Cultural Appropriation: Mixed Thoughts from a Visual Artist

Art Journal, Thoughts

On good days I think I get the arguments around cultural appropriation. On others I throw in the towel and decide I am irrelevant to cultural debates at my ripe age of thirty-seven. I’ve had it explained to me by those in the “know” aka as a college age girl deeply into social issues. I’ve read articles and been subjected to the hostility of news reports. Just when my brain says yes that very much makes sense… it gets pushed too far and says “wait… what?!?”

The Beyonce Argument

I will admit that I was pulled into a Facebook battle about cultural appropriation with wits far exceeding mine. I was being schooled on cultural appropriation. Just as I was losing I asked if it was ok for Beyonce to do it.

Is it ok for Beyonce to do it?

That is how art gets created. Ideas and imagery are exchanged and woven together to create a new narrative. Artists look for new languages of symbolism to inform their work. We travel, frequent museums and galleries, and read obscure literature. We look for inspiration in every aspect of our world and beyond. If you have an interest, there is an artist out there making work about it.

In one answer it was ok for Beyonce to do it because she was a woman of color and it was somehow different. “It just was.”

In another answer it was not. Beyonce held the power as a western woman, the various groups she wore the costumes of did not.

I do cringe now when I see a pop star step out in the dress of another culture. The results are often beautiful and interesting see Iggy Izaelia, Beyonce, Nikki Minaj, and Gwen Stefani (note: probably all of them at one time or another).

And…

I’ll tell you.

While sitting through an informative video at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs Mississippi these thoughts crossed my mind. This white Ocean Springs’ male artist like many artists before was influenced by primitive cultures and their symbolism.

More well known was the influence of Japanese art on Western art starting with Impressionism. We are talking influence on artists from Klimt to Monet.

Should the way art history is taught in light of cultural appropriation change? I would say yes. (At least from how I was taught)

Should artists stop being influenced by other people and cultures. I don’t know what the right answer is. I am absolutely sure that there will be a richness among the arts lost if that give and take between diverse people is quashed.

Voodoo dolls in a gift shop. Many people pick up this mass produced keepsake in Louisiana. Voodoo is mixed up with Hoodoo in the common imagination. It is far richer and more interesting than a tourist shop doll.
Alligator Heads at a small town restaurant, Louisiana. They may be the most authentic thing I’ve ever seen for sale ever anywhere.

Here is my understanding as of November 30, 2019. (Warning I can and will change my mind as new arguments are presented to me).

  • If you visit another culture and (for example) take photographs of a ceremony. Then later exhibit them with an explanation and sensitive understanding, this would be of cultural value.
  • If you bring back an object of spiritual value from that same culture and use it in a photoshoot with a model and no context, this would be construed as offensive, even if the results were aesthetically pleasing.
  • Authenticity can be difficult to come by. We should try to support it. What do I mean? When you are out there in the world buy local. That could mean local artists and/or indigenous goods from indigenous people. (not an original thought, a mix of my beliefs and newly acquired learning from the inter-webs). Spend a little more for something handmade by the real deal. In some cases less, but whatever you do, please run as fast as you can from mass produced tourist junk shops imported from China. If you visit China find a local artist to buy from.
  • When minority groups ask for local school mascot to have a name change from say “Redmen” or “Redskins.” Instead of digging in our heels and saying its always been that way, may be listen to why. We’ll get used to a new name.
  • Halloween… sometimes we could let somethings be politically incorrect.
  • If art history surveys are still taught the same as they were approximately ten years ago when I went to a liberal arts college, some adjustments could be considered. Even at that time they were struggling even with how to talk about women in the world of art history, unless it was the great Frida. Seeing the history of Western art through the lens of cultural appropriation would be beneficial. Anyone taking a good course? Shout it out in the comments.

Writing about this topic has helped immensely in solidifying my understanding, but the term cultural appropriation is being tossed around the media like a hot potato. I just like to remind myself that I can be a kind person and a supreme jerk. People are people wherever you go, even when google maps takes you through the rougher sides of city.

Let’s have a dialog. Thoughts? Opinions? Corrections? Leave a message.

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