Curating my culture crisis

Cutting Room Floor

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Audrey McNamara/Senior Staff

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During RRR Week of last semester, I visited my linguistic professor’s office to clarify some concepts she had mentioned in the last lecture. I asked her about prototypes, the most central cases of a category. A robin, for example, is a more prototypical member of the bird category than a penguin.

I opened up my laptop, ready to take notes and transcribe my professor’s words. Using the category of art as an example, she promptly launched into an analysis about how its prototypes are paintings, music, literature and sculptures.

“But perhaps for you and people of your descent,” she added, “pottery would be a prototype too.”

She meant that in East Asian culture, pottery is a totally revered and valued form of art. That part is true as far as I, a person who’s never taken an art history class (but a certified Asian person), can tell. But the sad fact was that the immediate, vehement response in my head was, “No, I actually don’t think it’s a prototype, professor. I really don’t consider it as valid or belonging on the same level as the other types.”

This attitude actually holds true for me for pretty much all traditional Asian art. Now, I’m a fan of the work of contemporary Asian artists, musicians and filmmakers, but when it comes to pre-20th century things, I’ve always preferred Western art. I thought Renaissance paintings were much more complex and elegant than the two-dimensional depictions of emperors on Chinese scrolls, and Da Vinci’s swirling colors and brushstrokes captivated me while calligrapher Wang Xizhi’s simple black script made me yawn.

I’ve always had this unconscious bias but never really openly admitted it to myself until that meeting with my linguistics professor. The strong knee-jerk reaction against Asian art later left me wondering why I even had such a feeling of contempt for it in the first place. It was just a matter of taste, right?

Honestly, it didn’t take much soul searching to find the answer.

My distaste for Asian art was really a culmination of my attempts to stay away from feeling like “the other” — a narrative that’s unfortunately common among Asian Americans. I’ll say that the history curriculum in school was another contributing factor, in that the little knowledge I have about art was learned through my Eurocentric history classes, but my internalized racism had a much stronger effect. Because I hated being reminded that I was different, I tried to suppress anything within my power that would have suggested that I was not white. This especially meant not signing up for any of the free enrichment program classes my Saturday morning Chinese school offered, which included calligraphy, folk dance and Chinese painting.

I was diametrically opposed to even the idea of being open to learning about Chinese art. Despite the countless visits my family took to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, it never changed the fact that I was unimpressed by it all. I rushed through the calligraphy exhibits, because what’s the point of spending time looking at carefully inked characters when I can’t even read what they say?

Then two summers ago, my family and I visited the National Palace Museum in Taiwan to see the Jadeite Cabbage and Meat-shaped Stone, the museum’s national “treasures.” We soon found out, much to my family’s disappointment, that the Meat-shaped Stone was actually away in Tokyo. I was a little disappointed as well (the whole point of that museum trip was to see all these fancy rocks), but at least it was one less thing separating us from lunchtime.

As we stood in line for the Jadeite Cabbage, I braced myself for another boring ancient artifact. But because everyone seemed to care a lot about these lumps of minerals, I carefully squeezed my way to one of the boxes and peered in.

The cabbage head, though small, was insanely detailed, from the veins on the stems to the insects perched on its dark green leaves.

In that moment, hunching shoulder-to-shoulder with the other visitors, I was in awe. The craftsmanship was intense, no doubt, but what I loved most about that piece was the fact that some highly skilled artist hundreds of years ago basically saw a hunk of rock and decided it looked enough like food to make it look like food. Because hey, a good dinner is just as worthy of immortalization as some Greek god who plays the lute.

To be completely honest, that visit didn’t cause a complete change of heart. Although the cabbage is one of my favorite pieces now, and although I have a greater appreciation and respect for the attention to detail my ancestors possessed, I can’t say that I’m a super huge fan of traditional Asian art. There are times when I feel embarrassed, and I definitely feel obligated to unconditionally love Ming dynasty vases and bamboo paintings. But much like trying to overcome my own internalized racism, it’s a process and I’m still learning.

The Meat-shaped stone is at the Asian Art Museum right now. I think I’ll go visit it one of these days.

“Cutting Room Floor” columns are one-off, arts-oriented pieces written by Daily Cal staff members.

Contact Adrienne Lee at [email protected].