An excerpt from my latest column for the New York Times, on the debate about ‘cultural appropriation’:
The accusation of cultural appropriation is a secular version of the charge of blasphemy. It is the insistence that certain beliefs and images are so important to particular cultures that they may not appropriated by others. This is most clearly seen in the debate about Ms Schutz’s painting, Open Casket.
In 1955, Emmett Till’s mother urged the publication of photographs of her son’s mutilated body as it lay in its coffin. Mr Till’s murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the civil rights movement and have acquired an almost sacred quality. It was from those photos that Ms Schutz began her painting.
To suggest that she, as a white painter, should not depict images of black suffering is as troubling as the demand by some Muslims that Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses should be censored because of supposed blasphemies in its depiction of Islam. In fact, it is more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has observed, the campaign against Ms Schutz’s work contains an ‘implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines’.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
The painting is ‘Open Casket’ by Dana Schutz
Thank you for this clear presentation of the ongoing debate.
Meanwhile, over at the NYTimes Op-Ed column: 999 comments and counting.
I most strongly commend the full version, over at the New York Times (which allows everyone a certain number of free views). To state the obvious, saying that Ms Schultz should not portray the murder of Emmett Till because of lack of pigment in her skin is blatant racism.
But I think that in this case, there is something going on even more troubling than what Kenan mentions; the idea of victimhood as property.
I think cultural appropriation becomes a problem when it’s hard for one group to prosper from their own art. Take hip hop as an example. It was big before white execs came and made profits off of it but it’s always been hard for blacks to make the same amount of profit. As for Emmit Till, the open casket was a demonstration for the world to see the horrors done with no profit involved but for another group of people to profit off the the horrors done seems a little disingenuous.
“…but for another group of people to profit off the the horrors done seems a little disingenuous.” I’m puzzled. Is your problem that she gets paid for her art, or that she does so while belonging to the wrong group? If the former, do you think that no artist shold get paid for prtraying suffering? If the latter, do you think that gentile artists shouldn’t get paid for their work when they portray the Holocaust? Or that Orhan Pamuk shouldn’t get paid for bravely writing about the genocide of the Armenians? And are only Germans and Japanese allowed to get paid for art about the horrors of Dresden and Hiroshima?
There is not a problem with art being used to make profit. It just seems as though other groups seem to be able to make profit easier that blacks specifically with our history. Look at the movies. It seems that other groups are more supported to make films on our horror than us. Even when we do, it’s discredited. Take the mat turner film. An old case was brought out to discredit the film but he has played in many films prior to him directing that film.
“Victimhood as property” is a phrase I haven’t heard before. I’m going to appropriate it, with credit and thanks.
Thanks also to Kenan Malik. I wonder, was the wheel the product of particular cultures? Insulin? Polio vaccine? What a sorry state we’d be in if we didn’t share, ie “appropriate”.
I think what’s missing here is the inclusion of power in understanding the relation between these acts and peoples responses. Cultural appropriation is of issue when there is a power imbalance, as racism only exists in situations of power imbalance. No one can be racist against a white man, as he does not experience systemic oppression based on his identity. I’m not saying that empathy is not important, or that white men don’t experience troubling and traumatising things related to identity – I mean, white male culture is pretty not supportive, but there is no racism involved in either incident (Shultz or Rushdie) because as a rich, renown white woman, Shultz is not the victim of an oppressive system or prejudice because of her skin colour,nor did she experience any of that related trauma, and Rushdie was born into a Muslim culture. The comparison with religious blasphemy is false too – religion has historically had power and wealth and moreover, been the source of systemic and cultural oppression, particularly of vulnerable people. This dialogue around cultural appropriation is essentially oppressed folks trying to stick up for things that are important to them and their identities to people who have more power than them, and those people reacting and being threatened by the voices they are used to using without protest.
“This dialogue around cultural appropriation is essentially oppressed folks trying to stick up for things that are important to them and their identities to people who have more power than them, and those people reacting and being threatened by the voices they are used to using without protest.”
Exactly what I said. Victimhood as property.
And what is meant by “stick up for”? How exactly does it stick up for Emmett Till to tell Ms Schultz not to paint him?
What is meant by using voices? Was Paul Robeson wrong to sing “Zog nit niemol”? Would I, lacking recent African or slave ancestry, be wrong to sing “Let my people go”?
