"Good artists borrow but great artists steal."
– frequently attributed to Pablo Picasso
Lately, I have found myself thinking more about the contentious issue of "cultural appropriation," or the lifting of elements from another culture and applying it within the user's own cultural milieu. I have seen this issue discussed several times over the past few months, mostly on Twitter but also on a few blogs. As someone who was studying to be a cultural historian before dropping out of the Ph.D. program after completing MA requirements, I take both a professional and personal interest in the discussions that have unfolded.
Many critics (I shall use as an example here the Requires Only That You Hate blog, since I follow her on Twitter and read her reviews, although there are certainly many other articulate voices with opinions similar to hers) take a somewhat absolutist approach toward the issue of majority cultures "lifting" elements from minority and/or subjugated cultures. For them, it is a very slippery slope whenever these elements are "borrowed" and turned away from original connotations. Take for instance the highlighted segment in the middle of RH's review of Ken Grimwood's Replay:
Sylla guided him inside her, and he grew hard automatically. Her wet inner flesh was like something ancient, something protohuman; receptive yang to his vital yin, together the creators of these endlessly regenerating cycles, these—
Jeff opened his eyes and the girl’s face changed shape again. It had become Gretchen’s face. He was fucking Gretchen, fucking his daughter: she to whom he had given life, yet who had never been.
For her, this passage is offensive, not just because it is a trite and rather sophomoric attempt at writing an emotional sex scene, but because these characters have lifted disparate elements (Navajo, Mayan, East Indian, etc.) and the whole does not correlate to traditional forms of Buddhism or beliefs in re-incarnation. Yet in reading that passage, I found myself realizing that I had a different initial reaction (I read Grimwood's book years ago; I noticed that I had downplayed certain elements that RH highlights and conversely focused more on elements that she did not cover here). Removing the ridiculous sexual context (might as well have been reading a Paulo Coelho novel for the amount of cheese that was dripping from that passage), the yin/yang dualism represented something else to me. When I thought of the colloquial ways that this dualism is used (to accentuate opposites that are also complements, mostly), I realized that for many (and especially in the United States, since that is my native country), the term had been stripped of its religious/philosophical context to become something that was in part metaphorical truism, part half-considered expression that is uttered without any further consideration as to what it actually denotes.
Yes, this certainly could be (and is, for many) offensive for those who use this term (and others) in its original context, but the real issue is far trickier than just shallow people utilizing something that they barely grasp. For example, consider how Americans are portrayed in media and mass marketing. For those whose main exposure to American elements comes from global commodities such as television, radio, advertising, cinema, etc., there are certain homogenized elements: the attires of business people, celebrities, musicians, gang members; the hairstyles of the same groups; the speech patterns of a New Yorker (leaving aside the various accents/dialects within that huge metropolitan area) compared to a Southerner (again, leaving aside the considerable variety of dialects within a region that is larger than almost any European country) and so forth. Whenever I hear a "Southern" accent in a film, I find myself wondering if the movie makers believe that the entirety of the region speaks in a fashion that largely fell out of use two generations ago. The realities of American lives tend to be distorted when transmitted overseas.
It is easy to see where there's this image of "Americans" as being this, this, and this. Much of it is true, of course. It is all too easy to overlook, for example, the ways in which our cultures have borrowed/stolen/appropriated from other cultures. From the "Southern" cooking (in reality, a fusion of West African, southeastern Amerindian, and Scots-Irish culinary approaches) to the adoption of pizza and hamburgers as commonplace meals to rain ponchos to hairstyles (frohawks, dreads, cornrows, spikes, etc.) to piercings and tattoos, there is a bit of everything under the sun that has been taken and altered. Even the very language of this essay, English, is a selective choosing and altering of Germanic, Latin, and Norman-French languages, peppered later with borrowings from Spanish, Arabic, Amerindian languages, and so forth. From the occasional "ciao" when saying bye or "hola" when greeting another, many Americans use bits and pieces of other languages in speaking. Perhaps I do not come across as such in this medium, what with writing in a more formal voice, but in speaking, I sometimes use speech patterns associated with other, less culturally prestigious groups.
Perhaps that's something to consider, how so entwined these borrowings are. While yes, it certainly can be construed as insulting to take Rastafarian concepts and make it into just a "hey man, the Jamaicans smoke a lot of dope," and yes, too often people just take, take, and take without realizing just what they are taking/borrowing/appropriating, it is damn near impossible to imagine any "pure" cultures that have not taken elements from other cultures and made it into their own. Jeans wearers abound on this planet, not all due to an unilateral top-down move from American –> other cultures, but due to a variety of factors such as a need for that je ne sais quoi expression or that dope term that can make a duppe into a dupe or argot into something else. Yes, sometimes we take without understanding just what we take, but without all this love and theft, most every culture, from the most prestigious/hegemonic to the less exalted/subjugated, would be poorer. So perhaps a more useful debate would be the ways in which cultural borrowings can be "done right" or with respect rather than just throwing the baby out with the bath water and deriding any and all adaptations of other culture's terms/objects/values? That, I think, might lead to some interesting internal as well as external conversations when it comes to cultural matters. But it should also be noted that those who do decry such appropriations, especially when they are done in such an ill-considered fashion, do have voices that need to be considered. Just how all of this should meld together will have to be figured out, in whatever means of communication/language we devise.