The coverphoto of this post is a picture of Parker Bright. Bright is protesting the painting in front of him, which depicts the casket of Emmett Till – a 14-year old Afro-American boy who was tortured and lynched by two White men in Mississippi in 1955. The painting was made by Dana Schutz. Because Schutz is White, heated debates about cultural appropriation followed suit.
When you look at it from a sociological point of view, it makes perfect sense that we’re having these discussions about cultural appropriation anno 2017. Globalization makes our immediate environment increasingly interconnected and so people with different backgrounds have to figure out how to peacefully co-exist. This naturally raises questions about identity and culture.
What I want to reflect upon in this article is the implicit assumption that culture is static. By static I mean unmoving, unaffected by time or place. I think that this reflection is rather urgent because I see this assumption operating on both sides of the debate on cultural appropiation.
Moreover, because I think this assumption is inaccurate and problematic, I want to suggest a different way of looking at cultural appropriation and culture in general. One which incorporates the view of culture as a dynamic process.
Our reality is constantly changing. Culture is a part of our reality. This means that trying to claim that culture is unchanging is a denial of the world as it is.
This denial of reality has problematic consequences.
A good example of this is how a majority¹ of people in the Netherlands reacted to criticism of Black Pete (Zwarte Piet). I won’t slip into details about how the stereotypes that are being performed have their origins in times of slavery, nor will I discuss the intellectually crippling, post-modern elements of identity politics and political correctness that are involved².
Rather, I found the fierceness and dogmatism of the reactions interesting. People that usually think of themselves as ‘open-minded’ and ‘liberal’ suddenly found themselves in bed with far Right-wingers. Their reaction usually goes something along the lines of this: “It is part of the Dutch culture and it has been done like this for years without problems, so if you don’t like it, just leave [our country]”.
Of course, this is a rather simplified caricature of the – sometimes – elaborate explanations people give. However, what they all have in common is that they rely on culture being static, that it cannot be changed. As I pointed out earlier; this is not true. Denying this truth can turn agreeable persons into dogmatic assholes because, honestly, what’s so difficult about having colourful petes or petes with black dots on their faces?
Nonetheless, the same applies to Black American artists accusing fellow White American artists of cultural appropriation and demanding art to be destroyed: they also rely on the assumption that culture is static. By saying that this culture is ‘ours’ and that that culture is ‘theirs’, purely based on the colour of one’s skin, it becomes very tempting to try to preserve ‘our’ culture. To try to pin culture down³.
So does this mean that those defending Dana Schutz are right? That all elements of every culture are up for grabs and whoever can make the most bucks out of it is the big winner?
I don’t think so.
I would rather propose that we judge cultural appropiation not based on skin color but by two intuitive measures: authenticity and aesthetics.
Authenticity is awareness. Awareness of artists’ positions in their cultural, historical, social and political context. Culture being dynamic does not mean that it exists in a vacuum. It means that culture is comprised of many layers and needs to be represented in the context of political events, cultural predecessors and social structures. Authentic artists are aware of this and what they create is a continuation of these layers.
Let’s take hip hop as an example, a music genre full of references to authenticity. Hip hop would not be hip hop without disco and soul, the Reagan-era, the 1980s crack epidemic and the structural marginalization of the Afro-American community. Therefore, contemporary hip hop artists are authentic if they are aware of their position in the broader context and if what they produce is a continuation of the preceding layers.
Aesthetics is attractiveness. The question of what makes music attractive is very subjective – many love Chopin while others hate his music. At the same time, we all know when a voice is off-key or somebody hits the wrong note on a piano.
Now imagine a dissonant voice being sung without anyone being there to hear it, is it still dissonant?
The fact that, as soon as ‘we’ (the subjects or witnesses) are taken out of the equation, all that is left is a very high note, not a dissonant note, signifies that aesthetics is neither objective nor subjective but intersubjective. By intersubjective I mean that it is based on a collective understanding agreed upon between people.
Intersubjectivity can be a difficult concept to wrap your head around, but bare with me. Imagine a 10 dollar bill. Objectively speaking, the 10 dollar bill is just a worthless piece of paper. However, since we all – the baker, the supermarket and the butcherer – agreed that with this piece of paper you can buy 10 loaves of bread, 4 kilograms of chicken or 5 packs of cereal, it embodies value. This is intersubjectivity; the space between subjectivity and objectivity that is socially constructed.
