We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. These recordings feature stories related to our daily lives.
This week, Amanda Berman considers how studying a set of eighteenth-century French porcelain sculptures reveals hidden racism and what that might mean for us today. To learn more about this artwork, visit: https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/5617.
Over the next few weeks, look for new recordings every other Tuesday.
JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. In a new podcast feature, we’re asking members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. We’ll be releasing new recordings every other Tuesday. I hope you’ll find these stories about our daily lives—from laundry on the line to a dog at a scholar’s feet—thought provoking, illuminating, and entertaining.
AMANDA BERMAN: I’m Amanda Berman, and I’m a curator of sculpture and decorative arts. While following news on the pandemic, I’ve been struck by stories of the targeted harassment of Chinese people and the boycotts and vandalization of Chinese-owned businesses. Many of my friends have reacted with shock and outrage, asking, “How could this happen here?” This question got me thinking about the subtle, less obvious forms of racism that foster and support the overtly racist behavior. And it reminded me of these “decorative groups” in the Getty’s collection.
They were constructed in the mid-1700s in France. I say constructed because they’re made up of different elements that did not start off life together. Each one is a combination of a few Chinese porcelain objects made after the mid-1600s—figures of boys wearing Qing dynasty tunics and trousers, rocks, spheres, and lions. These porcelain items were imported to France, where a bronze caster combined them on gilt-bronze bases and added French porcelain flowers. So, the result is this invented thing which uses Chinese elements to create a European decorative item. They’re beautiful pieces, but knowing how they were made makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s clear the European craftsman didn’t understand the cultural origins of the original porcelain pieces, and they had no problem with decontextualizing these objects to turn them into something that played on stereotypes.
These decorative groups fit into a larger category of art from this time that featured Asian-inspired themes, to put it generously. There were furnishings and other objects that used Chinese materials in the construction of a European-designed piece, like these objects. And then there were objects created entirely in Europe, with European materials, made to look vaguely Asian or decorated with stereotypically Asian imagery like pagodas and people in kimonos. European craftspeople drew on styles from Persia to Japan, mixing and matching to create designs that seem strange and culturally insensitive today.
Racist ideas about Asian people weren’t new in 18th century Europe. But increasing trade with Asia brought about a new fascination with Asian cultures and a rise in this Asian-inspired decorative style. This created and reinforced the idea of Asians as “other”—people who were not mainstream or didn’t fully belong. Exoticizing cultures, conflating them, and disregarding their distinct histories stereotypes and dehumanizes people from those cultures.
So I’ve been thinking about how these 18th century French objects relate to the question of how anti-Chinese racism can happen here. This obsession with Asian aesthetics, seen in this pair, is akin to cultural appropriation now. And I see a similar subtle racism in the model minority myth—another example of how Asians in America are considered not fully American, regardless of how many generations have lived here. Not to mention the long history of specifically anti-Chinese racism in US immigration laws.
Subtle racism can hide behind the idea of “cultural appreciation,” but in reality, this creates an atmosphere that supports and encourages acts of overt racism. That’s why it can be just as damaging as racist vandalism or racial slurs. This decorative pair reminds me of the continuous presence of these more hidden forms of racism. That’s why it’s important to study these artworks and understand their contexts, not just appreciate them aesthetically.
CUNO: To view this porcelain Pair of Decorative Groups, composed in France about 1740-1745 from pieces dating from about 1662–1740, click the link in this episode’s description or look for it on getty.edu/art/collections.