Saturday, August 29, 2009

Arts Focus: Lords of the Samurai

An interesting debate is forming about an exhibit on view until September 20 at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco entitled "Lords of the Samurai." Samurai were warriors in premodern Japan. The title alludes to the Hosokawa clan, who were daimyo, or regional lords who grew to prominence after the establishment of military rule in Japan during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). The exhibit features artworks such as paintings, tea utensils, armor, and swords from the Hosokawa family collection in Japan.

However, critics of the exhibit who view it as presenting an orientalizing and exoticizing view of Japanese history have established a spoof website. The banner at the top of the main page reads "Asians Art Museum: Where Asian Still Means Oriental." Among the criticisms leveled against the exhibit are claims that the focus on samurai valorizes warfare, presents an uncritical look at bushido, or the way of the samurai, and that it reduces seven centuries of martial rule to "a single Disney-like trope of gentleman-warrior myth."

Without having seen the exhibit personally, all I can comment upon are the original and spoof websites, and offer up some food for thought. Members of the warrior class played a pivotal role throughout Japanese history as patrons and connoisseurs of the arts, as well as establishing a close religious and artistic connection with Zen Buddhist monks. The selection of objects in the exhibit seems to illustrate the multi-faceted role of samurai in Japanese society well. On the other hand, much of the content on the exhibition website appears to focus upon the martial rather than cultural aspects of the samurai, offering features such as "Making a Samurai Sword," "Explore Samurai Armor," and "The Code of the Samurai."

Lastly, Prof. Morgan Pitelka from Occidental College has written a thoughtful blog post analyzing the role played by museums in disseminating information to the public. He writes that "I have long argued that museums are probably the most important scholarly site in the world we live in for mass education about other nations and cultures." Furthermore, he writes that "Most museum professionals are entirely aware of the incredible responsibility they have in putting on exhibitions that often substitute for a nation’s entire history. Curators know that visitors might feel that having visited a show on the samurai, they have in effect visited Japan itself. This is the wonderful power and also the great danger of the museum; it reduces social and cultural complexity, not to mention historical variation and diversity, to a few beautiful objects."

Not having seen the exhibit personally, it is difficult to comment further, but several questions come to mind. First of all, how representative of the exhibit is the exhibition website? Secondly, do museums "package" exhibitions differently for academics than for the general public? Lastly, are the critiques of the spoof website fair or are the critics themselves misrepresenting the exhibit?

Lords of the Samurai website:

Spoof website:

Interview with the critics behind the spoof website:

Prof. Pitelka's blog post:
(links above courtesy of his blog post)

1 comment:

  1. 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"
    by Majime Sugiru, Communications Director, Asians Art Museum

    Sponsored by the Center for Japanese Studies
    March 9, 4-6pm

    More information at the IEAS website