Appropriating culture

Recently, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in front of one of the exhibits – a charming painting by Claude Monet of his wife dressed in a red kimono – visitors were invited to try on a similar kimono. I wasn’t entirely sure what the purpose of this was: it seemed, to say the least, a somewhat unorthodox approach to art appreciation. But since it seemed harmless enough, I didn’t think too much of it – although I couldn’t help reflecting that if the gallery were to adopt a similar approach to appreciating Rubens’ nudes, say, they may possibly be overstepping the mark. Beyond that, I didn’t really have any great thoughts on the matter.

However, I was surprised to find that this seemingly trivial matter had led to angry protests. It seemed to me a bit of an over-reaction, frankly: sure, trivialisation of arts seems constantly to be happening around us, and is something to be deplored, but, while one may approve of passion being displayed on behalf of the arts, it did seem to me too minor a matter to protest about. But I was very badly mistaken: the passions aroused had nothing to do with trivialisation of the arts, because, as we all know or should know by now, the arts are a trivial matter anyway, as they are really nothing more than signifiers of lifestyle choices. No – the passion was all about something called “cultural appropriation”. As one of the placards held by the protestors said: “It’s not racist if you looks cute & exotic in it besides the MFA supports this!” This may or may not be making a case against “cultural appropriation” – I wouldn’t presume to judge – but at least it does make the case – very eloquently, I think – for the importance of teaching grammar in schools.

Now, if I were indeed the cultural elitist I have frequently been accused of being, I would have dismissed all this with a derisive snort. However, my curiosity was aroused, and I made some effort to find out just what “cultural appropriation” is, and why it should be deemed so reprehensible. Seemingly, “cultural appropriation” is the adoption of elements from other cultures: that bit I am sure of. What I am not so sure of is why it should be considered reprehensible: in some of the sites I found in the course of my internet searches, this adoption is in and of itself a Bad Thing; in some other sites, it is considered bad because those elements of other cultures that are being adopted are being trivialised. But these objections to trivialisation were all, as far as I could see, in the context of popular celebrity culture, in which most things are pretty trivial anyway: I can’t say I understood this objection very well. If trivialisation is what is being objected to, then one might as well turn one’s guns on the entire edifice of popular celebrity culture! But that is clearly not feasible: quite apart from anything else, were it not for this culture, what would the Guardian newspaper fill its Arts pages with? As it is, they can’t even run a feature on Titian, and make the unexceptionable though obvious point that our modern concepts of feminine beauty are very different from what they used to be, without talking at length about Kim Kardashian’s arse.

The other element that recurred in the course of my admittedly not very exhaustive researches on this matter is what I suppose I should call – simply because everyone else is – “cultural hegemony”. It is seemingly wrong to adopt any aspect of a culture of people who are, or have been, or are perceived to be, oppressed. I couldn’t find any coherent justification of why this, in particular, should be wrong: it seems to be regarded as something so self-evident as to be axiomatic. Maybe if I had persevered a bit more I would have found a coherent argument on this matter, but, to be honest, I didn’t feel up to persevering, as much I had read in the course of my researches into this matter I could not really understand. Now, I like to flatter myself that I have, in my time, read, and what’s more, taken in some often very difficult prose – the late Henry James, for instance, or Virginia Woolf, or James Joyce; but something like this frankly defeats me. I grant it’s all my fault, and that if I were to persevere, I would be able to absorb and no doubt enrich my mind with all sorts of new ideas; but, having read this piece over a few times, and finding myself none the wiser and not even better informed, it seemed best simply to acknowledge my own limitations: some things are obviously just not for me.

Not having absorbed all that has been said and argued about “cultural appropriation”, what I am about to say may well be very naïve, but I’ll say it anyway as it is something I fervently believe. And it is this: cultures thrive by interacting with each other. Look back on any period in history, and we’ll find the same story: we can see how cross-currents between different cultures have enriched us all; we can see how medieval trade routes spanning China, India, Persia, the Arab world, and Europe, had resulted in intellectual and cultural exchanges to the immense benefit of all concerned; we can see how Indian cultures were sparked back into life after long stagnation by contact with the West; how van Gogh incorporated what he had learnt from Japanese prints into his own artistic vision, and how Picasso’s was shaped by what he saw of African masks; how Debussy and Britten had made use of Balinese gamelan music; how Gustav Holst had set to music hymns from the Rig Veda translated into English, and how Indian actors perform on Indian stages Shakespeare’s plays translated into Indian languages; and so on, and so forth. The entire cultural history of mankind is the story of cultures interacting with each other, borrowing from each other, or, if you like, appropriating from each other, and enriching each other in the process. Far from decrying this, it is all to be welcomed, and celebrated.

But all this does seem to me to be swimming against the tide: the contention that “cultural appropriation” is a Bad Thing – an entirely unexamined and unargued contention, as far as I can see – appears to be regarded as self-evident, and I suppose it’s only a matter of time before courses are offered at our universities on Cultural Appropriation Studies. Well, why not? We already have faculties of Gender and Media Studies, where it is seemingly possible to obtain a master’s degree by “perform[ing] Foucauldian readings of Japanese anime porn”.

In the meantime, I think it’s best for me to return to my library, and pull up the drawbridge. It’s not that I don’t want to interrogate and discourse with the outside world, but neither seems possible when there doesn’t exist at least some common ground.

