In Harper’s Magazine for January 2011 (p. 17)

a September 2010 open letter to French president Nicolas Sarkozy by the Committee for the Defense of Versailles concerning an exhibition of work by the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami at the palace last fall.

signed by Pierre Charie-Marsaines, Honorary President, and Arnauld-Aaron Upinsky, President. A piece of hysterical outrage,

beginning (in a translation by Anthony Lydgate):

Versailles, in the eyes of the entire world, is the symbol of France’s cultural excellence, of the glory of the Sun King and the universality of European Civilization, of which France has been the emblem for three centuries. Murakami at Versailles is the symbol of the annulment of France’s prestige, of contempt for its sovereign People, and of the triumph of New York-style cultural barbarity—its aim being worldwide hegemony.

Takashi Murakami is a Japanese artist whose work blends manga/anime style with Pop Art. His Kaikai figure next to a statue of King Louis XIV at Versailles:

Goofy, yes, but the end of European civilization? Some would say the juxtaposition is thought-provoking.

But now the linguistically interesting part, right after some invective about the 2008 Jeff Koons exhibit:

With the exhibit by the Japanese-New Yorker crossbreed Murakami, this policy of suicidal mockery continues …

Yes, crossbreed, and they don’t mean that in a nice way; they mean to slam art trends in both Japan and New York and especially the combination of the two. The French original —

Avec l’exposition du composite japonais/new-yorkais Murakami …

uses the more neutral composite, but that still suggests the man Murakami is a hybrid of Japan and New York, an ethnic mixture, while the intended sense is that his artwork is a hybrid. Getting that across would have taken some serious re-writing.

But in any case, the English translation “crossbreed Murakami” really won’t do, though maybe the (intended) insult could have been preserved by working “crossbreed art by Murakami” into the passage.

The OED2 entry for cross-breed hints at the negative tone of the word:

A breed of animals (or plants) produced by crossing; a mongrel or hybrid breed; transf. an animal of such a breed. Also fig.

The one figurative cite is certainly negative in tone:

1844    B. Disraeli Coningsby I. iii. v. 310   It seems to me a barren thing—this Conservatism—an unhappy cross-breed, the mule of politics that engenders nothing.

So, is Murakami’s work the mule of modern art? (But remember that mules have strength and endurance and work hard.)


5 Responses to “Crossbreed”

  1. Theophylact Says:

    Don’t forget that the very word “hybrid” has the original sense of outrageousness deriving from ὕβρις.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      True, but that was a long time ago and in another country, so not actually relevant to current usage, unless you’re a fanatic believer in the etymological fallacy.

    • Erik Zyman Carrasco Says:

      @ Theophylact: are you sure? The OED, Webster’s Third, and the AHD all tell a different story.

  2. Eamonn McManus Says:

    The original letter in French is at , and the use of “composite” is indeed puzzling even in context. But for a letter emanating from L’Union Nationale des Écrivains de France it is shockingly badly written. Apart from the odd use of “composite” and a spelling mistake (intérêt vitaux), it uses the adjective “croissant” four times, three of them qualifying “nombre”; and it reaches its pinnacle of inelegance with “la boîte de pandore de l’apprenti sorcier”. So much for defending culture.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      My French isn’t up to the subtleties of the matter, but the use of composite struck me as puzzling and unidiomatic, though comrehensible (sort of). Nice to see that there are other problems.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: