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I went down to LA recently, to LACMA, to see this Samurai show which I had heard was all the thing. And it certainly was. Like many people, my interest in Japan started with a middle-school and high-school boyish enthusiasm for cool awesome samurai battles, and so forth; my interests later shifted, away from such things, towards popular arts and theatre, and the vibrant cultural life otherwise of a realm at peace, once the samurai wars ended. But, boy was this a great exhibit. It certainly served those intrigued or obsessed with the samurai – one kid, maybe about 7 or 8, who I saw several times over the course of the day, running around taking pictures with his iPad, was just so excited… I’m glad to see him having such fun, and taking such an interest. And, I’m glad to see a non-Western and non-modern show featured in the main central Special Exhibits hall. Not that that’s so unusual for LACMA, a museum with an entire pavilion dedicated to Japanese art, and most likely the largest Korean galleries in the country.

The label descriptions – which I presume came with the exhibit and were not by LACMA curators – really brought out the appreciation for the craftsmanship, design, and aesthetic quality that Mr and Mrs Barbier-Mueller clearly see, and thus helped me too see and appreciate these objects not just as cool awesome artifacts of a romanticized warrior class, but as art objects.

One thing that did bug me, however, was that the exhibit reifies, reinforces, rather than challenging, the myth of Bushido. It doesn’t come up too often, thank god, but here and there you see labels talking about the noble, honorable, spiritual moral code of the samurai. Bushidô as we know it comes mainly from two periods: (1) the Edo period (1600-1868), when books like Hagakure and the Book of Five Rings, and plays like Chushingura (47 Ronin), were written, long after the fighting ended, and at a time when samurai are struggling with their identity as “warriors,” and trying to reclaim something, and (2) the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Nitobe Inazo wrote Bushido: The Soul of Japan in an attempt to describe something in Japan equivalent to Europe’s chivalry, in order to support arguments and ideas that Japan had just as noble a tradition, and a history, as Europe. Very much a product of his time, Nitobe was not a historian, nor really an expert in samurai philosophy, but rather an expert on race and colonial studies (as such things were understood by, e.g. the British and French at that time as well), eager to find a way to put Japan on equal footing among the great powers of the world, such that the Western powers would not see Japan as lesser or inferior. The word “bushido” was so little known in Japan in 1901 that Nitobe is said to have believed he was inventing (coining) it.

A helmet by Masuda Myôchin, c. 1730, bearing the seal of the Matsudaira clan.

Looking at the show, and thinking about these issues, inspired me to think of how I might like to do a samurai show in future, if I were ever to get to curate one:

*Contrast the samurai arms & armor with paintings and other works that emphasize Japan’s peaceful and highly cultured artistic heritage. In any samurai show, there will always be those visitors who take it as supporting their understanding that Japan is somehow inherently, has always been and always will be, a militarist country. I suppose one response to such ignorance would be to just ignore it, but another possibility is to educate. Japan is now, and has always been, a country with deep aesthetic appreciation (at least among elites, prior to the Edo period), and since the 1600s, a very lively urban commoner culture, including beautiful paintings, pottery, architecture, poetry, and so on and so forth. And, let’s not forget that Japan was (with the exception of peasant rebellions here and there) at peace for over 200 years in the 1640s-1850s. How many countries can claim that?

*On a somewhat similar note, I would love to do a show that emphasizes the samurai in the Edo period – display and pageantry. Catering to the popular desire for cool, awesome, samurai warriors, most samurai shows focus on the samurai during the Sengoku Period, the age of the country at war, and then sort of say, well, most of the arms & armor we have today in our collections and on display is not from that period, but it would have been largely kind of sort of similar. Instead of showing Edo period objects and identifying them as simply being a later version of what things would have looked like during the height of samurai warfare, I’d rather do a show that is wholly situated within the Edo period. This is how samurai of the Edo period lived, this is the role of parade armor in politics of display and pageantry. The exhibit would talk about how the samurai identity changed in the Edo period, and how a warrior class that was now a bureaucracy, now struggled to define or redefine, to understand, their identity as “samurai.” We could describe it not as a “decline,” but simply as the next stage, and if anything, it’s a “rise,” as the samurai develop more fully into cultured and cultural elites.

Triptych, Snow, Moon, and Flower, by Tokugawa Nariaki, Lord of Mito, c. 1840-1860. LACMA Collection.

Returning to talking about the LACMA exhibit, the Barbier-Mueller Collection includes many beautiful pieces, and I was pleasantly surprised with how many are identifiably associated with rather major families. The structure and display of this special exhibit was impressive, really impactful. But, for me, I quite enjoyed the sort of complementary exhibit they were hosting on the other end of the museum complex, in the Japan Pavilion. Since the Barbier-Mueller Collection, or at least those objects loaned to LACMA, includes mostly armor, and very few weapons, LACMA supplemented the exhibit with a great show of samurai paintings, prints, pottery, and yes, weapons. This show included many pieces borrowed from Tetsugendo.com, and the Museum of Global Antiquities (which, interestingly, I cannot seem to find, or find out about, at all from basic Google searches); between those and LACMA’s own collection, I was kind of amazed to see sword accessories crafted by Miyamoto Musashi himself, and blades by Muramasa and some of the other most famous swordsmiths in Japanese history, as well as examples of weapons like Japanese matchlock guns that we just don’t see very much of. A triptych of calligraphy scrolls by Tokugawa Nariaki – one of the most prominent and influential figures in Japan’s supposed “opening” to the West in the 1850s, and a member of one of the top samurai families in the country, was a highlight as well. One cannot help but wonder why such a thing is not in the Tokugawa Art Museum, local Mito area museum or archives, or the like, and how it came to be owned by LACMA.