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27 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on August 13, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    Excellent piece and I agree with you – cultures have always interacted, it’s part of natural development. And no, I didn’t understand that Guardian article you linked either – off to hide in a book……

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  2. I can only presume the idiocy of cultural appropriation has something to do with that acronym I keep seeing more and more these days: SJW, or Social Justice Warrior. A tedious, joyless, fanatic, bothersome crowd as far as I can see.

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  3. I found this a nuanced (if somewhat irritatingly formatted) analysis of the great kimonogate controversy, which had, prior to my reading your post, unaccountably escaped my attention. I live in Korea, and it’s very common here to see, at tourist sites such as palaces and folk villages, people dressing up in traditional clothes for silly photos – Koreans and non-Koreans alike. Never seen the appeal of it myself, but to each their own; no-one seems to take offence. Of course, if I were to witness some idiot white person posing in said clothes while pulling a slanty-eyed face and speaking in a ‘funny Asian’ voice, that would furrow my brow. The author of the article I linked to makes a similar point. I’m not aware of this having happened in Boston.

    That Guardian piece is amazing. Or perhaps it isn’t, I can’t decide. Such tripe seems to be so common nowadays. There’s the germ of a valid point in there somewhere – that it’s a bit shitty for a bunch clueless white journalists to witter on about an aspect of black culture without making room for an actual black person to contribute to the discussion – but it’s obscured by great clouds of the dreariest nonsense. Why would anyone think it a good idea to write like that? Some people lap it up, evidently.

    Miguel – I’d be wary of blaming these excesses on so-called Social Justice Warriors because that term, inasmuch as I’ve come across it, is most commonly used by people far more tedious, joyless, fanatic and bothersome than those they denigrate by using it. I’ve seen ‘SJW’ bandied about a lot in my investigations into the great Gamergate and Hugogate kerfuffles (o what riches for future historians to ponder!), in which sexist, racist, homophobic troglodytes spit fury in response to having their favorite games or sci-fi books criticized for being sexist, racist and homophobic (or else spit fury at games or sci-fi books that have the temerity not to be sexist, racist or homophobic). No doubt some of the more piously politically correct targets of this vituperation are not wholly undeserving of it, but the extremity of the positions adopted by the anti-SJW crowd negates anything they have to say.

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    • Hello, and thank you for the link. It certainly is a nuanced account, but to be honest, I, for one, cannot see the nuance: I have yet to see a coherent argument explaining why cultural appropriation, as it is called, should be a bad thing. As you say, there is nothing reprehensible as such about non-Koreans dressing in Korean costumes for photographs. Of course, if they pull slanty-eyed faces while doing it, that is mockery of racial characteristics, and is both boorish and nasty; but that is not what “appropriation” refers to. It refers simply, in this case, to the donning of Korean costumes, and I really would be grateful if anyone could point me to a coherent argument explaining why that should be a Bad Thing. A Pointless Thing, perhaps, but why a ,em>Bad</em. Thing?

      There are genuine social injustices to be addressed and campaigned against, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who do so. But those who campaign merely against the innocuous and the harmless, while spouting meaningless jargon, bring even worthy campaigns into disrepute.

      As for the Guardian article, I assumed I was just too old to get it, but I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who doesn't get it!

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  4. And you thought you were in trouble writing about the nature of reality!

    I’m all for enjoying and learning from other cultures and, yes, incorporating elements. Resistance to this — or resentment? — seems to originate from a sense of ownership which is threatened somehow. I have enjoyed reading a number of novels by Indians and Pakistanis writing in English, that is, they write in English as their literary language (like Conrad), rather than writing in their “native” language and having it translated. Critics of these writers get very angry and denounce them as betrayers of their original culture. If I were able to write a passably good novel in Urdu, for example, I would consider if quite an accomplishment, while suspecting that I might be able to express some things in Urdu which I could not express in the same way in English. This could be a gain or a loss, but hardly a betrayal of English.

    Cultural appropriation can be used to mock and denigrate a culture. An example is the controversy over the sports team the Washington Redskins. It reduces a native culture to a skin color. Would we say blackskins or brownskins or yellowskins? It mocks their warrior tradition by silly chops and hoots. It says that we are superior to you and, when we make fun of you, take it as a joke, knowing, of course, that we are the ones to decide what is funny here. Same thing with gender denigration. If a woman objects to being ridiculed, she is told she has no sense of humor.

    Am I arguing both sides of the question? Sure. It depends on what you do and what your purpose is and how you go about it. As to the kimono, isn’t it equivalent to letting school children dress up like George Washington for a pageant?

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    • Hello Nancy, I’m not sure that the controversy over the name of Washington Redskins is an issue of “cultural appropriation”. The name was adopted when people were less sensitive about these matters than they are now, and the name has become so well-known, that even if they were to change it, people would still be referring to them as “redskins”. But we are now, quite rightly, more sensitive about these matters, and feel it insulting to refer to an entire people merely by the colour of heir skins. Similarly with mockery – mockery of people for belonging to a certain gender, or a certain race: as someone who has, for virtually my entire life, lived in a society within which I am part of a racial minority, I agree with you fully that such mockery is not acceptable.

      But from what I understand, this is not what “cultural appropriation” is about: it is about adopting aspects of other cultures. And I cannot see why that should be a Bad Thing – even when done superficially. What’s wrong with a Westerner dressing up in a kimono, say, or a sari? Or, for that matter, an Indian or a Japanese lady dressing in Western clothes? I really fail to see what people find objectionable about this.

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      • Then I guess I don’t get it either. I thought it must amount to cultural mockery.

