority of museum visitors don’t “get” the message the curators intended anyway, and draw their own comparisons, conclusions, etc. But, then, on the other hand, by leaving it so open and vague, aren’t we just making it that much harder for the message to get through? Then again, maybe what I think is the message here isn’t really the message the curators intended, and maybe it’s not the only message to be gotten from this exhibit. I come to this from a certain perspective, with certain anti-Eurocentric, “rethinking the canon,” art historical and Museum Studies ideas in mind, and so it’s easy for me to see certain themes or messages and think that’s the theme or message the curators are trying to get across. But, then, maybe they’re not.

As I walked through the Crossing Cultures exhibit, I was also concerned about over-emphasizing the aesthetic. There’s a long tradition of museums in the West displaying and describing non-Western objects in a manner that encourages appreciation of them solely for their aesthetic qualities – that is, as attractive, appealing, or otherwise visually interesting to a Western eye specifically – and places value on their ability to inspire, as certain African objects inspired Picasso. The prioritizing of Western attitudes of what is and is not aesthetic, or of Western approaches to form, composition, etc., with the implication or assumption that Western ways of seeing are universal, is a classic element of Orientalist thinking, or so I’ve been taught, and is potentially quite dangerous. At the time, as I walked through the exhibit, I worried about the exhibit encouraging a more purely aesthetic comparison; but, now, as I rethink it and write this post, I think it really is also encouraging thought of comparison of usage and meaning across different cultures, which is a good thing. So, I guess the jury’s out…

In any case, by way of wrapping this up, I definitely need to visit the Brooklyn Museum more, and keep an eye on what they’re up to. I am working on a second post about my visit to the Brooklyn Museum, talking about their exhibit of African art, in comparison to that at the Metropolitan Museum. However, I’m also in Hawaii right now on a very brief stopover on my way to Japan, so, depending on what adventures come up, we shall see how quickly I get around to finishing that African art post. Thanks for reading, and have a great rest of the summer!

A young musician, reentering the country with the violin she has had since she was young, returning home after performing a gig overseas. A Smithsonian staff member escorting paintings on loan from Tokyo. A man moving across the country with his family heirlooms, including his grandmother’s antique silverware and his grandfather’s old revolver. Pretty soon, all of these people, and many more in a myriad of individual situations, may find it increasingly difficult, or even impossible, to do such basic things.

A Department of the Interior crackdown aims to deal a killing blow to poaching by making it more difficult than ever to bring ivory in or out of the US, or to even transport ivory objects domestically, across state boundaries. The target of this policy is, of course, the black market in ivory from animals poached recently, and in the future. The administration’s intention is clearly admirable, as we all wish to do what we can to help save endangered species from extinction. However, it seems clear that either policymakers have no concept of the wide-ranging consequences of such a policy, the collateral damage if you will, or that they simply do not care.

Under the international treaty known as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), drafted in 1973, it is illegal to bring into signatory countries objects made from ivory, certain kinds of snakeskins, rhino horn, or any of a long list of other endangered species’ furs, skins, or body parts, with the exception of anything made before 1976. By placing a contemporary date on the policy, those drafting the wording of the treaty made sure it would be targeted at cutting down on contemporary poaching currently ongoing. While there are valid concerns relating to the issues of forgers & smugglers intentionally aging new objects in order to pass them off as antiques, and the difficulties of discriminating between objects from the years or decades immediately before and after 1976, the policymakers at that time recognized that blocking the movement of objects far older – including artifacts of great artistic or historical value, such as a 12th century chess set from the British Museum, which drew great crowds when loaned to the Metropolitan Museum just two years ago, and under this policy might never be seen in the US again – does nothing to curb poaching going on today, and indeed serves no purpose at all other than to provide great difficulties for the arts and other particular sectors of our society.

It has been suggested that any ivory out there, allowed legally into the country, encourages continued poaching by demonstrating a continued demand for ivory. An article in Forbes quotes a representative from Fish and Wildlife as claiming: “we believe that a nearly complete ban on commercial elephant ivory and rhino horn trade is the best way to ensure that U.S. markets do not contribute to the decline of these species in the wild.” In fact, quite to the contrary, it seems clear that having older ivory out there provides a source, a supply, of ivory for those seeking to produce or obtain ivory objects without supporting contemporary poaching.

