Karlie Kloss. B-list celebrity. A-list model. Honestly, I couldn't pick her out in a lineup. But she made the news today because she showed up in Vogue in yellowface this month. Not on the cover, mind you, because this apparently marks the first time a real Asian-American has made it on the cover of American Vogue.
We all borrow culture and history and art. That's what triggers innovation--liminal spaces invite creativity. The Impressionists got huge mileage out of their Japonisme. Kurosawa borrowed time-tested plots and shots from US westerns. The world is richer for all that. It took Karlie Kloss to show me that where cultural appropriation happens is when the borrower is still the only person allowed in the room with that cultural heritage. So Karlie Kloss putting on a geisha shoot in Vogue starts feeling offensive not because of the shoot, but because Vogue is still a place where Asian models are not welcome. So if it takes a white representative to bring that culture in, then yes, it begins to feel like appropriation.
In contrast, I didn't think the brouhaha over the "Kimono Wednesdays" at Boston MFA exhibit of Camille Monet's two years ago was really warranted. There's plenty of Asian art at the Boston MFA, Camille Monet was depicting a white woman wearing a kimono, and the Japanese broadcaster NHK had commissioned the kimonos. But today, on Vogue, I got it.