        If we can’t learn from each other where are we? I have a friend from Belarus who speaks of how they survived during the war eating potatoes. She shakes her head and says, “I don’t know what they ate in eastern Europe before Columbus.” Or in Ireland, either.

  5. I view these protestors as moral bigots who want the great, wild variety of life to be as small and manageable as their own little idea of it. They certainly have no real interest in Monet or Japanese dress. Why not interpret this exhibition as an example of the gorgeous refinement achieved in traditional Japanese couture, and thus something that may encourage people to find out more about Japan and Japanese culture generally? After all, we usually want to find out more about things that attract us, and this is as good a place to start as any…

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    • I agree fully. I was trying in my post not to express matters so explicitly in my post – but yes, “moral bigots who want the great, wild variety of life to be as small and manageable as their own little idea of it” is an excellent summary

      All this is entirely consistent with the implementation of “multi-culturalism” – not, as the name would suggest, the creation of a society in which multiple cultures interact with each other, but where they are segregated and protected from each other: to describe it more accurately, “multiple monoculturalism”. All this Identity politics will be the death of us yet.

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      • Generally I think of myself as leftish, I suppose, but I’m increasingly convinced by cultural conservative arguments, mainly because I have always valued the culture of the past and believe it should be preserved and appreciated, and increasingly it seems not to be. There are a few writers who deal with this theme: Roger Scruton is one, as your previous post showed to some extent, another is the American art critic Roger Kimball; yet another is the retired psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple. Dalrymple’s occasional, shorter blowoff pieces can make him appear to be the dyspeptic old reactionary his pen name was deliberately chosen to suggest, but some of his longer, more carefully constructed essays are penetratingly clear analyses of modern British society. If you don’t know it, here’s an essay of his from 2004 on multiculturalism, and I’d be interested to see what you make of it:

        http://www.city-journal.org/html/14_3_oh_to_be.html

      • Hello Chris, I think I am more or less in the same boat as you: I, too, think of myself as leftish – and, given my personal support for a strong welfare state paid for by progressive income tax, public ownership of public utilities, and so on, that’s fair enough. But I too have observed – especially where cultural matters are concerned – that there’s a crusty old reactionary inside me struggling to get out.
        I do very much enjoy Theodore Dalrymple’s essays, and in many instances, I find myself agreeing with him. Not all, though: a few years ago, I found myself taking issue so strongly with an essay he had written on Ibsen, I felt compelled to write him an e-mail on it. He sent me a very kind and gracious reply – which I would have been happy to share here (I still have it in one of my e-mail folders) were it not impolite to share private correspondence without permission. But back to the topic: whether or not I agree with Dalrymple, I find him stimulating to read. And also, he takes high culture seriously. In our times, high culture is regarded either as an irrelevance, or, at best, as a lifestyle choice of not great importance: it is refreshing to come across commentators such as Scruton or Dalrymple who place it at the centre of our lives – for the centre is, surely, where it belongs.

        In the article by Dalrymple you link to, the only point where I would take issue with him is the one about the Commission for Racial Equality: no-one who has grown up, as I have, with a dark skin in UK in the 60s and 70s will be unaware of racism. It is not something I like to go on about, and yes, I know it could have been much, much worse; I know also that, alongside the boorishness, we have encountered great kindness and hospitality by many. Indeed, I think the British people are on the whole a generous and hospitable people. So, in short, I do not like to make an issue of having been at the receiving end of racism: I don’t go looking for evidence for it, and I even try not to mind too much when I stumble across it. But it was there. It still is there, although the situation has improved greatly. And it seems to me that the CRE was necessary then, and, were it to be abolished now and the various pieces of legislations relating to equality repealed, we would be back to glass ceilings in careers (of the kind my father had run up against in the NHS back in the 70s); of “No blacks & Asians” signs in guest houses; and all the rest of it. The CRE, in my opinion at least, needs to stay. But in everything else Dalrymple says in that piece, I can but agree.

        I hope I do not bore you with autobiographical details, but when we arrived in Britain in October 1965, there was absolutely no question that I – and my mother, too – should master the English language: it never occurred to us not to. Neither was there any question that I should embrace Western culture. This was not because we had turned our back on Bengali culture: my father, especially, was very proud of Bengali culture, and, as I was growing up, the spirit of Rabindranath Tagore was virtually part of the family: we were quite saturated in Tagorean culture. But we never felt it was a matter of “either/or”. My parents thought it a fine thing that I should learn the language of Shakespeare and of Milton. Indeed, that is how the English language was referred to – both by my parents, and also by my grandparents back in India: I was to learn English – “the language of Shakespeare and Milton”. And they took a pride in this.

        If we are to talk of cultural divides, there seems to me not one but two: there’s the divide between Eastern and Western culture, which everyone focuses on; and there’s also the divide between high culture, and the middlebrow, or even ”low” culture. I am not opposed either to the middlebrow or to the low. I’m not opposed to the latter: I grew up with carry on films and with Hammer horror films after all, and even now, I find myself regularly laughing out loud at the unmitigated smut of Viz magazine. But there seems to be a general assumption that High Culture is solely a Western prerogative. I find this rather upsetting, to be honest. (I had a rant about it here back in the early days of the blog.)

