April 16, 2006
Written by C.N.
Adidas has a new limited-edition sneaker that features artwork by a half-Chinese graffiti artist. The problem is that the artwork on the shoe is a stereotypical caricature of an Asian with a bowl haircut, narrow slanted eyes, and buck teeth. This has led to a lot of debate over where the line between art and racism lies:
The character on the shoe is the creation of a San Francisco graffiti artist, Barry McGee, who is half Chinese. McGee, who calls the character Ray Fong after an uncle who died, said the image is based on how the artist looked as an 8-year-old. “You have to look at it as a piece of artwork,” said McGee, 40, who used Ray Fong as a graffiti tag in the late 1990s and later in art installations and catalogue covers. . . .
The controversy also addresses the issue of removing a potentially subversive image from the context of art and introducing it into the world of commerce, where there is no means to indicate that the image may be a wry commentary on stereotypes, rather than perpetuation of the stereotype itself.
“We live in such a cynical, postmodern society that if you are offended by something like this, people say, ‘Lighten up, it’s ironic, it’s a joke.’ And that’s really nice if you’re a student of art history,” [Frank] Wu said. “But how many 10-year-olds talk about irony? When you get teased, it doesn’t make it any better to know that they’re also calling it ironic. It sends the message that it’s hip to make fun of Asians.”
As always, Professor Wu has summed up the crux of this controversy quite nicely. In other words, it’s clear that the artist meant it as a piece of art. Nonetheless, for whatever reasons, he is apparently completely ignorant of the fact that this particular image has a painful historical legacy behind it that is associated with prejudice, intolerance, and racism against Asian Americans.
As this episode shows, there can be a very thin line between art and racism but in this case, the line was clearly crossed. With freedom of expression, there is also social responsibility. To use such a polarizing image that many people find offensive without any kind of historical or cultural context is irresponsible and therefore, racist.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Racist Adidas Sneaker" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2006/04/racist-adidas-sneaker/> ().
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