Anyway, I suppose this review has sort of petered out. But, if you’re in the area and you’re into samurai armor and such, do check out Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection at LACMA, before it closes on Feb 1st!

All photos are my own. Thanks so much to LACMA and the Barbier-Mueller Collection for allowing photography in the exhibit!

Tenmyouya Hisashi’s “Rhyme.” Detail. I am sad to see that more of my photos from this exhibit did not come out better. This, sadly, is the best shot I got of the piece – and with the tiny screen on the camera, I guess I thought it was better than this.

Okay. I said I wasn’t sure if I would come back to write more about this exhibit, but, Odorunara’s fascinating insights on the Mr. show at the Seattle Art Museum right now inspired me to suddenly find myself thinking about this exhibit again, and put me into “writing mode,” to write out my thoughts on the second half of this exhibit, at Japan Society in NY only until Jan 11.

Tenmyouya Hisashi, like Yamaguchi Akira, Ikeda Manabu, and Yamamoto Tarô, is easily among the most prominent neo-Nihonga, or Nipponga, artists active today, each of them doing work that strongly draws upon the Japanese art history tradition in one way or another. Yet, while the mainstream of Nihonga art focuses on continuing a tradition of painting bijinga (pictures of beautiful women), ink landscapes, and other such works with the dominant aesthetic being one of subtle quiet beauty, Tenmyouya instead takes a rather different perspective on the Japanese artistic tradition. Think about contemporary 21st century imaginings and stereotypes of “traditional” “Japanese” art: Buddhist iconography and samurai war scenes don’t generally enter into it. Yet, these are the chief things Tenmyouya references. If you know something about Japanese art history, you know that he is drawing heavily upon styles and subjects of the Azuchi-Momoyama period, including Nanban-e (pictures of Europeans), kabukimono (street toughs with outré fashions), and the flashy, showy, bold aesthetic of basara, which emphasizes wealth, bold colors, lots of use of gold, and has been described as “the family of beauty that stands on the opposite end of the spectrum from wabi sabi and zen.”1

Tenmyouya’s “Baku.”

Thinking about it, considering his choice of referents, and his militant or violent alterations to those themes, I feel one possible way to read Tenmyouya’s works might be that he is seeking to tell an alternate narrative of Japanese (art) history, and identity. Pointing to serene Zen rock gardens, intellectual literati ink landscapes, and the boisterous & colorful but ultimately harmless atmosphere of ukiyo-e (or, the quiet, refined, restrained elegance, for that matter, of the geisha, courtesan arts, etc. depicted in the ukiyo-e), one typical and dominant narrative of Japanese art history and aesthetics is one of cultured, refined, intellectual pursuits, and of relatively peaceful aesthetics. After all, peasant uprisings aside, the Tokugawa period may be one of the longest and most peaceful periods of peace any part of the world has ever seen. But then Tenmyouya’s work – his Fudô Myôô holding a bayonetted rifle with a Rising Sun flag; his rock garden bathed in blood and covered in skulls; the war scene hung on the wall; and many of his other works outside this exhibit as well – reminds us of the role war and violence played in Japanese history, and in art, and asserts perhaps that the militarism of the 1930s-40s (and the decades leading up to that) is not an aberration to simply be forgotten about, but rather something more intrinsic to Japanese history and identity, that the Japanese as a people, as a nation, need to come to terms with.

Fudô is hardly a common subject among the mainstream of neo-traditional (Nihonga) painters – throughout the 20th century, those working in the most traditional/conservative mode have often stuck to pictures of beautiful women in kimono, to ink landscapes, and so forth. Yet, one the earliest, and most famous Nihonga works, when Nihonga was first born in the 1880s, was a painting of Fudô Myôô by Kanô Hôgai. And, further, it was painted with the idea in mind that this represented (one part of) truly Japanese national essence and tradition. Admittedly, Ernest Fenollosa’s personal obsession with Buddhist art, and his personal ideas about what does and does not represent Japanese national identity, skews this somewhat, as he’s just one individual perspective, and a foreigner to boot. But, even so, it shows that at that time, at the end of 250 years of peace, the strong and frightening figure of Fudô, demonic in appearance, wielding a sword and lariat, and surrounded by flame, could be seen as an essential part of Japanese tradition and national character. By showing Fudô and Kannon armed with modern weaponry, Tenmyouya reminds his Japanese audience, perhaps, that Japan has /always/ been a militarist country, that it was ruled by samurai – by a warrior government, essentially a military dictatorship, in modern terms – and that Buddhism, and Buddhist figures such as Fudô, and Kannon (bodhisattva of compassion), have long been used in support of violent people and violent acts.

