The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation

July 23, 2019 Category: American Culture

Instances Of Commercialization:

What of the dysfunctions that are endemic to commercialization?  At what point the commercialization of culture done is bad faith?  This leads to another question: At what point do we qualify appropriation a commercial venture?

Making queries about concretes may help discern which principles are involved here.  When those in “the West” take yoga classes, are they hijacking a key element of Hinduism…or are they simply adopting a practice they find advantageous?  In a sense, American-style yoga IS a mere caricature of Indian culture: hokey, superficial, and–yes–commercialized.  Yet it does not follow that there is something iniquitous afoot when someone opts to participate in a Vinyasa seminar.

Here’s the thing: ALL culture is cheapened by being commercialized–regardless of who might be doing it.  One need only experience a tourist-trap in ANY country to note that most countries often commercialize–and so cheapen–THEIR OWN cultures when it is economically advantageous.

Should the French be offended by the fact that the best cinematic production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” was made by Chinese director, Jin-ho Hur (“Wi-heom-han Gyan-gye”)?  The Chinese rendition (2012) re-conceived Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th-century tale to have transpired in Shanghai’s high society of the 1930’s.  Hollywood had recently adapted it to New York City during the 1990’s (“Cruel Intentions”).  Yet Parisians were not up incensed.

Should the British be up in arms over the fact that the Americans ripped off “Romeo And Juliet” with the Broadway musical, “West Side Story”?  The American classic (by Arthur Laurents) re-conceived Shakespeare’s tale to have taken place in 1950’s New York City (with Tony & Maria) instead of in medieval Verona, Italy.  (The Montagues and the Capulets were replaced by the Jets and the Sharks.)  The next year, the famed Japanese author, Yamada Futaro (a.k.a. “Yamada Seiya”) wrote “Koga Ninpocho” (a.k.a. “The Kouga Ninja Scrolls”), in which the ill-fated lovers (re-named Gennosuke and Oboro) were members of warring clans in feudal Japan c. 1600.

Meanwhile, the Broadway musical, “Hello Dolly” was lifted from a musical by the Viennese playwright, Johann Nestroy (via Thornton Wilder).  No Austrian was exercised over this instance of theatrical appropriation.  There was then an American version of the classic French novel “Phantom of the Opera” by Gaston Leroux.  This did not elicit any acrimony from Parisians.  In Russia, Nikolai Leskov appropriated Shakespeare for his “Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District”.  There was no outrage.  Why not?  Upon surveying the resplendent tapestry of the world’s artistic achievements, we can only conclude that the admixture of cultures should be encouraged.

Admittedly, Cul-Ap is not always an estimable affair.  Richard Strauss may have approved of Stanley Kubrick using “Also Sprach Zarathustra” as the theme song for the film “2001: A Space Odyssey”.  However, Nietzsche probably would NOT have approved of the musical theme to his magnum opus (which, sadly, he never had the chance to hear himself) being used for nationalistic or religious purposes, as it–unfortunately–often is.  And while Tchaikovsky may have been fine with Disney using his material in “Fantasia”, Shakespeare may have balked at the plot of “Hamlet” being recruited for animated, singing animals in the Serengeti–as Disney opted to do with “The Lion King” (thus turning tragedy into triumph: an inspiring story for the kids).

It might also be noted that “The Lion King” amounted to a Westernized version of the Japanese film, “Kimba” from 1950 (replete with hallmark set-pieces), though Disney did not admit as much at the time.  It could be argued that this makes the American film more a matter of plagiarism than it was of cultural appropriation.  The irony here is that the creator of “Kimba”, Osamu Tezuka, had made Japanese versions of Bambi and Pinocchio in 1951.  The difference is that Tezuka did so with permissions, and without any pretense of novelty.  (In other words: He ADMITTED that he was engaging in Cul-Ap; reminding us that, at the end of the day, it is honesty that counts.)

Appropriation is sometimes more a matter of the CHEAPENING of culture-in-general (as with commercialization) than it is the judicious use of cultural elements.  Thought-provoking commentaries on the “culture industry” (read: the commodification of culture) can be found in the writings of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (under the aegis of the Frankfurt School of critical theory); and provide worthwhile insights into this matter.

