Thursday, 25 May 2017

Hot Topic: Cultural Appropriation

    This is an article in two parts to discuss the current controversy of cultural appropriation. The second part regarding the appropriation of First Nations art will appear next week.
     Most professional artists understand the ground rules of art in general. It’s pretty simple. If you’re a talented, dedicated and knowledgeable professional artist who sells work on a regular basis you don’t need to copy a particular style from another artist or appropriate anything from anyone. Professional artists are influenced by all kinds of styles, past and present, but the idea is to use one or more style in a work in such a limited fashion that you can claim the recombination to be yours alone. The idea is to put your own hand and mind into the work. It’s not about being completely original, which is incredibly difficult and problematic, but about being yourself. This is the western tradition. And professional artists understand that our tradition is one of many around the world and that if we have reason to be influenced by other cultures, either by proximity or by commission, we have to do the research and be respectful.
Ocean Guard is a nine foot long oil painting on canvas
initially inspired by First Nations art. 
     Cultural appropriation is a hot topic because our western tradition can conflict with the traditions and beliefs of other cultures. It’s also a hot topic because all sorts of people who are not artists feel their opinion is equally valid as professional artists. The world of visual arts is different from other practices because all rules have been broken to the point where many people believe that any opinion on art is totally subjective, that there is no such thing as good and bad in art, that everything is merely a matter of personal taste, and no one should criticize or judge. We are all free. We are all equal. We are all human. And there is proof that being creative is good therapy. It’s good to have a hobby. And who’s going to stop you from declaring yourself an artist? Maybe a family member, but likely no one else.
     To make the visual art world even more subjective many people would agree with art historian H. W. Janson’s statement that the history of art is the history of aesthetics, the history of styles of art as they change over time and in different parts of the world. Janson is excluding the history of right and wrong action, story telling, and all sorts of other social functions that art provided for society in their time.
     Anyone in Thunder Bay is allowed to trek over to the Painted Turtle and go home with paints, brushes and canvas and paint whatever their heart’s desire. In the privacy of your own home you can paint beautiful flowers, trucks, rock stars, pornography, or be even more gauche and paint Elvis on black velvet.
     However, the moment you take your painting of Elvis from your home and place it in public view in a gallery and put a price tag on it you are entering the civic world. In the civic world, where you have the freedom to express yourself that expression is limited by laws, copyright laws and customs because in a democracy other people also have the right to be protected from theft, slander, hurtful imagery, damaging lies and hate speech.
      Other people also have the right to free speech and they can say whatever they want about your tacky painting of Elvis on black velvet. If they think you’re a terrible painter they have a right just as you do to say what they think. If your price tag is clearly too high because you clearly have no talent, took only one course in art, and spent only a couple hours on the painting, anyone viewing your work has a right to question its value. If you make false statements about your work, the public has the right to question your motivations. And we don’t know your motivations because we cannot see what is in your heart.
   I can limit my biases in order to benefit the public by writing upbeat reviews for art shows that I don’t personally like. Thankfully, with so many talented artists in Thunder Bay, there are few of those. Art is often mysterious, subjective and so personal that my opinion is only that, my opinion. Yet I have avoided writing about a few shows because I felt the artwork was either terribly unprofessional or because I felt the artist was appropriating another artist’s work.
     In presenting my opinions about appropriation last week I pointed out that artists can’t help but to be inspired by other artists’ works, and that it’s hard to gauge an artist’s sincerity because we can’t read other peoples’ hearts. You would think that writers and visual artists are good at reading their own hearts and avoid appropriating another artist’s work, especially First Nations artwork, but we westerners, the colonizers, have a long history of inbuilt biases and we can be quite clever at creating arguments to assuage any feelings of guilt.
    One visiting professor I interviewed admitted to obtaining images for her drawings by copying directly from photos found on the Internet. In her inflated intellectual answer to my question about her source material she called what she did “research” while her face turned pink with embarrassment.
    Another visiting artist was clearly appropriating First Nations art. Suspicious about his intentions I read articles and an interview he did on the Internet. With only a distant First Nations relative he was whiter than me, and he gave a subjective cultural argument: “We are all human.” More importantly there was not a shred of personal creativity to his work. Although he was a nationally recognized artist I thought it was an act.
     Recently in Toronto an artist had her art show cancelled because of complaints that she had appropriated First Nations art. The controversy spiralled into a national debate to be followed by an equally controversial debate over the appropriation of First Nations literature. The debate was fascinating and pointed out a real misunderstanding about the differences between inspiration and appropriation.
On the left is a section of my painting “Ocean Guard” followed by a typical Morrisseau work, an image by Hundertwasser whose work I went to see at his museum in Vienna. Artist Roger Dean who did Yes album covers had some influence as did my mother’s quilts and sports car designs.
    Often it is a matter of degrees of separation. As an example, my most recent image of a giant fish was partly inspired by woodland art. I copied nothing directly, but I was relying on my memory of familiar shapes. For me the imagery in my painting was too familiar so I reworked the painting to make it more my own. I played with lines and shapes and colour and even perspective incorporating other influences into the painting.
       The result of playing around and being open minded is a painting that could be good or it could be kitsch. Either way I didn’t waste my time. I came up with all kinds of patterns and ideas that I can use in other future works that will have little or no reference to woodland art.  
      My knowledge of the issues is pretty limited and may be biased by my colonial ancestors. For a reviewer like me it’s a joy to write about artists who are clearly enjoying their inspirational rides, but it’s also a thrill to write about art that is not part of my culture at all, about artists who are committed to the telling and retelling of the stories of their community.
    Us colonizers have been living with the fantasy concept of the “noble savage” since 1715. As art historian Alan Gowans points out, “The Noble Savage’s irresistible attraction for the European mind corresponded directly to appeal of the idea of Mankind’s natural goodness, and its concomitant: ‘We’re all right; it’s society that’s wrong.”
  I can’t begin to tell you how this concept messed with white people’s heads regarding our treatment of First Nations people and their culture, mostly because I’m no expert. But there are a number of good books that can help both us white folk and First Nations people, especially us artists, to understand the issues. I defer to Mary McPherson’s list situated on this same page.
In order to write a third part of this article I will have to do a few interviews and a lot of reading. That might take a while.
Mary McPherson’s suggested reading list about First Nation’s culture and colonialism. A few of the essays mentioned can be found online. 1. Unpacking Culture: art and commodity in colonial and post-colonial worlds by Ruth Phillips and Christopher Steiner  2. Scott Watson and Paul Yuxwelptun’s essays in Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity and Contemporary Art. 3. An essay by Ruth Phillips titled Morrisseau’s Entrance, Negotiating Primitivism, Modernism and Anishnaabe tradition in the book, Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist   4. Carmen Robertson's Mythologizing Norval Morrisseau 5. Nelson Graburn's article in Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism