Each issue, the New Art Examiner invites a well-known, or not so well-known, art world personality to write a speakeasy essay on a topic of interest.

Jorge Miguel Benitez is an assistant professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the founding artists of the Geometric Aljamía project. Benitez has a Master of Fine Arts degree and is versed in numerous disciplines. He is skilled in painting, drawing, and printmaking, and writes about art history, critical theory, communication arts practices, and linguistic art.

Art Meets Brutality: Samurai at the VMFA

Jorge Miguel Benitez

Few warriors have ever been as elegant or aesthetically sensitive as the samurai of Japan…and few have ever been as callous. The current exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), in Richmond, Virginia, highlights the former and hints at the latter with curatorial excellence and scholarly discretion.

The exhibition, titled Samurai Armor from the Collection of Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller, runs from April 20 through August 4, 2024. It features nearly 200 items ranging from armor and weapons to textiles and woodcuts. Everything is exquisitely designed and expertly crafted with the finest materials of their time: and therein lies the danger. The visual feast pulls the viewer into a world of harmoniously coordinated colors and nature-inspired forms that belie the true purpose of the objects on display, namely, the dismemberment of human beings with the best steel weapons of their time. Fortunately, the scholarship and linguistic clarity of the accompanying texts explain the context of the objects without judging or romanticizing the samurai. The result is a sobering counterpoint to the simplistic depictions of Japan that plague both Hollywood and Japanese exports such as anime.

The strength of the exhibition lies in what it does not say. There is something poignant and apt about a display of military beauty at a time that threatens a third world war and even an American civil war. All too often, the American art world shies away from military concerns except to condemn soldiers as cartoonish brutes led by unthinking monsters. The result is seemingly cathartic work that validates the biases of an audience predisposed toward uninformed contempt for the armed forces. The VMFA exhibition of samurai armor and weapons disrupts those biases without editorial pandering.

The objects on display destroy more than lives: they rip apart the absurd notion that art improves humanity and reinforces the fact that the most aesthetically sensitive and highly educated people can be among the most brutal and callous due to their capacity for abstract thought and moral compartmentalization. As with many modern warriors, the samurai were often intellectuals. They studied Zen, performed the tea ceremony, attended Noh performances, collected art, recited poetry, and did not hesitate to butcher one another along with any civilian who stood in the way. Their much-vaunted investment in “honor” was a smokescreen for an almost postmodern selfishness and narcissism that culminated in the choice of suicide over surrender. They were ashamed of being defeated. They felt no shame in murdering the innocent. Perhaps we should all study the samurai and their sense of entitlement as we gallop toward the death of our civilization. They may teach us a thing or two about the dangers of hubris and positive affirmations disguised as art.