Hollywood has been festooned with Cul-Ap since its earliest days.  In American cinema, some of the all-time classic Westerns were “Spaghetti Westerns”, so named because they were produced and/or directed by Italians.  The acclaim of such films was in no way dampened by the fact that Europeans were “appropriating” the characters of the fabled “wild west” (i.e. overwrought folklore about the American frontier).  Meanwhile, spaghetti is a staple of American cuisine which was “appropriated” from the Italians.  This was not some premeditated exchange.  Shall we wonder whether or not cowboys for pasta is a fair trade?  (To be fair, Americans STARRED IN the Spaghetti Westerns, even as Italian food earned an exalted reputation worldwide.)

When it comes to “Westerns”, there was trans-cultural fertilization afoot in several other ways.  The American classic “The Magnificent Seven” was an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”.  (Maclean’s “The Guns Of Navarone” was also an adaptation of “Seven Samurai”.)  The Japanese had no problem with this.  (Yes: the Japanese are to thank for one of America’s most beloved cowboy films.)  Kurosawa’s films also served as the basis for the classic Western, “Fistful of Dollars” (“Yojin-bo”)…and even as inspiration for “Star Wars” (“The Hidden Fortress”).  Is such cross-pollination a slight against either culture?

Meanwhile, when Kurosawa made his critically-acclaimed movie, “Ran”, nobody begrudged him for having regurgitated Shakespeare’s “King Lear”…which was itself adapted from Raphael Holinshed’s hagiography of the Briton King known as “Leir”.  Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” was a revamping of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”.  (Thank you, Russians.)  And when he made “Throne Of Blood”, nobody begrudged him for having riffed off of “Macbeth”.  (Human nature as it is, it could have been a Danish king or a Japanese Emperor.)

Thank heavens for thematic cross-pollination!  Cultural elements, it turns out, are not commodities to be traded and bartered; they are PUBLIC GOODS…from which we all benefit.  Meme-harvesting, it turns out, is the engine of cultural flourishing.

Granted, trans-cultural fertilization is not always reciprocal.  Humans operate in a global meme-sphere, and find themselves incorporating various things from various places at various times for various reasons.  And so uni-directional memetic transference does not necessarily indicate that some sort of domination is afoot.  Much of cultural exchange is INVARIABLY unilateral, as it occurs extemporaneously.

In proscribing ALL Cul-Ap, we would be forced to concede that Disney was guilty of illicit Cul-Ap by making “Aladdin”.  But a problem arises: Appropriated from WHOM?  In fact, “Aladdin” was not even authentically Arabian.  The tale was a medieval European invention involving a fantastical caricature of Arabian culture (ref. “One Thousand and One Nights”)…which was itself based on PERSIAN literature (namely: the medieval Pahlavi work, “Hazar Afsanah”).  So who’s the victim in such a case?

We can pose further queries about the commercialization of culture simply by surveying animated feature films.  Was Disney guilty of Cul-Ap when it made…

  • “Pinocchio” (Italian)
  • “Pocahontas” (Algonquian)
  • “Aladin” (Arabian)
  • “The Emperor’s New Groove” (meso-American)
  • “The Princess and the Frog” (African American)
  • “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (Romani) 
  • “Beauty and the Beast” (French)  {22}
  • “Hercules” (Greek)
  • “Mulan” (Chinese)
  • “Tangled” (German / Dutch)
  • “The Little Mermaid” (Danish)  {4}
  • “Brave” (Celtic)
  • “Frozen” (Swedish / Norwegian)
  • “Moana” (Polynesian)
  • “Coco” (Mexican)

…or “Saludos Amigos” starring Donald Duck (Latin American) ?  

How about when Dreamworks made “Prince of Egypt” (Hebrew) ?  How about when 20th Century Fox made “Anastasia” (Russian) ?  How about when Sony made “Hotel Transylvania” (Romanian) ?  How about when American film-makers made “Kubo and the Two Strings” (Japanese) ?  How about when Irish film-makers made “The Breadwinner” (Afghan) ?  What’s going on here?

