Culture: Appropriation and Interaction

Not too long ago a friend of mine, perhaps looking for a debate or just to rile me up, sent me an article by Kenen Malik with the rather unimaginitive title Kenan Malik on Cultural Appropriation. Well I was certainly riled up by what I read and I felt that this article deserved a long rebuttal, as I think Malik misinterprets the issues in many regards. Using the article as a jumping off point, I also offer up some larger conclusions about cultural interactions. I may not be an expert on art, only a fan, but I certainly have some expertise on national and culture identity (or at least I like to imagine I do) which gives me some ability to talk on this issue.

Malik opens by discussing the controversy which swirled around the artist Husain’s work, which was deeply criticized due to its depictions of nude Hindu dieties, amongst other reasons. However, Husain is a poor example of cultural appropriation as Malik fails to put him in context. Even using just Malik’s description, it is clear that the real issue is racism (well, more accurately Islamophobia coupled with reactionary conservatism within India), which divided India at the time of Husain’s initial career and continues to be an issue today. Cursory research into the topic (and by this I mean nothing more than looking at associated Wikipedia pages) confirms this, as the critics of Husain do not resort to accusations of appropriation when condemning the artists’ work. Indeed, speculating that his opponents would deem his work cultural appropriation is especially baseless when we consider that one of his chief critics, Bal Thackeray, said following Husain’s death that “He only slipped up on the depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses. Otherwise, he was happy and content in his field. If his demise is a loss for modern art, then so be it. May Allah give him peace!” Evident here is not the idea of cultural appropriation, but rather that his critics felt the issue lay in how he depicted the Hindu gods (which was nude) and not that he depicted them.

I find it ironic that Malik would start here, with such a problematic and incomplete description of an issue which is central to his argument, given that there are so many good examples of cultural appropriation (which he later briefly lists), and I think this is endemic of the problem within this article: that Malik does not understand cultural appropriation. He provides a definition, taken from Professor Scafidi, in which cultural appropriation is described as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” He goes on to describe cultural appropriation as suggesting “theft, and a process analogous to the seizure of land or artefacts.” His discussion then progresses to claims that cultural appropriation is a method of policing and gatekeeping culture, and he later conflates cultural appropriation with cultural interaction. This is an extremely flawed portrayal. Completely lacking from Malik’s discussion, though oddly enough implied in the definition he quoted but didn’t care to unpack, is the question of who can appropriate and a conversation on power and hegemony (he references racism, but never goes any deeper than that, perhaps for fear of destroying his own argument). Returning to the definition that Malik presents us with, we can see the implication of power: “taking…without permission.” The emphasis is added here to highlight the action that is involved, an action that is undertaken by only one party. This action requires a great deal of cultural and intellectual power, in a post-structural sense, as it requires: (1) that the appropriator ‘knows’ the subject who they are appropriating from and that they possess knowledge of the essence of what is being appropriated; (2) that they do not need consent from the appropriated cultural to know them, that they can be external to the ‘other’ culture and powerful enough over them to both ‘know’ them and not need their aid to acquire this knowledge of them. In a sense, the appropriator can know the subject as well as or better than the subject can know itself. This power relationship is in stark contrast to cultural interaction, which supposes that the cultures in question are roughly equal and that the exchange is mutual and goes both ways, thereby denying the power imbalance at the heart of culture appropriation.

Malik however seems blind to these points. In the article, Malik also discusses the art of Schutz and Biennial and is quick to declare that the art created by both is without “significant artistic merit” and that this aesthetic consideration is all that should matter, as though this and not the artists themselves is what is important. Malik goes further, boldly declaring that “To subsume aesthetic considerations to those of identity is to render art meaningless.” Since when has the identity, and more importantly the narrative constructs surrounding that identity, of the artist not been important? Can you possibly understand Kipling or Austin or Camus without understanding the narrative and institutional structures that surrounded them when their art was made? You can appreciate their works on purely aesthetic terms, certainly, but to fail to place the art and artist within the context of its larger framework would strip a great deal of meaning from the art (Said gives a wonderful discussion on this in his book Culture and Imperialism, in which he argues in favour of just such a reading of art as he examines numerous writers and seeks to better understand them by placing them within the greater context within which they were writing). Moreover, and more importantly to this argument, it would deny the solution to cultural appropriation: reflexivity. Can Schutz, a white woman from Brooklyn, paint Till, the African American boy who was lynched, without it being cultural appropriation? Can she ever understand his culture? It is both entirely possible and even desirable: "...knowledge of another culture is possible, and it is important to add, desirable, if two conditions are fulfilled...One, the student [or art, politics, etc.] must feel that he or she is answerable to and in uncoercive contact with the culture and the people being studied...[Second] no interpretation can neglect...[its] situation, and no interpretation is complete without an interpretation of the situation...[therefore] a great effort has to be made to pierce the barriers that exist between one situation, the situation of the interpreter, and another, the situation that existed when and where the...[research] was produced." (Said, Covering Islam: pp. 163-164).

