Becoming American?

Becoming American?: The Art and Identity Crisis of Yasuo Kuniyoshi

ShiPu Wang
Copyright Date: 2011
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  • Book Info
    Becoming American?
    Book Description:

    "A few short days has changed my status in this country, although I myself have not changed at all."

    On December 8, 1941, artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953) awoke to find himself branded an "enemy alien" by the U.S. government in the aftermath of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. The historical crisis forced Kuniyoshi, an émigré Japanese with a distinguished career in American art, to rethink his pictorial strategies and to confront questions of loyalty, assimilation, national and racial identity that he had carefully avoided in his prewar art. As an immigrant who had proclaimed himself to be as "American as the next fellow," the realization of his now fractured and precarious status catalyzed the development of an emphatic and conscious identity construct that would underlie Kuniyoshi's art and public image for the remainder of his life.

    Drawing on previously unexamined primary sources,Becoming American?is the first scholarly book in over two decades to offer an in-depth and critical analysis of Yasuo Kuniyoshi's pivotal works, including his "anti-Japan" posters and radio broadcasts for U.S. propaganda, and his coded and increasingly enigmatic paintings, within their historical contexts. Through the prism of an identity crisis, the book examines Kuniyoshi's imagery and writings as vital means for him to engage, albeit often reluctantly and ambivalently, in discussions about American democracy and ideals at a time when racial and national origins were grounds for mass incarceration and discrimination. It is also among the first scholarly studies to investigate the activities of Americans of Japanese descent outside the internment camps and the intense pressures with which they had to deal in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

    As an art historical book,Becoming American?foregrounds broader historical debates of what constituted American art, a central preoccupation of Kuniyoshi's artistic milieu. It illuminates the complicating factors of race, diasporas, and ideology in the construction of an American cultural identity. Timely and provocative, the book historicizes and elucidates the ways in which "minority" artists have been, and continue to be, both championed and marginalized for their cultural and ethnic "difference" within the twentieth-century American art canon.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6027-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    “At least one Japanese we’ve heard of is doing his damnedest to help us win the war,” theNew Yorkerdeclared in its “Talk of the Town” section on March 28, 1942. In a brief article titled “Telling Tokio,” writer Russell Maloney informed his readers that Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889–1953)—an émigré Japanese and “one of this country’s best artists”—had volunteered to write radio broadcasts for the Office of the Coordinator of Information (OCI), one of the U.S. government bureaus in charge of disseminating war information and propaganda. Kuniyoshi drafted the radio scripts in English, and the agency’s staff...

  5. PRELUDE Surviving Pearl Harbor
    (pp. 11-24)

    In 1943, at the height of World War II, Yasuo Kuniyoshi painted a large canvas, titledSomebody Tore My Poster(Fig. 2). In it, a centrally positioned woman stands in front of a torn poster. Her left hand holds on to a nearby railing as if to prevent herself from falling, while her right hand raises a burning cigarette that seems to block the sight of the desecrated poster. Turning away, she exudes an understated melancholy, typical of Kuniyoshi’s figurative paintings from the 1930s, which mostly contained a lone, pensive female figure in a sparse space, as inGirl Wearing...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Painting American
    (pp. 25-45)

    It might be said that one of the disillusions Kuniyoshi suffered during the war was that witnessing the American government’s treatment of people of Japanese descent made him acutely realize he hadalwaysbeen racialized. Kuniyoshi’s artistic career had developed in a New Deal–progressive milieu and was nurtured by many prominent liberals and leftists in the New York and New England art circles. Since the 1920s, Kuniyoshi and his colleagues had been deploying the modernist trope of universalism to define American art—an ideological stance in contention with the more nationalistic viewpoint of conservative artists and critics, represented by...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Negotiating “Japaneseness”
    (pp. 46-69)

    “This is not a racial war.”

    So Kuniyoshi proclaimed in a letter written in October 1942 to James Reed, a student at Sheldon School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who contacted Kuniyoshi on behalf of his classmates. The students’ teacher mentioned Kuniyoshi’s name while they were studying “Worthwhile People” in class and told them that this émigré Japanese artist did radio broadcasts for the U.S. government and gave the proceeds of his exhibition to the United China Relief Funds. Reed and his classmates wanted to know why Kuniyoshi gave his money to China and what the content of his broadcast was....

  8. CHAPTER THREE Picturing an Identity Crisis
    (pp. 70-97)

    In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Kuniyoshi sought many opportunities to contribute to U.S. propaganda that would not only prove his patriotism but also reinforce his credentials as an American artist. Another motivating factor, no less important, was a view shared by many of his colleagues: that the U.S. government badly needed the expertise of fine artists to produce more effective pictorial propaganda materials. In his 1942 speech “Civilization Besieged,” Kuniyoshi complained that even though artists like him were eager to make “propaganda and educational art,” the government had preferred “the work of the commercial artists, the illustrator, the cartoonist”...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Fighting the Battles Within
    (pp. 98-116)

    The OWI involvement apparently constituted such a pivotal part of Kuniyoshi’s wartime experience that he evoked the OWI in two of his large-scale oil paintings produced during the war years—an unusual practice in his oeuvre. In bothSomebody Tore My PosterandHeadless Horse Who Wants to Jump,he deployed the motif of torn OWI posters: his own Torture in the latter and, most provocatively, Ben Shahn’sWe French Workers Warn You . . . Defeat Means Slavery, Starvation, Death(1943) in the former (Figs. 27 and 28).¹ Departing from war imagery that was meant to serve propagandist purposes,...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Wearing the Masks
    (pp. 117-137)

    The postwar years brought Kuniyoshi even more critical recognition that further embellished his already illustrious career in spite of his trying wartime experience. In 1946, the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs purchased three of Kuniyoshi’s works and included them in its traveling exhibitionAdvancing American Art.In 1947, Kuniyoshi became the founding president of the Artists Equity Association (AEA), a nationwide organization aimed at promoting artists’ professional development and assisting artists in their relations with their patrons, such as dealers and museums. To be elected by the AEA’s members, consisting of American artists of a...

  11. EPILOGUE Becoming American?
    (pp. 138-148)

    On the occasion of making Kuniyoshi the first living American artist to hold a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1948, curator Lloyd Goodrich apparently felt compelled to reinforce Kuniyoshi’s “Americanness.” He rehashed the allegiance issue, likely in direct response to the allegations from the Dondero/conservative camp, and insisted on Kuniyoshi’s American credentials by stating that Kuniyoshi “long felt himself an American in every other respect,” even though he was still legally a resident alien in 1948. Goodrich further bolstered his institution’s decision to give its first-ever living artist retrospective to Kuniyoshi by acknowledging the artist’s strong belief in a...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 149-170)
    (pp. 171-182)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 183-192)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 193-197)