Friday, June 23, 2017

Some recent conversation on cultural appropriation

A few months ago, I wrote about how I think VR "empathy machines" are basically just a form of appropriation, where VR brands associate themselves with vaguely progressive political causes in a bid to make VR seem more relevant.

Maybe a lot of people still aren't really sure what "cultural appropriation" means? It's also a bit more of a US-thing, because of how race in the US works, so if you don't live in the US then you might not be as familiar with it.

If you're in a hurry, Amandla Stenberg made a popular 5 minute video in 2015 called "Don't Cash Crop On My Cornrows". Back in 2015, white performers like Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus were incorporating black music, black hair, and black memes into their acts, but it seemed like that care suddenly evaporated when black people got killed by police. Are white people actually the anti-racist allies they thought they were? If this is "cultural exchange", then black people were getting a pretty bad deal -- in return, they weren't even getting their own lives!

However, the conversation on cultural appropriation has shifted since 2015. So as a sort of public service, I'd like to highlight some more recent writing on cultural appropriation, all published within the last month or so, to give a small sense of what some people are saying right now.

If you want a really bad, really misleading understanding of cultural appropriation, then read this terrible garbage NYT June 2017 op-ed "In Defense of Cultural Appropriation" by Kenan Malik. Malik basically argues that artists shouldn't have to ask anyone for permission to make art, and fear of cultural appropriation forces artists to ask communities for permission, thus ruining art forever... as if art hasn't already been ruined countless times already, as if artists are always right, as if art is immune from racism, as if Elvis wasn't wrong, as if artists don't make bad art all the time, as if the sovereignty of an individual artist is more important than the collective pain of a community... etc.

But what really annoys me most about this guy, and people who make similar arguments, is that they always say stuff like "culture is complicated" as well as "but cultural appropriation isn't real and never happens." It's ridiculous to say culture is complicated, and then turn around and flatten culture like that!

I include Malik's article here to show how these appropriation-deniers keep dragging the conversation backwards, disingenuously asking the same basic fucking questions, to try to make us all justify ourselves over and over again. It's a strategy designed to make us feel tired, to make us feel like this isn't worth thinking about.

But don't fall for it. We can do this.

Yes, different cultures should certainly share and exchange ideas... and appropriation helps us consider when that exchange is fair. A few weeks ago, Dakota Kim made a similar point with cultural appropriation in terms of food, and recently Soleil Ho wrote a helpful follow-up with lots of examples. It's not about banning white people from eating certain kinds of foods! Instead, at its best, it helps enrich our understanding of food, and helps us appreciate culture even more.

Decades ago in the art world, "appropriation" was more of a fun edgy thing where underdog artists would appropriate copyrighted commercial imagery without corporate permission, and make it into their own. In her amazing way-before-its-time proto-meme 1979 video art montage Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, artist Dara Birnbaum appropriated footage from the Wonder Woman TV show without the TV company's permission, and the resulting twirling and explosions was a great piece of video art that predates even today's amazing shitposts. How do we separate this "awesome appropriation" from "gross appropriation" that exploits marginalized people, and/or who gets to make that call?

That's famous author Zadie Smith's question in her Harper's July 2017 article "Getting In and Getting Out": who owns black pain? She talks about the horror film Get Out (and heavily spoils it, by the way) and its anxiety about white affection toward black bodies, and how white "appreciation" can end up feeling much scarier and more racist than outright hatred. As if literally owning black people wasn't bad enough, now they feel the need to own the pain as well. In this sense, you can think of cultural appropriation as yet another modern extension of slavery.

But when Smith saw Dana Schutz's controversial painting "Open Casket", she says she felt disappointed rather than angry. She argues that the painting should not be destroyed, that this is not the hill to die on, because it's just one painting in a long history of violence against black people. (Smith also writes about biracial pain and "quadroons", and so some writers accuse her of intellectualizing black pain in a way that neglects African-American experience (Smith is black and British) but I don't think I'm equipped to unpack that claim, so I'll leave that to someone else.)

Lastly, let's consider this artist roundtable from fancy art magazine Artforum, where 7 different artists, writers, and activists, talk about what cultural appropriation might mean today, and in the future. If you want all the detail and nuance in their own voices, I highly recommend reading the original discussion, but personally here's what I got out of it:

First, they agree that "cultural appropriation", as a useful term, is on its last legs. Joan Kee notes that appropriation means treating culture like property, which fails to describe how culture works on the internet, where everyone reformats / reposts / remixes constantly. However, the panelists can't agree on what term can replace "appropriation." Homi Bhabha suggests "translation", since we don't expect translations to exactly replicate the original, and it helps us focus on the quality of a good or bad translation. But translation doesn't really force you to think about power, which is maybe why Salome Asega proposes "scamming". Scamming brings the focus back to who benefits from what. Did Harlem benefit from the Harlem Shake, or did YouTube culture scam Harlem?

Jacolby Satterwhite argues this is a popularity contest; white rapper Iggy Azalea started underground with a diverse audience, but once she made it big and had too much power, she was judged guilty of appropriation. Yet Satterwhite also thinks none of this will matter; today we have to invent imperfect unwieldy words to talk about this, but in 10 years, young people will feel this in their bones and navigate politics much more fluidly. Kee is skeptical -- her teenage students today are reluctant to debate art controversies because they think it's a fake "dialogue" for the sake of dialogue. If the issue is whether black people are offended by Dana Schutz's painting, wouldn't a dialogue serve only to question their pain? You can't talk past the pain.

So instead, maybe we should debate the causes of that pain, and how images move around on the internet and in society. Ajay Kurian suggests "migration" as a metaphor for culture because there are many types of migrants: nomads, barbarians, vagabonds, refugees, etc. which forces a focus on political identities. Gregg Bordowitz cautions that those labels invoke surveillance, which often leads to in-fighting among activists. "When the enemy is not in the room, we practice on each other." Bhabha thinks it's more complicated than that, because when the enemy is so complex, you don't even know when the enemy is in the room or not.

The whole panel is disturbed by the viciousness encouraged by social media. Facebook and Twitter encourage hot takes and "throwing up in your brain" instead of accountability, convergence, process, and trust. Bordowitz suggests that trust and solidarity come from new shared identities, like "people living with AIDs" unites many different people. Bhabha cautions that new identities must avoid sectarian essentialism, and he quotes James Baldwin: “You cannot resolve the problem of African Americans without white Americans. You cannot resolve that issue, and you cannot displace it onto some Pan-Africanism either.”


Hmm. So, uh, it seems like nothing really got resolved... but, you know. Culture is complicated.

If I had to sum up all this conversation, I'd say it feels like talking about cultural appropriation is ultimately a bit of a trap, but at the same time, it is necessary for us to fall into it.

The alternative is to fall into a much worse trap, full of unchallenged racism and ignored pain and hot molten lava. Compared to that trap, this one isn't so bad, right? And then when we eventually figure out how to crawl out of this, we'll be better for it.

Honestly, it was pretty exhausting for me to try to read and unpack everything here. However, I think it is definitely worth the effort to try to understand it and figure it out, and I hope you agree.