What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Cultural Appropriation
It’s been months since I attended two presentations on cultural appropriation during the 2018 NCECA conference in Pittsburgh, and although I wanted to write a response since before the conference ended, I’ve struggled with doing so. In addition to having to organize the enormous breadth of content and context around the issue in a coherent and relevant format, I also ran into the issue that those who address these topics must present their points in a way that isn’t immediately perceived as accusatory or threatening lest the entire effort be ignored outright. Even if one succeeds in presenting their points with a favorable temperament, there is still a chance that the entire discussion will be ignored because some people find the topic of cultural appropriation… inconvenient.
Due to this threat of being dismissed, it’s not possible for me to write at length about all the issues I have with cultural appropriation in the ceramics field, let alone in contemporary western culture. I do not have the luxury of depth because of one obstacle that I’ve encountered over and over in my attempts to broach the topic of cultural appropriation. As I raised in the presentation “Cultural Appropriation: Theft or Inspiration in the Digital Age,” there are fundamental questions about whether or not members of the cultures that are being referenced in works are even justified in feeling anything other than acceptance. More times than I can count, any hints of disapproval are met with two common types of dismissive responses. The first is a kind of impassioned defense of why the uses of cultural influences are justified. Essentially, they are saying that my thoughts and experiences are not valid. The responses I heard in this discussion included “It’s just a bowl, what’s the big deal,” “but we’re doing it out of respect and admiration for the culture,” and my personal favorite “all art is fundamentally appropriation, so if I’m making art, I have the right to take from whatever I want.” These stock responses, along with all the other defensive responses are trying to delegitimize any potential offense anyone may have. However, they do not actually address any fundamental issues on why acts of appropriation are offensive.
The second response is to ignore the topic entirely. This is what happened at the lecture titled “The Appropriated Teabowl.” The only mention of appropriation was in the title. There was no other acknowledgment of the controversial elements around artists co-opting this iconic cultural tradition for their own work. I was further incredulous that the presenter, who is an American woman born to a military family stationed in Okinawa Japan, who studied Asian Cultures at a British university, would fail to even recognize that her background could bring about questions about harmful effects of western colonialism in Asian cultures and nations. For a presentation that was clearly very thoroughly researched, the complete omission of such a large influence on the topic stated as the title is either a shamefully deliberate choice or a case of phenomenal neglect.
No creator gets to mandate that their works only get experienced through the views and contexts that they approve. Any work of art is interpreted through the experiences and perspectives of the audience, and when a work appropriates elements from a culture, those who belong to that culture can view it as offensive because there is a perception of it being disrespectful. When this perception is not recognized as even possibly valid, it is itself a disrespectful act that reinforces that their culture and values are not being respected.
An artist does not get to declare that they have acted respectfully. They can only act in ways that they believe respects the cultures and influences that they have drawn upon for their work. It is only the audience, especially those who have come from those cultures being drawn from, who may judge whether an artist has acted respectfully. And making this judgment, along with any other judgment about a creative work, is the fundamental role of the audience of a work of art. One cannot preemptively indemnify themselves from the thoughts and emotions of others. To even attempt to do so defeats the very essence of making and experiencing art.
To be clear, people are offended. I am offended. Whatever anyone else says does not change this matter of fact. The only thing an artist gets to decide is what they want to do about those who are offended. If an artist is sincere about respect driving their motivations, then they should, at the very least, recognize that people are offended. Without this first step, it is impossible to take any meaningful steps towards doing better at respecting those cultures they claim to revere.
Meaningful progress becomes practically impossible when people continue to deal with problematic issues around appropriation by actively ignore that people are, or even could be, offended. However, this has been a staple for artists in various positions of privilege for centuries. And I have no doubt that it will continue to be a popular choice going forward, because it works. As proof, you need look no further than the attendance numbers and high approvals for “The Appropriated Teabowl.” The effectiveness of this strategy does not change the fact that there are people who are offended. All it does is show that there are enough people with privileged positions who have acted to diminish those voices to the point of irrelevance.
I have no illusion that writing this will change anything. To the contrary, I fully expect that writing this will have a deleterious effects on my reputation and my opportunities in the ceramics field. I have already been rebuked and shut down for even hinting at this subject by individuals across the spectrum of ceramics, ranging from random craft show and conference attendees, all the way up through university professors. My motivation for writing this is that I’m tired of staying silent. I will not be complicit, through my silence, in reinforcing the perception that cultural appropriation is not an issue that rises to the level of deserving attention. Although I am only one voice, and I only have the authority to speak of my own views, I will not keep quiet and let someone else think that their similar views are anomalous and unimportant.