Friday, March 1, 2013

Mao Tse Toad

While I was a docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, sometime in the early Eighties, when people were again starting to travel back and forth between China and the U.S., a group of Shanghai businessmen requested a museum tour. None of the docents wanted to take them. Too intimidating. There was that language barrier. None of the docents spoke Mandarin. Beyond that, there was a culture gap. This was modern art, after all; it was difficult enough to engage an American tour group. And weren’t they . . .Communists?

Kate, the tour coordinator, called me in desperation. Would I take the tour? Oh yes, I would. That would be fun! After all, I was quite the ambassador already. A member of U.S.-China Peoples’ Friendship, I had been tutoring a visiting scholar in English for the past year. (His name was Yin Zong Ze, and what a lot I learned from him, as on the day he asked me why I drove a Japanese car. Yin was from Nanking, age forty-eight in 1980, five years old in 1937; that is another story.) So yes, I would take the tour.

That morning I put on a pants suit and my Dianne Feinstein blouse or scarf or whatever women were wearing then. I showed up on time, on task––and indeed, they were a group of about thirty businessmen, all dressed in brown and grey suit jackets, all Chinese.

Intimidating? A little. But not daunting. I knew the exhibits well, I knew the permanent collection, and my tour was all mapped out, except that I hadn’t had time to walk through the exhibits again that morning. And things went swimmingly at first as we walked from artwork to artwork and I gave my spiel. I talked, they listened. No questions or comments.

There was a lot of ceramic sculpture around––ceramic funk: offbeat, satirical pieces like Robert Arneson’s bust of Mayor George Moscone, with ‘graffiti’ – references to Moscone’s assassination––scrawled on the pedestal; and clearly, the Shanghai tour group found it all passing strange. Even so, they were attentive, some even smiling.

Then we rounded a corner. And there, directly in front of us (but why? It wasn’t there before)––was a whimsical ceramic bust by David Gilhooly, the bust of a ceramic toad.

Mao Tse Toad.

I was appalled.

But I was not nearly as appalled as the businessmen from Shanghai. There was a collective intake of breath. Then everybody started talking at once. The men gathered round to get a better look. “What is this?” they wanted to know. And “Why a toad?” they challenged. Clearly this little statue on its pedestal was shocking, and very offensive.

So this was the Universal Language of Art. So this was the magic of the visual that transcends the barriers of nationality and culture. Except when it doesn’t.

In vain did I look about the room for other comic creatures from Gilhooly’s Frog World.  In vain did I try to explain that the artist had created ceramic sculptures of many famous people, depicting them all as frogs or toads.  It was his thing. But a California artist’s thing was too arcane a concept for the gentlemen from Shanghai. More than that, it was irrelevant.

Perhaps these visitors didn’t revere Mao Tse Tung, perhaps they didn’t admire or even like him, but he was a great leader. A great Chinese leader. It was disrespectful. And if I was helped by a sudden siting, across the room, of Frog Napoleon––prompting me to point out that another great leader, a great French leader, had been portrayed as a frog––I was helped only a little, for to my Chinese visitors. this only meant that the French were also disrespected.

The tour continued and, the ice having been broken––pulverized, rather––there was now more conversation about art. Art in China was very different, I was told. Did I know that ceramics had been invented in China? Chinese ceramics were beautiful and useful. Chinese painting was beautiful, not foolish. And so I was informed about art and values as I guided the Chinese through the permanent collection, where they found Jackson Pollock chaotic and unskilled, Roy Lichtenstein amusing in a derisory way: not really art, and Robert Rauschenberg incomprehensible. But I fear that what they took home with them, despite the good will and civility on both sides, was Mao Tse Toad.

I wish I could say that, somehow, I managed to pull a rabbit out of a hat, even a ceramic rabbit, and succeeded in turning the minor catastrophe of Mao Tse Toad into a brilliant teaching moment: a lucid moment of cross-cultural understanding. Because I’m American, a part of me would have liked to make a sincere little speech––that speech at the end of the Disney movie that wins the day and brings everybody together. The better part of me, knew, though, that in this tentative world of re-making sundered bonds, that would have been ludicrous. A coming together at the end is not what happened. Not what happened at all. Sometimes, our differences are too great. Cultures, and civilizations, are too far apart, the gulf that separates them too wide, the bridge that spans the gulf too slight. To acknowledge this truth is to show respect.

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