Cultural Appropriation isn’t a Thing

This Cultural Appropriation thing has been bothering me for a while now. Cultural Appropriation isn’t a thing. I mean, it happens, but it’s not something we can get upset about. Copying their hair, wearing their clothes, isn’t it just one more slap in their collective faces?

Yeah, no, it’s totally not. And I’ll tell you why. Please forgive me, there are a few facets to this, and I’ve been struggling for a while to compartmentalize them coherently.

And please keep in mind that I say all of this as a person who creates art for a living. If people stop buying what I do, I don’t eat.

First, Al Jazeera says:

The campaign against cultural appropriation is, in other words, part of the broader attempt to police communities and cultures. Those who most suffer from such policing are minority communities themselves, and in particular progressive voices within those communities.

What is Culture?

What even is your culture? The very idea of a culture is a relatively new one, defined in the 18th century, with all kinds of unworkable ideas.

The unique nature of each volk was expressed through its “volksgeist” – the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history.

Can you imagine the idea of your own culture being unchanged for all time? It’s preposterous, isn’t it?

To think that another culture has a defining characteristic is in itself a form of stereotyping at best, and possibly racist. “Oh that hairstyle belongs to black people.” As if they’re one enormous group who all think that, and identify one of their own by their hairstyle.

Racism and White Guilt

A lot of people who believe in cultural appropriation tend to be white, but it’s probably not unique to white people. But a lot of the time the reaction to anyone who denies cultural appropriation is “white privilege”. I would have to suggest it’s more like “white guilt”, we feel bad for being more successful, and that we’re honouring the quaint native culture by protecting their stuff.

This attitude is a little bit dangerous, because it walks the knife edge of respect for a culture and assuming they’re too useless to protect their own stuff. And quite how you draw the line between doing the right thing and being racist in this regard is a tricky thing indeed. But of course the minority culture should not be thrown to the wolves, if the system is geared against them then we absolutely should stand up for them.

But in a world where minorities are often shat upon in real ways, we’re arguing about copying their style!? It’s an absurd waste of energy.

Ownership Culture

I’m a middle aged man, and so my ideas of copyright and intellectual property (a phrase packed with its own problems) hark back to the days before rampant piracy puckered up the collective sphincters of the content industries. Back in my day, copyright terms were shorter and the immediate, perpetual and widespread ability to share things didn’t exist. If you wanted to share something, it took a long time.

Nowadays it seems like everyone is so scared of their ideas getting shared too widely that they make up ideas and rules to stop it. Ideas are property, you can’t just take them and do things! Everything belongs to someone. The concept of a common good is forgotten and weird. Since Copyright seems to be ever-expanding (usually supported by Disney so they never have to release Mickey Mouse) it’s more and more likely that this will continue.

Creative Commons is an attempt to legally define the free sharing of content that used to be the rule, but is now the exception. As an artist, I release my stuff under a CC license, because sharing is important.

Permission Culture

As a logical next step to ownership culture, we have permission culture, where someone who claims to own an idea claims that they have the right to control who uses it. The fact is, legally, an idea cannot be protected. Specific expressions of that idea can be. For example, a girl in a grassy field is an idea that can’t be controlled, no matter how much time and effort its creator put into it. A photo of that idea can be protected, but the next person can take the idea and make their own photo. And this is how good ideas get improved. Each person puts their own spin on things, and good ideas are adapted and modified and refined (or ruined!). But so long as no one copies that specific photo, it’s all fair game.

Gatekeeper Culture

The problem with the concept of cultural appropriation is that it depends on gatekeepers, a set of people who can tell you whether something is stolen from their culture or not. Who gets to decide if it’s OK? Who’s the gatekeeper, who’s the authority that says “This stuff is ours, and if you want to use it, here’s the application form.”

Most of us can’t define our own culture, never mind elect a representative to codify it for the rest of the world. Look around you, and ask yourself which of your peers you’d trust to accurately define your own culture. Many of us might think we don’t even have a culture, as such, but this is what most people think! They live their lives and do their thing and struggle and eat and get paid, just like we do.

With the three components of ownership, permission and gatekeeping being so closely tied to the core of cultural appropration, the whole concept becomes esssentially untenable. Each of these concepts is rife with problems.

Beauty Is Free

If you say that someone can’t enjoy the beauty you’ve created, you’re saying people must believe and feel the same things you do. “You’re wearing it for the wrong reasons” is no different from “You’re not enjoying it the right way”. It’s a nonsense attitude, and a battle you can’t win. If you create something and share it, it has been made free.

Beauty Changes People

If you create something and show it to people, they’ll be changed by it. On one or more levels, they’ll have their perceptions shifted, whether they love it or hate it or just don’t care. And this is great, this is how we all change and adapt and adopt and grow. If they’re artists themselves, their output might be influenced by it, and how can we examine their new creation and quantify how much of it is built on someone else’s ideas?

The very tools we use will help define our creations. We put our feelings and hopes and dreams into our art, but it has to be true that paintings made with oil paint look like oil paintings, charcoal sketches use the same charcoal and share many characteristics. You take the long view and vast swathes of any ‘culture’ start to look the same. Music from the 80s sounds like 80s music. There’s a zeitgeist and commonality to the instruments available and popular, and the sharing of ideas is always rampant. Everything we create even now will start to look similar to future historians who will group it, possibly by criteria we can’t even see from our trenches.

How can you define how much of a new creation is copied from or influenced by another work? Or how much is created anew? You can’t, and while sometimes works are copied in their whole cloth, how can we tell new artists they can’t trace someone else’s work? How can we tell them not to imitate, to copy and learn and improve? There are so many impossible problems in the very idea that, I’d argue, we cannot even try.

Impossible Problems

If you have a problem that can’t be defined, whose even existence can’t be agreed upon by the people involved or the people who want to support them, how can it possibly be real? I’ve known Canadian Indians and they don’t give a shit if someone uses their cultural history. Oh, but some of them do. And so you’ve got a culture (a problematic grouping of people with individual lives and beliefs) that doesn’t agree on whether using concepts and ideas (which can’t be legally protected) with no gatekeeper or licensing authority (except those who are self-elected and trying to monetize the intangible).

I’m of the opinion that if you can’t define a problem, you can’t create rules to prevent it. The proponents of ‘cultural appropriation’ as an idea that exists and is a problem generally have the best intentions, but they are attempting to speak for other people. It’s the “I’m offended!” reaction to a problem that cannot exist.

The Solution

You can educate people, help them understand the history and meaning of something, and broaden their lives a little bit. Tell them where it came from and what it means and how it’s used in the original culture. And then, with their new knowledge, they’re set free to either change what they’re doing or continue knowing full well what it means. They might not care, or they might include some education of their own with every copy, but we cannot, and must not, tell them to stop because it’s mine mine mine ours we made it fuck off!

And it’s utterly pointless. All artists build on what previous artists have done. All cultures are built upon previous cultures. We, as a species, share ideas, we create beauty, and it is impossible – completely, totally impossible – to create something, show it to someone, and not have them be changed by it. If the next thing they do emulates or builds upon what you’ve done, you have succeeded. And if they take it and cherish it and love it deeply, you’ve succeeded. And if they take it and make it more popular and get rich off it, you’ve succeeded. All these things increase awareness and spread the beauty.

People love to share, to learn, to enjoy other cultures. Who the sweet fuck are you – are any of us – to say that they should watch us but not learn, grow or build from what we have created?

Sure, maybe it’s harder to get rich, but the idea of getting rich is a pretty disgusting one.

Respect each other, take what works and build new things. So long as you enter into it without ill intent, it’s all fair game.

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