Some Wrongs Aren’t about Rights

On recent artistic appropriation controversies

I begin my comments about the latest expressions of ‘concern’ about cultural appropriation in the art world with a sense of weariness and wariness. Too little has changed. The mainstream art world only responds to open conflict about racism but not to a status quo that perpetuates inequities: the polite veneer of ‘diversity’ packaged in ethnic heritage months, ‘global’ survey exhibitions or the tendency to equate the success of a few black artists with the elimination of institutional racism. I know that if I don’t embrace ethnic nationalism in public, I will be subject to excoriation on social media from young and virulent protestors of colour. Yet, if I acknowledge the persistence of institutional racism, I will face a slew of nasty commentary from an older generation of angry white conservatives who detest all forms of multiculturalism and cling to formalism as if it were a life raft. The younger crowd is loud and public; the older crowd does its dirty work behind closed doors, in boardrooms and on hiring committees. In the middle of this discursive minefield are the art-world liberals of many hues who cautiously uphold an anti-censorship stance and the scores of artists and scholars of colour who have said absolutely nothing about these issues – on purpose.

Recent protests about Sam Durant, Jimmie Durham and Dana Schutz have framed the debate about cultural appropriation as an ethical and moral issue: in other words, if we want an art world free of racism, then each artist should adhere to a moral code that prohibits them from using materials and histories of ethnic groups other than their own. The protestors’ critics frame this ethical-moral argument as a form of censorship: a characterization that I agree with in the context of individual art practice, but not in relation to the mass media or public monuments. The protestors espouse hyperbolic views of the power of single artworks and fail to distinguish between earnest, albeit imperfect, attempts to address historical trauma and racial stereotypes produced for pleasure and capital gain.

This idea of an ethical art world is untenable for many reasons – starting with the reality that cultural, racial and ethnic identities are neither fixed nor discrete. The burden of representation is not welcomed by all. Members of ethnic minorities raised in the US are as likely as whites to have been educated in schools that teach them nothing about their origins, slavery, Jim Crow or Operation Bootstrap. Statistics indicate that, by the third generation, the majority of immigrants have lost fluency in their heritage languages, which makes cultural retention difficult – facts compounded by the politics of assimilation that dominates in US education.1 To make art about one’s presumed identity, or about any kind of history, is a choice, not a given. To make it well requires self-conscious knowledge and skill more so than lived experience – were that not the case, no artist could effectively represent historical subjects. For such knowledge to become the stuff of art requires much more than the awareness of the persistence of racism and consciousness of one’s personal or communal history.

I am not trying to suggest that white artists never approach minority and non-European cultures insensitively – I have seen more cavalier usage of ethnic cultural references than I want to remember. Yet, I’ve also seen compelling works of art that incorporate a broad range of references intelligently. The problem is not whether an artist is white; it’s the discursive context that sanctions ignorance and romanticizes intuition as the starting point of creation, while denigrating sociological analysis as ill-suited to art. Most artists are socialized to believe that they don’t need to know much about the materials they work with other than how to manipulate them technically. That is why so many of them balk at political readings of their work and their subject positions. Most artists lack a critical vocabulary for interpreting context that extends beyond rudimentary moralizing about personal responsibility and blame because we are not accustomed to conceiving of art-making as motivated beyond the personal.

The assumption that a cultural milieu consisting of clearly demarcated cultural identities would diminish cultural appropriation is out of sync with the ways we produce and consume cross-culturally, with varying degrees of blindness to the labour conditions or tragic histories that shape it. Artists don’t have to be white for their cultural appropriations to be found offensive either – just ask Cubans outraged by the lionization of Che Guevara by every Third World movement on the planet. The crux of the matter is not what artists should or should not do but how everyone involved in producing, protecting, presenting and consuming culture thinks about what they behold and take ownership of. Attacking individual artists is misguided; it may provide emotional satisfaction to those who want a scapegoat, but it’s a symptom of the inability to engage in analyses of systemic racism and institutional practices.

There was a time when moralistic proscriptions carried more weight in the US: when people of colour were systematically excluded from exhibitions, art schools and museum marketing campaigns. It made more sense, under those conditions, to imagine ethnic minority identities as monolithic, since their exclusion from the mainstream was categorical. But the privatization of culture over the past 25 years has weakened the political force of arguments that see art institutions as a resource beholden to the public. There is also a marked disconnect between the abject economic and political conditions of ethnic minorities and peoples of the Global South, and the hyper-visibility of cultural difference in the realm of high and popular culture. The art market has made cultural difference a viable commodity and many artists of colour have benefitted financially. And, as the art of the African diaspora, Latin America and Asia have gained financial value, they have become more viable subject matter for academic study, thereby yielding more ‘experts’ for its management in art institutions. Art schools and other organizations dealing with contemporary art don’t systematically exclude the way they once did. They have elaborated more nuanced strategies for managing both cultural difference and public scandal. These newer strategies of containment merit more consideration, as they wield far more influence than the artwork of any individual.

