When I was about 7 or 8, my dad took me to visit The Art Institute of Chicago for the first time. I had been to museums before, but I’d never seen anything quite like those galleries, 20-foot ceilings with walls coated in thick layers of gold filigreed frames and various conglomerations of paints. The rooms I always felt most connected to were the ones holding Van Goghs and Monets, feeling that connection they held to my heritage.
I wish I could say that, as an 8-year-old, I was able to spot the imperialism and Eurocentricity that binds together the walls of so many art museums, but that wouldn’t be true. Like many European Americans, the interest I had in ancient Chinese, Indian, and Japanese art came from a sense of exploration, exposing my mind to the foreignness of the sculptures and pottery. For many years, I suppose I assumed that the exploratory aspect of myself was sufficient reason for any inclination I bore towards East and Southeast Asian art, that the interest, in and of itself, was something to be proud of. However, the difference between the fixation I had for European Impressionist paintings and my curiosity surrounding the Asian galleries was an appreciation and understanding. Even now, I can’t honestly say that I understand every painting I see, but behind that, there is a search for understanding, a drive to comprehend the complexities of each brushstroke.
In the topic of Orientalism, the thing that separated cultural appropriation from appreciation is just the same; some people seek to enjoy the commodities of other cultures, and some people seek to respect them. Respect, not just acknowledgment, whether it be in tangible art, literature, or ceremonies, is what ensures that people do not simply see and take. Respect establishes civility, attentiveness, and accountability for all of the culture Eurocentricity has treated like a trend.