And how does any of this censorious self-indulgence advance the interests of America’s genuinely oppressed black underclass?
I’ve often thought the redefinition of racism to require a societal/cultural power imbalance to be a somewhat strange move. On the one hand, it does point out a distinction that, however fuzzy it seems at time, nonetheless seems meaningful. Fair enough, and not something to simply be dismissed (as some might.)
But the undertone, or the message front and center in many cases, seems to be one where ‘mere’ racial bigotry is ‘bad’ but nothing as concerning as ‘real’ racism. And since that is a bothersome interpretation for many (e.g. dismissing bigotry would challenge the dismisser’s sense of being a just person), there is an eye-roll and it is made clear that any supposed racial bigotry is more than likely, almost certainly, a bogeyman borne of e.g. ‘white fragility.’ And this is probably in fact a sign of crypto-racism. Any denial of which is actual racism. Ta-da!
I think the challenge at hand is to look at how to deal with –and talk about– the magnifying impact that racism gives to bigotry, disadvantage, etc. without flippantly dismissing those who think “racial bigotry == racism” and falling into a reactionary mode of just shouting “there isn’t such a thing as reverse racism” (or the more verbose version of it, as above) while leaving completely unaddressed the counter-claim that, in fact, “racial bigotry == racism.”
My 2 cents: The problem with all of this is that it is simply doubling down on the racialism (separate from racism) that currently exists. It’s well and good to defend ‘black people’ from ‘appropriation’ by a ‘white woman’, but the whole thing reeks. Who are the ‘black people’ being defended? The ‘race’? A vocal minority/majority (and then what about the majority/minority?) Why is an artist (or anyone else) allowed or disallowed to act purely and distinctly because of her race? Is she an artist, a woman, a white woman… or simply reduced to an avatar of ‘the whites’? How is this appropriation in any sense of that word (theft, removal, etc.)? And so on.
This is just reinforcing the old/existing racial definitions/barriers/etc. but putting a shiny new spin on it. It’s trying to take the existing racisms and make them work for the oppressed… but without actually attacking the existing racisms. I think it is this, and not some easily dismissed strawman re: ‘white fear’, that is the issue being raised.
We’ve been here before
Your arguments as usual depend on the idea of appropriation, not specific acts itself. A Jewish joke told by a Jew is not the same as the same joke being told be a gentile. The meaning is the context. Your universalism renders context irrelevant; like most philosophy yours is rendered less apolitical than anti-political.
You defend Dana Schutz’ painting as intent, as if reception were or should be irrelevant. The painting is shallow, as politics and as art. Without knowing to the reference to you’d never know what it was about. The face becomes an excuse for a sort of bad abstraction. It’s not an argument for censorship to say it should never have been in the show. It’s in. It’s up. And the pretense that art objects, commodities in a luxury market should have some sort of leftist cred is as absurd as it is ubiquitous. But the painting itself is crap, as intent and as art.
Context: It was Mamie Till’s decision to have an open casket. If a political operative had made the choice in her absence and without her permission would she have had the right to be angry at the “appropriation” of her son’s body and her own tragedy for vulgar political ends? The obvious answer is yes, and you’d admit it. But this is the sort of thing you don’t bother to think about.
The best response to the shallow liberalism of Schutz and the defenders of her work as interesting or serious or valuable is the exhibition of Alice Neel curated by Hilton Als, and up at the same time, though few seemed to notice the relation.
Good art can be offensive; good art can be racist, but it can’t be shallow. You defend Schutz as you defended Shriver’s racist gesture, as an “idea”, which therefore was not racist. In fact Shriver is a nativist and the gesture was offending on purpose. It’s her right to do so. I defend her right, not her ideas.
I agree it is not a good painting. But the controversy over Schutz’s painting was not about the aesthetics, but about the politics of a white artist depicting an African American subject. Had the painting been by a black artist, my aesthetic response would have been the same – it still would not be a great work of art. But there would have been no controversy because the issue is not the aesthetics but the race of the painter herself.
Yes, there is a difference in the context but you don’t seem to have grasped it. There is a difference between Emmett Till’s mother making public what were then private photos, and an artist using photos in the public realm as a starting point for her painting. Again, had a black artist painted Emmett Till in his casket there would have been no controversy. The controversy is about the race of the artist. That is the context you are ignoring.
