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In Praise of Cultural Appropriation

This article is about the accusation of “cultural appropriation” being thrown around at works of art. I may not be entitled to write this.

Objectionable, Indefensible Stereotype Mocking as “Cultural Appropriation”

It is incredible to me that there are people in North America who dress up as stereotypes of other cultures, take pictures of themselves, and then post those pictures to social media, thinking everything will be fine. I wonder how it’s possible for people to be not just so insensitive in this day and age but that naive.

In the pre-social media days of my youth I once participated in an offensive Halloween costume myself,[1. Offensive to Catholics] there are photos but I’m the one who is less offensively dressed as I was basically arm candy. It was back before there was social media and we didn’t have numerous public lessons not to do it. But now, there doesn’t seem to be an excuse.

I get that white people dressing up as minority stereotypes is pretty much the definition of insensitivity. I am completely on board with the social shaming of people — any people — who dress up as ethnic stereotypes and then post the pictures on social media. I don’t think there should be laws against this (that is another story) but I am completely fine with people publicly shaming these idiots over and over again. Sometimes shame is the only way we learn. It’s important for everyone to understand that dressing up as a stereotypes for Halloween will offend many, many people, which is something we should not only avoid, but want to avoid.

If this is the kind of behaviour that people are objecting to when they object to “cultural appropriation” as a practice. I am completely on board. As a society, we should actively discourage ethnic, linguistic, cultural and gender stereotyping (and other stereotyping I’m omitting) as much as possible (to the degree that it is possible). Being an insensitive idiot should not be illegal, but his behaviour should be shamed.


Cultural Appropriation and Art

If we define “Cultural Appropriation” as the adoption of cultural stereotypes in public — in costumes for Halloween, in accents in dated and reused jokes, etc — and we want to condemn that, I’m with you. But where I get confused and frustrated with this conversation is when the people who are upset about white people in terrible Halloween costumes on social media decide that the same outrage should be directed towards “white” artists.

There are so many problems with the idea that artists should be limited to working within their own “cultures” (read: “races”) it’s hard to know where to begin, but I’m going to try to illuminate a few of these issues I see with leveling the charge of cultural appropriation against works of art.


The Philosophical Case Against Criticizing “Cultural Appropriation” in Art

We can object to the idea that artistic “cultural appropriation” is bad in many ways; one side of those objections is what we might call “philosophical.”


Identity Politics, Though Necessary, Is Flawed

First of all, there is a deep philosophical problem with identity politics. Identity politics is the name we give to the idea that values are rooted in personal identity, as opposed to other sources of value (ex. tradition). Identity politics is the source of the objection to “cultural appropriation.” Without identity politics, it’s highly unlikely people identifying with minority identities would be objecting to “cultural appropriation” by the “dominant” culture. (I use quotes because these terms mean different things to different people.) Prior to the rise of identity politics, nobody in western civilization objected to “cultural appropriation.” Actually, you might say “cultural appropriation” was one of the definitive traits of western civilization.

Identity politics has a long history. In brief, for most of the history of western philosophy, the source of cultural and moral values — and the source of knowledge — was top-down; the source of human knowledge and value was the past and the past was controlled by the powers that be (as they knew how to read and write).

From the 19th century on, this source of value was challenged by critical theory. The result was a shift among some people, of where to locate the source of cultural values and ethics. The new source of values and ethics was located in the oppressed. As a reaction to this, the keepers of western values and knowledge asserted that it was they who should be allowed to control our knowledge and values due to their unique, special identities. Critical theorists eventually hijacked this idea and placed the source of values in the identities of the oppressed. (Again, this is the briefest history. Here’s a better summary.)

This was a necessary correction. For too long the authority to determine human values and knowledge was vested in archaic, awful institutions that worked only to further their own ends. Moreover, the institutions denied equal rights to people who did not fit in with the dominant class’ values and, very regularly, their physical appearance.

But there are consequences of identity politics that are problematic.



