I’ve said it many times before – the left always eats its own. Just this week, I have read several articles which suggest that progressives’ ire – searching like Sauron’s Eye for new sources of offense – has landed on a new target: the arts.
One such attack comes under the guise of what is being called “cultural appropriation.” Here’s Wikipedia’s definition: “Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. … Often, the original meaning of these cultural elements is lost or distorted, and such displays are often viewed as disrespectful by members of the originating culture, or even as a form of desecration.”
Frat boys wearing sombreros for a Cinco de Mayo party is a relatively straightforward example. And yet, that’s arguably more cultural “insensitivity” than it is “appropriation.” After all, it isn’t as if the fraternity members are claiming that they invented sombreros, or that sombrero-wearing is indicative of fraternity membership.
But popular notions of cultural appropriation are endlessly problematic. For one thing, the definition of cultural appropriation is susceptible to limitless expansion. There are those who claim that the practice of yoga by (non-Hindu) Westerners is cultural appropriation. As is wearing braids, which impermissibly appropriates black culture, just as wearing hoop earrings apparently misappropriates Latina culture.
Second, prohibitions against “cultural appropriation” threaten the kind of borrowing, emulating and incorporating that goes on in every possible art form. But people who raise this concern are sharply criticized, as a recent opinion piece by K. Tempest Bradford makes clear.
Bradford does try to distinguish between appropriation and exchange. She writes that when artists appropriate, as opposed to exchange, the appropriator profits, while the person taken from gets nothing.
This sounds like theft of intellectual property, and when one artist steals from another and passes the work off as his or her own, that’s clearly remediable. But as with so many theories of wrongdoing popular with the left, cultural appropriation focuses less on individual culpability, and more on collective culpability.
It is also more difficult when what’s being claimed as “cultural appropriation” is stylistic adaptation, or partial incorporation, or when the “appropriator” acknowledges their influences, or when it is the “appropriator” who popularizes the art form. How much borrowing and influence is permissible? If this makes the original art or music more popular, is that still “indefensible” appropriation (to use Bradford’s term)? Why are we to be incensed when generations of young people develop an interest in African-American blues artists because Led Zeppelin took the blues and turned it into a form of hard rock?
Third, the chastisements against appropriation also run headlong into the traditional encouragement artists receive to get outside themselves and explore “the other.” Critics like Nisi Shawl suggest that one should simply ask for permission before incorporating elements of a culture that isn’t one’s own.
But how do we define what is our own? And who grants the permission? Most Americans are a literal genetic mishmash of cultures. If my great-grandmother was part Choctaw, do I have the license to incorporate Choctaw legend, mythology or art into my work? Why not?
Those who see everything – including art – through the lens of identity politics – have an insatiable hunger for resentment that threatens to destroy art altogether. Director Sofia Coppola has drawn harsh criticism for excluding black characters (from the original novel) and a discussion of slavery in her antebellum-era film, “The Beguiled.” Coppola explained that her film was short – only 94 minutes. Thus, she said, “I thought that (slavery) was such an important subject I didn’t want to treat it lightly, so I decided not to have that character. … It’s such an important topic that you don’t just want to brush over that lightly. I didn’t want to be disrespectful about that story.”
Activist and author Seren Sensei raked Coppola over the coals, accusing her of being a racist and a “white feminist.” Sensei says that “American chattel slavery is the center of any and all Confederacy narratives.” (So, no artist could write a story set in the American South that didn’t address slavery?) Sensei concludes, “Say you wanted to make a racist, white supremacist fantasy, Sofia Coppola, and go.”
Even the Hulu remake of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” – itself a bit of overwrought fear-mongering – is skewered in a recent editorial because it “appropriates the black female slave experience and applies it to white women,” and because it contemplates a future “in which racism is no longer a serious issue.” So, novelists and filmmakers who dare to contemplate a future without racism are racist for doing so?
In his Nobel Prize-winning novel, “Doctor Zhivago,” the great Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak dared to argue that the life and loves of one man were more important than the political and cultural upheaval of the Russian Revolution that was the book’s backdrop. For the Communist Soviets, this was blasphemy. Pasternak’s novel was banned in the U.S.S.R., and he was forbidden from claiming the prize.
Today’s artists – and tomorrow’s – may well have to take a page from Pasternak’s book, and fight those who believe that all art must be sublimated to their political and cultural objectives.