A couple of weeks ago, I shared a painting from the age of Japonisme in Europe. Today I’d like to offer an example of how the Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints that arrived in Europe during the Meiji Era changed European art, and inspired the aesthetic that created “modern” art.
TokaidoHodogaya, one of theThirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji, by Katsushika Hokusai, shows us a glimpse of the ukiyo-e prints that took Europe by storm in the latter half of the 19th Century.
Many people in Europe, and especially such painters as Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, James A. McNeill Whistler, and Paul Cézanne amassed large collections of Japanese prints. Monet had a whole living room full. Van Gogh didn’t have many physical possessions, but he did have a cherished collection of ukiyo-e prints.The radically different way in which the Japanese artists viewed space, color, and perspective influenced these artists deeply–some more directly than others.
PaulCézanne painted The Chestnut Trees of Jas de Bouffan in Winter, a view that included Mont Ste. Victoire, one of his favorite subjects, as viewed from his home. Hokusai’s influence is hard to miss.
Paul Cézanne was such an ardent admirer of two print series, each titled Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji–one created by Katsushika Hokusai, and the other by his younger rival Ando Hiroshige–that he created his own series of thirty-six paintings of Mont Ste. Victoire, a distinctive mountain near Aix-en-Provence, visible from Cézanne’s home and studio at Bastide du Jas de Bouffan.
There was no question about cultural appropriation in Cézanne’s day. Europeans considered themselves and their culture to be the apex of human civilization. They felt free to draw upon any source they wished, and never questioned whether they had a right to do so. I am not sure that Cézanne’s painting count as “appropriation” per se, though it’s easy to detect a touch of “the sincerest form of flattery.” Similarities are also easy to see in others he painted, whose compositions bear a striking resemblance to certain prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige–I may share them at some point in the future.
According to some people, I have an unsavory past.
Well, not me, personally. I’ve never committed any crime worse than exceeding the speed limit, and I’m pretty sure that’s true for most of my immediate family as well. We don’t tend to be colorful in that way.
But I have both English and German roots, and the last several generations of my European-American ancestors have lived in the United States. In the eyes of many people around the world, those simple facts make me and my family complicit, at least by association, with centuries of oppression, racism, and perhaps even genocide.
Not much I can do about it, no matter what my ancestors thought or did. But in the minds of some, my ancestry and presumed understandings make me a suspect interpreter of culture. How dare I even try to make art about any culture but my own? Isn’t that tantamount to cultural appropriation?
Yikes! Um, well . . . no, actually. For good reason.
First, like many people, I’ve tried to live my life in as fair and unbiased a way as I can, but the fact is that sometimes we don’t realize what we’ve done or said (or what those things mean to others–see below) until we’ve had our consciousness raised. Every one of us is a product of our culture, and it’s only through experience that we can learn more appropriate approaches and frames of reference.
In other words, none of us will get it right 100% of the time. But cross-cultural understanding can be built, even by unsavory characters such as me. It requires mutual respect and openness, and patience with each others’ mistakes.
Why try? When we don’t understand something, our brain still tries to make sense of it. That’s an innate response. We don’t always get it right, because synthesizing from impressions and separate events is an inaccurate process. But the human brain seems hard-wired to try.
I’ve always seen artists (in all of the arts disciplines) as crucial to the process of building cross-cultural understanding–and in our ever-shrinking world, where globalization affects lives everywhere, developing more and better tools for cross-cultural understanding is becoming ever more vitally important.
Yet anytime we consider a cultural exchange, there tends to arise the concern over cultural appropriation.
Cultural Exchange is a healthy, desirable, increasingly necessary function in society. Governments, organizations, and businesses are wise to foster it whenever possible.
Cultural Appropriation is a perversion that wounds, and inhibits mutual growth. It is what happens when members of a dominant culture ignorantly or disrespectfully use racial stereotypes or the outward symbols of a less-dominant culture for its own gain or racist purposes. Unfortunately, people who look like me can stumble all too easily across this line. Consider these examples:
But we’ve already established that we don’t get it right 100% of the time, especially when we encounter an unfamiliar culture. How and where do we draw the line?
First must come the awareness that there is such a thing as a dominant culture. Moreover, membership in a dominant cultural group automatically bestows privilege. When you ignore privilege, you lose an essential perspective that is important for helping you see where that line falls.
That’s why people who look like me, and whose ancestors came from the places my ancestors did, are automatically suspects, when it comes to cultural appropriation. Whether we want to be or not, and whether we think it’s right or not, we’re privileged. THAT’S my “unsavory past,” noted at the top of this article. When you automatically have had privilege all your life, it looks “normal.”
And it’s really easy to ignore, until you’ve had your consciousness raised to the fact that everyone else who doesn’t look like you has to evaluate situations based on your privilege, and work around it.
After that, drawing the line gets a lot easier. Cultural exchange is mutual. It enriches members of both cultures. Cultural appropriation demeans members of one culture for the amusement or gain of more-privileged members of another. Ultimately, it comes down to RESPECT. Without it, every single one of us is an unreliable witness.
We often hear that the United States is a great big melting pot, where immigrants come from all over and get assimilated, so that they can become Americans. As you can see from the style of the image above, this idea has been around for a while.
This “melting pot” idea assumes the cultural differences will get melted right out, and we’ll all turn into generic Americans. Everybody will share the same cultural references, speak English, and leave the Old Country behind.
It’s balderdash, of course. People don’t “melt” that easily, and they can only interact with the world via the cultural references they have. Even several generations after the first, many aspects of a person’s cultural heritage live on in them. I do like the “Equal Rights” spoon Miss Liberty is using to stir us with, though. It would be nice if we saw that spoon a lot more often in public life.
Or maybe we’re like a salad bowl, as a more contemporary image says: all the assorted individuals mix together and interact with each other, but they maintain most of their original flavors and characteristics. (in this illustration, is the English language kind of like the . . . salad dressing?)
I’m not sure that’s an entirely apt metaphor, either, because after a while we do grow more like our nearer neighbors, while older ties and influences may loosen. Assimilation may never be total, but it is an important force.
Fact is, neither is a perfect image, because people aren’t (normally) pieces of food. We’re way more complicated than that. This is a worry and an irritation to those who like to keep things simple, but I have a feeling those folks have enough frustrations already: life is rarely uncomplicated.
If you’re the kind of person who lives in fear, then the “otherness” of people from different cultures can be frightening. If you’re the kind of person who finds variety to be the spice of life, then nothing tastes better–pot OR bowl–than cultural diversity.
I’m not sure Suzuki is correct–either that international cultural exchange is impossible, or that it is impossible to see beyond one’s own cultural context.
Instead, I think that when people from different cultures interact, they almost inevitably are affected by the new ideas and approaches they encounter. Far from being impossible, it seems to me that cultural exchange is inevitable.
Moreover, once cultural interaction has taken place, the new approaches or ideas (or visuals, or sounds, or flavors, or any of the other aspects of cultural interaction) have been experienced, they are impossible to un-experience. And what does that change? Cultural context.
Not completely, of course. Not all the way to seeing in terms of the newly-experienced culture’s context, certainly. But it still can be interesting, startling, or occasionally even life-changing, to experience life surrounded by a culture not our own.
Suzuki and Bogart are correct, however that making the effort to see beyond one’s own context has the potential to break down rigid assumptions. And once the walls of those assumptions have fallen, who knows what creative things might happen?
IMAGE: Many thanks for this quotation and image to A-Z Quotes.