The problem with identity politics is that it is relativist — really it is subjectivist, which is an extreme form of relativism. Relativism, taken to its logical conclusion, denies objective reality (see below). On the level of cultural values, this is not normally seen as a problem. But, it is a problem. A rather big problem.

Some people who have taken up the cause of identity politics have actually used the language of identity politics to reject our common humanity. This is what is going on with the so-called “Alt Right” — they assert their culture as superior to all others and believe it’s a point that’s not even worth debating. That is completely opposite of the point of identity politics, as far as I understand it, but this is what happens when ideas are taken to their logical conclusions and appropriated by other groups.

That’s not the fault of identity politics. All philosophical ideas are taken to their logical conclusion by some assholes. It’s the nature of philosophical ideas — they are inevitably misunderstood, simplified, and/or taken to logical extremes that render them insane. That doesn’t mean we should reject identity politics because some idiots take the ideas to logical extremes. It will happen with every set of ideas.

And we shouldn’t reject identity politics in toto either merely because it’s subjectivist. The problem with identity politics is indeed its subjectivism, but if that subjectivism is curbed or integrated with objective reality, that is a net positive for society. I strongly believe that we are all better off from the airing of the subjective experiences of all in our society. Every single one of us. The problem with the subjectivism of identity politics isn’t that it encourages this airing — that is its strength — but rather that some people decide that their subjectivism must be writ large on society, as if one person’s subjective experience of the world is as valuable as — or even more valuable than — objective reality.

For example: Too many of the adherents of identity politics wish to reject the entirety of the legacy of western civilization. I understand why much of the legacy of western culture is upsetting and offensive to many currently living in/under western civilization and why that legacy is still a real practical problem for many people alive today, some of whom are hopefully reading this. And I empathize — as much as I can, being born into the dominant culture of a western country — with the victims of this legacy. But, rejecting all of western civilization as corrupt and racist is literally throwing the baby out with the bath water.

There are bad things about western civilization and there are good things about it, as with every single culture in human history. The positive aspect of western civilization I would like to stress is liberal, representative democracy and the other values of The Enlightenment. Just because liberal democracy was created by Protestants in Europe in the 17th century doesn’t mean we should reject this form of society in other eras and places. Basically, it’s not the fault of liberal democracy that it was created by Protestant white men.

The reason we can have a discussion about cultural appropriation is that we live in a liberal society with actual real world protections for speech and ideas, protections that did not exist in other societies. And we can all participate in political processes that allow us to challenge received authority, again because of western civilization. Steven Pinker argued recently that the current peacefulness of our world is very probably a product of The Enlightenment. Though you can debate his conclusions and argue about the sources of his data, nobody has yet convincingly argued a better theory as to why life is less awful now than it was in the past. (And make no mistake, life is less awful for the vast majority of people alive today than it ever was before despite what the news and social media tell you.)

So we have both a cultural legacy that’s positive and actual real world results. There’s a lot here we shouldn’t reject just because it is rooted in someone else’s cultural identity, which happens to be a cultural identity that has been awfully racist (and proud of it) for most of that time.



The problem of the subjectivism of identity politics is clearer when it comes to knowledge. Because of its subjectivist nature, identity politics often rejects objective knowledge. The case of medicine is most instructive.

It has so far been impossible to scientifically assess acupuncture because acupuncture involves actually stabbing people, so testing it in an appropriate double-blind test is seemingly impossible. But everything we have learned about the human body since acupuncture was invented strongly suggests that acupuncture is just rarefied placebo.

And yet, we believe in acupuncture for the reasons we believe in all pseudo-medicine (which we call “alternative medicine” so as not to offend anyone) and further, we defend the practice of acupuncture because of its cultural legacy. But there is very likely no medical benefit from acupuncture just like there is no benefit from homeopathy, beyond placebo (which can have a real benefit, for an as yet unknown reason).