His two screens show a rather violent battle, but with no blood, and with a rather clean aesthetic to it overall. Violence in Japanese arts has grown quite aestheticized over the years, as seen perhaps most evidently in kendô, iaidô, and other martial arts, which today are so much more about forms, about meditative or spiritual aspects, distancing these arts from their actual violent origins and meanings. In short, violence gets aestheticized in Japanese art, and in Japanese memory of its own history, but, could this piece, along with the blood red rock garden, be saying that we need to remember just how violent and bloody Japanese history really was?

That said, I also think it is all too easy, and all too tempting, to ascribe anti-war sentiments and intentions onto any Japanese artist. While I would very much hesitate to suggest that Tenmyouya might be rightwing, nationalist, militarist, is it not possible that a Japanese artist is doing something that’s meant to address themes other than the country’s militarist past? Maybe he simply enjoys the rough, bold, aesthetics of Basara, and the “cool,” “awesome,” tough, characters of the samurai, gods like Fudô, and so forth? Plenty of people think samurai are cool without being militarists. Yamaguchi Akira does a lot with warriors on horseback, often riding horses which are actually half-motorcycle, very similar content in a way to Tenmyouya’s kabukimono/bôsôzoku stuff, yet, I don’t think anyone would ever even begin to think that Yamaguchi is militarist… Maybe Tenmyouya has some other intentions with his work. Life is complex. The world is complex. To assume that all Japanese art is about their relationship to the war is, actually, essentializing. American art includes works about just about everything (and many works about nothing at all) – why can’t Japanese art be just as diverse?

I guess I really should say something, too, about Tenmyouya’s piece “Rhyme,” and the questions it evokes as to media. “Rhyme” consists of two works which are mirror-images of one another. One is painted in acrylics, and the other is a digital reproduction, mirror-flipped and printed using a high-end artist’s inkjet printer. The iconography and subject matter is clearly Japanese. The use of gold leaf is very much Japanese. The horizontal format, evoking a folding screen (byôbu) is evocative of traditional Japanese art. But, Nihonga originally a hundred years ago was defined, essentially, by its use of traditional media (e.g. ink and mineral pigments on silk or paper, etc.), regardless of the subject matter, or style of depiction. Takeuchi Seihô did some gorgeous depictions of the Grand Canal in Venice, in a rather realistic (read: European) style, in inks on paper. Now, we have artists like Tenmyouya, Yamaguchi, and Yamamoto making works that reference and evoke and draw upon traditional Japanese art just about as closely as you can while still being outside of those traditions, and they’re doing so in modern/Western, or let’s just say non-traditional, media. Is it still Nihonga, or neo-Nihonga, or Nipponga? Especially if we use one of the latter terms, absolutely yes. But, is there something more to be said here, to argue for or against how to conceptually categorize these artists, and the trend or (sub-)genre they seem to represent? … Nothing that really comes to mind at the moment, beyond that I think it’s wonderful. Beautiful, powerful, and intriguing. Holes are beginning to be poked through the concrete, and traditional, or rather neo-traditional, Japanese culture, is beginning to sprout and grow up through those holes. Artists are turning away from feeling they need to prove themselves, and their country, as “modern,” and are turning back towards exploring, expressing, investigating, inventing, being Japanese.

1) Patricia Graham, Japanese Design, Tuttle Publishing (2014), 37-39.

I don’t know if I will come back to write more about the teamlab & Tenmyouya Hisashi sections of the exhibition “Garden of Unearthly Delights” at Japan Society. But, I did have some thoughts about how the exhibit overall was organized.

Above: “United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World” by teamlab (2013), as installed at Japan Society in the “Garden of Unearthly Delights” exhibit. Below: Itô Jakuchû’s “Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants” (18th c.), on display at LACMA.

As I made my way through the exhibit, I knew I felt there was something missing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Now, as I write this, and think about it, I’ve realized what it was that was throwing me off: the exhibit represents these artists as individual geniuses, as individual artistes if you will, looking at their personal inspirations and ideas, rather than presenting it in any way as representative of current/contemporary trends in Japanese art. Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But it is a choice, and a difference. Part of what fascinates me about neo-Nihonga, and about much else that’s going on in Japanese art right now, is what it represents in terms of ideas about art, about Japanese identity, and so forth, and how it fits into a broader narrative of Japanese art history. To talk about individual artists with individual ideas and inspiration is one thing – these men are certainly extremely impressive and intriguing, their works inspired and beautiful – but, with the implication that they stand alone as individual geniuses separated from their contemporaries, or to put it another way, absent the implication that they are in any way representative of broader trends in style, attitude, or themes, for me, it feels like there is something lacking.

Tenmyouya Hisashi’s installation at Japan Society, including a rock garden meant to reference, or evoke, that at Ryôan-ji.

