Cultural appropriation is complicated. The inspiration for reading this post was getting annoyed at this post on Psychology Today, in which a white lady uses a computer model to explain how creativity works to the savages (the real greedy racists with questionable motives). This is how it opens:
I was saddened to learn this morning that the Toronto-based gallery ‘Visions’ canceled a show by non-Indigenous artist Amanda PL after concerns were raised that her art “bastardizes” Indigenous art.
Those who accuse Amanda of “cultural genocide” may have the good intension of preserving longstanding artistic traditions. Or they may be fuelled by monetary concerns; they may want to ensure that the flow of money for Indigenous style art is not “misdirected” toward non-Native artists. Or they may be motivated by guilt or anger over the horrendous historical mistreatment of native peoples and a desperate wish to somehow make up for it. Whatever their motive, I believe their actions are highly misguided, and in the long run serve to shut Indigenous art off from the natural ebb and flow and fusion of creative inspiration and expression that has unified different peoples since the dawn of humanity.
I research the creative process and how it fuels the evolution of culture. The creative impulse may draw inspiration from cultural traditions but it is not delimited by ethnicity. We are naturally able to draw upon anything at our disposal, anything we happen to stumble on that strikes a chord or resonates or affects us in some way, to work with as raw materials in creative process. When Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”, the races of these “cultural giants” didn’t matter; what mattered is that he had assimilated their ideas more deeply perhaps than their own biological children had. Their ideas then permeated Newton’s thoughts, and under the influence of Newton’s unique worldview (which was a function of his time, place, and so forth) gave birth to new ideas. The threads that connect Newton to the people whose ideas he built upon transcend human notions of race or creed or kin.
Isn’t that infuriating? Isaac Newton built upon the work of other Western mathematicians, and that’s the big example for appealing to our high-mindedness? I think this suggests she’s not familiar with actual, non-exploitative cultural exchange.
I found a video of the artist in question being interviewed about this very topic. She seemed sincere and likeable to me. Her defenders are actually more offensive:
It’s complicated, though. Around 9:30, she mentions that a painting was shown at a place called “Tantra Lounge,” which annoys me as a Western convert to Buddhism.
But here we have a white lady who, after immersing herself in aboriginal imagery, experienced 3 spirit guardians while meditating and painted them. Recently I’ve been geeking out about a very similar topic in Vajrayana Buddhism, in which I’m not initiated.
I’ve smoked salvia, not caring that I read the practice offends the Mazatec. Experienced some entities scolding me, a lot because of reading a bunch of trip reports and listening to Gamma Goblins:
Psytrance itself is music of white people partying on the beach in India. The Archaic Revival is legit, though:
I’ve thought about the fact that I was essentially converted to Buddhism by two white guys who were sent from Japan because they could spread the dharma here. I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, so the idea of converting wasn’t new or unthinkable to me at all.
I have a very visible enso tatto on my arm, which is weird for being black. I’m sure some Japanese people have seen it and thought “WTF” before. Seeing the enso all the time helps me remember to practice, which is why I put it there.
Because of my complicated racial/cultural background and my “third culture kid” upbringing, and also because of autism, some kind of cosmopolitanism, or universalism, or internationalism makes sense to me. I like to read Andre Vltchek. In an important sense, it’s true that everyone is the same. There’s something universal about the psychological experiences that inspire religion, since a Canadian lady reading about indigenous mythology and a Buddhist monk experience similar visions.
Is the “appropriation” serving to make the person nicer and more considerate of others? Is it foreseeably hurtful?
Amanda PL says that she’s gotten positive and negative reactions from tribal people. I don’t think anyone is objecting to her painting whatever is really in her own mind. It’s more to do with how it’ll function symbolically in society, once it’s released into the world.
It made me uncomfortable watching her explain beaver symbolism like she grew up with it, not because she’s wrong, but because the show didn’t think to find an actual Indian if they want to talk about Indian art. She didn’t silence the Indians, but she is ethically responsible for knowing there’s racism involved in why she’s being interviewed about selling paintings for $625.
She’s moving away from copycat stuff as she matures as an artist and gains life experience. This is her landscape period.
