Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Authenticity and Cultural Appropriation

Art is limitless as are the approaches, so when do we know if we have crossed the line into cultural appropriation? Where is the point when a subject for one artist becomes the cultural appropriation of another? If you are asking these questions it means that you are interested in telling the story of another culture as many have done before you. Even avoiding stereotypes can be difficult.
  1. Who's history are you reading?
  2. What are your sources?
  3. What is so compelling about this story that you need to risk telling it?
  4. What is your fresh perspective?
  5. What are you planning to return to that community in exchange for telling their story?
I'm not saying “stick to your own kind.” Outsiders, Genet's The Blacks for example, can have much insight to offer. Genet never denies his whiteness, in fact he make a ritual of his white privilege.
The litmus test for Cultural Appropriation is simply this; is the art part of the solution or part of the problem? Of course it is we who must decide which is which. Or not. That makes it, finally, a political issue. Politics does not generally favor the weak. Differences of opinion will continue (even on such mainstream works as Porgy and Bess).

Issues can range from the sincere and misguided to that of exploitation, from simply advancing the meme of the moment to sheer commercialism. Or in the case of academia, conservation to careerism. I suppose the worst are works that are intended to have no point of view at all (yet they do in spite of themselves). It's easy to point out:
  1. Those who create arrangements of others music and who present them as their own original compositions. Stealing.
  2. Those who record and notate sacred ritual music and then present it out of context to the general public. The built in assumption is that the "other culture" would never be part of the general public. Class and racism.
  3. Those who wear other's cultural regalia in pop culture, advertising, real life, and media. Impersonation, stereotypes, myths, and falsehoods.
Examples of cultural appropriation are not limited to culture, race, class,education, gender, age, or politics (to name a few). This can create a tension with the American tendency to reinvent oneself.

I wrote the blog post below and I think it points the way in this direction.

about Klinghoffer

This so reminds me the Paul de Man episode; the supporters support, the haters hate. Besides the music there is, at least for me, one problem with this work.

"This is a straw man."

No actually its Mr. Klinghoffer a real person and a victim. To my knowledge the authors chose not to get the permission of the Klinghoffer family to use his name. That falls under the category of cultural appropriation. This is a mistake especially as other characters in the opera are fictionalized. I suppose what the Klinghoffer family experience is not much different from what Native Americans have been experiencing for some time. Mr. Klinghoffer is executed in a depiction he did not chose to illustrate someone else's reading of these tragic events.

Why use his name at all?

Anyway, this is not an isolated case. Cultural appropriation is the dirty little secret of the entertainment industry. Many award wining films, plays, books and their respective actors etc. take part.

Running roughshod over the oppressed to tell their story is simply wrong.

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