Blog Archives

When Is Appropriation Appropriate?

I’ve learnt not to post anything controversial to Facebook. I’m conflict-averse, like any good native-born Midwesterner, and I also think that the medium of Facebook is inappropriate to debate. It’s not well designed for it. Kittens and puppies, I always say.

Close-up of two pale-colored puppies roughly three months old, possibly Labradors, kneeling side-by-side in green grass.  The hindquarters of a third puppy are visible in the upper left of the photo.

I’ve given you kittens before, so this time, have some puppies. Photo by Lisa L Wiedmeier via Flickr. http://bit.ly/1HTtwNy

But sometimes it seems I can’t help myself. And so today I posted an article about belly-dancing that struck a chord with me. You see, one time I saw a performance as part of a larger event that appalled me. I didn’t know going in that the belly-dancing would be part of the evening’s festivities. And when these white women swiveled out onto the stage, not in haremesque attire associated with the art form, but in kimonos and geisha makeup for a “kabuki-inspired” performance, I raged out of the auditorium. I had fooled myself into thinking that we had somehow got beyond yellowface.

Now, this Japanese take on a minstrel show was beyond the bounds of decency. But it made me think. what about belly-dancing itself? Many performers are not of Middle Eastern descent. Is it okay for them to practice this art?

To answer my question, I just started paying attention to what my friends of Middle Eastern descent had to say on the subject. Not that belly-dancing came up in conversation all the time, and not that I broached the subject with them. But on occasion, a snippet of opinion surfaced, and, over time, I pieced the snippets together.

And the consensus was that it was not okay.

And this is the sort of thing that often has creative types like myself up in arms. An aesthetic can’t be owned by one culture to the exclusion of all others, so the argument goes. If so, we wouldn’t have English-language haiku, or the Asian influences present in Impressionist art. And without the intermingling of European and African influences, we wouldn’t have jazz or rock. So much would be lost, as the argument goes, if we all held to some strict, politically correct standard of artistic segregation. Besides, the artist should be completely free to use whatever methods or aesthetic she wants; creativity is paramount.

I argue that there is something more important than creativity–yes, even for artists. For there is an identity more fundamental than “artist”: human being. And for human beings to survive, let alone thrive, they must be able to live and work together in community. Our social nature, our ability to think in terms greater than the individual, is one of the chief reasons we have evolved to this point, and is key to our continued survival.

Respect is also the key to understanding the concept of appropriation.  And the key to respect is listening.  Simply put: if the consensus of a group to which you do not belong is that it’s okay for others to make use of an artistic expression originating in or representative of that group, go for it! Have fun.

But if the consensus of that group is that an expression is not okay, knock it off.

To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an upswell of discontent from Japanese people about speakers of other languages using the form of haiku — even as the form is sometimes stripped of its original intent as a meditation upon nature.

The presence of East Asian influences in Impressionist art came out of the larger European movements of Orientalism and Internationalism in the late 19th century, which developed as a direct result of European colonization in East Asia. It’s important in the study of the Impressionist era to bear this troublesome history in mind. However, to the best of my knowledge, there have not been any recent calls from Chinese, Japanese, and other East Asian artists to dismiss Monet’s Water Lilies or Van Gogh’s The Starry Night in the way we now do, say Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer or Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Though we might want to talk about Gaugin’s objectification of Tahitian women in his work.)

With regard to the musical examples I offered above, jazz and rock, it’s important to bear in mind that artistic movements do, indeed, develop organically. Cultural cross-pollination created jazz, rock, and many other movements musical and otherwise. To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a consensus from African American (and in the case of jazz, also Jewish) communities that those who do not belong their communities shouldn’t perform these genres — even as the audience for both jazz and rock over the decades grew increasingly white. An academic critique of, for instance, Elvis Presley and his complicated history with African American performers is worthwhile, but there has not been any great advocacy from the African American community that whites should quit listening to his music (though I half-wonder if some younger readers could list five of his songs — even Kings get dethroned eventually.)

To go back to my initial example, one could argue that the performers I saw that night were simply artists practicing a form of artistic syncretism. But the Asian American community has been resolute in its unacceptability of yellowface performance. And a growing number of people of Middle Eastern descent are decrying the appropriation of belly-dancing.

Even as I declared a certain black-and-white rubric regarding what to do and what not to do, notice that I’ve presented my examples with nuance and exceptions. Human beings are by nature complex, their histories, both personal and collective, tortuous and at times torturous. No one’s going to get all of this right 100% of the time, and group consensus also involves those who dissent. But the goal is not perfection, or “correctness,” but respect.

