Posts Tagged ‘cultural appropriation’

A revised definition of “cultural appropriation”

Generally, as we approach Christmas, I try to keep off controversy. It is the season of goodwill, after all. But …

Yes, of course there is a “but”. I’ll try to keep this one short, though.

I have, on numerous occasions on this blog, been scathing about the concept of “cultural appropriation”, arguing that adopting elements of other cultures, far from being reprehensible, is desirable, as the alternative is to create cultural ghettoes. (I won’t link to the various posts in which I argue this case: a quick search reveals them quite easily.) But recently, I’ve been hearing that “cultural appropriation” is not at all about taking things from other cultures: it is about wilfully disrespecting elements of other cultures.

Now, this seems to me revisionism. If “cultural appropriation” is about disrespecting other cultures, then it would have been termed “cultural disrespect”, or something similar. “Appropriation” means taking something that does not belong to oneself, usually without permission from the owner. (I think any dictionary would confirm that.) So when anyone speaks of “cultural appropriation”, I naturally take it to mean appropriation in the context of culture: that does seem to me a reasonable interpretation. And, indeed, all the various manufactured controversies relating to “cultural appropriation” seem to assume this interpretation also: visitors to an art gallery invited to try on a kimono, pop stars wearing sari and bindi, etc. – none of them involving any disrespect at all, and yet all resulting in large numbers of people quite apoplectic with rage. All very comical, frankly, were its implications not so sinister.

However, let us, for the sake of argument, accept this revisionist definition: “cultural appropriation” is not really about appropriation of culture (that would be too simple, apparently), but about disrespect of culture. About disrespect of elements of a culture that have symbolic value for adherents of that culture.

Well, I slept on that for a bit, and it still doesn’t make much sense to me. The most obvious point is that not all elements of all cultures are worthy of respect. Many, clearly, aren’t. The culture I was born into, for instance, has many fine things in it, but it also has this thing called “caste system”, which is culturally very significant. And Brahmin men are supposed to wear around their necks a sacred thread, as a mark of their high caste: it is a significant cultural symbol. Some sixty or so years ago now, my father respected this significant cultural symbol by chucking away his own sacred thread. He did not deem it worthy of respect any more than I do. But that it is a cultural symbol of deep significance is beyond doubt, and the injunction that we must not disrespect it, especially if we weren’t born into the Hindu religion, seems to me arbitrary at best, and, at worst, completely bonkers.

No, I’ll revise that. At worst, sinister and dangerous. For how is much-needed reform to come if that which needs reform is mandated as worthy of respect? How, indeed, can we prevent that which should be reformed from becoming even further entrenched, if it is mandated to be exempt from criticism and disrespect?

And who does the mandating anyway? Who decides what is worthy of respect, and what isn’t? Who are the gatekeepers here, and on what authority?

So really, as far as I’m concerned, if anyone wants to disrespect any aspect of any culture, then that’s fine – disrespect away! Yes, in the course of all this, I am sure that certain things that I myself revere may also end up being disrespected. But don’t worry about that – I can take it! Honestly, I can! And if I can’t, that’s my problem, and not anyone else’s. All this talk about “respect” merely puts me in mind of The Godfather films, I’m afraid.

For consider the implications of even this revised definition of “cultural appropriation”: the worst elements of our cultures become entrenched, thus rendering reform even more difficult; rigid boundaries are set between cultures, with self-appointed gatekeepers; all humanity itself becomes fragmented beyond repair. This is what, it seems to me, many people really want. I, personally, don’t.

Now, I did say at the start of this piece that I will keep this rant short, and I hope I have kept my word. All my posts between now and the New Year will be full of brightness and joy and festive cheer – I promise!

A Frenchman in a Bengali bar

There’s something about this video on Youtube, a mere two minutes or so probably filmed on someone’s phone, that fills me with joy:

Now, normally, I wouldn’t dream of posting a private video on this blog without permission, but since this has been on Youtube, a public forum, for many years now, I guess I am quite safe sharing this. And if the makers of this video, or any of the participants in it, should object, I will most certainly take it down.

Since videos do come and go on YouTube, let me describe what is captured here. The scene is, presumably, a bar somewhere in Bengal. The people here all appear to be local, except for one person, who is clearly a Westerner (the notes accompanying this video tell us he is French). And, to the delight of everyone in the bar, this Westerner starts singing a Rabindrasangeet (a song by Rabindranath Tagore). His Bengali pronunciation is very good: it is not an easy language for Westerners to master, containing as it does various sounds not used in European languages. And although I doubt his singing will have music companies rushing to his door with recording contracts, it is nonetheless rather impressive. This man has obviously absorbed Bengali culture, learnt the language, learnt the songs. He has adopted all of this as his own.

And the reaction of the others is interesting. No-one seems at all put out by this Frenchman “appropriating” their culture: quite the contrary – they seem delighted. A cheer goes up when he starts singing; the ladies at the next table start singing along with him; and there are approving cheers and enthusiastic applause when he finishes. There is something joyous in all this.

This is what those puritan killjoys who moan about “cultural appropriation” seem unable to appreciate: sharing each other’s cultures, adopting aspects of other cultures as one’s own, is a joyous thing. “Appropriation”? No-one has any exclusive proprietorial rights over any culture; so how is it possible to “appropriate” what doesn’t belong to anyone?

Feasts of various kinds are laid out all around us, and they are rich feasts. We only have to look. So let us leave those killjoys who disapprove of this kind of thing festering in their narrow and resentful little cultural ghettoes, while the rest of us get on with the business of sharing and partaking of each other’s cultures, and adopting as our own whatever appeals to us. For this sharing is indeed joyous.

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.