The Lords of the Samurai/ Lord It’s The Samurai
Jun 12 - Sep 20
Asian Art Museum
by Lani Asher
"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. (TV and films reach more people, but are usually less grounded in scholarship and have less of a veneer of objectivity and authenticity.)…. A big museum exhibition, on the other hand, might draw in 10s or even 100s of thousands of visitors"
"Topics like the samurai and the geisha are certainly valid subjects for museum exhibitions, and in these difficult financial times, must be attractive themes as guarantees of significant visitor traffic. But why not call attention to the problematic mythologization of these figures…"1
- Morgan Pitelka, Associate Professor of Asian Studies, Occidental College
Political intervention is a strategy long employed by various artist collectives. The Guerrilla Girls is a group of women artists who combat sexism in museum and cultural institution. They hide their identities behind gorilla masks and the names of notable women artists to “focus on the issues, not on our personalities or our own work.”2 The “Yes Men,” who pose as corporate executives, use parody in their films, performances, and websites to show the dangers of letting greed run the world. According to playwright Dario Fo, “All forms of power — even based on the consensus of the democratic system —react when they are being attacked, or when those who exercise power become a target...Comedy makes the subversion of the existing state of affairs possible.”3
In response to the latest offering from the Asian Art Museum, “Lords of the Samurai”, a collective of anonymous artists appropriated the museum’s promotional material to create a website and poster entitled Lord It's the Samurai. Found online at http://www.asiansart.org/samurai1.html and distributed around San Francisco, the project emphasizes the pervasiveness of the myth of Orientalism in our dominant culture.
"Lords of the Samurai" featured more than 160 works from the Hosokawa family collection and the Eisei-Bunko Museum in Tokyo. Objects on view included suits of armor, armaments —including swords and guns—masks and costumes from Noh and Kyogen Theater, calligraphy, paintings, tea wares, and musical instruments. The exhibition and catalogue focus on the samurai code, Bushido, based in the concepts of bun and bu, or culture and arms. It developed during the generally calm Edo period, where the ruling families were devoted to the cult of tea, theater, calligraphy, and Zen, and were preoccupied with appearances and family lineage. High-ranking Japanese
damiyo and samurai (their retainers or knights) strove to balance their martial prowess with artistic, cultural, and spiritual pursuits. The Hosokawa family was a powerful damiyo family whose influence extends to this day. The current head was a former prime minister of Japan and is a well-known ceramic artist with work featured in the exhibition.
The show extends to an educational room titled “Damiyo For A Day Art and Activity Room,” where one can dress like a samurai lord, play Go, write poetry, read manga (comic books) about samurai, see samurai movies, practice calligraphy, or drink tea. Such activities reduce the museum's staff best efforts at offering visitors genuine cultural context to playacting. "Damiyo for A Day" points to the empty language that reflects a cultural landscape formed by manipulated images and idioms. It recalls Julian Stallabrass’s book Art Incorporated, which examines the influence and negative effects of corporate branding on museums and cultural institutions. Stallabrass asserts that "branding becomes more important than the objects, history, or context, and instead an "embodiment of particular combinations of virtues or admirable vices.."4
The artists responsible for Lord It’s the Samurai—who call the collective Asians Art Museum—add Disney-like mouse ears and a human nose to a mysterious samurai figure, as well as a mushroom cloud backdrop, to the official Asian Art Museum publicity. The nose may refer to the 38,000 Korean noses that were brutally sliced off and buried in a ceremonial mound in Kyoto. They argue that showing beautiful objects—including swords and armor—without providing any accurate historical context effectively aestheticizes violence. For an audience largely unfamiliar with that history romanticizing warrior culture is irresponsible, especially in light of Japan’s imperialist history and the United States’ more recent neo-imperialist wars.
It is also largely false. Harold Bolitho, a Professor of Japanese History at Harvard University, and one of the alternative voices cited on the guerilla site, writes "the samurai of the popular imagination is a myth. He never existed. You can see him in books…you can see him in films, you can see him in prints, plays, novels, and museums, but you cannot see him in history, and that is what really matters."5 Most samurai spent their time settling land disputes and protecting farmers growing vegetables and eking out a living with painting or other crafts.
Greg Levine, Associate Professor of Japanese Art History, at UC Berkeley notes the following:
"Given that the museum has been challenged on three prior occasions— the 'Geisha' and 'Tibet' exhibitions and the installation of a Japanese painting that provoked protest from the Korean-American community— I do wonder what the 'learning curve' has been within the museum exhibition planning process. Not a learning curve that started from the uni-dimensional conclusion that the museum was entirely 'wrong' or 'blind', but one that sought to deeply consider the criticisms, to conduct a self-reflexive review, to research how other museums have sought to address controversy … and to plan exhibitions toward greater historical sophistication and sensitivity."6
At the very least, "The Lords of the Samurai" exhibition misses an opportunity to promote cultural literacy, and at the very worst, promotes the type of Orientalism that leads to the myths and stereotypes that dehumanize people. With many links to scholarly articles, blogs, and resources, "Lord It's the Samurai" is beautifully done and a strong corrective measure. This group of guerrilla artists has managed to use incisive comic thrusts to embarrass the powers that be.
- Stallabrass, Julian. Art Incorporated (Oxford University Press, 2005).
- Bolitho, Harold."The Myth of the Samurai." In Alan Rix and Ross Mouer (editors), Japan's Impact on the World, pages 2-9 (Nathan, Queensland: Japanese Studies Association of Australia, 1984)
Lani Asher lives and works in San Francisco. She makes mixed media collages and has taught for many Bay Area non-profits. She holds an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and has studied at the College of Creative Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, New York University, and the Visual Studies Workshop.