Identity politics’ subjectivism challenges objective reality, at times to an extent that can actually be harmful to currently living people. This is a big problem, not the least for people who are being actively harmed by pseudo-medicine posing as cultural heritage, such as when someone rejects a proven medical treatment for acupuncture, or any other traditional “medical” practice that has not or cannot be proven effective because they think that there’s something inherently good about the cultural backstory of the “alternative medicine” they are into.

So, the subjectivism of identity politics, when taken to extremes, poses serious problems for us as human beings. This is not to reject identity politics outright, but to suggest a compromise between objective reality and subjective identity should be the real goal of identity politics.


The Problem with Group Rights

There is another fundamental, albeit more practical, philosophical problem with identity politics, and that is the problem of group rights.

Identity politics is about subjective identities but these identities are usually conceived of as group identities, rather than individual ones. And there are major problems with group rights-based politics.


Who’s In? Who’s Out?

We can divide humanity into groups in many different ways. Here are some I can think of off the top of my head:

  • gender
  • physical appearance: skin colour is the most common but, more absurdly, we could group by hair colour and the shapes of bodies and could group by eye colour or any other physical attribute
  • language: far and away the most practical grouping, given that we need a shared language to communicate; if there’s one human characteristic that it is fair to differentiate by, it is language
  • religion or other official adherences
  • our actual beliefs (rather than our official “beliefs”): for example, I used to be in some atheist groups when I was younger
  • our interests
  • our ethnicity (or, as they still continue to say in the US, our “race”)
  • our culture
  • our nationality (for as long as nation states continue to exist)
  • our social class, including our income but also including other visible signs of wealth and/or social status

I’m sure I’ve missed more than a few.

As far as I can see, there’s nothing wrong with anyone self-identifying with these types of groups. Let’s take me: I’m a white-skinned, brown-haired, blue-eyed tall person of roughly average build; I only could ever speak English well; I am an atheist and existentialist and liberal; I like movies, books, music, beer and long walks in the woods; I am ethnically and culturally Canadian (uh oh!) as my family has been in Canada for centuries, and I am lower middle class (or perhaps upper lower class) by income but “urban elite” by values.

How strongly do I identify with any of these groups? That depends, but I do identify with all of them (except with people with the same hair and eye colour) to some extent or other. For example: I identify with other tall people when I see a tall person crouch or hit her head.

The problem is when these group characteristics are used to discriminate by the powerful, which has been done throughout human history. Part of this problem is inclusion/exclusion and it happens even when a particular group is not in a position of relative political, social or economic power. We see this all the time, when people who self-identify with a particular group or groups are deemed not part of that group by other members, often resulting in self-righteous social media shaming campaigns.

The Canadian author Joseph Boyden claimed to be Metis and investigations discovered he likely isn’t. It’s still unclear to me whether Boyden for sure knew he wasn’t Metis or whether he grew up believing he was and found out for sure he wasn’t due to the controversy. (I want to tell you that my first family members to settle in what is now Owen Sound, Ontario were United Empire Loyalists, as that is family lore. But what if I become famous and somebody digs into my family history more than I ever bothered and discovered that, though they moved from Vermont to the Owen Sound area, they did not do so as part of the UEL migration or at the right time? Yes, it’s not as big a deal as claiming I’m Aboriginal — I believe the correct term is now ‘indigenous’ — but, the point is that we don’t investigate our own family histories in the way the media will. We just assume them until it’s too late.)

The moment we attempt to define a group, we exclude other people. Regardless of the method we use to determine who is in the group, this necessarily involves exclusion. That might seem right, or just, or sensible, but it is fraught with problems. Why? Because figuring out who is in and who is out is not so easy as it seems to have been with Joseph Boyden.