        Over the last few years – ever since I set up this blog, in fact – I have found myself more concerned with issues of identity – in particular, the issue of Identity Politics, which has foisted on us “multiculturalism” which, when properly examined, is no more than Multiple Monoculturalism. I find myself letting off steam about this on my blog – from Children’s Laureates who think children from racial minorities will be turned off reading altogether if they don’t find more representative characters in children’s fiction (by “representative” she mans “of the same race”, the implicit assumption being that race is the most significant representative feature of our identity); we find academics at prestigious universities labelling Shakespeare plays “colonising texts”; we find demands that we should have “trigger warnings” in case we encounter anything that challenges our concepts of our own identity; and so on. Not caring for something popularly believed to be part of one’s cultural heritage is perceived as a betrayal; and its corollary – “cultural appropriation”. I mustn’t turn my back on any aspect of my own culture (which, naturally, others define for me), and neither must anyone from other cultures adopt any part of my own. Two cheeks of the same arse. And, in the name of liberalism of all things, we march bravely into cultural apartheid.

        Well – I guess there’s not much I can do except rant about it on my blog! But It really is a sad state of affairs, and one I personally find depressing.

      • Thanks for the reply, Himadri. Odd, given the general habit of thought of such protestors is to focus on the supposed underlying political reality rather than the superficial particulars – so it’s not a beautiful kimono but a racist appropriation of Oriental culture – odd they can’t then see that what they represent is a return to tribalism under another guise.

        I think I’ll hang on to my old-fashioned Enlightenment idea of a common humanity, for the time being anyway.

  6. I come from a country where Maori have their own culture, and it has permeated into the rest of the community, though the British culture has had far more impact on Maori than vice versa. However I am aware that cultural appropriation can lead to unfortunate aspects of misunderstanding. Or putting YOUR cultural values onto a different one, as British people did on Aboriginees in Australia, where an empty landmass was considered fair game by the new settlers, whereas to Aboriginees it was still absolutely vital to them, and not empty and available at all.

    Maori people are not keen on having people overseas (not NZers, but others) doing the haka willy-nilly with little understanding of its cultural values. Pakeha (European NZers) people take part in haka and there seems little objection to this, but they have been imbued with some sense of what it means, whereas a group of youngsters performing it with a sense of mockery are showing a disrespect for the culture. And that’sd always the concern. (And I’m sure British people can understand that too – the long tradition of Morris dancing, for instance, can be mocked by British people, but it wouldn’t seem right for other cultures to mock it, I think.)

    Recently my husband was saying in our next garden he would have various styles, and was considering which ones – English country, native, Italian, French formality etc. But we decided that it would not be suitable to try to have an Asian one – Chinese gardens are full of meaning and symbolism and we would not have the knowledge to avoid insult or a nothingness of meaning. That’s not to say we don’t or wouldn’t have plants that originated in China (roses for instance have a long history there), but we wouldn’t try to emulate their look fully in a garden.

    Cheers, Caro.

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    • Hello Caro, I’d agree with you that mockery of a culture is unpleasant (except in cases where certain cultural practices deserve to be mocked: these exist also). Although even here, I’d suggest we develop a thicker skin.

      However, the instances of alleged “cultural appropriation” do not involve mockery at all: where was teh mockery in wearing a kimono? The objection appears to be not in mockery, but in the very fact of adopting some aspect of some other culture. And I have yet to see anyone explain to me why this should be such a bad thing In all teh stuff I have read about this kimono affair, not one has explained with any coherence what precisely the nature of their objections are.

      Incidentally, I have seen instances of Scottish people poke fun at the English Morris dancing – and I have yet to meet any English person who finds such gentle ribbing objectionable. As I say, those who complain about this sort of thing may perhaps consider trying not to be so thin-skinned!

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

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    • Posted by alan on August 17, 2015 at 9:58 pm

      This raises all sorts of questions: where does a culture begin and end ?, who decides ownership of a cultural artefact?, how is that equity shared?, who decides what is offensive? do people have a right not to be offended ? who is going to be offended by the features of a private garden? is formal Italian garden design part of your culture and how is that decided ?
      At this point I would like Himadri to avert his eyes because I’m going to refer to the works of Terry Pratchett.
      Does this mean that Pratchett’s form of widespread cultural appropriation (including sand gardens), its affectionate modification and occasional gentle mockery is disreputable and should be discouraged ?

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  7. No one is going to be offended if we put in a “Chinese” garden, but I would not like to do something that I know won’t be genuine and true. I have been brought up in a country where appropriating Maori culture has always been seen as difficult. While it has always been fine to use Maori elements in novels, there has (not so much now but in the past) been a feeling that Pakeha should not presume to understand Maori customs and ideas unless they have been imbued with that culture or have had strong connections with them. Maori are very generous with their knowledge but they don’t like it taken forgranted.

    I feel, perhaps wrongly, that I do have some understanding of Italian culture, not in depth at all, but enough to think that there is not particular meaning behind the rocks, plants, paths, etc as I know there is in Chinese gardens.

    Novelists and comedians are generally expected to do what they like with language and cultures and ideas. (Though I do find when overseas people write about New Zealand they get things wrong to the point of being cringe-worthy. Is it that hard to realise, for instance, that the islands, North and South, always have The in front of them? The North Island or the South Island, not North Island or South Island. And I wouldn’t expect them to write from a Maori point of view.)