When we think of ivory, we tend to think of knickknacks and scrimshaws, and/or of wealthy art collectors who move in circles quite foreign to the rest of us. But we are all ourselves collectors too; we go on vacation, we buy souvenirs. How many things do you own that might have ivory on it, possibly without you even knowing it? What’s that inlay on the body of your guitar made of? How about the buttons on that vintage aloha shirt you bought the last time you were in Honolulu (or Bali)? Or the wristwatch your grandfather gave you when you were a kid? When you bought that knickknack in that quaint little shop in Llangollen during your honeymoon forty years ago, did you get a certificate of authenticity and proof of antique provenance?

Under this policy, we can say goodbye to the idea of ever selling our family heirlooms to retire comfortably, or inheriting those heirlooms from relatives living out-of-state or overseas. Forget about ever hearing a concert from the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Yitzhak Perlman, or any of the world’s great Philharmonic Orchestras (not to mention countless other musical artists and groups) who might not be able to travel to or within the US, for fear of having their instruments seized for the tiny bit of ivory on the tip of their violin, viola, and cello bows. Likewise, we can forget about ever again seeing any of the greatest treasures of Chinese, Japanese, or Korean painting. It has already become increasingly difficult in recent years to get loans of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean artworks to show in our museums, for a variety of reasons; if museums around the world are required, for example, to replace the ivory toggles used to help tie scrolls closed with plastic ones just to accommodate US law, it could have seriously deleterious effects on relationships between US museums and museums the world over, forcing us to say goodbye not only to American audiences getting the opportunity to see and enjoy those particular types of East Asian artworks, but potentially making it far more difficult for our museums to borrow and show any artworks from overseas at all. And if the great crowds lining up outside the Frick Gallery in New York last summer to see Vermeer’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” are any indication, there is a great interest in continuing to be able to borrow works from overseas. Tiny though these sectors of the economy, or of society, may be, I do think it terribly undesirable. And it shows a disregard on the part of the administration for considerations of our great cultural institutions and experiences.

Returning to the matter of the unintended consequences this policy could have for all of us – collectors, dealers, and typical private citizens alike – the Department of the Interior’s official press release does briefly mention that some classes of objects, including “bona fide antiques [and] certain noncommercial items” would be exempt, so long as the owner/seller/shipper provides proper documentation. Of course, it comes as no surprise that information about the applicable law is confusing and contradictory. The New York Times and Washington Post note that exemptions are made for those who can prove that the ivory was legally acquired before 1976, while the Dept of the Interior’s press release says that one must prove that “an item was lawfully imported prior to 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants, or under an exemption document.” Cultural heritage lawyer Rick St. Hilaire, meanwhile, on his blog, gives 1989 as the cut-off date. Yet, “antiques” are defined as being at least 100 years old; so, are objects made less than 100 years ago, but before the 1970s, antiques, and legal to own and trade, or are they not?

In any case, as an astute commenter on the Washington Post’s article online notes, it doesn’t really matter what the precise technicalities of the law may be. Any individual customs officer, on any given day, might be less familiar with the permits, or have a different personal understanding of the regulations, or might make a different determination as to the veracity of a traveler’s claims, or as to the age or identification of his objects. Customs officers are not experts in the appraisal of antique ivory, snakeskin, and every single other potential type of contraband – and case in point, neither is the average tourist souvenir-buyer. I myself have a set of mahjongg tiles I bought at a flea market in Tokyo which I imagine are plastic but which may well be ivory. Beats me. And, as the young musician in the Washington Post article notes, he too only suspects that the tip of his bow might be made of ivory, and doesn’t himself even know whether it’s antique ivory, or might have been replaced relatively recently before he bought it, or whether it’s even ivory at all.

Ironically, the one group not targeted by this crackdown on ivory trafficking? Sport game hunters, who are permitted two African elephant sport-hunted trophies per year.

So, I went to see PHOENIX tonight at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and it was everything I expected & hoped it would be. Nothing too crazy, conceptual, experimental – just a good, solid, very nicely done romantic drama. James Wirt and Julia Stiles did a fine job as Bruce and Sue, two people who’ve more or less just met, but who find themselves having to deal with some of the ordinary “shit that befalls us all.”

The show opens with them discussing how it wasn’t really a date, just drinks, just something, but not really a date, and that she was gone for four weeks, which she adamantly insists is not the same as being gone for a month. That stilted slightly dramatized line delivery / dialogue exchange, and that particular brand of theatre wit & wordplay that makes me feel like, YES! I’m home. This is New York. This is New York theatre. This is the real theatre experience.

