The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation

July 23, 2019 Category: American Culture

Inconsistent Standards:

The anti-Cul-Ap crusade is enabled by the deliberate conflation of exploitation with exploration.  This is made apparent by the fact that complaints of Cul-Ap have only recently become fashionable; and have been lent credence only insofar as we stopped acknowledging the distinction between condescension and acclamation.  In 1999, Natalie Portman donned maiko-style (Japanese) make-up and a Mongolian-style head-dress for her role as Padmé Amidala of Naboo.  This occurred without any scandal; as doing so was clearly not seen as problematic at the time.  Despite the fact that it is now one of the most decimated cultures in history, no Mongols complained.  The Japanese press actually CELEBRATED the use of their culture in an American sci-fi extravaganza.

In the next Star Wars film, Portman donned a Russian “kokoshnik”.  No Russians were incensed.  As it turns out, such stylization did not constitute a debacle of unsanctioned mimesis; the motley alien wardrobe was–like most science fiction–a creative pastiche.  Yet a decade later, George Lucas would surely have been excoriated by legions of Cul-Ap-phobes for this eclectic sartorial stylization.

The problem with those crying “cultural appropriation” is that decriers are forced to be highly selective in their indictments.  Yo-Yo Ma is no more begrudged for his choice of non-Chinese cello material than someone of non-Latino ancestry is begrudged for taking up salsa dancing.  Yet woe to a non-Chinese woman who dons a cheongsam!  How can this double standard be justified?

Let’s look at some other (inexplicable) exceptions.  Americans don’t pay tribute to Caribbean islanders every time they have barbecue chicken. {7}  Why not?  It’s the same reason women around the world don’t feel the need to commemorate Catherine de Medici every time they wear high heels. {8}

The Japanese tend to CELEBRATE other countries’ use of anime–each invariably adapted to its own culture.  Anime (and manga) have morphed into a resplendent array of offerings around the world.  It seems asinine to accuse Westerners of something uncouth when partaking in this gem of Japanese culture…even if the participants are not as sophisticated as one might prefer them to be.  (Anime is, after all, as much about entertainment as it is about artistic prowess.)  Shall Japan establish memetic embargoes so as to ensure nobody bootlegs its cultural bounty?  This would be odd, as much of Japanese pop-culture is comprised of bootlegged Western culture–from baseball to “B-Style”. {9}

In cases where there is an asymmetry along one metric or another (geo-politically, economically, or in terms of pop culture), is it bad when Cul-Ap turns out to be a unilateral affair?  If so, then samba in Tokyo is fine, but there shall be no Manga in Brasil.  And what of the Brasilian wax?  Lo and behold, now gringos do it too!  Is this particular style of anatomical landscaping unethical when anyone but Brasilians do it?  Might such waxing be open exclusively to Latinos?  How about to those who are HALF-Latino?  What about Latinos who do not identify all-that-much with Latino culture?  What’s going on here?

The simple answer: CULTURE is what is going on.  Cul-Ap can have–and, indeed, often does have–pro-social effects.  Just ask those who now practice capoeira (established by African slaves in Bahia); which is now ALSO considered Brasilian.  (What does “Brasilian” even mean?  Legal citizenship?  A specific ethnicity?  A certain degree of dedication to upholding cultural heritage?)  Ballet was originally an Italian dance form from the Renaissance; and it was promptly rendered into its quintessential form by the Russians…after, that is, it has already been appropriated by the French.

Modes of attire also illustrates the selectivity of Cul-Ap-phobia.  In the modern era, the propagation of sartorial practices is demonstrated by the necktie–itself based on a European ascot…which was based on the French cravat…which was appropriated from the Croats. {16}  When Indians and Arabs and Africans wear polo shirts, it is not some ploy of memetic embezzlement (from unsuspecting, preppy American WASPS)…any more than it is when, say, the Chinese drink root-beer.

It seems non-Westerners are granted exemption from the charge of Cul-Ap in such instances–ostensibly due to European colonialism.  Fair enough.  Having been subjected to systemic subjugation, victims of imperialism might be granted exemption from certain things that are off-limits to Europeans who still enjoy the residual advantages conferred by their forebears.  But how, then, shall we treat the (Ottoman) Turkic “kaftan”, a robe which yielded variations in Persia (the “xalat” / “chapaan”) and even Hasidic Jewish culture (the “bekishe”)?  The article of clothing also made its way east through Kurdish, Russian, Tatar, and Mughal cultures.  It even transformed into FEMALE attire in Morocco (as the Berber “kafta”).  So who is guilty of Cul-Ap in THOSE instances?  Everyone?  No one?  Where are the lines to be drawn?  Based on what criteria?

We might also note that headscarves are not the sole province of Muslimahs; as they have been a sartorial practice for THOUSANDS of years (primarily for women)–from the Armenians and Russians to the French and Dutch.  Recently, such garb is often taken to be emblematic of Muslim-ness.  So, we might ask, what constitutes a MUSLIM headscarf?  That is: What, exactly, is it that distinguishes a hijab from, say, a dupatta or an apostolnik or a tichel?  Would a sanction on headscarves for non-Muslimahs include BONNETS?  What about plain ol’ kerchiefs, which were popular amongst female WASPs in America throughout the 20th century?  Individual memes, it turns out, are as amorphous as entire cultures.  What constitutes one type of head-scarf from another?  There is no way to answer such a question.  So how are we to establish the boundary conditions for proper meme usage? 

In virtually all cases of Cul-Ap, we find that the spirit behind incorporating “foreign” memes into one’s cultural repertoire is a cosmopolitan one.  In the best cases, it stems from the recognition that the way WE currently do things might not be THE BEST way.  We needn’t shy away from the realization that it is sometimes prudent to adopt elements from other cultures.  So the hang-up seems to be based on something more nebulous than the transference of memes PER SE.