    Himadri, you said “If trivialisation is what is being objected to, then one might as turn one’s guns on the entire edifice of popular celebrity culture! But that is clearly not feasible…”. It might not be feasible but it has a lot of appeal, and I think people DO object to popular celebrity culture because of its trivialisation. Our women’s magazines here just set your teeth on edge. The NZ Womans’s Weekly used to be a respected magazine with information for women, little stories, aspects of our lives. Now it is just an endless mess of celebrity marriages, children, divorces, separations, sentimental tripe about people, judgemental attitudes. Just awful. I really really regret that it has been allowed to happen.

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    • Hello Caro,
      On the question of the Chinese garden, it is, of course, entirely your decision on whether or not you’d like to plant one without knowing its cultural significance. But if you were to decide that you wanted a Chinese garden, simply because you like the look of it, and without any understanding or even interest in its cultural significance, then I honestly can’t see anything wrong with that. You wouldn’t be hurting or injuring anyone, after all. And if there are some delicate souls whose sentiments are hurt by this, well, such sentiments, as far as I’m concerned, deserve to be hurt. Hurt sentiments on matters such as this are mere affectations.

      To take an analogous example: in Hinduism, yoga has religious and cultural significance. In the Western world, it has been adopted purely as a form of physical exercise. Fine. What exactly is the problem? Is anyone injured by this? Is the cultural significance that traditional Hindus see in yoga diminished? Of course not. So why make an issue of it?

      And yes, a lot of people do, as you say, object to the vapidity of celebrity pop culture. But it must obviously be the case that the objectors are grossly outnumbered: it’s everywhere! You can’t get away from it! I try not to get involved in it: I have virtually pulled up the drawbridge. But you can’t escape: you don’t need to go to it … you just stand still, and it’ll come to you.

      As Gustave Flaubert said (in a letter to Turgenev, I believe), “I would love to live in an ivory tower, but there are tidal waves of shit continually undermining its foundations”.

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  8. I think part of the problem here is that ‘Cultural Appropriation’ seems to be a bit of grab-bag term for a range of different practices, many of them essentially benign and/or trivial, others less so. What does it really mean? I’ve seen the following ‘handy’ definition of the term (by American law professor Susan Scafidi) crop up a few times in the various blogposts and discussions I’ve read in the past few days:

    Cultural appropriation is taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include the unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways, or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.

    The word ‘permission’ leaps out at me here. Who is in a position to grant such permission? If I’m seeking permission to wear an item of traditional clothing (let’s say, oh I don’t know, a kimono), is it enough for me to ask a single Japanese person? If not, how many people do I need to ask before I can be satisfied that I’m not about to commit the heinous act of cultural appropriation? What if I’ve asked a number of people, been given the go-ahead by them all, but then find after donning the kimono that another Japanese person objects? Not everyone from a particular culture is equally knowledgeable about the various traditional aspects of their culture; one person may wrongly claim that this necklace is just an ordinary necklace, when in fact it is loaded with sacred meaning and is only worn during specific religious rites; another may wrongly claim that that drum is reserved for the use of priests at certain festivals, when in fact it’s just a common children’s toy. If you’re not of a particular culture, then it can be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to adjudicate when contradictory claims are made regarding it (of course, in assuming the role of adjudicator in the first place, you are guilty of arrogant colonial oppression and must humbly and apologetically withdraw from the discussion). I would be especially dubious of any move to invest ‘community leaders’ (religious or secular) with the authority to grant this sought-after permission; that would be too much of a concession to power.

    If I were to go around wearing some Native American bracelet I’d picked up in a tourist joint, and someone of Native American heritage were to calmly and seriously point out something objectionable about my doing so, I hope I wouldn’t simply dismiss the complaint out of hand. But neither would I remove it from my wrist then and there, immediately submitting to the complainant’s sense of offence. I would go home, do a bit of research, seek some advice if possible, and, for good or ill, make my own decision. What I find regrettable is the easy tone of self-righteous outrage, the kneejerk urge to rain down shame and vilification from up on high, that so often characterizes these controversies. People too easily take their own anger as an infallible guarantee of their rightness. Of course, this is a feature of internet/twitter culture in general, and not restricted to discussions of cultural appropriation.

    Two quick examples of cultural appropriation that I think are rather more deserving of censure than the mere adoption of elements of another culture (which I agree are seldom, when done in good faith, worth fussing over):

    1) Presentation of a culture in a demeaning, dehumanizing way. This needn’t take the form of mockery, which tends to be easy to spot and easy to condemn. In the interests of research, I submitted myself to the ordeal of watching a video of Katy Perry’s notorious performance of a song in a weird kimono/cheongsam mish-mash. It’s awful, but its awfulness isn’t just the mundane awfulness of mass-produced pop. The twirling fans and parasols; the clichéd, flutteringly delicate gestures and dance moves; the cherry blossom and paper lanterns; the mix of bizarre Hollywood notions of geisha and kabuki hair and make-up – all for a song with no ostensible connection to Japan (the actual video for the song made no use of any of this ‘Japanese’ imagery, which was employed only for a one-off performance at an awards ceremony). The song’s title is ‘Unconditionally’, and the lyrics, inasmuch as they can be said to mean anything, are about a woman’s unconditional, unquestioning love for her man; performing them in the context of these stale Western clichés of Japan leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth because it plays into the pernicious Madame Butterfly stereotype of East Asian women as demure, submissive, exquisitely doll-like creatures, willing to suffer any indignity heaped upon them by their inconstant yet masterful male lovers. It’s putting on yellowface in much the same way as white minstrels used to put on blackface, and I can fully understand why people might find it upsetting.
    2) Commercial exploitation of traditional art. I know this has happened a lot in Australia. Unscrupulous dealers made shedloads of money from selling aboriginal artworks, with little of the money going to the creators of those works. On top of that, cheap knock-off works abounded, with bits and bobs taken here and there from various traditions and thrown together – nothing necessarily wrong that (otherwise cultural interaction itself would be suspect), but it was presented as the real thing, thereby undercutting genuine Aboriginal artists. When elements of from traditional art and design are used by advertising companies and fashion houses without proper acknowledgment or consultation, I can see how that might be a cause for complaint – that money is being made on the back of the originators of these motifs, who tend not to see any of the money themselves.