It’s tricky business. And it’s very much involved in what I do with my life. I’m a creative person across a few media. For instance, I designed this ballcap.  (Sorry for the shameless plug.) I’ve been interested in sports branding for most of my life, but it wasn’t until I discovered the online sports-concept community (and the existence of graphic-design freeware) about four years ago that I took up my hobby in earnest. And as I engaged with my fellow designers, I discovered a sharp divide within the community regarding the use of Native American imagery in the branding of a team, whether real, (like the baseball team in Cleveland or the NFL team in Washington) or fictional (I imagined my ballcap for a baseball team in Charlotte.) And as some designers like myself decry, for instance, the questionable moves of the Washington NFL ownership, others not only state that the branding is intended to honor Native Americans even as Native Americans claim otherwise — exactly what the ownership maintains — but persist in using such imagery in their own fictional concepts. On which point, I will simply say it doesn’t matter what you believe if that belief is contrary to fact. And the fact is that the consensus of Native Americans — with, yes, a bit of dissent, an issue meriting its own essay — is that such branding is disrespectful, full stop. So, to my fellow designers, I simply want to say: stop.

I also design jewelry. Mostly, I practice what is called assembly, meaning that I put together manufactured pieces in original designs — I don’t smelt metal or melt glass or anything like that. (Another shameless plug for my work is here, though at this exact moment the work is not for sale.) Another popular and lucrative style of jewelry design is bead-stitching, much of which was first developed by Native Americans. It’s a style I’ve thought about doing, though I wonder if I’d have the patience for it. But I’m not going to take it up for the time being, for the simple fact that I presently live in a community with a large Native American population, many of whom practice bead-stitching as a source of livelihood. I have decided that to do so right now would be disrespectful to the Native American community in that I would be using my hobby to undercut their ability to earn a living — in spite of the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, the local Native American community has not come out against white people making and selling bead-stitched jewelry.

And, really, that’s what all of this comes down to: personal decisions. But none of us live alone; the personal decisions of all of us over time aggregate to build a culture. And it behooves us all to build a culture that edifies rather than destroys, on a foundation of respect rather than of selfishness.

A Ghost Story

Today I went to the Minneapolis College of Arts and Design (or, as we call it here, MCAD, pronounced “Em-cad”). They have a fantastic little art-supply store called the Art Cellar for their students and the general public, and from time to time I pick up supplies there. As I walked down the hall of Morrison Hall, I felt the oddest sensation, a shudder, almost. And I’ve felt it every time I’ve walked that hall. Today I figured out what it was:

A ghost.

In September 2007, I attended their open house for prospective students on a lark. I didn’t know for sure if I wanted to pursue a degree there, but I was desperate for a change of pace in my life. As I toured their studios and classrooms and laboratories, I drooled over the possibility of attending. I would have the opportunity to create almost anything I wanted, trained by the best in their field.

And so I set about putting together my portfolio and application. I hadn’t drawn seriously in the longest time (and with my job and commute and ridiculousness from my roommates at the time, didn’t really have the time or space to do so). But I gave it my best shot. I filled out the application and made an appointment for a portfolio review. Though she wasn’t so impressed with most of my drawings, my mixed-media work intrigued her. Shortly thereafter, I received notice of my acceptance to one of the top art schools in the country.

And then I found out how much it was going to cost.

And I understood why most of the students come from wealthy families.

Maxing out every possibility for funding wouldn’t have even touched the bill. And so, with that, I let go of that little dream.

And now, every time I walk the campus, the ghost of another self from a slightly different universe accompanies me.

I’ve had some very good news in the past week from graduate schools to which I have applied for a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. (I’m not going to tip my hand as to the specifics just yet in such a public venue as this.) Suffice it to say that I will be moving from Minneapolis this summer after a decade of living here.

The question for me at this point is, will I exorcise all these ghosts before I leave?

The job opportunity I didn’t take.

The guy I didn’t ask out.

The apartment I turned down.

Will I leave these ghosts behind when I move away, or will they somehow find a way into my baggage?

Does it matter?

I like where my life is going. It’s been a remarkable turnaround from my lowest depths five years ago. My future is bright right now, and my present ain’t too shabby, either.

The pangs of what might have been may always stick with me. My brain always seems to be at every point of time except the present.

It’s up to me to graciously respond, “Yes, that would have been nice, but this is nice, too — and probably better.”

Threadbare

Some of my posts will be older writings which can be found elsewhere on the internet.  I figure it would be smart to collect all my best writings in one place.  It also, well, lets me be lazy on occasion, and it is a cold, rainy, dreary day in Minneapolis.