As I sat looking at the minimal set pieces which are rotated and rearranged to serve for a variety of settings/scenes, the somewhat abstract scenic art which depict elements relevant to the themes of the plot, and the way lighting was used to transform the appearance of both, first I thought about what each of these elements mean, what they do for the piece. What are the deeper, broader, metaphorical meanings? What multiple different meanings does the word “phoenix” have in the thematics of the play? But then I thought, am I just trying to hard to “analyze” this? I’m not really a theatre scholar, or a theatre critic, not like some of my friends are. Sure, I can draw upon my art history background, and my experience simply as a viewer of many plays and as a friend of many theatre people, but, really, I don’t have the background in the history of modern(ist) theatre to really be able to say anything properly insightful. And, besides, are these things really meant to be dwelt on? Aren’t they more like background to the dialogue and the action, serving a more subconscious influence upon the piece as a whole?

I don’t want to give away the precise details of the plot, for anyone who might wish to go see the show, which I assure you is far more enjoyable than simply reading any summary or discussion of it. But, suffice it to say, there are some rather dramatic events, and conversations, in this two-person show, interspersed with bits of the playwright’s thoughts and commentary on society, on life, on what it all means, on the problems of our world. When I go to the theatre, it is normally to see a traditional Japanese performance, such as Noh or kabuki, or an Asian fusion piece, or the like. So it was a real pleasure, a most welcome change of pace, to see something so standardly American / mainstream for a change. It feels good to be home in New York, to be going to the theatre, to feel like I am engaging in, being a part of, the mainstream New York theatre scene. And with the Cherry Lane Theater – New York’s oldest, continuously running, off-Broadway theater – and Julia Stiles, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Phoenix runs at the Cherry Lane Theater (38 Commerce Street, Manhattan) through August 23rd.

Today, just my thoughts/response on something a friend posted.

A few years ago, there was an interview in which Aaron Sorkin said the following:

When I read the Times or The Wall Street Journal, I know those reporters had to have cleared a very high bar to get the jobs they have. When I read a blog piece from “BobsThoughts.com,” Bob could be the most qualified guy in the world but I have no way of knowing that because all he had to do to get his job was set up a website–something my 10-year-old daughter has been doing for 3 years. When The Times or The Journal get it wrong they have a lot of people to answer to. When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us.

Emphasis my own.

A friend then posted a link to a recent commentary/response which includes the following:

I like Wikipedia because I know it could be wrong. Regular encyclopedias can be wrong, too, but my guard was never up in the same way with them as it is with Wikipedia. I like Internet media specifically for the reason that Aaron Sorkin doesn’t like it: because it makes it that much more difficult for me to have any illusions about the fact that the burden of critical thought is on me.

Hm. I dunno. On the one hand, yes, when it comes to opinions and interpretations, absolutely, it’s good to have a constant reminder that the news is biased, that it comes from an agenda, and that it can, simply put, be flat out mistaken sometimes. “Because we should never trust any news media outlet implicitly.”

And, certainly, as one of the commenters wrote, “Biasing based on education level is just reproducing the biases of the educational system. One of the most insightful bloggers I know never finished high school. Moderating comments, done right (in my opinion at least), should be about what people contribute to the discussion, not whether or not they completed X years of school.” But, even putting aside the idea that a PhD, or any professional credentials, does mean that you have more extensive knowledge, experience, or training, that you understand certain types of matters better than most, or simply that you have more experience & training in critical thinking, and even acknowledging the post-modern turn that says there is no truth, that everything is multiple perspectives, etc etc., I think that there is absolutely a need for credible, reliable, trustworthy sources. If those sources are no longer the professional media, so be it. But, whether it’s on Wikipedia, or on a blog, the implication is that we should go check the sources ourselves. But, what about those sources? Are they reliable? And what about the sources those guys are drawing upon? This is what the news is for. This is what scholarship is for. To have qualified professionals do the research, do the analysis, sum it up so that the rest of us can consume it. If everyone had to double-check every fact for themselves, all the time, a thousand lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to do the job due diligence.

