top of page

Cultural Appropriation; or, I proceed with trepidation as I venture a few thoughts

Issues of cultural appropriation and identity politics lie in dark waters where intrepid scribes venture at their own peril. Strong feelings abound. I have strong feelings myself about free speech and artistic freedom of expression. Discussion, criticism, and argument presented in good faith are always in order. It is another matter when individuals and groups take it upon themselves to dictate what is permissible for others to think, say, and express with works of art. They always have good reason for it, with not a doubt in their military minds that they occupy the moral high ground upholding religious, ethical, cultural, or multicultural values, just as there is not a doubt in my own military mind that this kind of thing is antithetical to principles of free speech and artistic expression. Well, hardly any doubt.

The subject blasted onto my radar last summer with the foofaraw over the 2017 Whitney Biennial exhibit of a painting by a white artist depicting the death of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African American from Chicago lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. Hannah Black, a British-born black artist and writer working in Berlin, wrote an open letter to the curators of the exhibit in which she asked them to remove the painting "with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum."

The letter as originally shared on Facebook included a number of signatures by individuals who are not black. Black subsequently removed those signatures with this explanation: "In response to some helpful criticism, I’m now only including Black co-signs. Non-Black people super very welcome to help get painting destroyed tho in other ways."

Here are some highlights from the letter (full text can be found at Darville, Black Artists Are Calling For An Emmett Till Painting To Be Destroyed):

That even the disfigured corpse of a child was not sufficient to move the white gaze from its habitual cold calculation is evident daily and in a myriad of ways, not least the fact that this painting exists at all. In brief: the painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because 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 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. The painting must go.

...Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning. Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture.... if Black people are telling her [Schutz] that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she and you must accept the truth of this. The painting must go.

Black's case is problematic on a number of counts, not least rejection of any possibility of empathy and the presumption that she and thirty or so co-signers speak for all black people, which is as unfounded as would be a presumption that I speak for all white males.

For her part, Dana Schutz responded with grace and tact:

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. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.... Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable. (Kennedy, White Artist’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Draws Protests)

There is something in the air these days. Discussions about whether it is ever acceptable for a white writer to take up subject matter deemed "black," "Native American," or in some other respect "other" are commonplace on public radio, at least here in the People's Republic of Portland. More than a few commentators are convinced it is not, and the journalists interviewing them tend to be sympathetic. They would roll back the ground won in 20th-century battles over artistic expression waged by and on behalf of the likes of James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Allen Ginsberg.

It is tempting and easy to put it all down to political correctness run amuck. Tempting, but not good enough. This is not just an American or European phenomenon. It is not restricted to any particular religious or political point of view. You can find it among Christians, Jews, Muslim, Hindus, and Buddhists, among conservatives, and increasingly among individuals who style themselves culturally and politically progressive.

Last fall I made notes toward an essay touching on some of these issues and hacked out a draft or several. It never came together. This week I happened on an essay in ArtReview that expresses much of my thinking on the subject more coherently than I have managed. While I have not abandoned the project, for now I refer anyone interested in the debate to Kenan Malik, The Truth about ‘Cultural Appropriation’ (ArtReview, December 2017). Malik's conclusion nails it succinctly:

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 of art and politics we need less policing and constraints, more interaction and imagination.

His piece merits being read in full.

References and Related Reading That May Be of Interest

5 views0 comments


bottom of page