The notion of ‘cultural appropriation’ has gained much traction in recent years. Like micro-aggressions, safe spaces, toxic masculinity, and other topics which have struck a chord in the culture wars of the new millennium, it is also not without controversy. Partisans of the left and right clash about what it means and what it implies in terms of permissible engagement with a culture not one’s own. Social justice warriors on the left remain true to their concerns about cultural insensitivities while sometimes failing to see how their recommendations for addressing those concerns sometimes verge on totalitarianism as they seek to regulate and enforce an absolutely pristine code of conduct. Meanwhile, acerbic partisans on the right resentfully impute sinister motives to even the most innocuous and honest concerns about a misappropriation of cultural resources.
At first glance, cultural appropriation seems a simple enough concept to understand. It refers to the use of artifacts from a culture to which one does not belong, in a way that fails to respect, or outright disrespects, the authenticity of the culture from which the artifacts come. For example, when Pharrell Williams stirred up the ire of critics for wearing a native American headdress on the cover of Elle UK magazine, Dennis Zotigh, a cultural specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian, was quoted as saying this act of alleged cultural appropriation ‘is analogous to casually wearing a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor that was not earned.’ Though part-native American, Williams is not one of the ‘revered elders who through their selflessness and leadership, have earned the right to wear one,’ as explained by Simon Moya-Smith, a journalist and citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation.
This is a fair point that gives pause for consideration. One can imagine, for example, that legions of military veterans would not take lightly the decision of a non-combat citizen to don a Purple Heart as a fashion statement. Yet an uproar among military veterans does not necessarily mean that every military veteran shares the same view about the proper use of a Purple Heart. Maybe every military veteran does, in fact, share the same view, and one would find no disagreement among millions of veterans. But one can also conceive of the possibility that not every military veteran will be offended if a Purple Heart is incorporated in an artist’s collage, a painting of a soldier, the uniform of an actor playing a Purple Heart veteran in a movie, or even the apparel of a fashion model who dons a Purple Heart earned by a relative either as a fashion statement or as a public celebration of his military relative, who may have died bravely or been wounded gravely in a heroic wartime act.
All of which is to say that one must be careful in drawing conclusions about the who, what, how, and why of allegedly offensive uses of cultural artifacts. Who is offended and why? What is offensive? Is wearing an Indian headdress or Purple Heart offensive if it is not worn by a person who earned it? Or is it offensive if the person who wears it does not understand its significance? In what specific sense is ignorance per se offensive or disrespectful? Is it offensive or disrespectful because an audience enjoying the spectacle of someone wearing the Indian headdress or Purple Heart confuses its admiration for the real-time spectacle with a native culture’s reverence for the sacred meaning and tradition that the headdress or Purple Heart signify? Is respect conditional on purity of motive? Is it offensive because profits are earned from its use without due compensation to those who own the artifact? Who owns it? If the artifact is unique to a culture, who in the culture should be compensated when its use is appropriated? Everyone? Or just the guardians of the artifact? What constitutes proper compensation? Is cultural attribution sufficient? Is attaining permission sufficient? Does monetary remuneration to the owners of the artifact exonerate the perpetrators?
Questions abound, but suffice to say that passions run high in the culture wars, and a frequent casualty of high passion, whether the focus is on ‘cultural appropriation’ or ‘safe spaces’ or ‘micro-aggressions’ or ‘white fragility’ or ‘dead white males’ or any of the phrases that arise as topics of discussion in the culture wars, is the sidelining of critical analysis and reflection. One takes a side and argues it to the death, mistaking an honest attempt at objectivity for an adverse display of neutrality, and castigating anyone who either disagrees with his position or otherwise chooses to take a more nuanced view of matters. This is in part a reflection of the polarizing age of Trump in which we live, but also a reflection of the tribal, factional nature of humanity. This is most unfortunate, especially in a pluralistic society where multiple viewpoints and perspectives can enrich our understanding of issues rather than distract from the myopic message we instead seek to impart, or impose, without tolerance for nuance.