Most museums these days don’t want to seem imper­vious to public protests because it would tarnish their image as bastions of enlightened liberalism. The elites that manage those institutions play a well-choreo­graphed game with the public. They listen to protests from aggrieved minorities, organize special events to contend with disgruntled publics and, at times, throw an employee under the bus to diffuse a scandal. But it would be a mistake to believe that protests demanding an artist or artwork be banned will result in major institutional shifts.

Protests against systematic exclusion were effective during the Civil Rights movement because they relied on mass participation and the injustices addressed were clear and undeniable. When it came to proving the deleterious effects of racial stereotypes in the media and popular culture, psychologists were marshalled to provide scientific evidence of their effects on black children who operated in a world with no alternatives. Things are not so clear-cut now. The claims about the purported pain, trauma and harm ‘caused’ by individual artworks that are held up as evidence of cultural appropriation are scientifically unproven. They resemble the inflated rhetoric of a culture awash in trigger warnings and ideological zealotry. Lots of art bothers people but no one is forced to look at it and the history of the avant-garde is rife with examples of art that has offended and angered many. If we treat art as something that should exist to reinforce our beliefs or fulfil our fantasies of a better world, we undermine its transformative force.

The art world is a largely unregulated industry that does not depend on mass appeal to determine the value of its currency. It only takes a handful of curators, critics and collectors to legitimate an artist. The most significant decisions within art institutions are made in secret by wealthy individuals and influential professional elites – and, while those elites may become more culturally heterogeneous, they are not diverse economically. It is precisely because the economic and political structures of the art world differ from that of mass culture that moral arguments about cultural appropriation are strategically ineffective. They will do nothing more than generate well-orchestrated public programmes that function as what Herbert Marcuse called ‘repressive desublimation’2 – public ‘dialogues’, special issues of magazines and carefully calibrated public statements by museum professionals. They may instil fear in some artists who are risk averse, but they will also increase massive resistance that goes largely unrecognized because of the misplaced focus of this discussion on individual artists.3 While museum directors and curators have to ‘make nice’ with the public, the private sector of the art world does not. And they know they can do what they want.

Artists are not a monolithic political or ideological entity. They are trained to believe in the primacy of their individuality, especially in relation to aesthetic choices. The institutions in which they are educated have remained staunchly conservative with regard to multiculturalism and identity politics. Acquiescence to diversity in most art schools stops at tokenistic admissions policies and occasional minority hires. While cultural studies has transformed the ways that visual representation is interpreted in the humanities and broadened the landscape to include subaltern and non-European cultures, studio art teaching has hardly changed other than to add new media as the field expands. Little attention is paid to the Eurocentric biases in technical art training. Painting students are not required to learn how to mix pigments for different skin tones; photography and film students don’t have to learn how to calibrate lighting for different shades of flesh. Academic requirements rarely entail the study of minority cultures or critical race theory. The anecdotal referencing of ‘important’ artists by art teachers is perpetually idiosyncratic and unburdened by any responsibility to be culturally diverse.

Studio visits are key sites of coercion, where teachers and visitors can expound their prejudices against identitarian concerns and pressure students to avoid them – and they do. The same art professionals who claim in public to be horrified by black deaths in police custody will counsel young artists of colour in private to ‘drop the identity thing’ as a recipe for success. The same art professors who talk publicly about how they ‘love’ Kerry James Marshall will resist having to hire more than one instructor of colour because ‘they already have one’. Students follow the lead of their mentors, learning to distrust any political or sociological concern regarding their practice and taunting students of colour who try to bring those concerns into group discussion or demeaning them with uninformed questions. All of this takes place away from the public eye; yet, it is critical for understanding why artists have such a hard time thinking analytically about what they draw on for their work and why they react so defensively when asked to.

The result of this intransigence in art education is that it creates a discursive vacuum regarding the politics of representation. Conversations about art-making in art school are dominated by highly subjective opinion and rehashed formal art speak. The prevalence of theory is greatly inflated by fear-mongers in the art press and self-assured graduates of the Whitney Independent Study Program. Questions about how we, as artists, borrow signs and symbols from a range of sources are rarely, if ever, dealt with in a profound way. Young artists are bereft of opportunities to explore the political implications of their choices and references when they are learning how to make art: a great deal is at stake in maintaining their ignorance. Any serious commitment to achieving a deeper understanding of the politics of cultural appropriation will entail changing that. 

Main image: Jimmie Durham, Self-portrait pretending to be Maria Thereza Alves, 2006, photograph, 81 x 60 cm. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Maria Thereza Alves

Issue 190

First published in Issue 190

October 2017

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