There are many factors that contribute to a cultural product being aesthetic. A few examples are raw talent, hours of practice, sensory perceptiveness and the ability of an artist to alter the collective understanding of what is attractive and what is not⁴.
Authenticity and aesthetics are related measures but one does not guarantee the other. A cultural product can be authentic yet sound or look horrible or it can be aesthetic yet completely unaware of its broader context.
These two measures allow us to judge a cultural product in general – and cultural appropriation more specifically – without falling into the trap of assuming that culture is static.
Let’s apply this to two artists who appropriate a lot of elements of cultures from various origins: Miley Cyrus and Jamie XX.
Miley Cyrus, like a lot of contemporary pop artists, may have an attractive sound and voice⁵ yet there is barely any trace of awareness to be found of the broader context in which her music exists. Except for the financial links with trap producer Mike Will Made It, Miley Cyrus has no genuine links with the origins of the cultural elements she engages with. Nor is it a continuation of previous layers: before she decided that hip hop is too mysoginistic, she was making a ‘Dirty South Hip Hop’-album, and before that album she making pop rock ‘inspired by Elvis Presley’, and before she was inspired by Elvis Presley she was the mascotte for Walt Disney…….
Thus we can confidently say, without referring to her skin colour, that Miley is full of shit and be enraged by the inauthenticity of the cultural appropriation that she, but more accurately the industry that produced her, engage in.
Then there’s someone like Jamie XX, who also has an attractive, popular sound and also taps into a large reservoir of cultural elements of various origins6. However, his sonical tributes to Jungle (Jamaica/UK), House (US), Garage (UK), Hip Hop (US) and Soul (US) reflect an awareness that he would not be able to make the music he makes without those predecessors. Moreover, being born and raised in London, a cultural powerhouse, make it very probable that he directly engages with the origins of those cultural elements he appropriates. Finally, the sprinkling of soundbites from footage covering the English rave-scene in the 80s and 90s can be read as an indirect reference to how interrelated Thatcher’s neoliberal policies and the development of the UK’s electronic music scene are.
Along with Jamie and Miley there are plenty of people – black, white and everything in between – who do not limit themselves to the elements of just one culture. As a matter of fact; with more interconnectedness on our horizons, their numbers are more likely to increase than decrease.
So how are we to cope with this newly forming cultural landscape?
One of the responses we’ve seen in the past year is an escape into nostalgic fictions. To (almost literally) erect walls, make nations ‘great again’ and participate in a collective search for our ‘own’ identity. Are we minorities, underprivileged and historically oppressed as we are, to react in a similar fashion? To mark off our cultural territories based purely on the color of one’s skin?
I would rather propose that we detangle culture from skin color. That we take into account the dynamic nature of culture by judging a cultural product on the basis of its authenticity and aesthetic value. In my eyes, this is the only way to elevate the cultural appropriation-debate from a simplistic black-versus-white level to an inclusive space for open-ended discussions based on the observable reality.
Sidenote 1: A simple indication of them being a majority is the amount of likes of two Facebook-groups: ‘Zwarte Piet is Racism‘ (=Black Pete is racism) has 18,205 likes & ‘Zwarte Piet moet Blijven‘ (= Black Pete has to stay) has 232,350 likes. At least 12 times as much.
Sidenote 2: Black Pete basically means that every 5th of December a bunch of Dutch people put black paint on their faces, cover their lips with thick, red lipstick and put on a kinky afro-wig. Also, I think it is intellectually crippling to base a political debate on the subjective feelings of those involved (identity politics and political correctness) rather than a rational deconstruction of why the stereotype performed is larger symbol of inequal power dynamics.
Sidenote 4: Some artists rise to such a level that they become capable of single-handedly changing the collective understanding of a (sub)culture. Kanye West, for example, changed the aesthetic rules of Hip Hop by (trend)setting new standards for which type of beats, clothing or flow is considered attractive in the subculture.
Sidenote 5: Probably also due to the amount of money spent by the music industry to find the pop ‘formula’ and the resources she’s been pampered with.
Sidenote 6: A good indication of the breadth of the musical reservoir Jamie taps into is his 6 hour DJ-set.