Nevertheless, it does not seem impossible to arrive at some consensus about the problem cultural appropriation presents. Disputes can arise about the hows and whys of people taking offense and whether they should take offense. Disputes can arise about the true origins of a cultural artifact. Disputes can arise about who owns a cultural artifact and who should be compensated or credited when a cultural artifact is extracted from a culture and used by someone not affiliated with the culture. Disputes can arise about what it means to be affiliated with a culture (is it enough to be born and raised in a culture? Does one have to earn the right to use a cultural artifact even if born and raised in the culture? What cultural authority earns the right to deem a particular use legitimate?).
But the central concern about cultural appropriation does not seem to be whether or not, for example, it is okay for a gringo to eat a burrito. Rather, the concern about cultural appropriation arises when the use of cultural artifacts becomes exploitative. According to law professor Susan Scafidi, cultural appropriation means ‘[t]aking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.’
Exploitation, then, is the crux of why cultural appropriation is a sensitive and controversial topic. This is a fair point. Anyone who applies for a patent or trademark understands the importance of protecting the rewards from one’s own inventions. Borrowing from other cultures without attribution, or taking credit for innovations that derive at least some of their inspiration from the artifacts of a culture not one’s own, or making a profit off them, is not unlike a rich corporation that spends a weekend entertaining a tinkerer who has designed a new invention in his workshop and then deciding not to hire the tinkerer or buy his invention, and the tinkerer subsequently discovers that the rich corporation designed a neat work-around that replicates his design except for one small detail, thus allowing the rich corporation to exploit the invention without paying the inventor for its use.
There is no shame in wanting your culture to be respected and appreciated. But it should also not be controversial to argue, especially in a society that respects private property and the rule of law and the principles of a market economy, that owners of property should be credited and compensated for what they own. The controversy arises, however, because the nature of what constitutes cultural appropriation, or rather, cultural misappropriation, is often not clear. Some have tried to articulate the right and wrong ways to go about cultural appropriation. But as often happens with an idea that strikes a chord, the more the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ gets used (dare I say, ‘appropriated’) by people, the more susceptible the concept of cultural appropriation becomes to expanding the contours of its meaning to the point of being almost meaningless. Is it cultural appropriation for a gringo to eat a burrito? Or is it okay because the gringo pays eight bucks for a chicken burrito at Chipotle? Or is it not okay because the owner of a particular Chipotle restaurant is not Mexican?
One can ask these types of questions ad nauseum. But cultural exchange is nothing new in human civilization. Ibn Warriq, in his magisterial Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism, provides extensive examples of respectful and productive interaction between Western and non-Western cultures throughout history. One is hard-pressed to find a case in Ibn Warriq’s factual account of Western civilization for the view that the history of Western engagement with non-Western cultures is exclusively a story of exploitative imperialism (which, of course, is not to say that imperialism is not part of the story). History is replete with examples of cross-cultural exchange, and such exchange has contributed to the progress of human civilization. Cross-cultural exchange is also nothing new to the arts. Lionel Shriver, for example, has argued cogently that ‘wearing the hats’ of other people—i.e. probing the life and experience of a fictional character drawn from a particular time and place other than that with which the author is familiar given his or her own experience—is crucial to the enterprise of developing a character while writing a novel.
As stated above, however, cross-cultural exchange is not the primary concern advanced by critics of cultural appropriation. Even the most ardent critics can acknowledge that creativity is invariably derivative, i.e. we take from the old and make something new out of it. There is no shortage of examples. For example, University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Zimmerman points out the irony of Latina students at Pitzer College in California chastising white women for wearing hoop earrings because it is ‘an allegedly Hispanic fashion’. They were apparently unaware that hoop earrings can be found in ancient cultures long before the 1980s, when ‘young working-class Hispanic women in Southern California donned wide earrings—alongside baggy shirts and nameplate necklaces—as symbols of pride and struggle.’ For example, ‘[i]n Nimrud, located in present-day Iraq, there’s a depiction of King Ashurnasirpal II (884-859 B.C.) wearing thick hoop earrings. The ancient Greeks and the Romans wore them, too; so did pirates in many parts of the Western world, who believed that hoop earrings contained healing powers or would protect them from drowning.’ Hispanic women did not invent hoop earrings. Instead, Mr. Zimmerman writes, ‘they invested the earrings with a new set of meanings.’
