How the ‘culture wars’ have affected artists’ creative processes and how to avoid accusations of cultural appropriation. What are the issues?
We live in precarious times. There is a palpable sense that the centre is not holding and that finding any kind of firm ideological ground is a deeper challenge than it ever was. The rise in populist right wing politics, a growing consensus that we live in a ‘post truth’ world and epidemic levels of addiction to social media have contributed to this growing sense of unease and, I would argue, have bred a new brand of reactionary thinking even amongst those who see themselves as progressive. It is inevitable that these crises would impact our Arts culture. One relatively recent development is around the idea of jurisdiction. There are those who strongly believe artists, writers and theatre makers should stay in their lane and only express in their work that which they have direct experience of. There are forces afoot that say unless you have ‘skin in the game’ you shouldn’t express ideas about an identity group of which you are not a part.
There is a new interpenetration between social psychology, the Arts and identitarian ideology which is putting artists on edge. There is ample evidence to suggest that artists from all domains may have become increasingly prone to self censorship for fear of being called out or even demonized.
I find the reductive and binary debate between so-called ‘woke’ identitarians and those that subscribe to the belief that the argument for free speech is the only necessary retort, superficial and unnecessarily adversarial. Both sides seem to be entrenched in relatively simple dogmatic scripts. There is generally an absence of nuance, and an unwillingness to listen to, or understand the full spectrum of ideas and beliefs from both camps. Some seem unaware that their personally targeted activism infringes the hard won human right of free speech and their adversaries are unwilling to admit that a deeper debate around wanton and exploitative cultural appropriation and representation is a belated and much needed process. I find this personally frustrating and can only guess how such a climate can affect the creative processes of especially young and/or emerging artists. I want to explore this issue differently and to hopefully take a less trodden and more ambivalent approach.
The main questions I am interested in are ….
1. Is all cultural appropriation bad? If not, where is the line?
2. In a climate in which we are all at risk of being ‘called out’ for expressing ideas about. cultural identity. What should artists and writers consider before they express ideas which may be seen by some as the sole domain of those within the ‘in group’?
3. What effect is the idea of ‘wokeness’ and ‘call-out culture’ having on the Arts? Is it wholly positive? Is there an argument that it is leading to Artists self-censoring? Is it stifling that which has always been fundamental to artistic creativity, i.e. the challenging of dogma and orthodoxy?
Whilst I will endeavour to be balanced and non-partial, it is inevitable that I will fail. At times my biases will bubble to the surface. Undoubtedly I will be guilty of omission and of the slant my own experiences and personal demographic give me. On this issue, I have to say that I have tried very hard to obtain contributions to this article from a wide range of artists, writers and thinkers. Indeed the initial idea was to just present and paraphrase multiple perspectives from others who were real protagonists in what has become known as the ‘culture wars’ within the Arts. Sadly many of those people I contacted either declined to go on record or simply never replied.
The issue of jurisdiction in the Arts has fascinated me for a very long time; ever since, as a young percussionist I was accused by a very reputable African American jazz drummer, who had played alongside Sun Ra, Freddie Hubbard and the almighty John Coltrane, of “colonising his music” as we rehearsed for a series of upcoming gigs. That hit me hard. It was true that I was playing instruments that originated in Africa and was obsessed with Afro-Cuban music, but I had never seen my passion as cultural appropriation or in any way essentially wrong. Again in the early 1990s, I was employed to work with Idris Muhammad, the legendary African American jazz funk drummer on several shows. I was unsettled by the fact that Muhammad never once spoke to me despite me trying to initiate conversation on more than one occasion. Whenever I approached him he would look up at the ceiling and remain mute. They say “never meet your heroes” right?
I am not making the claim that these incidents are in any way on the same scale as those I am going to discuss here. I mention them to explain how I began a concerted effort to think about the issues of jurisdiction and cultural appropriation in the Arts more than 25 years ago.
In June 2021 The Royal Academy posted a message on it’s Instagram account saying: “Thank you to all those for bringing an item in the RA shop by an artist expressing transphobic views to our attention.” This referred to the work of Jess De Wahl, an embroidery artist who had written a lengthy blogpost detailing her views on gender identity and particularly the trans issue two years earlier. Her work was summarily removed from the RA shop in what can only be described as a knee jerk reaction. This in response to 8 complaints received claiming that De Wahls was a transphobe. Just over a week later the Academy reversed their decision and publicly apologised to the artist. The fragility surrounding the way in which the RA handled this issue tells us of the newness of this territory and the disproportionate power wielded by identitarian activists.