This is what I actually wrote about Shriver and her ‘nativist’ views (Abdel-Magied was Shriver’s main critic overher comments about cultural appropriation):
In your comments to that orginal post, you somehow conveniently forgot to read my criticism of Shriver. It seems nothing has changed.
“But there would have been no controversy because the issue is not the aesthetics but the race of the painter herself.”
The second and third sentences of my comment above:
“A Jewish joke told by a Jew is not the same as the same joke being told be a gentile. The meaning is the context.”
“The n-word” as they say in polite company, has different meanings depending on who uses it. I would advise white people to refrain from doing so, without being granted “permission”. I know white people who do. Eminem could probably get with it, in private with his -black- friends.
The meaning is the context. A Renaissance painting of Christ on the cross displayed in a white walled museum does not have the same meaning as the same painting in the church it was taken from.
YOU choose to simplify. YOU deal in formalisms. And you end as a moralist countering moralists. I’m describing the complexities of politics and the world. I’m not interested in language as Platonic form.
And, as I pointed out above, it’s you that’s ignoring the context.
“The context here is not of a black (or a white) man saying “What’s up my nigga!?”. The context is of a controversy created solely because a white artist painted a subject that some think should only be painted by African American artists.”
And only blacks can say nigger and get away with it. It’s the same thing. Your blindness is impressive.
You are very keen to talk about the context of an issue we are not debating but refuse to consider the context of the issue that we are. So, I’m afraid the blindness is yours. And for all your bluster, you have not actually said whether you think that only black artists should be able to paint Emmett Till. As I keep saying, you keep talking of the need to discuss context, but strangely refuse to discuss the actual issue at hand.
But he has the same right to express his opinion, and to make the argument as does any one else. That should be how the world works, but too often doesn’t.
That is the way the world works. Israeli philosophers have the right to defend universalism and “Robust Moral Realism” and Palestinians have the right to laugh, at least if the IDF isn’t around.
“you have not actually said whether you think that only black artists should be able to paint Emmett Till.”
I’m saying this example was vulgar and badly timed and the response was predictable. Maybe she should try again, with more actual sympathy and fewer assumptions.
I’ve never heard many complaints about Eminem’s “cultural appropriation”.
I had this argument in 2004. I put it on twitter for you and I’ll do it again here.
The liberal universalists at Crooked Timber didn’t get it then, and probably haven’t changed.
You seem reluctant to give a straightforward answer, but you seem to be suggesting that white artists should be able to depict Emmett Till, but you don’t think much of Schutz’s painting. If so, on this point at least, we agree. Hallelujah.
White people should be able to dress up in blackface and join the KKK. They should be allowed to do a lot of things. They shouldn’t be able to assume that their actions will be accepted by others. It’s a stupid painting by a purblind white liberal who can’t imagine herself as purblind.
This is getting us back to the absurdity of Christakis, husband and wife, at Yale, who couldn’t bring themselves to admit there are actual racists at Yale. “…other people have rights too!” he whined. Yes. Including racist fratboys. Unless they’re openly harassing you, you deal with it, just as you do in the real world. Micromanaging doesn’t help. Democracy requires a thick skin.
You defend enlightened conversation, but the rule of law is anti-utopian. The Enlightenment ignored that in favor of optimism.
“Humanism- Most generally any philosophy concerned to emphasize human welfare and dignity, and optimistic about the powers of unaided human understanding.”
Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.
Bullshit. Wrong simply as history. Erasmus was not an optimist. Neither am I.
The rebirth of humanism was a return to history. It was not a celebration of unaided reason. It the opposite, a call for ironic self-awareness.
“History is like foreign travel. It broadens the mind, but does not deepen it.” Descartes was brilliant and a fool.
History is bunk! The road to hell.
I am sure you are able to tell the difference between racist caricature and bad art. As for you being a pessimist – I’m happy for you :-).
You defend Modernism yet you link to a withering critique of the myth of objectivity, Weber’s illusory “value free science”.
And fyi racist caricatures can be good art, or even great art. Seen Birth of a Nation?
