Plight at the Museum

The home of Boston’s greatest art collection experienced a small but interesting kerfuffle the other day.

The Museum of Fine Arts, upon reinstalling Claude Monet’s marvelous 1876 work La Japonaise, began a recurring series called “Kimono Wednesdays,” held once a week in the institution’s Impressionist gallery.  The painting depicts the artist’s wife, Camille, donning the iconic Japanese garment, and the program would allow visitors to pose alongside her while wearing a museum-supplied kimono of their own.

It never quite got that far.  Although similar exhibits proved popular in Japan when La Japonaise went on tour, the Boston iteration of “Kimono Wednesdays” faced immediate pushback in the form of several young Bostonians of Japanese (and non-Japanese) descent who charged the MFA with racism.

I popped into the museum last Wednesday night, and there they were:  A trio of conscientious objectors, silently wielding hand-written signs with messages like, “This is Orientalism,” and gamely posing for photographs.

(Let us observe a moment of irony at how a group of Japanese folks chose to protest the promulgation of ethnic stereotypes by gathering at a famed American landmark and snapping a bunch of pictures.)

As it turned out, the gambit paid off:  As the righteous agitators gained support online, the MFA cancelled the dress-up portion of “Kimono Wednesdays” and apologized for causing offense.  (The museum’s director, to his credit, observed that “a little controversy never did any harm.”)

The kimonos will remain on display for visitors’ sensory pleasure, as will the great portrait that started this whole mess.  Nonetheless, it was quite an achievement to get a massive art institution to alter its programming—even just a smidgen—simply because it made a few people uncomfortable.

The question now is whether they were right to be offended in the first place.

Was “Kimono Wednesdays” insensitive, if not outright racist, or are its detractors being a tad oversensitive themselves?  Does inviting a throng of mostly white museumgoers to assume a quintessentially Japanese look constitute crass appropriation or a loving attempt to bridge a cultural divide?

It seems clear—to me, at least—that the MFA truly meant no harm in jazzing up one of its most beloved works.  Indeed, the reason Monet painted his wife in a kimono was to underline and lampoon how French society had become obsessed with all things Japanese at that point in the late 19th century.  What is more, the MFA itself is currently bursting at the seams with exceptional Japanese art, including a massive retrospective of Katsushika Hokusai—arguably the country’s most revered painter and printmaker—and an arresting multimedia exhibition, “In the Wake,” which surveys Japanese artists’ responses to the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that plagued the country in March of 2011.

That said, if recent events have taught us anything, it’s that racism does not always perceive its own presence but can cause enormous damage nonetheless.  A person, organization or society can exhibit prejudicial attitudes and practices without even realizing it, but that doesn’t make them any less toxic.  As with sexual harassment in the workplace, racism exists from the moment it is perceived, regardless of whether it was actually intended.

Kimono-gate is a solid test case for this theory, if only due to its comparatively low stakes.  (To wit:  No unarmed black men were murdered by white police officers in the making of this exhibit.)

If we are now afflicted by an epidemic of latent societal racism in America, we are equally enjoying a veritable golden age of full-throated offense-taking—an environment in which every man, woman and child is compelled to cry foul whenever anyone says or does anything with even a whiff of political incorrectness.  A world without edge, without context and without nuance.

In fairness, things like context and historical prospective are precisely what the MFA’s antagonists are demanding, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t get it.  Their principal gripe is that “Kimono Wednesdays” reduces the famous robe—and, in turn, its country of origin—into an exotic cultural caricature, without bothering to truly understand anything about either.  In their view, Americans dressing in kimonos and mimicking actual Japanese people is little better than white people performing in blackface.

Then there is the small matter of the history of Orientalism in general, which is inseparable from the history of Western imperialism, itself predicated on the notion that the West is inherently more civilized than the East.  One way for the conquerors to demonstrate this was to prance around in the wardrobe of the conquered.

I can’t imagine that the MFA thought all of this through before green-lighting their whimsical summertime activity, but then again, I guess that’s the point.

In today’s culture, no one is allowed to say or do anything without assuming responsibility for everything their words or actions have ever meant to anybody.  You can’t wave a Confederate battle flag without being perceived as a racist (which, let’s face it, you probably are), nor can you say someone “runs like a girl” (or whatever) without coming off as sexist, homophobic or both.

On one hand, this is welcome news, as it suggests that respecting the basic dignity of fellow human beings is suddenly becoming a thing.

However, it also means there is no longer any margin for error, nor any benefit of the doubt.  We are all in danger of becoming Justine Sacco, the woman who tweeted a mildly offensive joke about AIDS in Africa and, within hours, became one of the most hated people in America.

This is the compromise we have negotiated with ourselves:  Everyone gets to be treated equally, but no one can think for themselves or dare to play around with the old prejudices and stereotypes we have so rightfully, if belatedly, shaken off.

Which means the Museum of Fine Arts cannot simply plead ignorance on the matter of the kimonos.  Au contraire:  Ignorance is the whole problem.  The museum needed to anticipate how the most sensitive Japanese person might react to “Kimono Wednesdays” and be prepared to respond accordingly.

I think the MFA responded admirably under the circumstances, cancelling the most controversial component of its program while retaining everything else.

Then again, why should a judgment call like that be left to a honky like me?

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