Whilst I don’t want to discuss gender identity itself, I think that occurrences like this are indicative of tectonic shifts in the way that our cultural world is conceived.
It seems that there is not only a growth in the number of detractors who are quick to challenge the artistic output of those deemed to have ‘stolen’ idioms or styles from cultures other than their own, but that an artist’s personal views on issues to do with race, sexual identity or gender as expressed on Twitter for instance, may result in loss of employment or the cancellation of exhibitions.
The Case of The Open Casket
In 2017 a painting called Open Casket by Dana Schutz was shown as part of the Whitney Biennial show in New York. It depicted the dead body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered after he was wrongly accused of flirting with a white woman shopkeeper during a visit to Mississippi from his hometown Chicago in 1955. His murderers were subsequently aquitted by an all white jury. Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, valiantly ensured that her son’s murder would go on to signicantly galvinize the civil rights movement by inisting that Till’s coffin remain open at his funeral so that all would see the extent of the barbarity that he suffered. “I know that his life can’t be returned but I hope that his death will certainly start a movement in these United States,” she said at the time. The case was widely covered in the press and the iconic photographs taken by David Jackson of Till’s beaten body published for all to see. At a labour rally convened to protest the injustice of Emmet Till’s murder a speaker said “One of our objectives here is to see to it that that boy does not die an inconspicuous death and that this case will be remembered and something will be done about it”.
Schutz’s painting became the target of controversy when it was exhibited. Parker Bright stood in front of Schutz’s painting for up to four hours a day barring visitors from having a clear view of the work. Many in the black art community are upset by the work. “I wanted to confront people with a living, breathing black body,” Bright said. He wore a T-shirt on which was written “No lynch mob” on its front, and “Black death spectacle” on the back.
The UK artist Hannah Black called for the destruction of Schutz’s painting in an open letter. Along with many others Black argued that Emmet Till’s suffering should not be considered as a subject by white artists and her letter contains some compelling arguments. Whilst “Open Casket” was never for sale, it is clear that the controversy surrounding its exhibition made Schutz’s work more widely known and promoted the Whitney Museum of American Art brand worldwide.
In her open letter Black stated.“The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights.” She makes the claim that “it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time”
The letter is a heartfelt and articulate critique of “The Open Casket”. The British based artist and her co-signatories make the valid point that a white woman can never understand or fully appreciate the tragedy of Till’s death and the valiance of his Mother’s gesture to show the gruesome violence of her son’s killing to the world.
The letter, in part acknowledges that the curators of the show were well intentioned, yet argues that without full consideration of issues of cultural appropriation and jurisdiction we can not move towards a time when we live “in a reparative mode, with humility, clarity, humour and hope”.
In her defence, Schutz asserted three distinct reasons why she felt justified in creating the painting. She claimed that just prior to its creation she had become alarmed at the number of fatal shootings of unarmed black men in the US. So there is an implicit claim that nothing had really changed in the last seventy years with regard to race relations and the level of violence exacted on African Americans by white men.
Her second claim seems to contradict, or at least be separate from the first. “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother,” she wrote. Thus she also claims that her painting was born out of empathy for Mobley in her capacity as Till’s mother.
Some may argue that Schutz has continued the fight to ensure that Till did not die an “inconspicuous death”. That she has proven herself to be a sympathetic ally in fighting racism. Others may believe that those who oppose the exhibition of Open Casket are no more than anti free speech book burners. Surely one indicator of whether any contemporary Art is of value is its capacity to unnerve us, to challenge the orthodoxy and precipitate change. If the best artists extend our thinking and push us to see the world differently, they are also known for their sensitivity. For me there is something insensitive and distasteful about this painting and its context. The rarified and intellectually elite world of contemporary Art has a lot to do with commodification and sadly, financial investment. So whether intended or not, the painting of this work and its inclusion in the Biennial exhibition can not escape being a commodification of Till’s horrific murder.
Lastly both Schutz and the Whitney Gallery’s curatorial team said that they knew the painting would cause upheaval and controversy and that they welcomed the subsequent kickback and debate.
Courting controversy for its own sake is definitely not classy and is at worst cynical. A friend of mine who is a seasoned documentary filmmaker told me recently that he was so angered and tired of being asked “where’s the jeopardy?” when pitching ideas to production companies and TV stations. It seems that having a ‘shock jock’ approach to the creation of Art is desirable for those who are more interested in financial benefits rather than the inherent value of any potential work. Certainly producing work merely to shock (or offend) for its own sake is inauthentic, lacks cultural value and is inherently superficial.