But again, art isn’t something you understand. Shriver’s sombrero wearing act, was a racist gesture. That doesn’t mean every example of a white woman wearing a sombrero fits in the exact same category, but we’re left to judge actions not ideas. Who owns the Holocaust? No one. Not even Palestinians. Some Jews were offended by Schindler’s List, but German guilt kitsch can be a bit much. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_spectator/2009/02/dont_give_an_oscar_to_the_reader.html
Germans are very pro-Israel now. Can you be pro Israel and anti-Semitic? Of course you can.
People cut corners arguing about what should be “allowed”. But Marcel Reich-Ranicki said the only German he ever met who understood what the Holocaust meant to Jews was Ulrike Meinhof. Think about that for at least a minute.
You link to Zadie Smith, but you share the same wishful thinking. Neither of you are American. Read the other reviews. Across all political lines they agree:
The Root: “Get Out Proves That ‘Nice Racism’ and White Liberalism Are Never to Be Trusted”
National Review: “Fear of a White Village”
Breitbart: “Jordan Peele’s Horror Movie ‘Get Out’ Casts ‘Liberal Elite’ as the Monster”
NYMag: “Jordan Peele’s Genius New Horror Movie Shows the Terror of Being Black in World Full of White People”
Breitbart and NYMagazine use the same quote quotes from Peele.
“It was very important to me for this not to be about a black guy going to the South and going to this red state where the presumption for a lot of people is everybody’s racist there,” Peele told the audience after the film’s midnight screening. “This was meant to take a stab at the liberal elite that tends to believe that ‘We’re above these things.”
Here’s some news for you: most white people are racist. Most men are sexist. “Of course I’m a feminist… Honey, get me another beer!!?” A person who says “I’m a liberal” can be anything but. People lie to themselves all the time.
The real world, the world of politics, is not a place merely of polite conversation. And I’m not going to insure the chattering of “liberal Zionist” political philosophers against interruption by illiterate Palestinian shepherds.
“Again, had a black artist painted Emmett Till in his casket there would have been no controversy.”
Again, If a black man says “What’s up my nigga!?” There’s no controversy.
Adam Shatz says the criticism of the painting is an “implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy”.
It’s not for him to decide. That’s just the way the world works.
The worst of right thinking liberalism: “Some of my best friends are Jews”. And for the same reason I have no patience for a colloquy of philosophers discussing The Defense of Principles of Modern Liberalism, at a conference held in occupied Jerusalem. while if they were mathematicians I’d just shrug.
The best bit of appropriation I’ve seen in ages: a man responding to women’s only showings of Wonder Woman, not to mock the shows themselves but by asking “Define ‘woman’.” Because now a woman can have a cock.
I’m waiting for the transwoman who “as a woman” comes out as pro-life.
The irony is that, for someone who keeps insisting that we must talk about context, you continually ignore the context. The context here is not of a black (or a white) man saying “What’s up my nigga!?”. The context is of a controversy created solely because a white artist painted a subject that some think should only be painted by African American artists. And that is the context you keep ignoring.
Nor is it for you to decide or for anyone else to decide. That’s just the way the world works. But he has the same right to express his opinion, and to make the argument as does any one else. That should be how the world works, but too often doesn’t.
Cultural appropriation and the fantasy of a white Greece.
Classicist Receives Death Threats from Alt-Right over Art Historical Essay
Titled “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color,” the piece discusses race and whiteness as a social construct. According to Bond, the Greeks and Romans of antiquity did not classify people as “white,” and many of the classical marble sculptures, sarcophagi, and steles from the Mediterranean were originally painted—frequently in gold, red, green, black, white, and brown. As the pigments deteriorated over time, art historians, including Johann Joachim Winckelmann—an eighteenth-century scholar considered by many to be the father of the art historical discipline—perpetuated the idea that the white marble statues of ancient peoples represent an ideal beauty, a notion that still fuels white supremacists today.
Bond argues that we need to start seeing the ancient world in color. If Identity Europa, a nationalist and fascist group that uses images of classical statuary to advance their agenda, knew that the statues they are associating their brand with were most likely painted to represent a variety of skin tones, then its members might stop disseminating flawed art historical ideas. She also says that acknowledging the multiracial citizenry of the Greek and Roman empires could lead to greater diversity in the field of classics.
“We are mostly a white field and I want my students of all colors and races to be able to come in to the classroom and to see a reflection of how diverse the Mediterranean world is,” Bond told Cavalli. “One of the ways to make the classics inviting to people is to have themselves reflected in the art that we look at.