Granted, the use of cultural leitmotifs in such films was more a matter of unsanctioned culture-INVOCATION than it was a matter of appropriation.  The fact remains, though, that most were rather puerile caricatures of the cultures they deigned to represent.  Shall we suppose that the above companies were pillaging the world’s cultures to make animated films? {5}

While these were all commercial productions done primarily for their entertainment value (and, perhaps, with an ancillary concern for other cultures), it is no secret that they were created for financial gain.  One might say such products were done “all in good fun”, as the saying goes; yet the question persists: Were these movies exploitative?  Did any of them demean or trivialize the source-culture?  Puerile–and inaccurate–as they may have been, we might consider that they served other purposes (e.g. spurring curiosity about alternate cultures amongst a youthful audience).  In the grand scheme of things, all these animated films were relatively anodyne.

By contrast, Disney served only as the distributor (and English language over-dubber) for Japanese films like “Ponyo”, “Princess Mononoke”, and “Spirited Away”.  In such cases, the most significant thing that was being appropriated was Hollywood’s muscle…BY the Japanese.  So who was exploiting who?

In 2004, renown director Hayao Miyazaki made the blockbuster hit, “Howl’s Moving Castle”…which was “appropriated” (with consent) from British author, Diana Wynne Jones.  Shall this be given a pass simply because Jones was compensated handsomely?  (Consent is much easier when something is treated as intellectual property.)  Is Cul-Ap, then, just about MONEY–an act that is reduce-able to a financial transaction?

We’ve already mentioned the Chinese adaptation of “Dangerous Liaisons”, which was originally French…before it was Americanized.  As I write this, the stewards of the Japanese blockbuster, “Kimi no Na-wa” [Your Name] INSISTED that Hollywood producers render the film in a (live-action) Western idiom.  Meanwhile, Hollywood has recently adapted the acclaimed French film “Intouchables” (as “The Upside”) without eliciting any accusations of illicit Cul-Ap from the French.

These are not isolated incidents.  The same went for adaptations of:

  • The French “La Cage aux Folles” (as “The Birdcage”)
  • The German “Wings Of Desire” (as “City Of Angels”)
  • The Italian “Profumo di donna” (as “The Scent Of A Woman”)
  • The Spanish “Abre los Ojos” (as “Vanilla Sky”)
  • The Swedish “Let The Right One In” (as “Let Me In”)
  • The Norwegian “Kraftidioten” (as “Cold Pursuit”)
  • The Indian “Parinda” (as “Broken Horses”)
  • The Cantonese “Internal Affairs” (as “The Departed”)
  • The Japanese “Ju-on” (as “The Grudge”)
  • The Korean “Oldu-boi” (as “Oldboy”)

Hollywood is not the only participant in cinematic Cul-Ap.  Bollywood recently did an Indian rendering of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” (“Trishna”) without any recriminations from the Brits. And we might ask: When the French re-did the Japanese film, “Himitsu” as “Si J’étais Toi”, were the Japanese being taken advantage of by heedless Francophiles?

To the objection that film adaptations don’t count as (illicit) “cultural appropriation”, the only response is: Given the logic undergirding Cul-Ap-phobia, how could they possibly NOT be?  Granted, films are intellectual property; so rights to them can be bought and sold.  But are we to suppose that CLASSIC films (all of these were critically-acclaimed in their original forms) are not an integral part of the source-culture?  It is an ineluctable fact that Hollywood was appropriating something in each of these cases.  That it was done purely for financial gain arguably makes it WORSE.  To treat commercialization as an means of exculpation from the charge seems odd.  In any case, all these cases of Cul-Ap were innocuous…which reminds us that Cul-Ap is more ubiquitous than we often realize.

So where does this leave us?  “Cultural appropriation, you say?  Well, by all means!” is the most reasonable retort to charges of Cul-Ap.  And so, it turns out, there was nothing iniquitous about Disney making an animated version of “Cinderella”…even without permission from the world’s Italians (who first offered the world the tale of the “Cinder” maiden).  Were Americans aware that the vaunted movie studio was using material from German authors (“Aschenputtel” by the Brothers Grimm c.1812)?  And that the Brothers Grimm had taken it from a French author (Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon” from his 1697 “Contes du Temps Passé”)?  And that Perrault had taken it from a Neapolitan author (Giambattista Basile’s “Cenerentola”, included in his 1634 anthology, the Pentamerone)?  Yet no Italian was offended.  In any case, Basile was likely inspired by a recounting of the tales of “Cupid and Psyche” by the Roman writer, Apuleius of Numidia. And Apuleius was likely doing a rendering of an even older GREEK legend (that of the slave-girl, Rhodopis, who won the love of the Egyptian king in the 7th century B.C.)  It’s Cul-Ap all the way back!