Yes, I take the point that in many cases, when it comes to discussion, perspective, social and political commentary, an amateur might very well be more insightful, more experienced in that particular thing, might offer a more valuable perspective in whatever way or for whatever reason than a professional. But let us not go too far down the rabbit hole of believing that absolutely everything everything is relative, that absolutely everything everything is just opinion or perspective. By all means, if some blogger talks about, say, feminism, in a new and different way, or just in a more insightful way, puts a valuable spin on it, or just makes a point more eloquently than another source does, then by all means, regardless of who that blogger is, or their professional credentials, that’s great. But if a blogger, or a news agency, or a scholar, says that 42% of women are in X situation, I want to believe that I can trust that source, because of professional credentials, or because of citation to something that has professional credentials, without me having to go double-check the numbers myself, for every single fact or figure anyone ever cites on any platform.

I do think we need to be more circumspect about the corporate agendas and rampant lack of professionalism throughout the “professional” media which cause all kinds of biases and mistakes and problems. And I do think we need to be aware that “accountability” doesn’t do nearly as much as we might wish it did. But, even so, I do think that Sorkin has a very valid point when he says that “When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us.” We need to be able to trust some sources over others. We need to know that a given newsman, or scholar, is professional and trustworthy and reliable. And we need to trust professional credentials to at least some extent over others. Because the alternative is every man’s word against every other man’s word, and absolutely no certainty on anything whatsoever unless you’ve researched it yourself.

Bettelheim’s Bibles

Bernard Bettelheim is one of those historical figures you just love to hate. Or, well, hate might be too strong of a word. But, he was certainly a colorful character. Today, Mike Williams of the UPenn Libraries shares with us some glimpses into the “Loochooan” (Ryukyuan) Bibles that Bettelheim had compiled and published in 1855.

Right: Title page of Bettelheim’s Gospel of Luke (1855). UPenn Libraries.

Born into a Jewish family in Pressburg, Hungary, and raised up towards someday becoming a rabbi, he came to Okinawa in 1846 as a Protestant missionary, along with his wife and two children. Since Christianity was banned in Ryukyu, and contacts with foreigners were extremely restricted, he was denied permission to come ashore, but forced or tricked his way onshore anyway. Granted permission to stay the night at the Buddhist temple Gokoku-ji, with the plan that the Ryukyuan authorities could send him away in the morning, Bettelheim instead stayed at the temple for seven years, throwing out the monks, idols, anything he thought sacrilegious, and defending his position at the temple in part by accusing anyone who came to kick him out of violating his wife’s privacy, of trying to see her unclothed.

For the next seven years, he tried continuously to proselytize in the port city of Naha and the royal capital of Shuri, though he was opposed by the authorities at every turn. As merchants were forbidden from engaging in interactions with foreigners (and specifically with Bettelheim), he took to, essentially, stealing, taking whatever he wanted in the markets, and leaving whatever he thought a fair price. He distributed missionizing leaflets, which were always collected up by the authorities and returned to him, and even sometimes broke into private homes to sermon at people who likely could not have understood him. Bettelheim had reading/writing fluency in English, French, German, and Hebrew before coming to Okinawa, and so it is feasible that as a person with a skill for languages, he might have picked up some of the Ryukyuan language. But, as Williams points out in the link I’m sharing today, “it is difficult to determine exactly what language Bettelheim spoke while on Okinawa, and to what degree he recognized the [distinction] between native Ryukyuan, mainland Japanese, Okinawan dialect Japanese, and the heavily Chinese-influenced “officialese” used by the local government.” Nevertheless, he managed with the help of his Classical Chinese tutor to compile six volumes of books of the New Testament in “translation” into “Loochooan.” These were later printed & published in Hong Kong, after Bettelheim was finally taken away from Okinawa by the American Commodore Matthew Perry, much to the relief of the beleaguered Ryukyuan Court.

As Williams’ beautiful blog post shows, the volumes were written entirely in katakana (with the exception of the title pages), rendering them extremely difficult to parse, even if they were in a standard Okinawan or Japanese language, which Williams tells us they surely are not. I had wondered about these volumes, wondered what they looked like, what the language looked like in them. It’s really interesting to get to see some openings, and to get some sense of it.

For further details and discussion of Bettelheim’s life in Ryukyu, and about these volumes, including some beautiful pictures, see Michael William’s blog post “A “Loochooan” New Testament,” on the UPenn Libraries’ official blog site, “Unique at Penn.”

My thanks to Molly Des Jardin, Japanese Studies Librarian at the UPenn Libraries, for bringing this post to my attention.


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