But while critics of cultural appropriation may not disagree that there is nothing new under the sun, what rankles them is when creative exploration of other cultures turns into creative exploitation. The origins of rock n’ roll, for example, are cited as a quintessential example of the appropriation of black art by white America. The abbreviated case, as summarized by Mr. Zimmerman, is that Chuck Berry invented rock n’ roll, but then Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones ‘appropriated the new genre, ripping it away from its black roots.’
This narrative, however, is an oversimplification. As University of Virginia professor and pop critic Jack Hamilton writes in a thoughtful essay on ‘how rock and roll became white’, this ‘Elvis stole rock and roll’ formulation ‘relies on hard-and-fast notions of cultural ownership and racial hermeticism, an ahistorical belief that there is a clear and definable boundary between black music and white music in America that is fundamentally impermeable,’ a belief, Mr. Hamilton writes, that ‘does not hold up under basic scrutiny: All musicians are influenced by other musicians, and throughout American history most musicians worth hearing have been influenced by musicians whose skin is a different color than their own.’ In discussing Chuck Berry’s hit son ‘Maybellene’, for example, Mr. Zimmerman notes that ‘Berry combined the “hillbilly” sound of white country with the African-American rhythm and blues that he imbibed in his native St. Louis.’ Mr. Zimmerman then highlights a quandary that hints at the more fundamental concern about cultural appropriation: ‘[s]ome white listeners didn’t like hearing old songs sung by a black man, especially one who exuded such an unabashed and forthright sexuality. But some of Berry’s black fans didn’t appreciate his hillbilly tempo, either, heckling him when he appeared at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1955.’
This speaks to the larger point, as Mr. Hamilton writes: ‘[a]s the 1960s wore on, cosmopolitan versatility among black artists was not heard as identity transcendence but rather as racial betrayal, in accusations that were frequently lobbed by white critics,’ in contrast to white artists such as Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones who successfully cast off the ‘shackles of racial conformity’. Moreover, Jimi Hendrix ‘was judged by many as a fraud or sellout, his blackness rendering his music as inauthentically rock at the same time that his music rendered his person as inauthentically black.’
This catch-22 intimates at the deceptively pernicious way race in America has affected perceptions about cultural ownership and ‘appropriate’ involvement with a musical genre. When it comes to rock-and-roll and cultural appropriation, Mr. Hamilton writes, ‘the most common way that the whitening of rock-and-roll music has been discussed is simply not at all.’ In other words, the story of rock and roll is a story of how white artists like the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and others have become identified with rock music, while escaping scrutiny for how their identities as musicians (e.g. Springsteen as proletarian everyman, Dylan and the Beatles as individual ‘geniuses’) have foreclosed discussions about how ‘authentic’ rock-and-roll turned into a ‘white’ musical genre, in a uniquely American way whereby rock-and-roll’s ‘very act of imaginatively engaging with historically black musical forms while keeping black bodies at arm’s length became a newly powerful way of being white.’
Cross-cultural exchange is a fact of human history, while the true origins of cultural artifacts can often be difficult to discern. Thus, the African-American roots of rock-and-roll is not the crucial point. The concern is with exploitation. In the case of rock-and-roll, Mr. Hamilton makes a compelling argument that black musicians who had a part in the development of rock-and-roll were shortchanged, as rock-and-roll became a ‘white’ musical genre not because white musicians borrowed from black musicians, but because an avoidance of any focus on race in the commercialization of rock-and-roll played a significant role in corrupting our understanding of the contributions of black musicians, and thus ultimately our understanding of the rock-and-roll revolution itself.