I would argue that the real problem in this case that Malik mentions is therefore that Schtuz fails to be reflexively aware of her own position in connection with the art and the subject; made obvious by her response made to criticism leveled against her: “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.” Schtuz therefore chose to focus purely on the dimension of a mother and son relationship while ignoring completely the intersecting dimension of race that is coupled irrevocably with this event (indeed, it seems odd that she would chose such a politically charged event as the subject for a piece of art that she argues was made from an apolitical point of view). Art historian George Baker sums this up well: “We may want to believe that empathy has no restrictions but it does have limits. Schutz’s painting, ‘Open Casket,’ is naive, like most of the artist’s work. Not just in its painterly style but in its gesture, its ‘logic.’ But naiveté edges into something much more sinister here, as the work collapses the destruction of Till’s body and face, his murder, with the artist’s own aesthetic. This is more narcissism than empathy.” The narcissism he discusses is symptomatic of a lack of reflexivity, a lack of understanding of the artist’s place in relation to their work and perhaps even an ignorance of the subject of the art itself, all in favour of a notion that the artist can be impartial and separated from the political and cultural conditions of their work based on the fact they are artists (a notion, in turn, that is built on a history of colonialism and appropriation, one which dictates that the self can know the other in an impartial and scientific way that the other is not capable of). This is obviously not true, as the artist is intertwined within overlapping institutions and narratives which inform them in meaningful and important ways that they should take strives to be aware of. Rather than reify the artist to a point where they are impartial arbiters of culture, as Malik does, we ought to be aware of the intervening and contrapuntal narratives that inform (and importantly do not inform) the artist.

I want to conclude by also touching on some of Malik’s vapid generalizations. Quite problematically, he conflates all his critics together, never saying who these critics are and generalizing their views in a way that is not meaningful in the slightest. The critic, for Malik, can only be one thing: a self-appointed and authoritarian gate-keeper. However, I would say that the supposed critics he describes are not even indicative of who the critics are likely to actually be and what they may really saying. Certainly some portion are expressing the viewpoints he mentions, but certainly not all and yet these other voices are conveniently left out. He ends on what he certainly thought was a zinger: “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.” Conflating criticism with policing does a great disservice to criticism as it is arguably the basis of art and certainly the basis of science. Malik, however, would rather weaponize the term by generalizing all criticism that follows the cultural appropriation argument as singular and as bad, homogenizing a diverse group of critics into a single, faceless entity which jeopardizes progressives and creatives everywhere. However, what this rhetorical trick actually does is reveal Malik’s glaring weakness: his own lack of reflexivity. He does not seem to understand his own place in the narrative over cultural appropriation and what that means for what he is arguing, favouring instead to cast himself as an outside observer to the argument and casting his pronouncements as impartial facts. Perhaps this is on purpose, perhaps he wishes to cast himself at an objective artist who is unfairly demonized for their work. However he is not outside the narrative, he is very obviously a part of it (and ironically the very act of writing this piece makes him a part of it, regardless of how external he attempts to be) and this is reflected in the language he uses, such as his aforementioned conflation of all critics and his equating of cultural appropriation with cultural interaction.

As with art, the solution to the problems within Malik’s work is for him to spend time on the reflexive issue locating his voice as narrator within the context of the larger narrative structures that surround him and cultural appropriation. Moreover, this is the solution to the very real problem of cultural appropriation. I don’t wish to reiterate the entirety of Said’s argument for reflexivity and contrapuntal understanding or Fanon’s ideas on liberation (instead I will simply tell you to seek out and read their books, Culture and Imperialism and The Wretched of the Earth respectively), but rather will simply articulate their points in sum: we, as people, ought to be aware of ourselves when we act. We exist within societies, themselves made up of a web of narratives, and these societies form the context that informs our actions and thinking. Though words may make blunt instruments, they are nonetheless the only tools we have to work with and the only ones by which to understand our societies; we have an obligation therefore to use the tools at our disposal to do just that. This way, and indeed only this way, can we rise beyond the restrictive and repressive confines of hegemonic power relationships (ones that are ultimately not beneficial to either involved) and form less coercive and more cooperative relationship. This is what Malik missed in his analysis, and it is to his disadvantage that he did.

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Brendan McKee

As both a political researcher and enthusiast, I write to unpack the complexities of current affairs and attempt to grow the conversation. Feel free to join me!