This is the full version of the article I wrote last month for the New York Times on controversies over ‘cultural appropriation’ . (I cannot publish my NYT articles on Pandaemonium until the month after they are published in the newspaper.) It was originally published on 14 June under the headline ‘In defence of cultural appropriation’. The article has drawn much attention (and much hostility). I hope to write a proper response to the criticism soon.
The images are all from the Whitney 2017 Biennial Exhibition. The details, as always, are at the foot of the article.
It is perhaps just as well that I am a writer, not an editor. Were I editing a newspaper or magazine, I might soon be out of a job. For this is an essay in defense of cultural appropriation.In Canada last month, three editors lost their jobs after making such a defense.
The controversy began when Hal Niedzviecki, editor of Write, the magazine of the Canadian Writers’ Union, penned an editorial (in an issue of the magazine devoted to Indigenous writing) defending the right of white authors to create characters from minority or indigenous backgrounds. Within days, a social media backlash forced him to resign. The Writers’ Union issued an apology for an article that its Equity Task Force claimed ‘re-entrenches the deeply racist assumptions’ held about art.
Another editor, Jonathan Kay, of The Walrus magazine, was also compelled to step down after tweeting his support for Niedzviecki. Meanwhile, the broadcaster CBC moved Steve Ladurantaye, managing editor of its flagship news program The National, to a different post, similarly for an ‘unacceptable tweet’ about the controversy.
It’s not just editors who have to tread carefully. Last year, the novelist Lionel Shriver generated a worldwide storm after defending cultural appropriation in an address to the Brisbane Writers Festival. Earlier this year, controversy erupted when New York’s Whitney Museum picked for its Biennial Exhibition Dana Schutz’s painting (shown at the top of the page) of the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. Many objected to a white painter like Schutz depicting such a traumatic moment in black history. The British artist Hannah Black organized a petition to have the work destroyed.
Other works of art have been destroyed. The sculptor Sam Durant’s piece ‘Scaffold’, honouring 38 Native Americans executed in 1862 in Minneapolis, was recently being assembled in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. After protests from Indigenous activists that Durant was ‘appropriating’ their history, the artist dismantled his own work, and made its wood available to be burned in a Dakota Sioux ceremony.
What is cultural appropriation, and why is it so controversial? Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, and author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defines it as ‘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.’
Appropriation suggests theft, and a process analogous to the seizure of land or artifacts. In the case of culture, however, what is called appropriation is not theft but messy interaction. Writers and artists, indeed all human beings, necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.
Critics of cultural appropriation insist that they are opposed not to cultural engagement, but to racism. They want to protect marginalized cultures and ensure that such cultures speak for themselves, not simply be seen through the eyes of more privileged groups.
Certainly, cultural engagement does not take place on a level playing field. Racism and inequality shape the ways in which people imagine others. Yet it is difficult to see how creating gated cultures helps promote social justice.
There are few figures more important to the development of rock ’n’ roll than Chuck Berry (who died in March). In the 1950s, many white radio stations refused to play his songs, categorizing them as ‘race music’. Then came Elvis Presley. A white boy playing the same tunes was cool. Elvis was feted, Berry and other black pioneers largely ignored. Racism defined who became the cultural icon.
But imagine that Elvis had been prevented from appropriating ‘black’ music. Would that have challenged racism, or eradicated Jim Crow laws? Clearly not. It took a social struggle — the civil rights movement — to bring about change. That struggle was built not on cultural separation, but on the demand for equal rights and universal values.
Campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal the changing meaning of what it is to challenge racism. Once, it was a demand for equal treatment for all. Now it calls for cultures to be walled off and for the boundaries to be policed.
But who does the policing? Every society has its gatekeepers, whose role is to protect certain institutions, maintain the privileges of particular groups and cordon off some beliefs from challenge. Such gatekeepers protect not the marginalized but the powerful. Racism itself is a form of gatekeeping, a means of denying racialized groups equal rights, access and opportunities.
In minority communities, the gatekeepers are usually self-appointed guardians whose power rests on their ability to define what is acceptable and what is beyond the bounds. They appropriate for themselves the authority to license certain forms of cultural engagement, and in doing so, entrench their power.
The most potent form of gatekeeping is religion. When certain beliefs are deemed sacred, they are put beyond questioning. To challenge such beliefs is to commit blasphemy.
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 Dana 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. 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 Schutz began her painting.
In the Whitney Biennial Exhibition is a painting by Henry Taylor entitled ‘The Times Thay Ain’t Changing, Fast Enough’ which depicts the death of Philando Castile, an African American man horrifically shot dead by a policeman while in his car; the painting is drawn from a video of the incident taken by Castile’s fiancée, Diamond Reynolds, who was also in the car and who livestreamed the shooting on Facebook. Taylor’s painting, unlike Schutz’s, has received little criticism, but has been praised for its ‘hauntingly vivid depiction’ of the shooting of Castile. The difference, as both sides in the appropriation debate have pointed out, is that Schutz is white and Taylor black.
To suggest that Schutz, 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’s more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has observed, the campaign against Schutz’s work contains an ‘implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines’.
Seventy years ago, racist radio stations refused to play ‘race music’ for a white audience. Today, antiracist activists insist that white painters should not portray black subjects. To appropriate a phrase from a culture not my own: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The paintings are all from the 2017 Whitney Biennial Exhibition. From top down: Dana Schutz, The Casket; Deana Lawson, ‘The Key’; Julien Nguyen, ‘Executive Solutions’; An-My Lê, ‘Film Set (‘Free State of Jones’), Battle of Corinth, Bush, Louisiana’; Henry Taylor, ‘The Times Thay Ain’t Changing Fast Enough’.