Nor were many fans of this cherished fairytale aware that many other cultures had ALREADY “appropriated” the character of the “Cinder” maiden:

  • Norwegians (“Katie Woodencloak”)
  • Irish (“Ashey Pel”)
  • Jewish Poles (“Raisel”)
  • Georgians (“Conkiajgharuna”)
  • Serbians (“Pepelyouga”)
  • Filipinos (“Maria and the Golden Slipper”)

Even the Russians incorporated the character into legends of “Baba Yaga”.  YET…according to Cul-Ap-phobes, the Greeks should have sequestered the leitmotif during its initial run in Classical Antiquity–staking their claim on the folktale so that none of these other pesky cultures could have gotten their grubby hands on it (and refashioned it to suit their own respective cultures).  Heaven forbid. {19}

When Woody Allen used Rhapsody in Blue for the score of his film, “Manhattan”, he was paying tribute to a fellow Jewish New Yorker, Jacob Gershowitz (a.k.a. “George Gershwin”); but Woody Allen needn’t have been EITHER a New Yorker OR Jewish to have done this.  According to the contorted logic of Cul-Ap-phobia, though, had the producer / director of the film been a WASP, something iniquitous may have been afoot.  All that is beside the point anyway, as Gershwin HIMSELF engaged in Cul-Ap, employing musical idioms from the rhythm and blues pioneered by African Americans.

The re-purposing of cultural elements has recently been given the name “remix culture”.  This has generally been considered a kind of innovation; and thus a salutary development–be it in music, architecture, the culinary arts, the visual arts, or clothing design.

Games are another illustration of how Cul-Ap is typically benign.  The Russians play chess even though the game was originally Indian.

The game’s origin was in India in the early 6th century (during the Gupta epoch); and was known as “c[h]atu-[r]anga” (“four arms” in Sanskrit); and was possibly Babylonian (Assyrian) prior to that.  Chaturanga led to various other games: “xiang-qi” (Chinese), “jang-gi” (Korean), “sho-gi” (Japanese), “sittuyin” (Burmese), and “mak-ruk” (Siamese).  It was adapted by the Sassanians, and eventually popularized in Persia as “chatrang” (later rendered “shatranj” in Arabic).  The term “rook” derives from the Middle Persian “rukh”, meaning chariot.  The “bishop” was originally an elephant (“fil”); the “knight” was originally a horse (“asp”); and the king was originally a “shah”.

Shall Persians NOW be offended that the Occident switched their elephants to clerics?  (One might say that taking a sacred animal and turning it into an ecclesiastical figure was a form of cultural vandalism.)  As it turns out, nobody cares.  Why not?  Because cultural adaptation is what happens with EVERYTHING.

As we all know, the game was eventually brought to Europe via Andalusia by the Muslims.  (How the meme migrated from the Moors to the Russians is anyone’s guess.)

The number of Indians up in arms over this?  Zero.

Rummy is another case in point.  The Israeli game, “rummikub” was inspired by the well-known card-game, “gin rummy”…which was, in turn, based on the French game “conquian”…which was itself an adaptation of the (Qing) Chinese game, “mahjong”.  The number of Chinese up in arms over this?  Zero.

And that’s not the end of it.  We find that this lineage of cultural appropriation continued elsewhere.  For the Indian game, “Paplu” is a spin-off of “gin rummy” as well.  Like any other meme, whom the meme has been appropriated FROM is based on where we draw the line in history.  No French are incensed at Indians by this…just as nobody in China is incensed at anybody in France.

Playing cards derived from the medieval Chinese game, “Tien Gow” [Heaven Nine], which dates back to the 12th century.  It eventually came to Europe via the Mamluks.  So whether you happen to be playing “Go Fish” or “Canasta”, you are engaging in Cul-Ap…though now with Occident-style kings, queens, jokers, and knaves (rendered “jacks”).

That Cul-Ap was allowed to occur in all these places should be seen–according to the logic of Cul-Ap-phobes–as a travesty.  But it wasn’t.  Should someone in the future opt to “appropriate” the Indian game “Paplu”, then so be it.

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