What I love the most about Tenmyôya’s “neo-Nihonga” is how it fits into a narrative, a tradition, recalling and reviving subjects, themes, stylistic elements of the Edo period and of pre-war & post-war Nihonga, representing not something divorced from tradition, something purely unique to Tenmyôya, or purely unique to contemporary art, lacking in precedent, but rather, representing the next step in the development of those forms (perhaps, arguably), as we pass into the 21st century. Taken together with Yamaguchi Akira, Yamamoto Tarô, and others, there is something to be said for the ways in which some/many 21st century Japanese artists are turning away from the acultural/pan-global stylistic & thematic trends of Modern art (see the work of Gutai, Mono-ha, and Hi Red Center, which look like they could have been made by anyone, by an American or a European, marking Japan as part of a global modernist art movement, divorced from and indeed explicitly rejecting the art of the past), and are instead turning back to producing art that is distinctively Japanese, that references and draws upon Japanese art history, and that says something about Japanese cultural identity today. Ikeda Manabu is not exactly neo-Nihonga like Tenmyôya is; he’s not really drawing upon traditional themes or styles. But, his work is still very distinctively Japanese, featuring Japanese elements such as torii gates, but also displaying an interest in the dense energy of metropolitan urbanity, and in brilliant nature (lush greenery, beautiful blue water) emerging out of, or coexisting alongside of, industrial ruin. His works feature crashed planes and rusting ocean liners surrounded by green and blue, by birds and people, countless dense details of a world that in some ways reminds me of the jumbled-up aesthetic of Howl’s Moving Castle, perhaps. In today’s post-3/11 world, Ikeda’s works take on new meanings, as even works done before 2011 come to exude feelings of the power of nature, the danger of thinking you can control or overtake it with industrial modernity, the ruin, indeed, of industrial modernity – the idea that we have moved, or that we need to move, past that, into a new, postmodern way of living that is either more in tune with nature, or that at least puts that particular 20th century mode of steel-and-concrete modernity behind us. His work Foretoken, along with his great wave, fit into a theme or narrative of what Japanese artists are doing, what they are thinking, post-3/11, as reflective too of what Japanese people are thinking and feeling post-3/11, that I find quite evocative, intriguing, and meaningful. This fits into a broader imagination of Japan, and of this moment in the narrative of Japanese art history, better than trying to understand Ikeda as an individual set-apart.

Yamamoto Tarô, “K-Pine tree Old man screen” (1999). Image from Imura Art.

I think it’s wonderful that we have such great diversity in the arts today, that people like Ikeda and Tenmyôya are not simply operating within a school style, as (e.g) Kanô Tan’yû and Eitoku were. They’re each doing very distinctive, unique work, and as such we have a greater diversity of Japanese art than ever before in history. And it’s wonderful that we are able to speak with them, interview them, and find out about their personal individual thoughts, ideas, philosophies, something we can’t really get from the majority of historical artists. And, there’s nothing objectively wrong, inferior, or lesser, about approaching these artists as individuals. It’s a very standard way for contemporary/modern art experts, gallery owners, curators, to talk about these things. And it is perhaps reflective of the gallery director Miwako Tezuka’s identity as such an expert in the contemporary, rather than in the historical. There is absolutely something to get out of this approach, and for all I know, it may be a very intentional political position on her part, to represent them in this way. As Tezuka is Japanese herself, she may well wish to not display quote-unquote “Japan,” but rather to bring these artists as individuals into a similar place as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, whoever else, who are generally seen as individuals and not so much as simply representative examples of broader trends in American or English art. There is great validity in that argument, too. But, for me, I much prefer the idea of fitting these artists into broader narratives of Japanese modern, modernist, and then post-modern(ist) art, and into broader themes of Japanese identity, Japanese relationship to history & tradition, Japanese reactions to modernity & modernism, and Japanese feelings or attitudes post-3/11.

All photos & videos my own, except the Yamamoto Tarô image from Imura Arts. “Garden of Unearthly Delights” is open at Japan Society until Jan 11.

I have had my eyes set on seeing “Garden of Unearthly Delights” at Japan Society for quite some time, and after Kathryn’s review of the catalog on her blog, I was all the more excited for it. Garden of Unearthly Delights is Japan Society’s latest show of contemporary Japanese art, featuring works by Ikeda Manabu and Tenmyouya Hisashi – two artists they also featured in their exhibit Bye Bye Kitty a few years ago, and who I’ve written about before – as well as works by a collective known as teamlab.

The show opens with a series of works by Ikeda. I had previously only seen his “History of Rise and Fall” and “Existence“, which were included in Bye Bye Kitty. To see these other works now gives a larger sample size, so to speak, and thus a better sense of what type of thing he does. This first gallery is painted a light blue, and there is a sense of calm, happy, uplifting beauty. His works feature flourishing nature – trees and grasses, and beautiful blue waters – as well as birds and people living vibrant lives amidst it. There are bits of ruins, giving the sense of a society building a brighter future atop the ruins of industrial steel-and-concrete modernity. There is a sense of hope, and of just beauty, in these astonishingly painstakingly rendered pen-and-ink pieces.

Ikeda Manabu, “Imprint” (2011). Pen and acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board. Detail.

But then, as we enter the next room, there is great sadness and contemplation, too. A copy of Hokusai’s “Great Wave” (which seemed oddly boldly put out in bright lights, but then again Prussian blue isn’t so fugitive, so I guess maybe it’s okay?) echoes Ikeda’s “Foretoken”, his largest work yet. But before we get to looking at that any more closely, there is “Imprint,” done in 2011 while Ikeda was an artist-in-residence at a program in Vancouver. Much has been said since 3/11 about the beauty and yet destructive power of nature as a theme in Japanese art & literature, especially since 3/11; I’m not sure I have anything more eloquent or meaningful to add on that point.

