Searching for the appropriate in appropriation
Culture is the precaution of those who claim to think thought but who steer clear of its chaotic journey. Evolving cultures infer relation, the overstepping that grounds their unity-diversity.
Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (1997)
I write this surrounded by art, books and artifacts of years spent travelling, first involuntarily as a child immigrant from Jamaica and later as a hapless sightseer, eventually for research as a writer and scholar. I remember, on recent trips, friends carrying my purchases for me: in Mexico, Dan laden down with blankets, carpets, and ponchos so only his eyes peek out; from Italy, Eva carting back pottery and shoes; in Hawaii, Patrick stuffing bright-pink feather percussion instruments into his bag. Mine are always full of books. As I type, I pick up a slim volume of Nicolás Guillén’s poetry – a gift from a friend in Cuba – and as I search to capture some cadence, some texture, some grain for these sentences, I realize that these cultures that I am not from and will never truly belong to bring me joy, inflect my experience and imbue my writing. For to appropriate is not purely to steal but it is the first act of making. Are any of us born with an innate knowledge of how our nationalities or ethnicities make objects? Especially when those bodies are in a constant state of becoming even after centuries of interrelation and cultivation? No.
Being a lapsed Latin nerd, for many years I falsely assumed appropriation derived from a·propius or roughly ‘to snatch away from the own’. But the 14th-century word derives from the early modern ap·propius: to make one’s own, meaning a transformation that occurs after one takes. Akin to the Roman statuary copies of Greek ‘originals’, aren’t we confusing appropriation with expropriation defined as deprivation from a rightful owner? What of appropriation’s transformative capabilities?
I recently saw an arresting portrait in the ‘Picasso Primitif’ exhibition at Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. In the process of posting an image to Instagram, I thought: ‘What would James Clifford think? “Primitive Picasso”?’ The website text confidently discusses Picasso and ‘Negro art’. Clifford seemed to have the final word on cultural appropriation when in 1984, after MoMA, New York’s ‘Primitivism’ show, he wrote, ‘[The exhibition] underline[s] a more disquieting quality of modernism: its taste for appropriating or re¬deeming otherness, for constituting non-Western arts in its own image, for discovering universal, ahistorical “human” capacities.’ In The Predicament of Culture (1988), Clifford exposes the arbitrary nature of the curatorial decision to highlight some affinities between modern art and ‘tribal’ art, while ignoring others. To judge by recent controversies – Sam Durant at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and Dana Schutz at the Whitney – it is apparent that yet again these crises are reaching another apex.
Furthermore is there a stable location of culture? In Homi Bhabha’s 1994 Location of Culture, his trenchant examinations of hybrid formulations of culture have gotten lost in our new culture wars. For Bhabha, culture is relational and is not solely a history of domination of oppressed people – its most interesting creative achievements occur in the interstitial and liminal space of overlap and/or of difference.
The word home is already unstable for so many of us.
At the heart of our cultural sensitivities is the need to find the appropriate in appropriation. Most recently Bhabha in an Artforum roundtable states, ‘[i]t’s interesting that nobody makes the claim of appropriation until somebody feels that something inappropriate is happening.’ Sure, most of us want to be rid of the Iago, Mr. Yunioshi, and the Sambo stereotypes. But do we want to live in a world in which ukiyo-e prints were never appropriated by the impressionists? In which Chris Ofili never goes to Zimbabwe? Is appropriation always expropriation, or does it only matter when the appropriator superficially resembles the appropriated as in the latter example? Like my friends listed earlier who were born in other countries, or grew up with foreign parents, or grew up as part of a diaspora … the word home is already unstable for so many of us. We become only free to appropriate from and write about those cultures we resemble, which is just as superficial in its rigour as modern/tribal affinities.
What about those K-Pop artists in blackface (too far for me, admittedly), and the black teenagers in Brooklyn that I walk by who are listening to K-Pop music? Or why I am now wearing this kimono acquired in Japan? (Full disclosure: no Noh makeup). Does appropriation become particularly inappropriate and offensive on the body (K-Pop blackface) even if the intent is not malicious, as it was with black-face minstrelsy? Maybe this is why these adolescents collectively shrug their shoulders at my offense on our behalf.
