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Stanford’s Cantor Museum banner raises questions, some unintended

Uploaded: Aug 30, 2019
The banner was stretched across the large entrance to the Cantor Museum at Stanford University. It spread across half the room, although the right side was not completely visible. But visitors could still make out the words: “I AM AN AMERICAN.”

What is this all about I wondered, glancing around as other visitors also looked at it. Some were from other countries, not unexpected at a world-famous university that admits people from around the globe. I asked the ladies at the front desk if there was any explanation of why the banner was hanging there. “It’s part of an upcoming art exhibition. There will be a video on the nearby wall about it.”

The banner disturbed me. Why proclaim, “I AM AN AMERICAN”? Is this supposed to make me feel proud? Is it suggesting that if you are not an American, you don’t belong in this museum? How do people from other countries feel upon entering this museum and seeing those words? Why is the artist through this university’s museum, making this statement?

Or is this what art is all about – to provoke a response, to be controversial to some who view it?

In a quarterly magazine, “Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University” (Fall, 2019),
Director Susan Dackerman described the work by artist Stephanie Syjuco as a banner “that encourages viewers to reflect on national identity, what it means to be an American and, I hope, leads to conversation about inclusion and community. These are important conversations to have on a university campus. And now the Cantor is better positioned that ever to stimulate and host this type of dialogue.”

Well, the banner doesn’t ask me all that, in fact, it just makes a statement, and is not a question. I guess those thoughtful questions must be part of the video. But if the banner had instead read, “What does it mean to be an American,” I would have been more responsive.

I called Dackerman but she was out of town for the day. However, I soon got an email from Beth Giudicessi, director of marketing and communications for Cantor with a link to the 15-minute video of the artist discussing her many works, including the banner.

Syjuco was born in the Philippines in 1974, came to the U.S. at age 3, lived in San Francisco, and became a U.S. citizen when she was 26. The inspiration for the banner came from an old World War II photo by Dorothea Lange in 1942 of a Japanese-American man who put an “I am an American” large black-and-white sign in his storefront window right before he was carted off to an internment camp. At the end of the video, Syjuco talks about her banner. “There’s been a lot of reckoning about what it means today to be an American citizen – and how it can be taken away from us…What do we stand for? What can we become?”

In the context of a Japanese-American displaying a sign in his storefront during WW II, I understand what he was saying and why, and the meaning of the message. But without that background, I think the banner is unintentionally saying something different in these days of division in our country.

The display will be fully installed by mid-September, including the video. I might suggest to Cantor staff that they have a full-length video but also a three-minute version that talks specifically about the “I AM AN AMERICAN” banner. Let Syjuco get her message out clearly. It is an important statement for all Americans today.
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Posted by George, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Aug 30, 2019 at 2:43 pm

Presumably, it will be an exhibit of portraits of the broad spectrum of american faces - another tired morality lesson on diversity. A banner broadcasting pride in being an American, if that is how it is interpreted, wouldn't be a bad thing - my goodness, Have Americans completely forgotten the great things this nation has achieved for everyone everywhere? Why in the world would someone from Germany or Vietnam feel slighted by that simple statement?
Japanese internment was unfortunate. So was Pearl harbor, so was the inhumane treatment of some Chinese by Japanese soldiers, so was the torture and abuse and death of nearly 20,000 Americans during the forced Bataan Death march. Americans were very concerned about infiltrators and possible West coast invasion by the Japanese and acted on what seemed to be at the time, best option.
If I went to Vietnam, an exhibit about those people - I am a Vietnamese - might be of great interest, not an insult to me.
I think you are trying create controversy, displaying more of your own fears and biases before the contents are even known. There is way too much of that in our press and public discourse already.
Surely, there are more urgent issues before the community.

Posted by Diana Diamond, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 30, 2019 at 3:27 pm

Diana Diamond is a registered user.

George --

From what I understand, the video will be of the artist and her work.. She is a well-known Bay Area artist. About 2 minutes of the video (near the end) describe her work on "I am an American."

And no, I wasn't trying to create controversy, The banner just made me feel uncomfortable. Of course I am proud to be an American, but don't want non-Americans to feel out of place in this country and in our community.

And yes, there are more urgent issues in our community.


Posted by Lordy Rodriguez , a resident of another community,
on Aug 30, 2019 at 6:37 pm

For those that have had to go through the long arduous process of becoming a citizen, the ability to say "I am and American" is a point of pride and an accomplishment. It's becoming more of a rarified statement for those who wish to join our country. In that context, it is a statement that brings up alot of questions about those of us who are American. We shouldn't dismiss this kind of introspection because there are more urgent matters.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Aug 30, 2019 at 6:52 pm

This looks and sounds like a political statement to me. Without knowing it was promoting any type of art exhibition, I would have expected it to be a political rally.

Posted by Andy Frankl, a resident of another community,
on Aug 31, 2019 at 12:02 pm

I am a 70 year old parent of a recent Stanford graduate. I am an immigrant son of survivors of the Holocaust. I could not be prouder to be an American.

Posted by politics, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Aug 31, 2019 at 4:48 pm

Ich bin ein Berliner.

Posted by ROSE SHOSHANA, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 1, 2019 at 12:15 pm


Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Sep 1, 2019 at 2:51 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

Over the years I have witness many instances, particularly in areas we now label as "Red America" where a local would say to people who were actually US citizens, but looked and sounded different than the average local: 'I am an American, where are you from', in an aggressive, quite unfriendly tone.