Here we see brilliant blue water and white crests of foam, what would be a beautiful, entrancing, ocean scene, like the brilliant blue of the waters off a Hawaiian or Okinawan vacation beach… except for the red torii peeking out in the darkness beneath the waves. Though “Foretoken” was made in 2008, it eerily predicts (foretokens) the terrible tsunamis of March 11, 2011, which so ravaged not only much of the Tôhoku coast, but also had great impacts upon Japanese national identity and social/political/cultural discourse. I was not in Japan on 3/11, nor for several years afterwards. But I have heard professors speak who were there, especially anthropologists & sociologists who more so than us historians are keenly in touch with the contemporary, and it is evident that this has had a profound impact upon them, and in their eyes, upon Japan, in ways beyond what I myself might perceive or be aware of.

Above: Ikeda Manabu, “Foretoken” (2008). Pen and acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board. Below: Detail.

In large pieces like “Foretoken,” or like “History of Rise and Fall,” Ikeda says he thinks of new ideas as he works. Both of these pieces are giant jumbles of new and old, manmade and natural. A red-bottomed industrial-looking ship is beached, practically embedded in the rocky mountainside. Trees grow out of a giant crack in its side, and birds fly past, while only a few inches away (on the work), skiers slide down snowy slopes. In another section of the work, people stand on a ledge formed by what looks like the remnants of a passenger jet’s wing, before a torii embedded in ice, while nearby a fire burns deep in the mountain. I am told the crests of the wave that dominates the piece are meant to resemble the shapes of the Japanese islands. Ikeda produces this works one pen-stroke at a time, with a simple nibbed fountain pen, and as he goes, filling in the textures of one square inch at a time, he apparently improvises and creates new “hidden” details – the skiers, the torii, a twisting green slide, a flock of birds – as he goes. A video in the small middle gallery shows Ikeda at work – it’s really kind of incredible how slowly the process goes. Ikeda even jokes that his guests – the host of the TV show this segment is from – won’t be able to really see any big change, in the brief time they’re filming.

I continue to learn new ways of looking at and thinking about art – perhaps it is a result of my recent readings & discussions about performance theory, but I found myself thinking, asking, not about the “meaning” of elements of these works, but rather about their effects. What effect does it have that Ikeda so often represents people and animals in white silhouette? I feel like it actually enhances the feeling of energy and dynamism of their interaction with the environment; they are not simply a part of the static scene depicted on the canvas, but are separate from it and yet embedded in it, interacting with the slopes, spans, and surfaces. Beyond that, I don’t know. What do you think?

Though Ikeda does not use traditional materials or techniques, and does not reference traditional aesthetics, subjects, or iconography as directly as Tenmyouya, his work speaks to Japanese identity and Japanese history in a way that makes him very solidly a “postmodernist” artist in my mind, even if not necessarily a Neo-Nihonga (neo-neo-traditional Japanese painting) artist as Tenmyouya describes himself. This is a theme I’ll return to in my last post about the exhibit, and explain further what I mean by “postmodern.” But, one thing that is often cited about Ikeda that does connect him to Japanese tradition is the idea of mastery, of taking a long time to do something very precisely, very carefully. The word takumi (巧, meaning “skill,” or 匠 meaning “master craftsman”) is often used to describe him. I don’t want to get into it here, but this is a big deal; I don’t know about in Japan, but one often gets the sense – and this is not just me talking; I’ve heard MFA Studio Art students themselves talk about it – that (post)modern art in the United States, especially as taught within MFA programs, has become so much about the theory and the conceptual, and so little about the skill or the technique. That showing great attention to masterful technique alone – showing that one has mastered their craft, or mastered the art of painting, the art of sculpture, the art of … etc. – makes Ikeda stand out as different, and as evoking tradition, really says something about the state of art today, don’t you think?

In my next post, I’ll talk about the teamlab installation, and Tenmyouya Hisashi’s works in this exhibit. Thanks for reading!

A big shout-out to the Japan Society Gallery for putting together this fantastic exhibit, and for allowing photographs! I know it’s difficult with contemporary art especially, given the active copyrights and such, but you made it work, where so many of your exhibits in the past it wasn’t allowed. Thank you! (After all, as a friend pointed out, what am I going to do with the photos anyway? Sure they’re up online now, but the photos I took with my little point-and-shoot digicam are nowhere near publication quality. If I really wanted to do anything real with them, I’d still need proper permissions; so, might as well allow photos, I guess? Right?

Garden of Unearthly Delights is open at Japan Society (333 East 47th St, at 1st Ave, NYC) until Jan 11. Go see it now! And, if you happen to be in Madison, Wisconsin, Ikeda is currently artist-in-residence at the Univ. of Wisconsin Chazen Museum.

Are Ashkenazi Jews White?

An image from the 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, depicting “French Jews.” Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Hila Hershkoviz posted an interesting op-ed/blog post in the Times of Israel recently, arguing that Ashkenazi Jews (i.e. of Eastern European, rather than Mediterranean or Middle Eastern descent) are not white, and should stop self-identifying as such.