    Sorry for the extra-long post.

    Reply

    • Oh please don’t apologise for the length – this is a very valuable contribution to the discussion.

      I agree with your concerns about the word “permission”. But as well as questioning who has the right to give or to withhold permission, I’d further like to question why permission should be required at all. For “permission” implies that there must exist someone, or some group of people, qualified to give that permission, and who must therefore have some sort of proprietorial right. But who legislates on this? Who decides who has this proprietorial right? And why should any such legislation be binding?

      In your first example, you discuss “presentation of a culture in a demeaning, dehumanizing way”. In other words – mockery, or confirming existing stereotypes. This certainly is unpleasant, and, in its worst manifestations, may be regarded as racist. But one may adopt an aspect of another culture and present it in a very knowledgeable and respectful manner – in which case there can be no room for complaint. It’s not the adopting of another culture that’s the issue here – it is the mockery, or the confirmation of negative stereotypes. In other words, what may be deemed offensive here is nothing to do with “appropriation”.

      But even here, I am not so sure: is it not the case that some aspects of some cultures deserve to be mocked? If we ban mockery, we ban satire, and that is not a step to be taken lightly: banning satire or ridicule means certain practices and customs are deemed, in effect, sacrosanct – beyond criticism, and, hence, beyond change. That cannot be a good thing. There are many aspects of many cultures that are crying out for change.

      Neither can we say “It’s OK to mock the bad aspects of cultures, but not the good aspects” – because, obviously, who is to judge? Better surely to say that nothing is beyond criticism, or beyond satire: let’s put everything, all our cultural values and cultural beliefs, into the melting pot and see what survives.

      In your second example, once again, what is potentially objectionable is not the adoption of another culture, but the exploitation of it – and that seems to me an entirely different matter. And if the Phoney is made out to be the Real Thing, then those who know and value the Real Thing must make their case. If, say, Russell Watson and Charlotte Church are presented as opera singers (which they aren’t), then it is up to people who value opera to point out that they aren’t.

      As in any issue involving freedom of speech – people must not be stopped from saying what they say; if what they say is wrong, we must challenge them, and debate them – but never seek to prevent them. This is surely a basic value of a liberal democracy.

      Like yourself, I find myself very much regretting, and further, in my case, deploring, as you put it, the “easy tone of self-righteous outrage, the kneejerk urge to rain down shame and vilification from up on high”.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  9. Mockery doesn’t quite cover it, though, does it? Mockery surely involves an intention to demean, and I don’t think even the harshest critics of Katy Perry’s performance accused of intending to demean Japanese culture. Even the now reviled blackface performers of the previous two centuries did not always set out to traduce black people; many thought they were paying them affectionate tribute, just as Perry no doubt thought she was paying tribute to Japan.

    I fully agree that no aspect of any culture ought to be beyond criticism, including mockery. One may find this or that criticism crass or unwarranted or whatever, but that’s no reason to sacrifice the basic principle.

    I come back to my point about ‘cultural appropriation’ being a grab-bag term, which perhaps I didn’t explain enough. Because there seems to be no agreed definition of what cultural appropriation is, and because so many of the definitions that have been proposed are loose enough to accommodate a wide range of interpretations, commentators have been able to label a vast array of diverse practices as culturally appropriative. This includes misguided pop stars in yellowface, and it includes several different practices connected with Aboriginal art in Australia (exploitation of artists by unscrupulous dealers; imitations of Aboriginal art by non-Aboriginal artists being passed off as the real thing; unacknowledged/unauthorised use of motifs and design elements by advertisers and fashion designers; use of Aboriginal styles and motifs in fine art produced by non-Aboriginal artists). Some of these things may objectionable, others not. What I was trying to suggest (not very clearly) is that ‘cultural appropriation’ may be too loose a term to be applied to all of these things; the whole concept is too nebulous for my liking. This article takes a very methodical approach; it’s a bit dry, but I found most of it persuasive.

    Reply

    • Hello, and apologies for the delay in replying I have been away recently, and, on returning, I wanted to get my thoughts on Othello down first, before I forgot what I had meant to say!

      I agree, the entire concept is far too loosely defined to be useful. Those practices that may genuinely be considered reprehensible – such as passing off non-Aboriginal art as Aboriginal art – are reprehensible because such practices are fraudulent, or dishonest, or whatever: they are not reprehensible because they make use of other cultures – which, as I understand it, is the basis of the whole concept. If a non-Aboriginal artist wants to make use of Aboriginal motifs in her art, and is not deceiving the public by trying to claim she is an aboriginal artist, I can’t see why that should be reprehensible. Picasso famously used African masks in his ground -breaking painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

      I also agree about intent. I still remember the Black and White Minstrel Show on television in the 60s and 70s, and I have seen white actors black up as Othello: in neither instance did I then, or do I now, detect the slightest intention to demean.