I remember having a drink in a Dallas bar, with a couple of friends, (we were on a business trip)all of three us California natives, back in 1979, shortly after the storming of the US embassy in Teheran, being approach aggressively by a few locals with :' We are Americans, who are you? Are you from bleep Iran? What the bleep are you doing here'. They refused to believe were US citizens, and the bartender whispered to us to not dare go into the parking lot, because we would be likely get shot. Luckily he managed to alert the local police and they arrived in the bar, escorted us to our car but advised us to leave town asap.

'I AM AN AMERICAN' without a context could easily be interpreted by others as exclusionary and in my case, remembering the Dallas incident, and quite a few others I know of, despite being a native US citizen, even dangerous.

Posted by Samuel L., a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Sep 2, 2019 at 9:08 pm

Samuel L. is a registered user.

Are we at the point where we can't even state that we are American? Are the French not proud to be French, the Chinese not proud to be Chinese, etc...

The banner is not saying anything about visitors to the museum or the university.

The banner is not threatening or exclusionary.

Posted by Clay L, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Sep 3, 2019 at 11:02 am

Clay L is a registered user.

Wonder what Ms. Diamond made of Warhol's soup cans? Much (Most? All?) good art is provocative. Mission accomplished.

Posted by wander3r, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 3, 2019 at 11:22 am

wander3r is a registered user.

Oh, for Pete's sake.

Posted by Ray, a resident of Professorville,
on Sep 3, 2019 at 2:00 pm

In the midst of a serious discussion about inclusiion, a moment of levity, please.

An earlier post: "Ich bin ein Berliner." Many of us know it as a quotation by John Kennedy in a speech he made in Berlin during the Berlin Blockade when the Soviet Union walled off a portion of Berlin to maintain control over the residents of East Germany. I worked in Germany for a while and know that the statement was one of great meaning; the Germans also found humor in it since a Berliner is also a kind of sweet roll. In effect, JFK was saying "I am a donut!"

Well, I think it is funny.

Posted by Midtown Resident, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 3, 2019 at 2:12 pm

Perhaps the whole idea is to provoke us to think at a very personal level what it really means to be an American. And it seems to work!

Posted by politics, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 3, 2019 at 2:38 pm

Brings to mind an old Lee Greenwood tune. Country music not popular in these parts.

Posted by Screeedek, a resident of Stanford,
on Sep 3, 2019 at 2:55 pm

Screeedek is a registered user.

I find your initial reaction to the artwork as "disturbing" to be disturbing. I don't know what it is: too much political correctness these past couple of decades? A general societal lack of humor or appreciation of nuance? An assistance on black/white, yes/no, good/bad answers to every question?

If we demand that artists explain every song, every painting, every film, every book, then what is our role? Are we just observers? Maybe that's the problem. Too much observing and not enough doing.

Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Sep 4, 2019 at 7:59 am

mauricio is a registered user.

Perhaps people who live in the generally progressive Bay Area don't realize that quite often, in other parts of the country, 'I am an American' is followed by 'And you are not so go back where you came for', especially since November 2016.

It's easy to see no evil when one lives in a bubble.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 4, 2019 at 8:39 am

It is true that being patriotic and being able to laud being American should be acceptable and acceptable.

However, in the past X number of years, this has been taken to mean other things. As soon as a crime is reported on, in Palo Alto online, commenters will want to know the legal standing of the alleged suspect. As soon as a description of a crime is described, said suspect's race is used not as a descriptor of what suspect looks like, but as a definition of motive and character. As soon as the name of a person is disclosed, their ancestry is known and the assumption that they have just arrived in the country and do not understand American lifestyle is assumed.

Being American should be something everyone can easily identify with. However, it is often just the beginning of an argument.

For these reasons, we should be looking towards things that can make us all feel united regardless of our backgrounds. Instead, it comes across divisive and unfortunately today, political.

Posted by George, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 4, 2019 at 8:58 am

There is a prevailing group think in the Bay Area and in deeply blue California that has seriously polluted reasonable public debate about too many issues. The damage is caused by loudly vocal, widely broadcast (internet) minor players whose persistence has amplified small and too often wrong ideas into the mainstream.
Such as seeing racism everywhere, in every alternative idea and in every comment.
Such as seeing an honest effort to regulate order at the border as an evil assault on immigrants and race.
Why such a banner should trigger questions of concern says a lot about how pervasive and embedded and poisonous this group think has become.

Here is just one opinion about one issue that has been allowed to run almost to insanity:

Web Link

Posted by Samuel L., a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Sep 5, 2019 at 7:59 am

Samuel L. is a registered user.

@Mauricio - Just because "in other parts of the country, 'I am an American' is followed by 'And you are not so go back where you came for', especially since November 2016." that does not mean that Americans can no longer be proud of being American. It's a minority portion of the population that expresses your example of exclusion.

As with so many instances, don't let the rotten apples ruin the barrel.

Posted by David C., a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on Sep 7, 2019 at 7:37 pm

From an earlier post: "... Japanese internment was unfortunate... Americans were very concerned about infiltrators and possible West coast invasion by the Japanese and acted on what seemed to be at the time, best option."
I am shocked that someone in 2019 still believes Japanese internment was the best option. If that was indeed the best option, why were there no German interment camps?
Are Japanese-Americans less American than German-Americans in WWII?

Posted by Al Ward, a resident of Greenmeadow,
on Sep 11, 2019 at 5:07 pm

Al Ward is a registered user.

David C.
Are you unaware of the state of race relations throughout America at that time?

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