Cultural appropriation has been talked about for several years now, typically in a pop culture context – music, hair styles, clothing, the Kardashians. But while the concept of cultural appropriation has become very mainstream there are still questions about if particular actions and items have been appropriated (and from who and with what intent.) Not even burritos are safe from scrutiny.
But oddly enough cultural appropriation is a hot topic in art right now too. In March at the Whitney Biennial Dana Schutz‘s piece Open Casket (a painting of Emmitt Till based off of photographs taken at his funeral service) caused protests, letter writing, tweets, news articles, opinion pieces, and the buttonholing of several black artists for their thoughts and feelings about the work. Ultimately, the work remained on the wall where the Whitney had hung it. In May a sculpture entitled Scaffold created by Sam Durant and installed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis also caused protests, tweets, and news articles. The Dakota Nation, some of the residents of Minneapolis, and a vocal portion of the online art community felt that Durant’s work was insensitive to the descendants of the Dakota 38. The mediated outcome of the dispute was that the work would be disassembled and ceremoniously burned. The NYTimes published an article in their Art and Design section discussing and comparing these two events last week.
The thing is cultural appropriation should be old news in the art world because artists have been doing it for centuries. We called it Primitivism at one point. (Gauguin did it. Matisse did it. Picasso too.) Hell, Europeans culturally appropriated so much Japanese art (after beginning trade routes and diplomatic contact in the mid 1850’s) that it got it’s own name – Japonisme. Van Gogh was a big fan of Japanese art – so was Whistler. But even before that artists were cherry picking ideas, techniques, styles, and materials from past periods in history or from other cultures.
In my mind, it’s a bit like that Hank Williams, Jr. song ~it’s a family tradition~ which is not to say that it’s right just that a certain amount should be expected in a culturally diverse society. I think the greater problem is denigrating the members of a culture while appropriating elements from their culture and acting like it belongs to a larger, oppressive society.