(This, in response to a Haaretz article on the somewhat separate but also powerfully important subject of “Jews, white privilege and the fight against racism in America” – in short, why Jews as white elites aren’t as active as we should be in continuing to fight racism, oppression, and discrimination against others, esp. as it pertains to Ferguson protests & systematic racism against blacks in our law enforcement & justice systems.)

I’m not sure I agree with everything Hershkoviz says here – in the end, I think the answer is more complicated than a simple white/non-white binary – but it’s certainly interesting to think about.

*First, let me begin with two critiques, or critical thoughts. One, while who we self-identify as is important, who others identify us as is equally powerful, if not more so, operating upon our conception of ourselves, and upon our interactions and position in society in different ways, on different planes. Regardless of how I identify, with whatever nuance I might use to describe my own identity to others, so long as others perceive me as “white” in a myriad of everyday interactions and systematic ways, I will benefit from, and be accused of, white privilege. White privilege is real, and I have genuinely benefited from it, both in my socio-economic status, and in how people regard me in everyday interactions.

It doesn’t matter if I carry around a copy of Hershkoviz’s article to show people. It doesn’t matter – and I say this genuinely, and not sarcastically or by way of complaint – that my grandparents were survivors of one of the worst attempted genocides in world history explicitly because they were not “white.” It doesn’t matter that no one in my family was in the US before 1900, and that I have no direct familial/ancestral ties to any of the whites who were responsible for the worst parts of our country’s history (e.g. seizing of Native American lands, black slavery, etc.). What matters is the fact that I’m here now, and that for three generations, my family has benefited from others perceiving us as white, in everything from bank loans to how we’re treated in the classroom. It doesn’t matter if “white” is an artificial category, which changes over time, and which cannot necessarily be too easily defined. This has real impacts in our society. Even if I’m not “really” white, as articulated by Hershkoviz, for all intents and purposes in our racialized society, I might as well be; or, to put it another way, since race is socially constructed, so long as society sees me as white, I /am/ white – that is the identity category that society places me in.

Two, Hershkoviz’s assertions about who we really are as Jews, compelling though these narratives may be, are ultimately problematic. Identity is constructed and constantly being renegotiated. It’s tempting to want to look back across centuries or even millenia of history and think, this is who we are, this is who we have always been. To think that we are a “tribe,” as Hershkoviz asserts, following certain ideas of identity and membership millenia old. But is Hershkoviz’s idea of tribal identity, what it means and how it works, only a 21st century idea? Would the Zionists of pre-1948 Palestine have agreed? Would Herzl? How would Maimonides describe his identity, in terms of religion, ethnicity, nation, or tribe? Seven, eight hundred years ago, the dominant idea in Western Europe as to identity was not race, ethnicity, or nationality, but religion. Europe was “Christendom,” more so than it was anything else, and while the Europeans certainly also saw themselves as Franks, and the Muslims as “Turks,” “Saracens,” or by a variety of other names which might be said to be ethnic identifiers, the dominant worldview was still one of religious spheres, not one of nations or ethnicities. A few hundred years later, even as national identities (e.g. French, Dutch, English, Spanish) began to emerge more solidly, identity as part of the Catholic world or of the Prostestant world, remained extremely powerful. Today, there are countless groups around the world reimagining, reasserting, their identities in various ways – indigenous groups, new nation-states… In short, how we identify – and what the relevant categories are – changes over time. In all times, we assert that our identities are true, stretching back centuries. But in all times, these identities are constructed more by the needs, and the terminologies, of a given time, than by the past. Just as Japanese look to defeat in World War II and the subsequent turn to pacifism of their nation, among many other things, as key to how they define their identity today; just as the Hawaiians look to the overthrow of their kingdom and the current illegal US occupation of their land as fundamental to their identity; so too do we as 21st century Jews look to the Holocaust, the state of Israel, worldwide anti-Semitism, and our personal or familial experiences of immigration and diaspora, for our constructions of identity, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise – we shouldn’t pretend that our identity as Jews is just as it has always been, stretching back unaltered, as if none of these more recent events/experiences, nor the needs & desires of our contemporary political situation, have any impact.

That said, I think there are a lot of intriguing and thought-provoking aspects of this article.

*I find Hershkoviz’ idea that we need to “decolonize our minds” intriguing. Like Okinawans raised in the Japanese education system (I know it’s an odd example to choose, but it’s one I know better than most), we Ashkenazi Jews are similarly raised in the US (and I would imagine the same goes in Western Europe and many other places, with variation) to think of England, and to only a slightly lesser degree France, Spain, Italy, Holland, and Germany, as the source of our heritage. Now, granted, there is an argument to be made that the United States /is/ founded upon Western European ideas and culture, that that is the majority culture into which we have assimilated, and that it is a major part of who we are as Americans regardless of where we come from – and that while you get your American education in public school (and from peers, media, and so on), you can still get your Jewish identity, heritage, and education from your parents, and from synagogue, Hebrew school, etc. I imagine much the same could be said for Vietnamese-, Indian-, and African-Americans, not to mention just about everyone else – even the Irish- and Italian-Americans get some different identity from their parents, church, etc. in addition to and separate from the public education “American” identity.

