Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Big Grey Area of Appropriation in the Art World

Last week I wrote about con artists in Thunder Bay. Within two days of the article’s printing I received five emails, two from legitimately concerned citizens and three from likely con artists who were, A) fishing for information as to whether I was talking about them or not, B) if I was, they were warning me that they were capable of hurting me – legally or damaging my reputation, C) attempting to assure me that they were legitimate.

It was weird, and required a lot of reading between the lines, but it followed a pattern, revealing how psychologically messed up con artists really are. I’m glad I’m not an authority, but a victim. I wrote about my experience with two con artists in Vancouver in a short story called Case 5323. I also had dealings with a con artist in Victoria, and two local con artists. Fortunately, by that time, I had learned a few lessons.

These responses dredged up another subject that is controversial in the art world, which is appropriation. Appropriation is a world of grey, and although all of us writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, etc. do it in varying degrees, we are conscious of those who do it a little too much. There is no fine line in the art world as to what is truly inspiration or when we emulate those we admire to the point that we are absolutely ripping off another artist.  

In our times of mass reproduction, visually and sonically, sampling occurs regularly where everyone is inspired by someone else, consciously and subconsciously to the point where nothing seems entirely original, and claims of originality cause a raising of the eyebrows.

But at what point does inspiration from another artist become stealing? It should be obvious that if the person doing the appropriating feels some sense of guilt or has to look hard for justification for doing so, then they are probably getting a little too inspired. Yet, if an artist doesn’t have, or listen to, a little alarm bell system in their head, then who will call them out? Their mother?

At its extreme, there are people who steal directly from other artists, possibly because it’s profitable and certainly because it’s easy. And still some even claim to be the great defenders of the people they steal from. It’s a bit like the woman who appeared years ago on an American news program, as light entertainment, who said she LOVES butterflies. So much so that she had a collection of thousands of them. The TV cameras panned the walls of her home. From floor to ceiling of her huge house she had covered her walls with little dead butterflies.

An artist in Victoria, Ron Stacy, a white guy, took a break from painting for several years, returning to it using a new style, because he took seriously the criticism he was getting, mostly from non-natives, for using native imagery in his art. Even though Stacy’s knowledge of First Nations culture was extensive and he treated the culture with great respect, he felt it necessary to do some reflecting. It shows in his change of style, which is more original. He can be commended for his ability to reflect on the situation. And he’s a good artist.

Although no one person can claim to own a style, collectors and admirers of art have expectations that when purchasing work that looks distinctly like First Nations art, that the artist is native person, metis, or at least someone who has some kind of close heritage. When a totally white guy does it, it begs a few questions.

It’s certainly the case when artists apply for grants. Jurors routinely deal with having to question the authenticity and legitimate aims of the person applying. The attempt to win the hearts of jurors by aiming to help/save/comment on/celebrate/ask questions/expose, etc. any aspect of another culture is met with serious debate. Without authority on the subject and without the necessary research a jury can quickly vote “no” on the application. This happens especially fast when a member of the community that the application intends to deal with, is on the jury.

And then appropriation gets even more complicated and enters a realm where I have no experience and can only ask questions. As it is obvious when a white guy inappropriately appropriates, what’s the dynamic when first nation artists appropriate other first nations artist’s styles and subject matter? To what degree is it okay? Is there any kind of self-policing on who gets to use a style? And to what degree is native, native? How Metis is Metis? Does blood and history and tribe matter, or is the knowledge of the subject and culture more important? It’s somewhat confusing, but also very interesting.  

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