Friday, August 28, 2009

Samurai Semiotics

In the midst of its blockbuster summer show, "Lords of the Samurai," the Asian Art Museum has just been attacked by a parody website entitled "Asians Art Museum" which takes the institution to task for "Orientalism" and an ahistorical exploitation of the samurai warrior myth. They call this summer's show "Lord, It's a Samurai" and have extensive notes on the more unpleasant side of Japan's warrior culture. (For an interesting interview with the website's anonymous creator, click here.)

To the museum's immense credit, they were the ones who directed people to the parody site from their own blog, in a post entitled "Invitation to a Discussion," which has a few really intelligent comments, including one from a museum employee who writes:
"whatever our individual gripes and issues, i have nothing but love for the power of art and artists to expand people’s minds. much respect to the artists behind the parody website."

The exhibition is essentially the major treasures of the generations-spanning aristocratic Hosokawa Family, which have never traveled outside of Japan. A couple of weeks ago, the museum rotated in additional objects from the Hosakawa collection, so that about two-thirds of the exhibit is brand new if you've already seen part one.

The disconnect for the parody website creators came on account of a beautiful and successful marketing campaign, where the exhibit is being sold as a celebration of the Samurai, which has brought in huge crowds of people fascinated by the myths of that warrior culture.

At Thursday's monthly MATCHA party at the museum last night, there were activities related to traditional Japanese swordsmanship, including lessons in the lobby...

...and there is no denying it's a hugely fascinating subject for lots of people.

I don't happen to be one of them, finding the 300-year-old Noh drama costumes more my cup of tea, but denying that people adore the representation of militarism in all of its ornamental splendor is not particularly realistic.


momo said...

I visited the show while I was in town with my daughter, and found it to be much more than samurai; it provides a view of the history of Japan through the long reign of one powerful family, and brings in objects, stories, and characters from many facets of Japanese art and culture.

momo said...

Having just said that, I looked at the site and the interview, and I can't disagree with them at all. Most Western art is also presented decontextualized from the violence of the other side of the "Orientalist" coin, imperialism.
Good on the Asian Art Museum bloggers for engaging in a dialogue with the folks who made the site!

Civic Center said...

Dear momo: Good point about how Western art is also usually presented without any political/historical context. Hope you had a wonderful time on your annual Bay Area trip. Next year, if you have time, do get in touch.

momo said...

Thanks! I will. I did see the amazing tree sculptures because of your photos--I wouldn't have known about them otherwise.

AphotoAday said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your comment on the surfer shot, but I have a better one at:

Cool to meet you again too.

Best regards, Don

Unknown said...

Hi Mike,
Nice story. I noticed over at the spoofers' blog that the museum world is starting to take notice: Hollis Goodall, Curator of Japanese Art at LACMA (LA County Museum of Art) has responded, basically validating the concerns of scholars and the spoofers themselves, going so far as to suggest that the issues raised be taken up at a meeting at the Smithsonian of Asian Art curators. Getting interesting!

Asians Art Museum said...

Now officially sanctioned by the academy:

Public Lecture at UC Berkeley's Institute of East Asian Studies

Lord It's the Samurai: Socially Engaged Art and the Cultural Production of Orientalist Hysteria

Tuesday, March 9, 4-6pm
IEAS Conf. Rm, 2223 Fulton, 6th flr

Sponsored by Center for Japanese Studies

This event is free, wheelchair accessible and open to the public.

More info here