Ever so often it occurs to me that we are drawn to images we saw somewhere that originated outside of ourselves – drawn to them not as root, but rather as a container. Our lack of knowledge activates our noticing of them. We want to understand them, to make them our own in retelling or remaking. We could not see the inside of them, could not know from the inside what went into making them, the subjectivities formed by loci and foci and other parts. We can surmise from their shell that we share a set of formal desires. This affinity – a vague attraction to an image or object outside of our sphere of knowledge – is often ahistorical and it is human. Because there is a way that the vanguard modernists had it right borrowing a ‘primitivized formal logic’ from non-Western practitioners as Rosalind Krauss notes in The Originality of the Avant-garde and Other Modernist Myths (1985). Krauss’s point is a valid one, these objects are not just soft primitivism but operate by metaphoric interrelation, which allows for a transformative expansiveness not only in their making but also in their meaning. Even Yuki Ogura, practicing the traditional Nihonga painting in Women Bathing I (1938), was influenced by the mundane subject matter of the West. As in Ogura’s case even the most strident purists are prone to appropriating.
Maybe appropriation is not the problem so much as ‘primitivizing’ and ‘orientalizing’. These derivative forms of appropriation highlight its more nefarious capacity: namely expropriation, a term used principally to address governmental and corporate malfeasance and in this essay particularly as it continues to manifest in the post-colonial world. This also gets at the lust in the West for accumulation of other worlds, other bodies and the atemporal narratives formed to hide these thefts that as we know have dangerous socio-political implications.
The lexical implication of appropriation (to make one’s own) then implies a step before: a taking or borrowing. Is this step an expropriative step that we need to be cautious of as say we would be trespassing across a neighbour’s yard: the juridical violation of property ownership? Or with appropriation in the arts is the very notion of ownership already problematic? The arts have always had different rules in making and different criteria by which we evaluate them. However even in the arts, we must respect the sophistication of making, the logic, the intellect of makers outside of our localities. In our thirst for fantasy and wonder, we must disavow the subjugating suggestion of exoticisms. Isn’t this green Ecuadorean blanket on my couch as interesting with spaceships woven into its threads as its red counterpart with llamas? Yes under market pressure contemporary Ecuadorians continue to make objects for visitors longing for an ‘Incan’ past – or do they do so driven by the momentum of traditionalists? On a trip there so many years ago Quechuans I interviewed spoke of their desire to preserve some part of their culture, which had been targeted for eradication by the Catholic Church. So perhaps it is both? Yes and ten-fold over.
We must retain our discomfort while overstepping.
For Peter Mason the ‘exotic is never at home’. But for those of us curious about not always being at home, how do we navigate the dicey terrain of a world mauled by expropriators? For appropriation to continue – and it will and must – we must be aware of its potential to harbour ideological and repressive regimes; we must accommodate for the nostalgic past in other cultures and acknowledge their agency in a faster evolving present. Finally we must never be afraid to nurture our curiosity about other places, other people, and ways of living and making… and when we do find what we ache to understand, we attempt transparency – borrow from its formal logic, purchase it fairly, engage with its makers, and give acknowledgement to those artists and cultures outside of our own. We must be more careful in the West because of our historical misdeeds. Here I find I can only speak of what appropriators must do for as a colleague notes, there is just too much appropriation; often it is too under-theorized, and each situation so idiosyncratic – as we see even in the Durant and Schutz cases – that no formula can be applied when approached as a general ‘aerial’ subject. We must retain our discomfort while overstepping: on this line is where we will find possibility in the making and the remaking… locating and dislocating these dialogues in order to practice what the ancient Greeks called xenia: the invitation of the strange(r) into our ever evolving homes.
Main image: Detail from a marketing image used by the Musée de Quai Branly, Paris for their recent show ‘Picasso Primitif’