      Reply

  10. Posted by Janet Long on September 4, 2015 at 11:46 pm

    I had to wait for my daughter to come home from college so I could get her take on this. She’s an art historian and wrote her honor’s thesis on imitation and appropriation by a couple of nineteenth century artists. Questions raised by cultural appropriation go waaaay back. (My opinions, however, are my own.)

    There is a difference between Camille Monet’s kimono and the Washington Redskins, though both (and potatoes too) have something very unsavory and shameful at the source of their adoption by other cultures–that is, the violent humiliation of the culture from which the appropriation was made. Cultural appropriation is always an expression of admiration–why take what one doesn’t want? In the case of the Redskins, the very term is a racial slur steeped in the blood of millions of dead Indians (a term which is itself problematic but has at least the virtue of making Columbus look foolish). Saying that the team name honors the courage and valor of native warriors is akin to calling a team the Darkies in tribute to the American slaves’ work ethic. It isn’t a question of mockery or permission; it is about shutting down any objection that calls into question the right of the more powerful party to take what they like as spoils. From the POV of American Indians, the beneficiaries of the Indian genocide “appropriate” the courage and valor of their ancestors for the entertainment of football fans, as if living “Redskins” (a term no one but a racist would ever use to refer to a native) weren’t standing right there, saying Well, isn’t this ironic!

    The offensiveness in the Redskins’s choice of team name is more obvious to spot than in the kimono kitsch, in large part because Admiral Perry did not actually open fire on Japanese ports–but the only reason the Japanese prints found their way to admiration in France was because the Americans threatened to use Japan for target practice if they didn’t come out of isolation and play nice with the other (more militarily powerful) nations of the world. The French artists were not concerned with how the prints found their way to Europe but only in what they could learn from them. (The prints, incidentally, were fairly worthless commercial posters–the Japanese, unlike many stampeded nations, managed to keep a hold of their “high art.” Questions of high art and low art in Japan had much to do with cultural appropriation from the Chinese–see, at some point, some Cro-Magnon guy was complaining about the cultural appropriation of cave paintings).

    Certainly, the Japanese were admired in Europe as a culturally sophisticated people–as much as they could be, that is, without being European. Just look at that kimono! It’s gorgeous. What woman wouldn’t want to be swallowed up in all that red silk? But that’s just it–Japanese stuff accessorized well with European “real” stuff and so they took it. Permission? The Americans asked permission, they were denied, so they brought out the gunboats. What’s permission when you can take what you want with or without it? Native American textiles and jewelry make nice accessories for white bodies (especially if you can get a cheap knockoff made in Indonesia for a tiny fraction of what a real Indian artisan would charge), and those cool feathered headdresses and kachina dolls are very collectible and fun to pull out at Thanksgiving–there’s no offense intended. Where no offense is intended, none is allowed. People who have been exoticized (admired as ornamental) do not have feelings or opinions that count.

    So back to Camille’s kimono. I asked my daughter about the MFA exhibit and the protests. She understands the language, so to speak, of the protesters and can articulate it so much better than the Guardian. I will not even try. She’s also an expert on Japonisme and reads paintings the way you read Shakespeare, always exploring new levels of meaning. The painting behind the controversy is near and dear to her heart, and she found the MFA’s approach to “connecting” viewers with the painting pathetic and soul crushing, given how much there is to gather from that one painting alone–as you put it: trivializing art. That is, if it really was, as it appeared to be, merely a tourist opportunity to put on some exotic girl-power and mug for the, um, phone. In my opinion, the presence of the protesters added some dimension to the exhibit–it almost might have been planned (with some planning it might have been really interesting)–asking people to consider more deeply the painting in the background of their selfie. Camille’s wig, after all, was intended to make a point.

    I’m an Angeleno, and there is very little if anything at all in my life that is not the product of raids on other people’s cultures. I wouldn’t trade my potatoes for all the tea in China, and I certainly wouldn’t be here but for Manifest Destiny. There is an awful lot of horrible, horrible stuff in my “white people’s” history, and it doesn’t make up for anything that I love carnitas so much. I can’t undo history, but I can take responsibility for how I treat people in my lifetime. It isn’t the exchange that is the problem–I can buy mango slices from the Latino cart guy at the park. You think he’s never had a burger? it’s the puffing up, the sense of superiority that comes with condescending to add this and that cultural tidbit to one’s collection to show what good (and broad minded) taste one has–to show how acceptable you are to the “other” as if you were in a position to make an assertion of that sort.

    To some extent it is just boorishness, and every one has a human right to be obnoxious–Look at me! I’m turning Japanese! But if your native neighbor says to you, Man, you are killing my soul wearing that ceremonial headdress in the pool, and your response is So what, it’s mine, I paid for it, I can do what I want–that goes beyond obnoxious to downright nasty. The distance between the two is pretty easily (and quickly) traversed as the underlying disrespect shifts from unrecognized to hostile in response to being challenged, especially where the offender hasn’t made the effort to understand the other culture and/or has disregarded its legitimacy, preferring to see its primary purpose as ornamenting the “superior” culture–and believing that such a privilege is compliment enough to override the objections of spoilsports.

    In the case of Japonisme, the French artists were smart to embrace Japanese prints, which turned out to be a rich source of inspiration, but the question lingers–did they feel they were legitimizing Japanese art by making it European? Asking the question doesn’t eviscerate the art. In a sense, Camille’s wig itself poses the question. Great art is not merely pretty, not merely a selfie with kimono. Art invites us to have a conversation about ourselves, to look inside and rummage around, and to ask ourselves hard questions. An artist today can hardly escape asking Am I sharing or taking, adopting or stealing? Of course, he may take or steal and make interesting art, but then people are free to ask whether he isn’t a stinker.