But, at the same time, I think there’s something valuable and interesting in the idea that we need to remind ourselves that we do indeed come from a different heritage, that we are immigrants to this land, and that in a sense, really, we Eastern European Jews, descendants of Kiev, Lvov, and Krakow, have no more connection to the heritage of London, Paris, and Rome than do the Asian-Americans. I have no doubt that the latter have no trouble understanding this.

Roger Shimomura’s “Shimomura Crossing the Delaware.”

*Identity and history is complex, and this issue of us being not a religion, not a race, but a Tribe, and having particular ideas of identity and membership as a result, brings up a much broader issue – broader beyond the topic of the Jewish people – which is that in our ever-increasingly globalized world, how much else has been homogenized into global/modern conceptions and categories? How much cultural diversity has been erased by those categories, even as we use those categories to celebrate diversity? We take it for granted today that the hundreds of national flags represent a great diversity of nations in our world. But where does the idea that a nation must have a flag, and that it must be rectangular, come from? What about all the many traditions and histories in which national identity was expressed otherwise? Here too we have homogeneity masquerading as diversity. There are thousands of languages on this planet, hundreds of countries. Does everyone, from the French to the Saudis to the Hawaiians, from the Catholics to the Sikhs to the Quechua, have the same ideas of what it means to be(long to) a religion, a nation, an ethnicity? Surely we Jews are not the only people who assert an identity that does not neatly fall into the global/modern categories of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality.

Of course, there is a need for globally agreed-upon notions, to a certain extent, for the sake of passports and treaties and national representation in the UN, census statistics, and all sorts of things. But, imagine if we more consciously and explicitly acknowledged a wider diversity of ways of thinking about identity, and didn’t insist to other people that their own identity categories don’t make sense, or aren’t real. Imagine if we didn’t force all people all around the world to conform to /our/ conceptions of how identity works. What a world that would be.

Flags at the United Nations, New York. Photo my own.

As with Japanese architecture, “design” has very much the potential – or should I say the danger – of you ending up with a coffee table book, full of beautiful pictures but with very little content. There is also the risk of ending up with a book where the content is all hand-wavey, Orientalist (or bordering on Orientalist) talk about the simple elegance of Japanese design, one where the author is just so captivated, so stunned, by his/her admiration for the simplicity and refinement of the style that they are unable to say anything meaningful. Thankfully, and as I expected, Graham, a former professor and curator at the University of Kansas, is not that author.

She organizes the book in an interesting fashion, with a series of sections on individual aesthetics such as iki, miyabi & fûryû, wabi & sabi, and kabuku & basara, followed by, in Chapter Two, a few pages on religious influence in design, and then a lengthy section on “Ten Key Characteristics” of “design in Japanese culture.” These ten feel like they border on an Orientalist approach, I’m afraid to say – perhaps it is because they are presented in a list as they are, as though these were the definitive, categorical aspects to understanding the fundamental notions underlying all of Japanese culture. And yet, at the same time, even as you run the risk of reifying all the old stereotypes, it’s not as if these things aren’t at least partially true. Japanese design does show great attention to detail, appreciation of changing seasons, and so forth.

In the third chapter, Graham provides brief biographies (roughly half a page to a full page) of a series of prominent 19th-20th century Westerners who “introduced” Japanese art & design to the West, and played key roles in promoting it. This is kind of nice, for me in particular as I’m always looking for info I can adapt directly into the Samurai-Archives Wiki, and its a fine way to learn a little more about the likes of Denman Waldo Ross, Arthur Wesley Dow, Laurence Binyon, and Theodore Duret.

Overall, there’s a lot of good information in this book, introducing readers to proper Japanese terms for a variety of aesthetic categories, for example, and there are tons of gorgeous pictures. Still, overall, it feels a bit scattered. I wonder if the book might have been better, stronger, if it focused on just one of these three chapters, and expanded on those themes into the full length of the book. As much as I enjoy the opportunity to read more about these prominent Western “promoters of Japanese art,” for example, a book which devotes more than a few pages to each of a number of aesthetic categories – iki, wabi & sabi, etc. as mentioned above – might feel meatier.

One thing Graham’s book certainly is not, which I sort of expected it might be, is a detailed description of individual creators – Yanagi Sôri, Tange Kenzô, George Nakashima, Rosanjin – and their works. For better or for worse, it is instead a broader-ranging discussion of aesthetics and style throughout many aspects of Japanese arts & design, touching upon architecture, painting, ceramics, lacquerware, and numerous other arts but each only briefly or tangentially. There is great value to this book, for sure, but when I think of all the things it leaves out – it is neither an in-depth discussion of individual creators, nor a systematic treatment of styles of architecture, pottery, or woodworking, nor does it delve into the aesthetics and style of objects normally outside the realms of art history – things just a little too everyday – – well, I guess I’m just a bit undecided about the book. It’s definitely very beautifully put together, though, and the information it provides is undoubtedly high quality and reliable. For under $20 (it’s $24.95 cover price, but even on Tuttle’s own page it’s showing $17.47 right now), you could do a lot worse.

I recently obtained The Art of Japanese Architecture, by David and Michiko Young. I have been looking for a good book on Japanese architecture, and while JAANUS and Kazuo Nishi’s What is Japanese Architecture? remain some of the best sources for the really detailed terminology, this 2007 book from Tuttle Publishing balances a good level of detail with a beautiful overall layout, and images.

