This article will be about cultural appropriation and the artist. I got the idea to do this article after an artist friend was accused of cultural appropriation bordering on genocide. This struck a chord with me. I've had my own battles in the area of spiritual appropriation. I felt for my friend and decided that I share my thoughts on the difficult arena of cultural appropriation, and how it can impact artists. This seems like a benign subject, but hang in there and I will reveal the very complicated landscape of cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation can be loosely defined as “the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group.” This article will focus on artists and their adoption of cultural elements. Is this a simple matter? No, because both the depth of the adoption and the effect on the originating cultural group can vary widely. Some appropriation has deep roots in time. Other appropriation is recent, almost faddish. Though there a divergence of experience, the use of the word “cultural appropriation” carries with it an almost immediate negative context. While there are grounds for this negative interpretation, I believe the scope of the issue is much larger and more challenging than this single negative vision.
I will use the term “indigenous people”. This phrase refers to the originating group of an artistic element. This is a big term, meaning everything from a single tribe to an entire ethnic group. Non-indigenous people are outsiders to the referenced indigenous group.
It would be helpful to understand examples of cultural appropriation by artists. For now consider there is no right or wrong to use of these artistic expressions. Also, I am not purposely referencing a specific indigenous group. A list of possible cultural appropriations includes: Songs, Musical Rhythms, Musical techniques, Drawing / painting techniques, Physical art forms (jewelry, pottery, dolls, masks, musical instruments, fabrics, clothes, blankets, weapons), Patterns and colors, and Dances.
It takes little imagination to envision how often appropriation takes place today. It happens all the time! What harm could from it? What harm has past appropriation done? Why was my friend confronted with the accusation of cultural genocide? These questions are answered by looking at the challenges of cultural appropriation. Fully exploring these would fill a small book, so I will limit their presentation to a list.
1. The indigenous artistic expression has a strong religious component. THIS IS A BIG ONE. While this situation is not common, there are indigenous creations that are incredibly sacred to the indigenous people.
2. Appropriated art “steals” market share from artists indigenous to cultural group. This challenge is more common in areas where the indigenous people attempt to market their work. Sadly hustlers purposely misrepresent artistic output and make the sale instead.
3. In the larger, market, even well-intentioned creations can create a “ghetto” market that no longer responds to the indigenous creation. This could be called the “Walmart scenario”. Additionally, a non-indigenous art can only vaguely resembles indigenous art. These “flawed” implementations disrespect or marginalize the cultural originals.
4. Some indigenous guardians are fanatical and take no prisoners. Outsiders are automatically accused of corruption, thievery, and even societal genocide. There is no individual “trial” for the artist. The guardians are reacting to a faceless enemy or to past transgressions by other outsiders. The act of a single artist means little to guardians. They are instead focused on the big picture.
5. Cultural appropriation appears to keep alive the indigenous culture. This is not common, but when it does, it is a good thing. Unfortunately it is difficult to determine this is happening. While these are the exception, cultural appropriation is a big positive in these cases.
6. Some art forms are universal or their origins may predate the use by the indigenous group. The original group is not more. The indigenous group has good intentions, but they do not have full claims to the cultural art form.
There is a purposeful flow in the above list. Do you see it? I hope this ranking illustrates the challenges faced by artists when they consider cultural appropriation. Why does cultural appropriation occur? Why do artists bump into this challenge? I'll provide another list, and this one is also ranked in a purposeful way.
1. Out right theft / copying for profit, with possible misrepresentation of the artist's origins.
2. There is no profit motivation, but there is still direct copying bordering on plagiarism. This could be defended as “copying is the highest form of flattery”.
3. The non-indigenous art is inspired by the indigenous reference, and is not a direct copy
4. Unconscious influence by past exposure to cultural references. The copying is not intentional.
5. Spontaneous, unrelated creation / intuitive creation.
6. The cultural art is used as part of a purposeful “mash-up” of art. The cultural element is part of a larger artistic creation. Art can be extreme, and these mash-ups can be shocking. An example of this would be Andres Serrano controversial work "Piss Christ", a red-tinged photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass container of what was purported to be the artist's own urine. I find this to be a fascinating and disturbing reason for cultural appropriation. It goes to the heart of why art is created: for good, bad, or ugly.
7. The accusation of cultural appropriation is dead-wrong, and the guardian of the indigenous group is over zealous in their duties.
What is the non-indigenous artist to do in the swirling storm of cultural appropriation? I would say that the artist needs to stay away from the danger zones of disrespecting sacred objects and outright stealing, via dishonest sales, from the indigenous groups. At the same time the artist should be fully allowed to pursue acts, that appear to be cultural appropriation, if there is cause. The litmus test for staying on the right side of this moral line is the admonishment “do no harm”. The artist should have have integrity in both presentation and representation of any art that could be considered a cultural appropriation.
I want to close with some words about my friend. Her artistic creation was inspired by a cultural art form. Her dream catcher was round with interlacing threads within. The thread weaving inside did not resemble any traditional indigenous patterns. It was a geometric pattern of her creation. My friend was not representing the dream catcher as being indigenous, and she was not in competition with indigenous artists. This, IMO, is a case of over zealous guardians. Accusations of cultural genocide were groundless. My friend is incredibly honorable, and I am glad this article found a path that exonerated my friend from the harsh word laid at her feet.