People are not as distinctly different as we think. It may be easy to think of me as “white,” but it’s not so easy when people aren’t as pale as I am. It may be easy to think of me as English, but there are dialects of English that are not like mine. (And I spell and pronounce differently than Americans, you may have noticed.) It may be easy to think of me as an atheist, but I actually identify as an agnostic, I just publicly claim to be an atheist because it’s easier than explaining the long version of what I believe (i.e. I don’t know what caused the universe, but I know it wasn’t anthropomorphic god). It might be easy to identify me as an existentialist but first more people need to know what that means. It’s probably pretty easy to identity me as a movie buff, a music or beer snob…fair enough. But it’s less easy to identify my ethnicity, unless you believe there’s a generic Anglo-white (Canadian? Ontarian? North American?) ethnicity. And it’s hard to identify me culturally, given that we in Canada cannot usually decide what ‘culturally Canadian’ truly is. Nationality is easier if we associate it with citizenship. But try to pigeonhole me in terms of class: I don’t even know which economic and social class I am (or should be) in, how would you? I’d say I’m middle class, but that’s a cliche (and I don’t make that kind of money).

The point of this is that I was born to an American ex-pat and a Canadian in Toronto, who look like they are from the dominant culture and ethnic group, but we can even have trouble defining what groups I am in. Think about what’s like for anyone with a more mixed heritage. (Or, alternatively, what if I decide to claim some of my distant ethnic heritages from the UK, Germany, Denmark and Poland? What then? ‘Who am I?’ is one question but a more relevant question is ‘Am I entitled to be in any, some or all of these groups?’ and then ‘Who decides whether or not I belong?’

The lines are not clear, they’re blurry; regardless of which way(s) we define inclusion in a group, there are going to be people who only sort of fit in that group, or who believe they fit in the group but members of the group do not agree. Somebody is going to decide whether or not they belong.

This is the inherent problem of thinking of human rights in terms of group rights. Somebody is going to decide that certain people, who might self-identify as part of this group, are not in the group and therefore not deserving of any special rights that group has. That “somebody” could be the government. But with minority ethnicities (and now ‘cultures’), it is always self-appointed “leaders,” some of who are just loud on social media. These people, through age, arrogance or any number of other things, have decided that they have the right to decide who’s in and who’s out. And that’s a problem.

I went to university with a guy who looked “mixed” in the sense of what we might think of as “half black.” Until I lived nextdoor to him and saw a picture of his family, I thought the idea behind the book and film, The Human Stain, was preposterous. In it, a black man poses as white. Well, this guy I went to university with was a white guy posing as a black man, but not intentionally as you might imagine. Everyone thought he was “black” because of his skin colour and his hair (because, as we know, if you’re mixed, you’re not “white”). Without even knowing it, we’d all put him in a group that he no doubt felt he didn’t belong in. There are literally millions of less clear cut cases in the world.

The average person sorts people into groups consciously, semi-consciously and unconsciously based on all sorts of criteria like that listed above. I don’t believe we can actually eliminate this kind of stereotyping from human beings (I believe it is likely hardwired to a degree) but being aware of it is the first step in terms of minimizing it.

But, when we are consciously including and excluding people based on these categories, and those making these judgments hold some degree of social, political, and/or economic power, there is a higher cost for those being labeled. When people with authority make judgments, these judgments are always taken more seriously by at least some people, they are seen as legitimate.

So when President Trump attempts to ban citizens of specific countries from traveling to the United States, for no reason that anyone can understand, a whole chunk of the US population (including many Customs and Border Protection officers) believes this is a legitimate view, without bothering to wonder whether or not it is legitimate.

When the pillar of a particular ethnic minority says that this one person doesn’t belong to that particular ethnic minority, many people within (and without) that minority believe this is legitimate without bothering to wonder whether or not its legitimate.

This is the problem of group rights: someone with authority or cache decides who’s in and who’s out. So the problem with group-based identity politics is that someone with authority decides that someone else, who may self-identify with a particular group, is not in that group. It’s tribalism. And if it’s done by the majority ethnicity it is often racist.[2. Defining racism as the deliberate exclusion of someone from something due to their “race,” i.e. ethnicity.]