The fact that there is a discontinuity between these three disparate justifications begs the question … well which one is true?… or if they are all true how would Schutz prioritize them? Although I find her three pronged defence of her work disingenuous, I am still opposed to the request for the work to be removed and destroyed.
The American critic Adam Shatz said at the time that the kickback against Schutz was an “implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines”.
I discussed “the Open Casket” with Manick Govinda, an arts consultant and writer who is often called on by the media to discuss the issues with which I am concerned here. Whilst he acknowledges that the painting can be seen as a rather impotent attempt to assuage white guilt, he also sees it as being a powerful statement that reminds us that the oppression of black people in the US is still an issue. More than that he describes Shutz’s work as a tender and transformative piece born out of empathy and respect.
On the issue of freedom of expression, he wrote around the time of the controversy surrounding the painting … “The wilful, deliberate destruction of art is an uncomfortable and painful thing to contemplate. We are rightfully shocked when we read about the Nazis burning 4,000 avant-garde artworks in Berlin in 1939 because they were ‘degenerate’. Outside the Galerie nationale de Jeu de Paume in Paris in 1942, the Nazis burned works by Picasso, Miro, Paul Klee and Salvador Dali. The nihilistic impulse to destroy art recently reappeared when ISIS released a video in February 2015 showing its members smashing ancient artefacts from the Assyrian and Akkadian empires.” In doing so he points out that Hannah Black’s call for the painting to be destroyed to be a threat to freedom of speech and likens it to darker times when artworks were routinely destroyed when they were seen to be contrary to certain totalitarian ideologies.
With regard to the current state of Arts education, Govinda laments a time when teaching staff at colleges were diverse in their ideologies and political beliefs. He argues that now there is a real pressure for all creative output to fit in with a certain zeitgeist and for fledgling writers and artists to filter their work to ensure that it does not offend or is not open to accusations of cultural appropriation.
During Govinda’s career he has been involved in curating innovative exhibitions and championing nascent new forms of contemporary Art such as video and performance. At the time these exhibitions were received by some traditionalists with outrage and a refusal to accept that such work was even Art. Now he says we are experiencing a flipside to this conservatism, where similar levels of outrage are being expressed over certain works but to do with identitarian politics, jurisdiction and cultural appropriation. Ultimately Govinda is a fervent supporter of freedom of expression. “We must accept that we live in a multicultural and plural world in which human lives play out in messy and visceral ways. Artists need to be able to explore ideas freely and if that means that some Art borrows from different reference points and perspectives, then so be it”.
So can there be any resolution between this drive to sustain free speech and the rather puritanical position of various people who call for a more radical approach to social justice in the arts?
Ayishat Akanbi is a writer, thinker and artist whose new book The Awokening is published in August of this year. We discussed the ideas being explored here and her views, as ever, are very compelling, mainly because they fall in neither of the bipolar camps outlined above.
“I have become a writer at a time when writing feels risky, even dangerous,” she says. Akanbi argues that to think deeply about these issues has to be free from the stigma of being wrong. She believes that all creativity is predicated on a willingness to make mistakes, that being wrong at times is a necessary stepping stone to arriving at truth. Having said this, she sees that the new accountability around wokeness has had its benefits as well as drawbacks.
“I believe in free expression and the exchange of ideas and I take any limitation of this to be brazen contempt for curiosity, thus a barrier to the necessity of self-knowledge. Whilst the new climate of call out culture and de-platforming can be creatively and socially corrosive, it has also pushed artists and writers to choose their words carefully. Given that social media has helped to dilute the meaning of too many once useful words, aiming to be precise instead of predictable is helpful.”
As a black British woman of Nigerian heritage, Akanbi says she resents the way others uninvitedly attach identitarian labels to her and says “I have never known a time when there was such a dominant idea of how I should be, based on my race …. and these views come from the anti-racists. During the civil rights struggle in the US black people fought to be treated as individuals and to not be treated as this fantasy dreamt up by white racists. Yet now some are pushing for us to be treated as one large homogenous group”. I will return to this special irony later. She believes that certain identitarian agendas divide us and push us further and further away from reaching “a post-racial world in which identity doesn’t define us”.