    Reply

    • Hello Janet, thank you for that, but, not for the first time, I fear, I’m afraid I must disagree!

      First of all, the points of agreement: I agree imperialism and colonialism are exploitative and cruel: as someone born in India of Indian parents I can hardly think otherwise! I agree that terrible injustices and cruelty were visited on the native populations of the Americas. I agree “Redskins” is a racist term, as it is referring to people in terms of physical racial characteristic. All these things are reprehensible: but adopting aspects of each other’s cultures isn’t. I’d go further: I think it important that we do adopt aspects of each other’s cultures, for if we don’t, we end up merely with cultural apartheid. I do not believe this is healthy.

      Sometimes, aspects of each other’s cultures can indeed be adopted in a superficial manner, but so what? That does not diminish the culture that is being borrowed. If I hear Beethoven’s music being used for an advertisement on television, yes, that music is being adopted in a trivial manner, but the music of Beethoven is hardly diminished thereby.

      If my native neighbour were indeed to say to me “Man, you are killing my soul wearing that ceremonial headdress in the pool”, I may take that headdress off so as to remain on good terms with my neighbour. But i would certainly think my neighbour a stupid person, for my wearing what I choose is most certainly not killing his soul or anything else. And I would resent the curtailment of my own freedom to wear whatever I damn well want.

      As a Bengali, I love the poetry and the songs of Rabindranath Tagore. And I would love it if the rest of the world were to get to know these wonderful things, and to adopt these things as their own. I’d love it if singers from Europe, the Americas, Africa were to sing Tagore songs, It is by adopting other cultures that we enrich our own cultures, and, indeed, ourselves.

      Here is a wonderful clip I have found on Youtube of a Westerner (the uploader says he is French) in a Bengali bar singing, to everyone’s surprise, a Rabindrasangeet (a Tagore song). It is charming, and it genuinely gladdens my heart that this culture that I feel so close to embraced by others also:

      So let us be generous with each other’s cultures. Let us adopt them, and make them our own. Let us offer the riches of our own cultures to others, so we may all benefit from them. And if some people adopt these merely superficially, well, that is their privilege: it does not diminish they culture they are taking from, any more than using Beethoven’s music for adverts diminishes Beethoven.

      Reply

      • Posted by Janet Long on September 5, 2015 at 11:34 pm

        Nice. I couldn’t view it from the email for some reason, but I was able to play it here.

        I actually agree with you on all but one point. Yes, we are all better off sharing whatever lovely things our cultures have to offer–everybody is richer that way, but sharing goes hand-in-hand with respect.

        My disagreement lies in the case of the headdress. First, if you were actually wearing a feather headdress in a pool, I’m not sure you would be in a position to question anyone else’s intelligence. You wouldn’t do it. It is a poor example, as splashing an authentic warbonnet with pool water would be akin to cutting up a Monet for drawer liners. Apart from stickier issues, it would just be insane. Also, as with the Monet, you would have a heck of a time getting hold of one. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say what you are wearing is a crappy dime store trinket with some chicken feathers hot glued to a cardboard band. (In which case, it would be your native neighbor thinking What an idiot! but there’s probably been a lot of drinking so it’s all good.). We also have to make you American, because George III after all did try to protect the Indians in the Ohio Valley from American encroachment. And I’m moving your pool to North Dakota. Now the context has shifted and the toy you are wearing on your head is more like mugging it up in blackface in Mississippi or doing Fagin impressions at Dachau. Sure you can do it, but why would you? Does the degree of insult lessen if the fake headdress is more authentic looking and you are standing on the lawn instead of splashing around in the pool? Cultural exchange does not make everyone richer if the enjoyment of one party is purchased with the impoverishment of another.

        Natives are more than happy to share many aspects of their cultures. The headdress is a special case for reasons certain tribes take very seriously. (In fact, historically, some tribes appropriated the warbonnet from the Plains Indians–to look more tourist friendly, among other reasons.) If your neighbor objects, of course you are going to take it off to be polite, but aren’t you going to want to know the reason for the objection? Is his culture of no interest, his cherished cultural objects meaningless beyond their value as party favors? How is cultural exchange enriching if it’s just about shifting junk around?

        Ach! We could go round and round, but what about Don Quixote? You have promises to keep.

      • First, if you were actually wearing a feather headdress in a pool, I’m not sure you would be in a position to question anyone else’s intelligence.

        Indeed! I agree fully on this! But take a lesser instance – say, of my wearing that headdress to a fancy dress parade. I do not see that this in any way diminishes American Indian cultures.

        As for respect – well, I don’t know if one can legislate for this. One can’t insist that we should be respectful of other cultures: if some people choose not to be respectful, well, we can’t stop them. And neither should we: not all aspects of all cultures are good and worthy of respect, and everything has to be open to criticism and satire. If we disagree with any criticism, we have the freedom to argue back, but we cannot deny anyone the right to criticise or to disrespect.

        It does seem to me that we have a choice between free interactions in each other’s cultures, or cultural apartheid. And given the choice, it is the former which is by far the more enriching. And if a by-product is lack of respect for things that should be respected, then we have to live with that, as lack of respect is not something we could or shoud legislate for.

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