The Practical Case Against Banning Cultural Appropriation

Let’s move from abstract arguments to a real world problem with attacking works of art as “cultural appropriation.” You may view this particular criticism as the weakest case here, but I believe it’s actually the best. Throughout human history the practical has always triumphed over the ideal even though us humans keep insisting the opposite is true.


Asking for Permission

In the debate about “cultural appropriation” in the arts, some have insisted that artists need to ask permission before proceeding with a work that could be perceived as cultural appropriation. This raises so many questions, such as

  • Whose permission?
  • What kind of permission?
  • Where to ask for permission
  • When to ask for permission
  • How to ask for permission
  • Why ask for permission?

Let me ask you a different question: did you like Life of Pi? Were you one of the ten million people who read the book? Let’s say you feel about it as Obama does.

Should Martel have even written it? Did he have (the right) permission? Martel was born in Salamanca, not Pondicherry. Worse, he’s white. And he’s not Hindu. How dare he write a story with the main character an Indian boy!?


Whose permission?

Taking Life of Pi as an example, who specifically was Martel supposed to ask for permission to write his novel? Should he have asked someone in the Indian community in Toronto (or, in particular, in Scarborough, a borough of Toronto) where his protagonist was supposedly living out his life? There are at least 82,000 Hindis, by my estimation, in Scarborough. Who of them is the person, or people, he should have gotten permission from to write Life of Pi?

Or should he have asked someone from Pondicherry? Does he ask someone form Pondicherry remotely or does he go there in person? Who does he ask?

By including characters who are employees of a Japanese ship company (and who are Japanese), should he have also gone to ask employees of a Japanese ship company if he could have their permission?

This last paragraph contains a spoiler. So don’t read it if you want to read the novel. By ending the story in Mexico, was Martel obligated to ask permission from someone in that area of Mexico? Where does this seeking permision thing end, exactly?


What kind of permission?

What does this conversation actually sound like? When Martel approaches the Indian community in Scarborough what questions does he ask? “Do I have your permission to write about someone from your community?” What if the reaction is like that of Margaret Cho’s to Tilda Swinton asking her to represent all Asians in their reaction to Dr. Strange? Isn’t it conceivable that at least some Hindis living in Scarborough would be mad at Martel for assuming they represent all Indians, or even all Hindis, in Scarborough descended from people from Pondicherry?[3. When I look up Pondicherry on Wikipedia, it seems that people from there are ethnically Tamil. Did I make a mistake assuming the characters in Martel’s novel were “Indian” or did Martel make a mistake not emphasizing the Tamil heritage of his characters?]


Where to Ask Permission

Say Martel physically travels to Pondicherry, gets inspired and starts writing back in Canada. Does he go back to Pondicherry to ask permission or does he do it over Skype? (Pretending Skype existed when he wrote the novel.) And if he does go all the way back to Pondicherry, where does he focus his attention? Does he drop by a Mosque, a church and a temple, ask permission and call it a day?

This is getting more than a little absurd, isn’t it?


When to Ask Permission

And when does Martel ask permission to write this book? Before he’s ever written a word, during the process, or after he’s completed the novel?

I’m a writer myself, as you can hopefully tell from this thing you’re reading. I do not write fiction (I cannot write convincing dialogue to save my life) but, even so, when the inspiration strikes, I have to do everything I can to get my words down on the page before I lose it. (That can include recording myself talking.) None of the above scenarios sound at all appealing to my writerly soul:

  • I have an idea but never follow through because someone I guessed would be a representative of a particular group told me I shouldn’t write it due to my background
  • I start writing an idea but never finish it (ugh, that would be awful!) because someone I guessed would be a representative of a particular group told me I shouldn’t write it due to my background
  • or, the absolute worst: I finish a draft (whether it be the first draft or subsequent ones) but not publish it because someone I guessed would be a representative of a particular group told me I shouldn’t publish.

