Uh oh, look out, another controversial post about a topic that affects artists everywhere. This time it is cultural appropriation.
It is a topic that comes up quite often in social media. With the sociopolitical climate being what it is, “call-out culture” has reshaped what it means to be an active participant online, even within the fiber arts community.
And the discussion always gets heated.
No one, not even members within disparaged culture/group in question, can agree on the subject, and because the Internet is what it is, people get offensive, defensive, or just plain bold. Maybe it’s an effort to not look a certain way, BUT feelings ALWAYS get hurt.
When the lovely John Ziv of Working Wood Production approached me with an essay on this topic to post in Mildly Offensive Fiber Artists, a LARGE Facebook group that I help admin, I sat back and read it. It provoked thought, and I immediately envisioned the s**t storm that would ensue within the group.
This is a message that must be shared as food for thought, but as I mentioned, feelings ALWAYS get hurt. So in an effort to be more about community rather than competition – in this case, the cliche competition of “who’s the most woke” comes to mind – I am posting this essay with comments turned off.
That does not mean approach me or other admins from the group, or John about the topic with name-calling or assumptions about our intent. The intent is to start discussion outside of this arena, because really, OMG Yarn (Balls) is about appreciation of the fiber arts and provoking thought for you to do with what you will, as long as any negative energy is not being flung at others.
Anyway, I love the group members, readers and customers I work with on a daily basis, but right now, this is the world we live in. So, just food for thought, don’t shoot the messenger, and any other overused saying…shenanigans won’t be tolerated.
Without further ado…
Art, Cultural Appropriation, and Inspiration by John Ziv
This is a topic that has been coming up a lot lately, and unfortunately, I think a great many people don’t actually understand 1) what the terms mean, and 2) that generally, it is none of their business.
First off, what is Art?
Art is in its simplest form, expression. It can be stacking two rocks on top of each other in a way that pleases or satisfies the person doing the stacking. It can be someone banging those two rocks together. It can be someone taking strands of grass and wrapping those rocks in them. Does that mean that it has to please or satisfy anyone else, or evoke an emotion or expression? Absolutely not.
Art is personal. It has nothing whatsoever to do with other people, unless the artist themselves decides to make it for other people. Even then, their opinion of said art, unless they are buying it, displaying it, or helping put it together, is their opinion, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the expression of the artist.
That is the “theft” of cultural icons by another culture. This can be anything from clothing patterns, to music, and even to linguistic idioms. Most commonly it is done by a dominant culture to a minority culture.
The biggest problem with cultural appropriation is that it often distorts, and eventually leads to the loss of meaning in regards to the elements of the culture that have been stolen. This can lead to severe misunderstandings and prejudices, as well as damage to both cultures.
However, one thing to note is that cultural assimilation is an ongoing process, and will happen no matter how protective of ones culture a community may be. For instance, we have historic evidence of the Nordic Seafarers(aka the Vikings) having adopted elements all the way from Russia to Africa, and even some from India and the Far East.
Some exchanges are good, in that they have been exchanges of knowledge. Better methods of construction, medicine, textiles, even cooking. Others have been extremely harmful, such as the Opium Epidemic in the far east, the Abrahmic religions(which are based on an amalgamation of several religions dating back to at least as early as 2000BC), and the forced loss of culture by slave owners and conquerors of various countries/indigenous peoples.
Inspiration is just that, whatever happens to inspire you to do something. Sometimes it is something that happens to be part of your personal mainstream culture. Other times it is something that is part and parcel of another culture entirely, but happens to call you to create.
Obviously, these three things can and do come into conflict when people are more concerned about protecting something that is effectively immaterial, rather than appreciating that the thought process is different for each person.
What inspires one person, and what that person takes from another culture, and then creates in expression, will not, cannot, be properly judged by anyone else, because it is a personal expression of what they think, feel, and wish to create.
That doesn’t mean that you have to like it. In fact you are free to dislike it, dislike what it stands for, dislike the person creating it, and otherwise just despise the entirety. I certainly have some artists who I can’t stand them, their work, their inspiration, or the fact that they pull it from a culture that they know nothing about.
What it does mean is that you should stop, and really think about why something bothers you, and if there truly is a theft, then speak out. If it is someone simply crafting for the beauty of it, appreciate it, ask about their inspiration, and discuss it and politely note that it bothers you slightly. If it is something that is simply a cheapening of your culture, laugh at them, and walk away. If it is outright theft, go at them hammer and tongs.
Most of all, don’t get on a high horse about the work of someone else, when you know nothing about their culture, or their inspiration. Rushing to judge is not good for you, or the artist.
My personal thoughts.
I see artistic culture as an ever evolving ecosystem. Some species never really change much, waxing and waning, but always there. Other species flare up, grow enormously for a short while, and then die off suddenly. And some species are born from a mixture of other species, and find their niche in the ecosystem that allows them to grow, thrive, and be a productive part of that particular biosphere.
I do not approve of outright cultural theft. Do not go and claim your art is the real thing, when you have not immersed yourself into that culture and really learned what it means.
Be inspired by whatever you come across. If you happen to be inspired by music, dance, painting, textiles, language, or whatever, that is A-OK. Let it influence your world view, learn about it, interpret it, keep your mind open to other thoughts and ways of doing things. And be respectful while you do it.
If it weren’t for the good parts of cultural appropriation, we would not have music such as R&B, Rock, or regional Folk Music. We would not have such amazing spices for cooking such as Ginger, Nutmeg, and Cinnamon. We would not have Chocolate or Coffee! We would not have Arabic mathematical symbols and calculating methods. We would not have advanced medicine. We simply would not have much of what most of us appreciate on a day to day basis.
Sharing pieces of a culture does not take from that culture. The culture itself is still intact, unless it is being repressed. If you want to preserve your culture intact, make the effort to do so, but be glad that people outside your culture find parts or even most of it, something that inspires them and is appreciated by them, however misguided they may be.
Basically, don’t be an ass.
As always, my Essays, Rants, Jokes, and Philosophical Maunderings are free to share. On topic discussion is welcome. Trolls and off topic discussion will be removed with an industrial blender and a hose fertilizer attachment.