The use of cultural artifacts is prima facie not necessarily a cause for concern. The question is whether use of the artifact compromises the authenticity and integrity of the artifact itself, or the culture from which the artifact is derived. Exploitation, then, is the breach that inspires the crusade against cultural appropriation. This concern is not without merit. Like anyone who applies for a patent to protect his invention, one hopes that derivative applications of a cultural artifact, like a work of art by an esteemed author or musician from that culture, credit and compensate the progenitor of that cultural artifact. Commercial applications aside, concerns also mount if derivative applications of a work of art do a disservice to the work by taking liberties that strip away its meaning, significance, and authenticity. This is particularly egregious when such ‘misappropriation’ is motivated by political, financial, or personal objectives unrelated to the work of art itself.
This is a serious charge to make against a derivative application of a work of art. It is also not one made easily or lightly, as derivative applications are themselves an art rather than a science. It is not so easy to parse through the many facets of a work of art and assess the extent to which it is driven by personal, as opposed to aesthetic, objectives. William Shakespeare, for example, borrowed the rudiments of many of his plots from sources other than his own imagination, and then furnished them with the trappings of his imagination. This is, of course, a well-known fact. Given that Shakespeare’s art has stood the test of critical opinion over hundreds of years, one would be hard-pressed to diminish Shakespeare’s legacy by censuring him for relying on the work of others to animate his own imagination.
Perhaps this is in part because Shakespeare’s art is timeless rather than topical. That does not mean Shakespeare was oblivious to the events of his time. Shakespeare had eyes and ears, and undoubtedly drew on his life experience to create one of the most transcendent collections of imaginative literature of all time. But Shakespeare’s achievement was ultimately a reflection of his own genius, not of his reliance on sources other than his own imagination for the rudiments of plots.
Shakespeare, in short, was an inventor, not an appropriator.
The same cannot be said, however, for Michael Kahn, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C., and Liesl Tommy, the director he recruited to oversee a new production of Macbeth, at least when it comes to their involvement in this new production of Macbeth (one of Shakespeare’s four greatest tragedies) at Sidney Harman Hall in Washington, D.C. Their production provides an unfortunate example of how personal or political objectives can compromise the authenticity of a work of art, a kind of misappropriation that makes a farce of the play by delivering a strident disconnect between the play’s story as presented in the text, and the story the director presents on the stage.
As a regular theatergoer who frequently attends plays put on by the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C., I was initially excited to learn that it would put on a production of Macbeth in the spring of 2017. Deemed ‘a tragedy of the imagination’ by famed critic Harold Bloom, Macbeth is a depiction of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in all of us. As Mr. Bloom explains in his book The Invention of the Human: ‘The enigma of Macbeth, as a drama, always will remain its protagonist’s hold upon our terrified sympathy. Shakespeare surmised the guilty imaginings we share with Macbeth, who is Mr. Hyde to our Dr. Jekyll….Our uncanny sense that Macbeth somehow is younger in deed than we are is analogous. Virtuous as we may (or may not) be, we fear that Macbeth, our Mr. Hyde, has the power to realize our own potential for active evil. Poor Jekyll eventually turns into Mr. Hyde and cannot get back; Shakespeare’s art is to suggest we could have such a fate.’
This is a powerful idea. It suggests that we all have the potential to become like Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher who evolves into a murderous drug lord in the Emmy-award-winning television show Breaking Bad. ‘Shakespeare rather dreadfully sees to it,’ Mr. Bloom continues, ‘that we are Macbeth; our identity with him is involuntary but inescapable. All of us possess, to one degree or another, a proleptic imagination; in Macbeth, it is absolute. He scarcely is conscious of an ambition, desire, or wish before he sees himself on the other side or shore, already having performed the crime that equivocally fulfills ambition. Macbeth terrifies us partly because that aspect of our own imagination is so frightening: it seems to make us murderers, thieves, usurpers, and rapists.’