Thinking about this is stifling. That might not seem important to some of you but it is very important. As a society, we should do everything we can to encourage creativity, not to stifle it.


How to Ask for Permission

All of the above is wrapped up in this problem of how to actually go about asking someone (certainly not all people who self-identify as members of the particular group) for permission to create the art. There’s a problem with identifying who and where, there’s a problem identifying what questions to ask, and for any artist there’s a problem regarding when in the creative process you ask these questions.

How exactly was Yann Martel supposed to get permission to write Life of Pi? I have no idea. He may have actually done so, to some extent or other; say, by asking people he was inspired by if he could use parts of their stories in his novel. But lots of artists do this already, which is what Acknowledgements are for. (Many do not either thank people publicly or thank them at all, and this can be strict assholery or it can be due to some kind of secrecy around the creative process. The latter strikes me as legitimate though I understand not everyone feels this way.) But this is not the same, as I understand it, as finding some cultural gatekeeper and asking permission from that gatekeeper if you can go ahead with the project. (Which clearly entails the issue of whether or not self-identifiers within that culture accept that cultural gatekeeper’s right to give the artist permission.)


Why Even Ask for Permission?

All of this brings us to the critical question, why bother asking for permission?

It makes sense to me to ask permission from an individual if I am going to use an aspect of their life in my art. If I could write fiction, and I was using something from a friend’s life, or from the life of someone I met, I would like to think I would let them know ahead of time at the very least, and maybe even ask their permission.

But asking the person I guess is the head of their group (however I attempt to define that group), or asking the person who has self-appointed themselves as the head of that group strikes me as bizarre and problematic. How do I know this person represents the views of a majority or a plurality of these people? (How would Martel have known which Scarborough Hindi person to ask for permission?)

It’s a bit like when the TV Media ask Jesse Jackson or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to sound off about a police shooting of a black person or riot spawned by a shooting, in a city they spend zero time in because these people are supposed to represent all African Americans in the eyes of the white public. Jesse Jackson does not represent all African Americans.

Okay, it’s not exactly like that, but it’s not that far off.

One thing I am concerned about here is that many people will believe it is racist for a “white” person to pick someone non-white to ask permission from.

But another thing that is at issue here is that it feels like the people who demand that artists “ask permission” if they are using material from another culture don’t understand how creativity works — that these people have no idea what it’s like to be an artist. And I suspect they don’t understand the kind of chilling effect the society-wide pratice of asking permission (or worse, a law about it) would have on creativity. Artists need to be allowed to be free to create. Asking permission from some self-appointed cultural gatekeeper about a piece of art that is not even finished (perhaps barely begun) is so antithetical to the creative process.

Asking permission is fraught with practical difficulties. I really don’t understand how it’s actually possible.


The Artistic Case Against the Accusation of Cultural Appropriation

If art can be said to have a purpose (and I’m not necessarily saying it has a purpose), that purpose is to move the audience member out of their own perspective and into another’s. I.e. art creates empathy, even sympathy.

In The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that literature was one of the contributing factors that have helped human beings view each other as morally equivalent and, therefore, helped to reduce violence. Though it’s anecdotal, I feel my own experience of literature gives me far better insight into other people’s experiences (especially those people in places I’ve never lived) than the news and even much long form journalism. I need art to gain experiences of the world I don’t have the time and resources to gain through travel.

Many of the arts have this world-broadening effect, I feel. And even the ones that do not obviously have this effect can still remove us from our own myopia. Even a weird building or a weird dress can provoke insight into a world not our own. What does it matter who made it?

This is, as far as I can tell, the very purpose of art. Maybe you disagree. I don’t know what else the point of art could be. I’m more of an “art for art’s sake” person, but if I have a gun to my head and have to ascribe it a purpose, it’s the ability to force the audience outside of their own skin. And that is something nothing else human beings create can do.