A profound debate around the issue of race is beyond the scope of this piece, yet it is also central to its project of reaching any real resolutions to the issues under scrutiny. Whilst nobody can deny the existence of racism, about whether race itself is an objective reality, there is less certainty. I have always thought that the idea of race has been perennially used as a tool of governance, a convenient way to further the mission of exploitative imperialism by neatly dividing people into sub groups. At times politicians and thinkers use concepts of race, nationality and culture interchangeably in order to gain and secure power. This being the case, the unwitting consequence of enforcing artists to stay in their racial and cultural lane is to subscribe to a divisive and sectarian mindset that denies the very humanity which binds us all. I often wonder why those that persistently argue that gender is socially constructed, often are so impervious to the idea that race is too.
Surely the strident accusations of those who wish to bring down those artists who trespass beyond the boundaries of their own individual identity can also be seen as a call for some kind of cultural eugenics? If so, does it also follow that we should retrospectively condemn the Impressionists for having their ideas of pictorial composition radically changed by the Japanese woodcuts that flooded France in the 19th century? Should we cancel Picasso for being so profoundly influenced by the plundered African Art he saw exhibited at the ethnographic museum at the Palais du Trocadéro in 1907?
Clearly such an archeological project would be the equivalent of attempting to retrieve eggs from an omelette.
Kwame Anthony Appiah
In his book ‘The Lies That Bind Us’, Appiah, who is a Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, discusses his ideas concerning cultural appropriation. He defines this form of cultural theft as “the borrowing by a dominant group of the cultural ideas or practices of a weaker group.” He discusses an incident in which the student federation at the University of Ottawa complained about a white woman running free yoga classes on campus. They reasoned that yoga had been stolen from “cultures that have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and Western supremacy.”
It is difficult to not have some sympathy with this argument. When borrowing imagery or methods from other cultures, power relationships and imperialist histories are important factors to consider. If the production of an artwork echoes a more savage form of subjugation and exploitation that has gone on before, it is likely to be seen as a cultural extension of it.
Appiah argues that too often such debates focus on the idea of ownership. This is the wrong model he writes. ‘Advanced’ economies based on capitalism have developed the notion of intellectual copyright to the extent that we see the process of cultural exchange as a transaction of commodities. He makes the point that for millenia artistic ideas have been freely swapped and fused without any debt being incurred by the ‘appropriator’. The emphasis on ownership is a distraction from what he sees as the two key issues, that is disrespect and exploitation. Appiah claims that reducing cultural appropriation to an accusation of property theft is not nuanced enough to move us forward. It encourages us to outlaw any such borrowing process and does not allow for a more profound discourse around what really matters.
Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut album released in 1969 shamelessly plagiarized the songs and lyrics of delta blues musicians such as Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. This led to legal disputes over copyright in exactly the way that Appiah decries. The band never attributed the material on their early albums to its sources and influences. By contrast The Rolling Stones have always been transparent about the extent to which they were influenced by the blues and it is well documented that they were instrumental in using their fame to bring about Muddy Waters’ first television performances in the US and even performed with him on several occasions. ??In 1966 Waters reportedly told a journalist that Mick Jagger “stole” his music, but gave him his name. Some will argue that this is an example of ‘white saviourism’ and that may be true, but surely it is preferable to flagrant and exploitative copying?
One artist I spoke to, who declined to go on record, but whose thoughts really touched me, offered the following guidance to those anxious about whether they are justified in following a particular line of creative exploration. They suggested that an artist should always consider the following questions … Where do I fit into the conversation? Who am I talking over? How am I supplementing my creative work with real actions? Plainly this is good advice, but in what other ways can artists carefully move beyond the risk of finger pointing?
Clearly acknowledging sources and accepting a duty to pay homage will always ensure your work is born out of genuine respect. Artists need to do the hard work of deeply understanding the significance of artefacts and approaches from cultures beyond their own. It is also important to be cautious about taking ideas out of context, particularly when it comes to religious iconography. Whilst being quintessentially postmodern, a cut-and-paste approach may result in detraction and can be inherently disrespectful.
My parting wish is that any artists that may be reading this can subdue any fears they have of being accused of this and that. Be sensitive, be respectful, do your homework and more importantly think for yourself. We need to resist the pressure to subscribe wholesale to the views of one faction. The truth is complex and blended, it will not reveal itself by surrendering to the mindset of any already existing dogma.
I will leave the last word to the writer Kenan Malik who wrote “The campaigns against cultural appropriation are bad for creative art. And they are bad for progressive politics. They seek to police interaction and constrain imagination. For the sake of both art and politics we need less policing and constraints, more interaction and imagination.”