There are a great many Japanese architecture books on the market which are mainly just pretty to look at, and which I suppose could be used for inspiration for renovating your house, or something like that, if you’re the kind of person who has that kind of money (I most certainly do not). To be honest, I had half expected that this book would be much like that – aimed at a very popular audience, and feeding into the Orientalist aesthetic stereotypes of Japanese architecture as so clean and elegantly simple, so balanced, Zen-like, inspiring, and spiritual. And the book does open with much of that sort of discussion, saying that some Japanese architecture evidences a “restrained tradition with its simplicity and asymmetry,” and that in residential architecture, “the goal is to provide a tasteful and relaxed atmosphere for the occupants.” And, we can’t possibly talk about Japanese art without mentioning “an attention to detail.” But, the language here is quite balanced, objective, and careful, not too flowery. And, stereotypes or no, it would hard to argue that any of this is untrue.

Throughout the rest of the book, the authors touch upon just about every period from Jômon to today, nearly every major type or genre or style, and a great many of the famous architectural monuments I can think of. The only truly glaring omissions are Okinawan architecture (which is my own personal interest talking, but its omission is understandable), and, for the reader interested in more modern Japanese architecture, it’s not absent, but its coverage is somewhat minimal. The Youngs even devote two pages to Ainu architecture. Personally, I am a little disappointed to not see more discussion of Meiji architecture (and up through the 1930s), since there are so many beautiful and fascinating examples – from the Rokumeikan to the Iso Ijinkan to the various National Museums – combining Western and Japanese modes in a way never seen anywhere else. But, so it goes. And, the heavy focus on traditional architecture is kind of refreshing in a way; while there is admittedly no great dearth of books on traditional Japanese architecture, I also feel I see just a little too much focus sometimes, too, on just the most modern & post-modern of Japanese architecture, the kind of thing that makes me say “what about history!?” As if “Japan” or “Japanese architecture” is defined solely or chiefly by this post-modern, cutting-edge, steel and glass aesthetic.

In any case, I find the use of language in the book to also be a nice balance – informative as to technical terms without being too laden with jargon. While there are certainly certain terms or topics I am familiar with that don’t appear here – such as the term chigaidana, referring to a particular style of uneven shelf typically seen in shoin-style rooms, and especially tearooms – the book is also not too general, not too simplistic, and does not pull its punches in educating its readers into terms like Wayô, Daibutsuyô, and Karayô styles, or hattô, shôrô, sanmon and butsuden for the abbots’ quarters, belltower, main gate, and Buddha Hall of a temple, for example. This book isn’t the greatest source for the names of every different style of eaves or crossbeams, but it certainly isn’t lacking for names and dates, and just good solid proper details.

The book is organized roughly by period, and within that by types, moving from Pre-Buddhist architecture, to continental influence, “developing a cultural identity” (i.e. in the Heian period), medieval warrior architecture, and then to the Tokugawa or Edo period, with the last 20 pages or so dedicated to modern architecture from Meiji to today. Each section is filled with not only gorgeous pictures of the structures, but also some really fine illustrations and diagrams, showing the layout of a full compound, or the structure of a building.

There’s so much here I hardly know what to say. The book contains brief, but very much existent, treatments of a huge variety of topics, from the evolution of pagodas to terminology of halls/buildings within a Buddhist temple, to discussions of archaeological excavation, the layout of Edo Castle as compared to that of the Imperial Palace, the merging of Shinto & Buddhism, and the organization of machiya together into a city block (chô). As for actual examples of buildings discussed, all the big names are here, from Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji to Hôryû-ji, from Osaka castle to Himeji, from machiya to minka. Okay, now that I’ve said that, I’m sure there are a good number of major examples that are not covered in any depth here – you can only do so much, and I don’t see any extensive discussion of Nijô Castle, Tôdai-ji, or Tsurugaoka Hachimangû. And since there’s no Index – definitely a downside – it’s hard to confirm that without really reading through the book page by page. But, still, it goes way beyond just a highlights tour, spending time on not only Noh stages and Kabuki theaters, but even touching on sumo rings, for example. And, in the Edo sections of the book, it focuses on five towns or cities, in addition to several other sub-sections, giving a nice diversity of cross-sections to its coverage. Countering expectations by not having any lengthy sections devoted specifically to Kyoto as a city, the book talks about the shogunal capital of Edo, the castle town of Kanazawa, the provincial town of Takayama, the merchant town of Kurashiki, and the mountain village of Ogimachi. So, while we don’t quite get a port town, or a major highway post-town (built around inns catering to travelers), as might have been more directly helpful for my own research, it really does cover a variety of types of towns, and in doing so, also a nice variety of types of buildings.

Though not /quite/ detailed in /quite/ the right ways for my own research (I’m also looking for books with greater details on the specific layout of Edo castle, especially the audience halls, as well as slightly more detailed discussion of daimyô mansions, and post-town inns), The Art of Japanese Architecture looks to be an excellent resource for getting a fairly detailed, solid base in the narrative of Japanese architecture. This will be great for me when I plan my lectures for courses, and I think will be an enjoyable read for anyone with a serious interest in Japanese cultural/artistic history.

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