Western Art is Cultural Appropriation

There’s an aspect to western art that undermines the accusation that ‘art which is deemed cultural appropriation is bad and should be condemned’: If art made by “white” people featuring aspects from other cultures is cultural appropriation then the history of western art is basically the history of cultural appropriation.

Let’s start with the frescoes. White Europe adopted Christianity from the non-white Levant. They created all sorts of religious art which whitewashed Jesus and the disciples among others and relied pretty much entirely on stories from this other culture. Should we tear down the remaining frescoes because they offend us?[4. Please note: I don’t consider whitewashing and cultural appropriation equivalent and you should not consider this piece as a defense, in any way, of the ridiculous practice of whitewashing. Not only is whitewashing offensive, it’s extremely condescending. Some movie studio thinks I’m not going to watch a movie because a preexisting character is played by someone who looks like that character? Seriously?] If you are not offended by these frescoes, but are offended by Iggy Azalea, why aren’t you offended by the frescoes?

After the appropriation of Christianity, much Western art was quite insular (and, therefore, not culturally appropriative) until the “Age of Discovery,” but since Western Europe began exploring and colonizing the rest of the world, Western Art has been drastically influenced by that of other cultures, to the betterment of Western Art, I’d say. Sure, there are many works of art that don’t rely on the cultures that are not western European,[5. Having to specify “western” here because much of Europe was not really regarded as being equal to the western half of the continent in terms of how advanced their civilization was] but much of that art, if not most of it, was conservative artistically, culturally and even politically or socioeconomically. It was, rather the art that was inspired by cultures outside of the world of Western Europe which fostered artistic progress.

Let’s jump forward centuries to take one example of an art form that would not exist without so-called “cultural appropriation,” the vast majority of us have grown up with, “pop rock.” The ‘pop’ in pop rock comes from the American popular song tradition (as well as the popular song traditions of other countries, particularly the UK) which would probably not be deemed cultural appropriation all the time given that those songs were rooted in European art songs and excerpts from operas, among other things. But there was a degree of cultural appropriation happening even in pop songs.

But where the appropriation is obvious is in the ‘rock’ half of pop rock, which comes from rock and roll. Rock and roll is textbook cultural appropriation as art: rock and roll was rhythm and blues, some white guys got their hands on it, added a little more country to it, and presto chango, rock and roll. I think there is a great deal of aesthetic difference between Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis but would anyone really wish for the latter three to have been prevented from making their music and becoming the vehicles for the explosion of rock and roll from “race music” to a global phenomenon?

Pop rock’s history of cultural appropriation doesn’t stop with rock and roll, of course. The British Invasion, which brought us pop rock as opposed to mere rock and roll, is also textbook cultural appropriation. The Beatles and the bands that followed in their footsteps were listening primarily to black music (rock and roll, Motown, early soul, jazz), as well as some other music (rockabilly, a more countrified rock and roll, pop songs and country) and blended them all together without anyone’s permission. The result was the eradication of popular music genres in the United States and the UK (and, really, the world) and the need for a generic, kind of useless umbrella term, pop rock.

The Beatles (and some other bands) went out and did again twice more. First, they appropriated American music to create folk rock (though in this day and age that would probably be deemed acceptable because the folk music the Beatles were inspired by was being primarily performed by white men) and then The Byrds and The Beatles took inspiration from Indian music (The Byrds via John Coltrane and other jazz musicians, The Beatles from the Indian communities in the UK) and western art music to create psychedelia. Psychedelia was the final assault against predefined genres within popular music; after psychedelic music, literally anything was possible. To the best of my knowledge, The Beatles never asked anyone’s permission to do this (though they did eventually travel to India), nor did the Byrds, nor did any other of the numerous bands that used Indian music (or other bands’ imitations of Indian music) or jazz as a basis to try new things. (At the same time, the British Blues boom happened, another textbook case of cultural appropriation. That boom resulted, eventually, in heavy metal.)