There’s still something wrong with what Liane Gabora says on Psychology Today:
And cross-cultural creative influence isn’t limited to cultural giants; it permeates our world, now more than ever. You may like to travel; perhaps you are creatively inspired by the food, or architecture, or artistic designs of someone with completely different cultural roots from your own. You’ll never know the person who made that desert or designed that building or painted that painting. But what they created may sink itself so deep into your psyche that it affects you in conscious and unconscious ways, penetrates into your dreams, and ends up in your own creative expressions. Creative inspiration defies the labels and distinctions that humans use to categorize themselves.
The important point is that the art doesn’t directly implant itself into the unconscious mind of colonial tourists. Their interpretations, filtered through their own biases, lodge in their unconscious. Like…this is a subculture in Germany:
I don’t think it’s cool when white people pretend to be Japanese or Tibetan, as if that had anything to do with meditating and being nicer to people.
I can’t imagine an Apache being mad at someone for reading Viola Cordova and taking something positive from what she has to say. They would probably give a prayer of thanks if white people actually listened to them more. Inspiration is not the same thing as playing dress-up with your noble savage projections, hoarding human remains as curiosities.
I’ve written a computer model of cultural evolution called EVOC (for EVOlution of Culture) in which artificial “agents” interact with one another by sharing and creatively building on each others’ ideas. It is highly simplified, so you have to take the results obtained with such a model with a grain of salt, but its outputs can sometimes surprise you in ways that bring to light forces operating in real societies, and get you to think about them more deeply. One of the things you can do with EVOC is erect artificial barriers that impede the flow of ideas between different ‘cultural’ groups. Sure, such a barrier effectively stops agents on one side from messing with ideas on the other side. But it slows down the evolution of ideas across the entire society as a whole, as well as reducing cultural diversity, and impeding the natural creative fusion of ideas that makes real human societies feel vital and “alive”.
Cultural biases encoded as computer programs are still cultural biases. Every culture has ideas about keeping secrets, and keeping the Great Treasured Secrets away from the white people might not be an “artificial barrier” in the context of another culture. Her computer program sees novelty and cultural evolution as inherently good things to optimize for. Many cultures want to keep the Old Ways forever, and she’s just proving how destructive outside influences can be. Cultures don’t necessarily want to “evolve.” It’s a conceptual mistake to think of evolution in a teleological way. By doing that, she’s saying that the current patterns of cultural appropriation are natural, necessary, and good, rather than just describing them.
The racism is most on display at the end:
I’m concerned about the increasing frequency of claims of cultural appropriation, along with the self-righteous labeling of artists who are authentically honouring the creative forms that inspire them, as “uneducated”. I don’t personally know Amanda PL, though I think her art is gorgeous and inspiring (you can check it out here). Nor do I personally know those who run the Visions gallery or who accused her of ‘bastardizing’ Indigenous art. But in my view, it is those who make such accusations who are engaging in cultural genocide. Such behaviour threatens to erect a fence around particular artistic forms that impedes their completely natural interaction with other artistic forms, and this kind of interaction is the hallmark of the creative process. Indeed, it isolates Indigenous art from the frothing sea of cultural interactions that defines our humanity and that enables culture to evolve.
Perhaps, had the exhibit not been shut down, someone would have bought a painting by Amanda instead of a painting by an Indigenous artist. But perhaps, had it not been shut down, young Indigenous artists, inspired by Amanda’s perspective on their own cultural traditions, would have taken taken certain artistic forms in completely new and fascinating directions, opening up whole new realms of artistic possibility.
A white lady telling victims of cultural genocide that they’re the real monsters because they say she can’t use the Sacred Paintings any which way because she likes the colors whose symbolism she doesn’t know exists. Classy.
Telling them that they’re responsible for their own “isolation.” It’s because the mean old Indians won’t share. Of course. That’s definitely the reason they’re isolated on reservations.
Finally, native cultures need white lady saviors to teach their own artistic styles back to them, because who respects a bunch of superstitious old village elders?
Why did Liane Gabora sit down one day to write stuff bullying victims of cultural genocide? Because she did that, and wrote a supporting computer program, and called it insight into the creative process.
She completely ignores the most important aspect of why cultural appropriation offends people: the people doing the appropriating are the same people who destroyed the original culture. I don’t think it’d be cool if someone killed my ancestors and then dressed up like them and misperformed the sacred rituals and then told me to fuck off when I complained, in the name of the lofty ideas driving the original destruction. Hell no.