The universal rights to expression are best captured by art.  One might say that much of the point of making art–and, by the same token, the basis for APPRECIATING art–is putting oneself in another’s shoes…especially those from other walks of life.  Such a pan-cultural perspective is what makes artistic expression such an effective vehicle for human solidarity.  It is also what makes art arguably the greatest pedagogical medium for inter-cultural understanding.

Indeed, Cul-Ap is one of the key components in the art one encounters in ANY country.  Such co-optation is not a matter of indiscriminately ransacking others’ cultures; it’s a matter of celebrating the best of what the world has to offer.  When Matisse and Picasso incorporated African themes into some of their paintings, are we to suppose that they were trafficking in (African) memetic contraband?  Of course not.  They were simply doing what artists do.  Their works were a pastiche: more a matter of adapting than of cribbing.  Picasso conveyed this point with his cheeky comment: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”  (T.S. Eliot echoed the sentiment.  William Shakespeare’s entire career was BASED ON IT.)  In the art-world, to “appropriate X” simply means to “make us of X”–as when Andy Warhol “appropriated” the Campbell’s soup can.  If we indict this kind of appropriation, then Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso and in deep trouble.  So what is at issue when it comes to “appropriation” as it pertains to memes?

We might recall that artistic expression–from paintings to literature–is largely about putting oneself in another’s shoes, seeing the world from the perspective of someone from a different walk of life.  Art honors the importance of putting oneself in someone else’s shoes–thereby even if one is not afforded the opportunity to walk a mile in them.  Appreciating art affords one the chance to empathize with those who are different from oneself.  Indeed, that is one of its greatest virtues.

Alas, the upshot of demonizing Cul-Ap is that we mustn’t ever try to put ourselves in another’s shoes–at least, not in this way.  The upshot of this is inimical to the pluralistic spirit.  The obdurate demand, “know your place!” should be a red flag.  Such a regressive attitude misses a crucial fact: Global human solidarity is about TRANSCENDING cultural divisions; not reinforcing them.  Taking measures to put oneself in another’s shoes is a laudable act; and should be applauded, not derided.  Even when the participation is fleeting, there is no harm in temporarily wearing the hat of another–even if it’s just being done “for the fun of it”.  So long as it is done in good faith, Cul-Ap is the lifeblood of cosmopolitanism.  Indeed, even in cases where it is done with a dismissive attitude, or in too flip a manner, it remains the touchstone for all inter-cultural appreciation.

We often forget that even the best art is based in part on a non-trivial degree of mimesis (that is: creative imitation of what came before).  As the adage goes: Imitation is a form of flattery.  Art is rarely limited to sources from the autochthonous cultural milieu.  This is not to say that all art is “derivative” in the cheap sense; it simply reminds us that even the greatest artistic achievement is never done in a cultural vacuum.  Indeed, it is often the INTERACTION BETWEEN cultures that enables the best artistic inspiration.

Regarding meme-allocation protocols: Who’s to say what constitutes a distinct element of a particular culture?  Which culture shall stake its claim on which meme?  Based on what?  Inevitably, it becomes a convoluted matter as to what, exactly, is being “appropriated”…and from whom?  We are expected to keep track of who supposedly “owns” which element, which requires the members of a culture can be demarcated.  This becomes an intractable task once we go back far enough in history.  For any given culture, almost every element was appropriated from somewhere, at some point.

Music illustrates the fact that ALL culture is invariably derivative.  Even the greatest compositions remind us that this is an approbative exigency, not something to lament.  Pop music borrowed from rock-and-roll, which borrowed from jazz.  But jazz was itself a cultural appropriation from indigenous African peoples.  At which juncture in this memetic lineage shall we say someone is “guilty” of Cul-Ap?  We are asked to suppose that there is a clearly-demarcated, definitive boundary that exists in the aether between “black” music and “white” music (both highly dubious categorizations in themselves).  Moreover, we are asked to suppose that this threshold is memetically impermeable, entailing some mandate for ETHNIC separateness, enduring for all eternity.

The genealogy of music genres demonstrates that some who complain about Cul-Ap are themselves racist.  For according to certain precincts in the African-American community, nobody other than black musicians should be allowed to perform jazz, rhythm and blues, reggae, funk, scat, ska, doo-wop, hip-hop, Mo-town, or southern Gospel.  This would be a ridiculous stricture, to put it mildly.  Every Hispanic on Earth would even be on shaky ground when enjoying salsa, merengue, samba, mambo, and tango–as such genres are also derivative of African idioms.

But according to the same logic, nobody who is not white should be allowed to perform classical music.  Imagine proposing such a prohibition; and imposing it on all the world’s non-white musicians.  Considering rock’n-roll’s antecedents in African idioms, barring Cul-Ap would preclude half the world’s contemporary music.  For boy-bands adopted elements of hip-hop…which, in turn, led to K-pop.  Are Koreans to be prosecuted for taking culture from African Americans?  If the proposed standards were to be applied consistently, we would wind up instituting all sorts of nutty restrictions.

Gladly, we needn’t consider such wide-ranging memetic embargoes.  For all artists are influenced by other artists.  And oftentimes, it is artists from different cultures.  Cul-Ap is the animus of even the most novel artistic expression.  As innovative artists resist pressure to conform to an artificially-contrived orthodoxy–nay: an orthodoxy defined by ETHNIC NORMS.  In such cases, cross-cultural embrace is a virtue, not a sin.  We should not be surprised to find that most art is NOTHING BUT Cul-Ap.  It’s been that way for thousands of years.

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