The popular music of the 1960s created the musical world we lived in until the evolution of electronic music and hip hop changed it again (another story). Should we go back and reject all (or most) of this music because it was made primarily by white people who happened to be part of the “dominant” culture, but who relied upon inspiration from other places? Is that fair? Is that even realistic? Moreover, what’s right about that, exactly? And, perhaps most importantly, if we agree to reject culturally appropriative music (and other art) from our past, is there a statute of limitations as to where we stop going through old artwork to see if it’s not offensive?

Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps I’m selfish because so much of the music I love could now be accused of cultural appropriation.

  • my favourite band growing up, The Beatles, appropriated rock and roll, rhythm and blues, Motown and Indian music (and other forms of music not made by African Americans or Indians)
  • many of my favourite albums, particularly from the 60s, involve some degree of cultural appropriation
  • Kaleidoscope, my favourite underrated band from the 60s, appropriated blues and Cajun music but, much more notably, also Middle Eastern music, particularly the music of Turkey
  • Mr. Bungle, perhaps my favourite band from the 90s, appropriated ska, jazz and so much more (a list of Mr. Bungle’s acts of cultural appropriation would be exhausting)
  • I love jazz but at least a few of the jazz artists I love are white (well, usually Jewish but they look white) but they appropriated African American music.

This is the smallest selection of music that I like that could be attacked for cultural appropriation. An actual list would take thousands of words and would be longer than this already very long article. And that list is just confined to music, as I’m sure there are tons of movies I love which could be attacked, not to mention paintings. There are buildings that are culturally appropriative if we look hard enough. The world of fashion is based on cultural appropriation, as far as I can tell.

If we expand this circle of condemnation to all of the works of art in all art forms that culturally appropriate, we’re talking about a lot of art that is appropriating other cultures. Perhaps the majority of art.

I called this piece “In Praise of Cultural Appropriation” because I wanted you to click on it. (I was also thinking of calling it “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation” but Kenan Malik wrote something better with that title.) But I really should have called it “In Praise of Art.” All I want to do here is remind everyone that freedom of expression is a good thing and that art is one of the great legacies of humanity. No matter how upset we are about the world, we should not target art.

Condemning an art work solely due to who made it is problematic. Think about Elia Kazan’s films, a couple of which are very, very good. Are they less good because of his testimony to the House Un-American Committee? A lot of people would say so but I’m not so sure. (For one thing, he was just the director, it’s not like he’s a painter and the films were created solely by him. Condemning one of Kazan’s films because of Kazan is more complicated than condemning a painter.) Condemning an art work solely due to the artist’s skin colour — excuse me, I meant to say “culture” — strikes me as, well, a little racist. At least with Kazan we have actual objectionable behaviour we can get mad about.

Racist groups have been using the word “culture” as code for “race” for some time. The accusation of cultural appropriation against a white artist is using the coded language of contemporary racists. Isn’t that problematic?

Also, this is the wrong battle. We live in a racist society where long-standing institutions and many, if not most, individuals treat non-white people differently (and usually worse) than white people. But artists are not the problem. The problem is the institutions and the people within them who cannot manage the insights which artists sometimes manage. Attacking artists for “cultural appropriation” will not prevent white police officers from shooting people of colour. Works of art might — I stress the ‘might’ — help white police officers — and the people that defend them — understand what they are doing when they shoot people of colour in a way that protests cannot, even if those works of art are made by white people.

We’re all in this together, more than any other time in human history. We have a rather big problem to face as a species and a planet and fighting about who is and who isn’t allowed to make such and such artwork is divisive. Maybe, just maybe, some cross-cultural works of art will have the ability to remind of us all of our common humanity before it is too late. (I’m skeptical, but I can hope.)

So if you encounter a piece of art that includes something from your culture, that strikes you as bad or inauthentic, and you learn that it was made by someone who doesn’t look, sound or act like someone from your culture, criticize the work for being bad art, don’t criticize the act of creation itself.

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