Debating Cultural Appropriation in the Art History Classroom

I am always looking for activities that make art history relevant to my students as well as disturb the problematic ways in which our discipline has been framed. Students respond enthusiastically when they are allowed to delve into current events that connect with art’s histories. In order to facilitate what can be heated conversations I have developed an activity to stimulate discussion around issues of cultural appropriation, “Japonisme,” and the responsibility of art institutions in these issues.

A controversy erupted in 2015 around an event at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston dubbed “Kimono Wednesdays.” This weekly event allowed visitors to try on a kimono similar to the one worn by Claude Monet’s wife in his painting from 1876, La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume). As photos emerged on social media, peaceful protests were staged inside the museum arguing two separate points of view. Some argued the event was a form of cultural appropriation, while others defended it as an example cultural appreciation. Ultimately, the museum cancelled the event, issued a public apology. More importantly, however, it held a public forum that brought academics, scholars, and museum professionals together around issues of race and decoloniality. During the forum, the museum self-reflexively asked how art institutions can be more accountable to their publics.

I credit Dr. Mia Bagneris (Tulane University) for initially suggesting I include this controversy in my courses. Like many others, I am frustrated by textbooks that replicate uncritical dialogues of “non-Western” art and artists. H. H. Arnason’s History of Modern Art, for example, includes “Japonisme” (the late nineteenth-century Western European fascination with and consumption of Japanese culture) as important to understanding the history of modern art. The text, however, completely excludes any discussion of art made in Japan during the modern period. This narrative positions Japan as “Other,” unimportant to the development of modernity outside of the use of certain aesthetic elements deemed interesting by Western European artists.

It is crucial we resist these stale narratives in our classrooms and expose students to the discussions that currently drive our discipline. When engaging in emotionally charged issues students can be understandably timid. Therefore, I developed an in-class debate structure that allows students to articulate the complexity of the issue from both sides. I successfully use this activity in general surveys, as well as more focused courses on Modern Art. This activity works best split over a portion of two class periods, first after students have been introduced to the influence of Japanese woodblock prints on artists like Cassatt, Monet, and Van Gogh. You can introduce the topic and assign positions at the end of one class, then allow the students to research their positions for homework. The following class can be devoted partially to an in-class debate. Examples of images can be found cultural appropriation.

 

  1. Introduce the topic

Ensure that your students are introduced to the basic issues of “Japonisme” before framing the “Kimono Wednesdays” controversy for them. Refer to the AHTR lesson plans on Realism to Postimpressionism and Japanese Art After 1392 for suggestions. Inform the students you will be conducting an informal debate over the issues during your next class meeting.

Ask the class to collectively define “cultural appropriation,” by either breaking students into groups, or collecting phrases on the board together. I find the following definition to be helpful:

“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a ​minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.” – Susan Scafidi, Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law (2005)

It is important to stress cultural appropriation is rooted in historic systems of power and generally understood as causing harm, even when unintentional.

 

  1. Assign affirmative and negative positions

Assign each student a position, either in defense of the museum’s event as “cultural appreciation” or opposing it as “cultural appropriation.” You can incentivize the debate by building in extra credit to the “winning” team. I usually give the entire class extra credit as a surprise at the end.

 

  1. Give time for research

Have the students read these articles and bring in key points to raise during the debate:

You can also suggest the following for further research:

 

  1. In-Class Debate

At the beginning of the next class, randomly select an odd-number of students to form a jury. Inform the jury that after hearing the arguments they will anonymously vote on which side was most persuasive.

Allow the debating students 5 minutes to meet together in their position groups. I facilitate the debate as point–counterpoint, therefore, students should agree as a group on a list of compelling arguments to raise. Give the students a certain amount of time to debate, and keep track of the number of points and counterpoints allowed to ensure fairness.

The exchange will get heated! Remind students the arguments they hear may not necessarily reflect personal views. Debating a position with which they do not necessarily agree provides a better grasp of the argument’s complexities.

 

  1. Make a judgment

Have the jurors vote for the more persuasive side by an anonymous ballot after the debate has ended.

 

  1. End with discussion that builds to broader course issues

 Wrap up with a group discussion during which students are encouraged to share their personal opinions. Use this as an opportunity to productively link the debate to broader course issues. Here are some guiding questions:

  • What do you think was the purpose behind this activity?
  • Was anyone forced to argue a point with which they disagreed? How did this make you feel? Would you like to raise an issue that wasn’t touched upon in the debate? Did you gain any new understanding while conducting your research?
  • What role do museums play in this debate? What responsibility do they have to their publics?
  • What could the museum have done differently to have a more positive outcome?
  • Can you think of other examples in art history or current events similar to this controversy? You might ask the students to think about this question ahead of time. Some issues raised in my classes have been: the looting of artifacts from the kingdom of Benin; the “My Culture is Not a Costume” movement; Coachella fashion; Orientalism and Primitivism.

 

It is productive to conclude with Japan’s own concurrent development of modernism written out of their textbook. Prints made during the Meiji Period (1860-1912), such as Charitable Bazaar at the Rokumeikan (1885) by Hashimoto Chikanobu (owned by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston) are an interesting counterpoint to the visual stereotyping of Japanese modern culture and the insistence on one-sided cultural exchange. Refer to AHTR’s lesson plan Japanese Art After 1392 for a primer on some of these issues.

 

Further reading:

Penelope Mason, History of Japanese Art (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005);

Christine M. E. Guth, Japan & Paris: Impressionism, Postimpressionism, and the Modern Era (Honolulu, HI : Honolulu Academy of Arts, 2004);

Elaine O’Brien, Everlyn Nicodemus, Melissa Chiu, Benjamin Genocchio, Mary K. Coffey, and Roberto Tejada, eds. Modern Art in Africa, Asia and Latin America: An Introduction to Global Modernisms (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013);

Hiroyuki Shimatani, Remaking Tradition: Modern Art of Japan from the Tokyo National Museum (Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art, 2013).

3 responses to “Debating Cultural Appropriation in the Art History Classroom”

  1. Kathleen Wentrack says:

    Great class activity!

  2. SLS says:

    Does the format and process you describe mean that some students leave the class believing that cultural appropriation is acceptable or should actually be called cultural appreciation? I’m all for having students learn critical analysis and argumentation skills through practice, but this outcome would not be acceptable to me. There are certain things that I don’t allow to be debatable in my classes and the perpetuation of racism is one of those things.

    • Erin L. McCutcheon says:

      I would say no, my students have never left the classroom with an understanding that perpetuating racism is acceptable. The activity is designed to really pin down what exactly cultural appropriation is, how it has manifested throughout history, and why exactly has been and continues to be harmful. The occasions in which I have run this activity, we ended with an in depth discussion of how museums (and art history textbooks and classrooms) play a part in the perpetuation of racist histories, and how they can and should do better. I do not think such in depth conversations could happen if students were not challenged to understand both arguments that were presented during the controversy in 2015. I also would prefer students to let their biases come out, so that they can be unpacked, debated, challenged, and hopefully countered.

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