The Boston Museum of Fine Arts unexpectedly found itself the target of protesters this past week, and was assailed on social media and Tumblr. Words like “racist” are not often hurled at a world-class cultural institution. What was its offense? Did it use racially disparaging words in an exhibit? Did it turn away visitors of a certain color?
No. All it did was to display Monet’s famous painting of his wife wearing a kimono, along with a similar kimono in which visitors could pose next to the art to have their photos taken.
The protesters are young, principled and earnest, driven by heartfelt convictions of their rightness. They believe that the act of donning a kimono and posing in front of a painting is cultural appropriation, pure and simple. But following that train of logic, I must no longer enjoy sushi dinners or read anime books. I must not consider getting a “tribal” tattoo on my shoulder lest I offend indigenous tribes. I must avoid music by Clapton, Eminem, and Diana Krall because they’re whites performing in musical forms originated by blacks. And on a local level, I must not tap my feet to music from Mali or Mongolia during the annual Lotus Festival of World Music, since I’m not Malinese or Mongolian.
Obviously, all this is ridiculous. The protesters in Boston mean well, but they are quite wrong to sling loaded words like “racist” at the museum. Racism is when we draw a line between ourselves and other human beings in order to separate us into categories. The world’s most serious problems right now are being caused by people who think only in rigid categories and who draw similar lines to divide people. Both the Islamic State and the Boston protesters share this commonality: they both assume that their own beliefs are the only form of righteousness.
To assert something like this in a very complex world is a faulty assumption of breathtaking grandiosity. All moderate people would agree that international cultural exchange is an intrinsically good thing. After all, the world listens to American music. People from all nations enjoy French and Australian wines, and drink Scotch. Why should we not buy a beautiful vintage kimono while vacationing in Japan? Jerk chicken tastes mighty good even when cooked in the American Midwest.
I advise the protestors in Boston to reach out to others instead of finding fault where none was intended. To make our world a better place, we must weigh our own actions rather than criticize the actions of others. It will be a better day when all of us around the globe can wear each other’s garments, listen to each other’s music, eat each other’s food with smiles on our faces, and make love to each other, without anyone else reproaching us for doing so.