This is the idea I was hoping to explore when I bought a ticket for the performance. Instead, what I got was a perverse case of artistic misappropriation. The first I got wind of this was in an email from Mr. Kahn, in which he discussed his decision to recruit director Liesl Tommy. Explaining to attendees that Macbeth ‘has always lent itself to political interpretations,’ citing the gun powder plot of 1605 as an example, he discusses how Ms. Tommy ‘explores how external forces and foreign governments with ulterior motives interfere to destabilize a region—particularly when there are lucrative resources to be had. The Witches become representative of so many Western operatives that have bribed and prodded their way to toppling uncooperative regimes in the developing world.’
This was an ominous red flag. As Mr. Bloom writes, ‘[h]istoricizing Macbeth as a reaction to the Gunpowder Plot to me seems only a compounding of darkness with darkness, since Shakespeare always transcends commentary on his own moment in time.’ It is also indicative of a postmodern trend in the arts of ideologically motivated artists exploiting, corrupting, or resisting the Western canon for political purposes. It is one thing to interpret a play. It is quite another to ‘appropriate’ a play about nihilistic terror and murderous imagination and make it a play about imperial usurpation. It suggested a topical production that shoehorns Shakespeare into a modern ideological framework rather than an aesthetic production which applies modern perspectives to Shakespeare. Presenting Macbeth as the lackey of an imperialist plot to spur regime change in Scotland, which itself is presented as a random country in Africa, is clearly designed as a subversive commentary on Western imperialism. There is nothing wrong with writing or producing a play about the irresponsible intrigues of imperialism. The problem is that this is not Shakespeare. This is not what Macbeth is about.
I attempted to come to the play with an open mind. Unfortunately, however, the only tragedy I saw was Macbeth reduced to comical absurdity. The weird sisters morph into nefarious imperialist spies clad in suits and military uniforms. Macbeth kisses a block of gold like an avaricious lackey, and deliriously snorts coke with his Western handlers after a de-briefing session in which ‘eye of newt’ and ‘toe of frog’ and ‘scale of dragon’ and ‘gall of goat’ supposedly convey information about a secret imperial plot (this was weirder than seeing the weird sisters as hospital nurses who rap their sorceries in a 2008 production at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music in which Patrick Stewart played Macbeth). Lady Macbeth takes meds as if to imply that mental illness foreshadows her serpentine machinations and eventual suicidal madness. We have Queen Duncan rather than King Duncan. There is a country in Africa called Scotland. A sergeant wounded while fighting for King (sorry, Queen) Duncan is instead a Western intelligence operative who snorts coke before allowing his comrade to shoot him in the arm so he can present himself to Queen Duncan as a casualty of war and convey information about Macbeth’s performance on the battlefield.
It was all wholly gratuitous and silly, a bunch of props that distracted from the nihilistic purge and phantasmagoric terror of this play. Macbeth as some kind of reflection on the gunpowder plot or Western imperialism? That’s not Shakespeare. That’s a perversion of Shakespeare seemingly motivated by a director’s overabundance of desire to impart an ideological purview on a play that has little to do with her ideological purview.
Alas, it also raised the stakes for me in the contemporary uproar about cultural appropriation. The director, Liesl Tommy, is a native of South Africa and is candid about how her resentment of imperialist initiatives in Africa drove her interpretation of the play. The irony of her production, however, is it serves as a quintessential illustration of artistic misappropriation, which is the kind of infraction that rankles anti-imperialist critics of cultural misappropriation. Granted, cultural appropriation is about exploitation by a dominant group (e.g. a Western power), and one director from South Africa is hardly a poster child for the kind of cultural appropriation that riles up the masses of contemporary social justice warriors. But when anti-imperialist ideology turns Macbeth into a coke-snorting imperialist stooge, I know I have not attended a production of Shakespeare, but rather a production that exploits Shakespeare in the service of an ideological objective. It’s one thing to modernize a play. It’s another to distort and pervert what the play is about in order to advance a modern political agenda.
I can understand why cultural appropriation makes people upset.
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