The following story was originally published to I’m From Driftwood in April 2009.  I have made here a couple of minor edits.  This account illustrates my sense of humour (I claim to have no sense of humour but some friends claim otherwise).  I can’t try to be funny, my jokes fall flat, but funny things happen to me, and I can relate them.

******************

RRRRIIIPP!

I checked for the source of the sound, and felt a small hole in the crotch of my jeans.  “Fifteen hours,” I assured myself.  “Fifteen hours, and I can unpack my bags and change pants.”  I consoled my mom for the millionth time, telling her I would be fine, as we both fought back the tears and my brother prepared to drive me to the Greyhound station.

The previous three weeks had been a whirlwind.  I had received notice that the funding for my philosophy degree at Indiana University had been cut sharply, and that my state insurance had been eliminated.  When you live in a small town in a conservative state and have a serious medical condition, you don’t mess around—you move.  Spending several sleepless nights on campus computers, I talked with friends about where to move.  Toledo?  It had an intriguing opportunity for me to advance my art career, but it was too small for my taste.  Chicago?  I loved to visit, but it was too big for me to live in.  Seattle?  Nice, but too far for moving on a budget.  Minneapolis…

I pulled out the ticket.  Bloomington to Indianapolis to Chicago to Minneapolis.  I had packed as many of my belongings as I could into the Greyhound maximum of four bags— two to go below and two carry-ons.  (More of my possessions would follow thanks to friends visiting Minnesota, and the rest would go in a landfill.)  Surely, my two smallest bags would fit into the overhead compartments.  Unfortunately, my memory of the size of Greyhound buses proved very optimistic. “You can’t fit those on here, they’re too big, they’re gonna have to stay off,” called out the driver gruffly.  “But, I’m moving, I don’t have a choice!” I begged.  He relented.  I stuffed the smallest bag underneath my seat, and straddled the other carry-on…

RRRRIIIPP!

Behind me lay most of the world I knew. Sure, I’d studied awhile in St. Louis and interned in England. And sure, I was born in a different town, but Bloomington was the map of my heart. Bloomington was where I started coming out—and felt stifled in expressing it.  Bloomington was where I had made most of my friends—and lost most of them as I came out. Bloomington was where I got my education—and had it taken away.  Bloomington was where my art career budded—and smothered under a lack of opportunity.

What was I losing, really?  My relationships with family were always awkward; perhaps they would benefit from distance.  The economy would be far better outside my college town, where a Bachelor’s degree would get you $6.50 an hour and cup of coffee—and I didn’t even have the Bachelor’s degree.  I was sure I would thrive where I could live out and proud.  The past was behind me; a bright future lay before me.  And my present?

RRRRIIIPP!

We pulled into the downtown Chicago station for a 2 1/2-hour layover.  I knew one of the little shops in the station would have a travel sewing kit.  My plan was to safety-pin together the ever-growing tear.  I figured it worked for my punk friends, so why not me?  Frazzled from a severe lack of sleep, I gingerly slipped six safety pins along the course of the rip.  After all, it only had to hold eight more hours, right?

RRRRIIIPP!

We stopped at the McDonald’s in Tomah, Wisconsin at the cusp of night and day.  If Greyhound weren’t contracted to stop at McDonald’s, and were I not starving, I would have avoided that grease trap and tried to at least get a nap.  Sleeping with a huge duffel bag squeezing me into a seat proved to be impossible.  I blearily ordered a caramel sundae and an apple pie, hoping to God that no one in the restaurant noticed my deteriorating jeans, the rip now down to my knee.  I had yet to learn Upper-Midwestern passive-aggressive behavior, to learn that they wouldn’t say anything until after I was gone.  At least, I thought, I’m wearing boxers.

RRRRIIIPP!

Minneapolis at last!  I was crazy, I thought, moving to this city without ever visiting.  But crazier things had been done.  I just had to call my friend Chris to pick me up, and I could finally get rid of these jeans.  Except…  “Sir, I understand your situation, but there are families with young children in here, and I’m going to have to ask you to step outside the station.”  Great, I’m in a strange city, half-naked, being kicked outside where I could get arrested.  I crossed my fingers, hoping that Chris would hurry up.  Indeed, a few minutes later, my chariot arrived, and the first thing we did was to go to his place for me to change my pants.

******************

It is coincidence that I am posting this story on the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard.  You catch a glimpse of homophobia in my life in this story.  Shepard’s death affected me profoundly, and I will write more about how so later.